International Workingmen's Association

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The International Workingmen's Association (IWA), sometimes called the First International, was an international communist[1] organization which aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing political groups and trade union organizations that were based on the working class and class struggle. It was founded in 1864 in a workmen's meeting held in Saint Martin's Hall, London. Its first congress was held in 1866 in Geneva.

In Europe, a period of harsh reaction followed the widespread Revolutions of 1848. The next major phase of revolutionary activity began almost twenty years later with the founding of the IWA in 1864. At its peak, the IWA had 5 million members according to the police reports[2], although the official journal reported 8 million members.[3]


St. Martin's Hall Meeting, London, 1865

Following the January Uprising in Poland in 1863 French and British workers started to discuss developing a closer working relationship. Henri Tolain, Perrachon, and Limousin visited London in July 1863, attending a meeting held in St. James’ Hall in honour of the Polish uprising. Here there was discussion of the need for an international organisation, which would, amongst other things, prevent the import of foreign workers to break strikes. In September, 1864, some French delegates again visited London with the concrete aim of setting up a special committee for the exchange of information upon matters of interest to the workers of all lands.

On September 28, a great international meeting for the reception of the French delegates took place in St. Martin’s Hall, and the positivist, Professor Edward Spencer Beesly, was in the chair. His speech pilloried the violent proceedings of the governments and referred to their flagrant breaches of international law and advocated a union of the workers of the world for the realisation of justice on earth.

George Odger, Secretary of the General Trades Council, read a speech calling for international co-operation, to which Tolain responded. The meeting unanimously decided to found an international organisation of workers. The centre was to be in London, with a committee of 21 elected members. It was instructed to draft rules and constitution. Most of the British members of the committee were drawn from the Universal League for the Material Elevation of the Industrious Classes[4] and were noted trade-union leaders like Odger, George Howell (the secretary of the London Trades Council (LTC) which itself declined affiliation to the IWA (although remaining close to it)), Osborne, and Lucraft and included Owenites and Chartists. The French members were Denoual, Victor Le Lubez, and Bosquet. Italy was represented by Fontana. Other members were: Louis Wolff, Johann Eccarius, and at the foot of the list, Karl Marx. Marx participated in his individual capacity, and did not speak during the meeting.[5]

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