A reporter for the New York World interviews Karl Marx in 1871 about the goals and organizational methods of the First International.
An Interview with Karl Marx
The fact that Marx wrote little on questions of organization has made it easier for 'socialists' and 'Marxists' of all stripes to claim that their particular organizational prescriptions were the logical complement to Marx's theories. We reproduce here an interview which Marx gave in 1871 in which he deals with the organ-ization of the First International.
I came immediately to the purpose of my visit. The world, I said, appears to be in the dark concerning the International; it hates the International without being able to explain what it actually is which it hates. A few, who believe that they have penetrated more deeply into the darkness, claim that the International is Janus-headed, with the good-natured and honest smile of a worker on the one face and the murderous aspect of a conspirator on the other. I asked Marx to lift the secrecy which surronds this theory. The scholar smiled amusedly — so it seemed to me — at the idea that we had such fear of him.
My dear sir, there are no secrets to reveal, began Marx, in a very polished form of the Hans-Breitmann dialect, unless it be the secret of the human stupidity of those who persist in ignoring the fact that our Association does its work in the open and that it publishes exhaustive reports of its activities for all those who want to read them.You can purchase our Statutes for one penny, and if you spend a shilling, you can purchase brochures from which you will learn almost everything about us that we ourselves know.
I: “Almost” — that may be true. But is it not perhaps precisely that which I don't know which is the most important? I will be completely open with you and put the question as an outsider must put it: Does not the generally negative attitude to your organization itself prove more than the ignorant ill-feeling of the masses? And would you, after everything you just said, still allow me this question: Just what is the International?
Dr. Marx: You only have to look at the people who comprise it — they are workers.
I: Yes, but soldiers are not always representative of the government which disposes over them. I know several of your members, and I will gladly believe that they are not the stuff of which conspirators are made. At any rate, a secret which one shared with million people would not remain a secret. But what if these people are only tools in he hands of a bold cabal — and I hope you ill forgive me if I add — one not always fastidious in its choice of means?
Dr. Marx: There is nothing to prove that this is the case.
I: And the last uprising in Paris?
Dr. Marx: First of all I would ask you to prove that there was any kind of a conspiracy and that everything which occurred was not simply the inevitable result of the existing circumstances. And even if we assume that there was a conspiracy, I would still ask you to prove to me that the International Association took part in it.
I: The presence of so many members of the Association in the Commune.
Dr. Marx: Then it could just as easily have been a conspiracy of Freemasons, for their individual part in it was not small by any means. I really would not be surprised if the Pope did try to push the whole uprising onto their account. But let us try to find another explanation. The uprising in Paris was carried out by the Parisian workers. The most capable workers must therefore have been the ones who led it and carried it out; yet the most capable workers are also members of the International Association. But nevertheless, the Association need not be responsible for their actions in any way.
I: The world will look at it through different eyes. People are talking about secret instructions from London and even about financial assistance.Can it be maintained that the allegedly open activity of the Association rules out any secret communications?
Dr. Marx: Has there ever been an association which carried out its work without having confidential as well as open communications? But to speak of secret instructions from London as if it were a question of decrees in questions of belief and morals, emanating from some centre of papal rule and intrigue, would be to completely misunderstand the nature of the International. This would presuppose a centralised form of government in the International; in reality, however, the organizational form of the International gives the greatest scope to the working class; it is more of a union or an association than a centre of command.
I: And what is the purpose of this association?
Dr. Marx: The economic emancipation of the working class through the conquest of political power. The utilization of this political power for the realization of social goals. Our goals have to be all-encompassing so that they may include all the forms of effectiveness of the working class. If we had given them a particular character, then they would have met the needs of only one section of the working class, the working class of only one nation. But how could one induce all people to unite for the interests of a few? If our association did this, it would not have the right to call itself an international. The Association does not dictate any particular form of political activity; it only demands that all this activity be directed toward the same final goal. It comprises a network of subsidiary organizations which stretch throughout the world of work. In every part of the world special aspects of the general problem emerge; the workers take these into consideration and work to solve them in their own way. The associations of the workers cannot be identical to the last detail in Newcastle and Barcelona, in London and in Berlin. In England for example the working class has a choice as to how it will develop its political strength. An uprising would be a stupidity in a country where the goal can be reached more quickly and surely through peaceful means. In France the numerous repressive laws and the deadly antagonism between the classes seem to make a violent solution to social divisions necessary. Whether such a solution will be chosen is a matter to be decided by the working class of that country. The International does not presume to dictate in this question, or even to advise to any extent. But it does express its sympathy for every movement and goves them assistance within the framework of its own rules.
I: And what is the nature of this help?
Dr. Marx: Let me give you an example.one of the forms which the movement for emancipation employs most often is the strike. Previously, if a strike broke out in any country, it was strangled by the importation of workers form other countries. The International has almost brought an end to all that. It receives information concerning the intended strike and passes the information on to its members, so that these will immediately be made aware that the place in which the struggle is being carried out is taboo to them. In this way the manufacturers are forced to depend only on their own workers. In most cases the strikers require no other help. Their own dues or collections in other unions with which they are closely allied provide them with provisions. If however their situation has become difficult and if the strike has received the sanction of the Association, then they receive assistance from the common funds. The strike of the cigar workers in Barcelona was brought to a successful conclusion in this way. But the Association is not interested in strikes in themselves, even if it supports them in certain circumstances. From a financial point of view it cannot gain anything from a strike, but it can easily lose. To put it concisely: the working class remains impovershed amidst the general prosperity and immiserated amidst luxury. Their material poverty cripples the workers morally and also physically. They cannot count on any help from the outside. Consequently it was for them a matter of pressing urgency to take their cause into their own hands. They have to change the relationships between themselves and the capitalists and landlords, and that means changing society. That is the common goal of every known workers' organization; the Land and Labour Leagues, the trade unions and the associations for mutual aid, the consumer and productive co-operatives are only means for achieving this end. The task of the International is to bring about a truly genuine solidarity between these organizations. Its influence is becoming noticable everywhere: two newspapers spread its views in Spain, three in Germany, the same number in Austria and Holland, six in Belgium and six in Switzerland. Now that I have related to you what the International is, you can form your own opinions about the alleged conspiracies of the International.
I: Some people believe that they have detected elements of positivism in your organization.
Dr. Marx: By no means. There are positivists among us, and there are positivists who do not belong to our organization but who are also active. But this is not a result of their philosophy, which wants nothing to do with the ideas of popular power, as we understand it, their philosophy aims only at replacing the old heirarchy with a new one.
I: It appears to me that the hoped-for solution of whatever kind it may be, will be achieved without the violent means of revolution in our country. The English method of agitating at public meetings and in the press until the minority becomes a majority is a hopeful sign.
Dr. Marx: In this respect I am less hopeful than you. The English bourgeoisie has always shown itself ready to accept the decision of the majority as long as it commanded a monopoly at the polls. But you may be surer that as soon as it finds itself in a minority in questions which it considers crucial, we will see a new civil war.
Translated from the German by Ulli Diemer.
This interview with Karl Marx was conducted by R. Landor on July 3, 1871 and was published in the New York World on July 18, 1871. The only available copy of the interview is a German translation, in Marx-Engels Werke, Vol. 17, pp. 639-643, which has also been published in Gesprache mit Marx and Engels, Hans Magnus Enaensberger (ed.), Insel Taschenbuch, Frankfurt, 1973, Vol. 2, pp. 375-382.