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
I: The presence of so many members of the Association in
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
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
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
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.
Published in The
Red Menace #4, Winter 1979.
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