Eric Lee was unfair to the First International in his column, “Back to that first International”, (Solidarity 251). He says, “The First International was Eurocentric, male-dominated and paralysed by in-fighting”. Yes, but so much more.
The First International was founded in a genuine spirit of internationalism by working-class militants attempting to overcome national boundaries, to make solidarity and stop employers smashing up fragile organisation by scab labour. A little bit more “First Internationalism” would have been useful a few years ago when union bureaucrats and Labour leaders championed “British jobs for British workers”.
As to the “in-fighting”, some of that — the debate with the Proudhonists for instance — led to genuine political clarification, which was recognised as such at the time.
Also the long-term impact of the First International is underestimated. Veterans of that organisation in Britain were living links from the past, from early attempts to organise workers, to the early modern socialist movement of the 1880s and 1890s.
Attempts by veterans to form dockers’ unions, for instance, laid the basis for future organisation and ultimately the magnificent dockers’ strike of 1889.
The First International ultimately failed but, unlike the union project Eric writes about (IndustriALL Global Union), is still something to be inspired by.