Whither Labour Movement

Madhusudan Pal


A look into the history of international labour movement will provide the context of daysfunction within the Indian working men’s movement. In early nineteenth century due to competitive world market, low sweatshop labour standard and the practice of recruiting strike breaking ‘black legs’ from other countries, jobs were threatened everywhere in Europe. The British-European workers observed the concentration of capital with the development of industries. Large groups of workers in Europe were interested in international political issues and in questions of war and peace. They propagated peaceful settlement of international disputes, reduction of armaments and creation of a world court of justice. The greatest influence in bringing together workers of different countries was exerted by the socialist intellectuals. The idea that workers had a ‘histoirc’ role to ‘emancipate’ themselves from the evils of capitalism inspired them. The workers felt the urge to unite internationally to inaugurate a higher form of civilisation wherein the means of production would be owned by the people in common so as to foster greater economic and social equality and democracy, under these circumstances trade unions in different European countries developed the concept of labour internationalism based on the premise that workers are a distinct social-economic class, the standard bearer fo social progress both nationally and internationally, and so they should act nationally and internationally as an independent force to solve the problems facing themselves and the society at large.


In 1838 William Lovett, Secretary, London Working Men’s Association addressed the working men of Europe, ‘‘Fellow producers of wealth, why should not we unite in holy zeal to show the injustice of war, the cruelty of despotism and the misery it entails upon our species?’’ and suggested formation of an international labour organisation. August Blanqui and other secret society organisers led men to dream of another revolution following the French revolution which would be ‘‘far greater, far more solemn and ... the last’’. In 1839, French and English groups of trade unionists, socialists, chartists, and revolutionary democrats made an attempt in London to form an international body but following an unsuccessful uprising in Paris and simultaneous arrest of Lovett failed to meet. In 1843 Miss Flora Tristan’s booklet, ‘‘L union Ouvriere’’ urged workers of France to form themselves into a class as the bourgeoisie had done in 1789 and 1830, to unite with workers of other countries to obtain a share in political and economic power and to establish in all capitals of Europe committees of correspondence. A ‘Group for Communist Education’ formed by some workers and political exiles from Germany, Scandinavia, Holland and Hungary living in London formed the ‘Communist League’ in 1847 there. The importance of this league was that Karl Marx and Frederich Engels presented to it a declaration and programme which became known as the Communist Manifesto. British workers during the depression of 1857 in the face of building contractors importing black legs from France, Germany and Belguim to break their strikes organised their ‘‘London Trades’ Council’’ to promote their common defence and declared in 1860 that it was necessary to establish ties with the workers of other countries. In 1863 a committee of workers in Paris and another in London established communication to help workers in Cotton Mills of both countries who had been thrown out of work as a result of Civil War in the United States of America. In the same year some French and British workers met in London and addressed each other. The British address to the French workers stated that in order to raise wages, to shorten working hours and to improve the social condition of workers, the ‘industrial classes’ of all countries must maintain regular and systematic communication for purpose of mutual aid and co-operation. French workers’ reply to the address stated that capital was being concentrated in mighty financial and industrial combinations and that the workers of the world must seek salvation through solidarity.


The International Workers’ Association, known as the ‘First International’ was founded in London in 1864. Essentially a political organisation, a great deal of its time and energy was spent on the ideological merits and demerits of Marxist, Anarchist and Proudhonist theories as bases of action to put an end to capitalism and the inhuman miseries of the working class. Many purely trade union organisations felt uneasy with the International and left. For them its idealistic policy

was divorced from the realities and possibilities of the time. Despite this, the International grew slowly for three years. In 1868 its popularity and strength surged upwards due to a series of successful strikes in various countries leading to the formation of trade unions in many places. The International collected funds for strikes in London, Paris, Belgium and Switzerland and was helpful in preventing the import of strike breakers. It grew in strength in France, developed national sections in Belgium,Italy, Spain and Portugal. In the United States of America the National Labour Union declared at its convention in 1870 its adherence to the principles of the Working Men’s Association and its expectation to join the Association in a short time. At the same time a bitter war of attrition started in the International under the weight of the situation created by the France-Prussia War, the differences on the Paris Commune of March 1871 and the infighting for supremacy that climaxed at the Hague Conference of 1872 wherein the followers of Karl Marx were turned into minority and yet were able to manipulate the proceedings and expel Bakunin with several of his friends. Finally, take the International out of reach of Bakuninists who were in no mood to yield to the undemocratic practice of the Marxists and give up fight, the headquarters of the International were resolved to be transferred to New York. That was the end of the first International. However, it must be stressed that the first International was the most important and exciting experience of the labour and social movement of the nineteenth century.


Five years later in 1877 an International Workers’ Congress held at Ghent (Belgium) and attended by representatives of the socialist workers’ movements of England, France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland and Italy came on the scene. They published an international manifesto which reads inter alia, ‘‘Socialism must not be a mere theory, speculating on the probable organisation of the society of the future, it must be something real and living, concentrating on realisable aspirations, immediate needs  and  the daily struggle of the working class against monopoly capitalists; who in effect monopolise power in society or control the government. To strip this bourgeoisie of its political privileges by strikes, trade union action or the reduction of working hours, is working for the building of the new society as much as devoting oneself to erudite research into the possible social structure of the future. Not much is known of this IWC except that they met at two international conferences, one in Switzerland in 1881 and the other at Paris in 1883 attended by representatives of a number of local small trade unions, of local sections of various socialist movements, by small delegations from Great Britain, Belgium, Sweden and Norway and finally by some emigrants from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Australia who happened to reside in Paris and were asked by their national organisations to represent them.


Sweden, Denmark and Norway were able to set up in 1886 their international trade union contacts, Finland and Iceland joining them leter. They established a number of general agreements. According to one agreement the transfer of young workers to improve their vocational training and general education was approved. Other agreements covered mutual assistance in several social and economic fields besides trade union assistance projects. The success in establishing a lasting and profitable international co-operation of the Scandinavian countries was due to similar general standard of education, a fair knowledge and understanding of each other’s mentality, way of life and traditions and ability to read the other’s language and exchange views without inhibitions.

In 1888 Birtish Trade Union Council Parliamentary Committee convened a conference of a number of union leaders from Europe. They discussed the question of the obstacles to development of trade union movemeents in each country, its remedies and the appropirate methods of organisation. The question of regulating working hours was also discussed. However disputes over points such as bad translation, mutual ignorance of each other’s traditions and practices, exclusion of German, Austrian and Russian organisations contributed to a complete deadlock and the Conference consisting of 79 British delegates representing 85000 workers and 45 European delegates representing 250,000 workers suddenly broke up without even envisaging a second meeting.