Sunday, 4 May 2014

Conference Report: Workers' Internationalism before 1914

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

Workers’ Internationalism before 1914
International Conference hosted by the University of East Anglia in conjunction with Socialist History journal and the Institute of Working Class History (Chicago), February 2014.

Everyone knows that this year marks the centenary of the First World War, but Michael Gove is unlikely to demand that schoolkids commemorate 150 years since the founding of the First International. But the Socialist History Society had the interesting idea of combining the two anniversaries by holding a conference on workers’ internationalism before 1914, exploring both the strengths of internationalist sentiment and organisation, and the underlying weaknesses that led to defeat in 1914. Sixteen historians from Britain, USA, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Austria presented papers.

Internationalism was not just an abstract idea — it grew from the practical experiences of the working class movement. Jürgen Schmidt spoke of the experiences of travelling journeymen, of foreign workers in
Switzerland, and of German workers in the French and British labour movements. Ad Knotter looked at the specific experiences of cigar makers, who were often travelling workers. He looked at the international nature of cigar makers’ strikes and the effectiveness of international solidarity.

William Pelz looked at the achievements of the International Working Men’s Association’s role in promoting internationalism. He pointed out that “unlike the Socialist International, it never became a handmaiden to the war machine nor, like the Comintern, did it become the brutal instrument of one nation’s foreign policy”. He looked at the IWMA’s successes in preventing wage-cutting. Thus “in the autumn of 1866, Belgian basket makers were brought to London to undercut wage levels in the trade. Members of the IWMA went straight to the workplace and ‘pointed out to the Belgians the injury they were inflicting on the English . . . getting two of them to come out [of work] to have a glass of drink.’ Within a day, all the Belgian workers in the shop had quit and were on their way back to the continent.” This provoked considerable discussion with some participants considering that perhaps this came a little too close to “British jobs for British workers”.

But the basic drive towards internationalism in workers’ experience was complemented by the initiatives of individuals and organisations in promoting internationalism. Thomas Davies described Robert Owen’s efforts to promote international action for workers’ welfare in the post- Napoleonic period, and claimed that there were continuities between Owen’s internationalism and later Marxist organisations. Mark Lause described Garibaldi’s role in the successful defence of Dijon at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. James Owen discussed the theory and practice of the Social- Democratic Federation and the roles of John Burns and Tom Mann.

Several papers looked at the developing international organisations of the later nineteenth century. Robert Brier examined the centrality of the Polish question in nineteenth century politics and discussed the complex interaction between nationalism and internationalism. Axel Fair-Schulz considered East and West German debates on the labour movement in imperial Germany, while Reiner Tosstorff looked at the pre-1914 origins, growth and limits of the International Federation of Trade Unions. While the later criticism by the Comintern that it was a mere “letter-box” was inadequate, it was however “true … that the IFTU principally was an addition of national organisations and ….had no international field of action.”

A variety of approaches were used to examine the complex development of the Second International. Jamie Melrose applied an approach based on Foucault to the study of Social Democratic Marxism, while Deborah Lavin gave a vivid account of the circumstances surrounding the two separate inaugural Second International Congresses in 1889, stressing the role of individuals, notably Annie Besant and Paul Lafargue.

The socialist press played an important role in transmitting internationalist ideas to workers. Alice Pate gave a
fascinating account of the socialist press in Russia, 1906-1914, showing how articles conveyed aspects of Western experience to Russian readers. My own paper dealt with La Vie Ouvrière, the French revolutionary syndicalist fortnightly which developed a concept of internationalism which enabled its nucleus to resist support for the war in 1914.

Finally, while understandably the conference largely focussed on European experience, three papers looked at developments in other continents. Steven Parfitt described the impact of the Knights of Labor outside the USA, and in particular their influence in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Ramin Taghian looked at the early Iranian Socialist Movement (1906-1911) and the links between Iran and the Russian workers’ movement. Tim Wätzold looked at the influence of European immigration on the Latin American labour movement and at social struggles in early twentieth century Latin America.

It was generally agreed that the conference had been a useful and rewarding experience; it is hoped a number of the papers will be published in Socialist History.

Ian Birchall

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