Ever since the industrial revolution, working people and their allies on the left have been trying to set up a viable international organisation. But tensions between the two groups (they’re deeply linked, but not the same!) have led to unpredictable difficulties. These were especially apparent during the two world wars, Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’, the Cold War and the earlier days of the globalisation of work. Arguably, the history of the various Internationals has been one of increasing alienation between the working class and those on the left who would claim to be their champions. In fact, until fairly recently the idea of a credible International seemed more remote than ever. However, the financial crisis and the revolution in communications seem to be changing this landscape. Here’s a (very) quick potted history of the first four Internationals, along with some recent goss which suggests that a Fifth is on the way. Interesting times, indeed. Or not. Depends.


First International

Karl Marx addresses the inaugural meeting of the International Workingmen's Association, or First International

The First International was set up in 1864. At its peak it had somewhere between five and eight million members. It split in 1872, largely due to strategic differerences between the communists and anarchists (led by Marx and Bakunin respectively). More: http://bit.ly/9b8UsN

The Second International was established in 1889, mainly of socialist and labour parties. It deliberately excluded anarcho-syndicalists and unions. Key members included Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Kautsky. In 1916 it split, amid deep divisions between the revolutionary and reformist wings, and the various parties involved fell in (more or less) with their country’s respective roles in WWI. More: http://bit.ly/bUKSOk

V.I. Lenin at the 3rd International, 1919

The Third International (aka ‘Comintern’) was founded in 1919, in the wake of the Russian revolution. It deliberately split from social democratic and labour parties when it endorsed the ‘21 Conditions’ in 1920 (see http://bit.ly/bRC0eP). Key figures included Lenin, Trotsky, Alexandra Kollontai, Georgi Dimitrov and Joseph Stalin. The latter’s command and control methods after Lenin’s death, along with the invasion of Russia in WWII, led to ‘insuperable obstacles’. The Comintern was officially dissolved in 1943. More: http://bit.ly/z1Nj6

The Fourth International was set up in 1938, by Leon Trotsky and others who were opposed to both capitalism and Stalinism. It went through a number of splits, and a number of the constituent parties also split within themselves. WWII led to a number of expulsions, and a formal process of reunification. There is no consensus over its current status. More: http://bit.ly/bdO9Lw

There is probably not a single sentence above that somebody, somewhere, would not dispute. It has been a very long and very hard road. Along the way there have been countless fights, splits, factions, fractions, splinter groups, preparatory committees, and/or leagues for the formation of alternative bodies, etc etc. These continue. Nor do the tiny sketches above make any mention of the existing organisations who claim to be direct descendants or continuations of the Internationals. You owe it to yourself to find out more!

The Fifth International

It now seems that a Fifth International is in development. Its initial form is far from resolved. Several strands are involved, but the relationships between them is very much a work in progress. Here are some of the main contenders:

Hugo Chavez made world headlines in November 2009 when he called for the establishment of an anti-imperialist, socialist Fifth International, comprised of left parties and social movements. A number of groups, mainly from South America, immediately said they would join such a body. However, the congress intended to constitute the Fifth International was postponed and as yet no comments have emerged from the working group in charge of the mission. Evidently, difficulties have been encountered and the overall situation in Venezuela (with parliamentary elections due on September 26) is interfering. Watch this space. See http://bit.ly/cpcFsG

Prior to this, the Venezuelans had been in discussion with various parties and individuals around the world. One of these, Znet, had already initiated online discussions (under the banner ‘Reimagining Society’) towards forming a ‘participatory socialist international’. About 2,000 people have now endorsed their founding proposal, including Noam Chomsky, Susan George and John Pilger. See http://bit.ly/9MAHvm. The relationship between these two initiatives is a work in progress. See http://bit.ly/9YR1MC.

The International Marxist Tendency has warmly welcomed the Caracas initiative. One of its leading figures — Alan Woods — is personally close to Chavez. The IMT is a Trotskyist group which formed (under that name) in 2006. They currently have a presence in over 30 countries. See http://bit.ly/9M6o52

As far back as 1989 another group — the League for a Fifth International — started advocating the formation of a new global body. Also Trotskyists, they currently has sections in Austria, Britain, Czech Republic, Germany, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the USA. See http://bit.ly/bPrO4V. They have responded rather negatively to the Bolivarian’s initiative. See http://bit.ly/aEyVCM.

What about the working class?

Arguably, the history of the various Internationals has been one of increasing alienation between the working class and those who claim to be their champions. Two world wars, a ‘cult of personality’, the Cold War and the globalisation of work have all produced unpredictable tensions between the political left and those in the working class.

However, ‘the end of an error’ for neoliberalism, along with huge advances in social networking technologies, and new ideas in organisational theory, offer us the chance to repair this dynamic.

Both Chavez and ZNet’s proposals envisage a genuinely participatory model. They also mention the need to avoid mistakes of the past. One does not need a doctorate in bureaucode to know what this means. The Fifth International must be safeguarded against capture from above. The Third International was increasingly manipulated by administative tricks and direct violence. The Fourth was so enraged by this that it became puritanical and elitist, and never managed to build a popular base.

What next? Those who would lay claim to leadership roles in the Fifth International can expect to be held accountable this time round. Those whom they claim to represent can speak and listen with a clarity and focus never before possible. This may mean that new internationalists seek a popular mandate, or it may generate direct campaigning for support, but at the very least we can expect much more open behaviour.

After all, it has never been easier to set up a Sixth.

“…this International Association and all societies and individuals adhering to it, will acknowledge truth, justice, and morality, as the basis of their conduct towards each other…”
Karl Marx, ‘Provisional Rules of the Association’, 1864

We will be approaching each of the groups mentioned in the article above (and/or their successors) to ask for an update on their work. Watch this space.