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St. Martin's Hall Meeting, London, 1864

Following the January Uprising in Poland in 1863 French and British workers started to discuss developing a closer working relationship. Henri 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 did not speak during the meeting.

On October 5, the General Council was formed with co-opted additional members representing other nationalities. It 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.

At its founding, the International Workingmen's Association was an alliance of people from diverse groups, including French Mutualists, Blanquists, English Owenites, Italian republicans, such American proponents of individualist anarchism as Stephen Pearl Andrews and William B. Greene, 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 introduced male suffrage, many German socialists became active in the Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany.