The International Workingmen's Association (IWA), sometimes called the First International, was an international socialist 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, although the official journal reported 8 million members.
Following the suppression of the January Uprising in Poland, 1863 French and British workers started to discuss developing a closer working relationship. 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 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 didn't speak during the meeting.
On October 5 the General Council was formed, with co-opted additional members representing other nationalities, and was based at the headquarters of the Universal League for the Material Elevation of the Industrious Classes at 18 Greek Street. Different groups offered proposals for the organisation: Louis Wolff (Mazzini's secretary) offered a proposal based on the rules and constitution of the Italian Workingmen’s Association (a Mazzinist organisation) and John Weston, an Owenite, also tabled a programme. Wolff left for Italy, and Lubez rewrote it in a way which appalled Marx. Through deft manipulation of the sub-committee Marx was left with all the papers, and set about writing the Address to the Working Classes to which was attached a simplified set of rules.
The International Workingmen's Association, at its founding, was an alliance of diverse groups, including French Mutualists, Blanquists, English Owenites, Italian republicans, followers of Mazzini, and other socialists of various persuasions. Over its short life it grew into a major movement, with local federations in many countries developing strong bases of working class activism. Karl Marx was a constant, and leading, figure from the start - he was elected to every succeeding General Council of the association.
Due to the wide variety of philosophies present in the First International, there was conflict from the start. The first objections to Marx's came from the Mutualists who opposed communism and statism. However, shortly after Mikhail Bakunin and his followers (called Collectivists while in the International) joined in 1868, the First International became polarised into two camps, with Marx and Bakunin as their respective figureheads. Perhaps the clearest differences between the groups emerged over their proposed strategies for achieving their visions of socialism. The anarchists grouped around Bakunin favoured (in Kropotkin's words) "direct economical struggle against capitalism, without interfering in the political parliamentary agitation." Marxist thinking, at that time, focused on parliamentary activity. For example, when the new German Empire of 1871 became the first country to introduce manhood suffrage, many German socialists became active in the Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany.
However, the Congress confirmed the Geneva Congress resolutions on the economic struggle and strikes and passed a resolution on political freedom which emphasised that the social emancipation of workers was inseparable from political liberation. The Proudhonists also failed to seize the leadership of the International, as the Congress re-elected the General Council in its former composition and retained London as its seat.
However, the Lausanne Congress ignored the General Council’s resolution and resolved officially to take part in the Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom. However, this Congress was attended by several General Council and some other International members and failed to resolve its political differences.
In 1872, the organization was relocated to New York City. The First International disbanded 4 years later, at the 1876 Philadelphia conference. Attempts to revive the organization over the next five years failed. However, the Second International was established in 1889 as its successor. Meanwhile, the anarchists continued to consider that they were unfairly ejected from the IWA, and in 1872 held a new congress of the international at Saint-Imier over two days, September 15 and 16 1872. Later after both rival internationals had collapsed the anarcho-syndicalist's decided to re-found the 'First International' in a congress held at Berlin in 1922 as the International Workers Association. The IWA still exists.