The bête noire of conservatives worldwide for more than a century after 1864, the First International and its two successors have played a huge role in the modern mythology surrounding secret societies. Though not secret societies in their own right, the Internationals drew on a long tradition of radical secret societies in western Europe, had several secret societies take an active role in their history, and gave conservatives obsessed with secret societies a visible target for their fears. Few if any of today’s conspiracy theories would be the same if the First International had never existed.

The First International was founded out of the fusion of a group of French liberals, some of them in exile from Napoleon Ill’s dictatorship, and a group of English labor unionists inspired by the possibilities of international organization. Behind the original meeting at St Martin’s Hall in London on September 28, 1864 lay years of complex intrigues on the part of the Philadelphes, one of the last surviving political secret societies of the Napoleonic era. Sometime in the late 1830s the Philadelphes had taken control of the Rite of Memphis, an irregular system of Masonry with no fewer than 96 degrees of initiation. In 1850, during one of the brief periods when the Rite was able to operate legally in France, a lodge was chartered in London by a group of French emigrés with close ties to left-wing politics. After Napoleon III seized power and proclaimed the Second Empire in 1852, this lodge, and 10 other lodges connected with it, became deeply involved in intrigues against the new regime and may have taken part in some of the attempts on Napoleon Ill’s life. See Philadelphes; Rite of Memphis.

By the early 1860s, however, the Philadelphes in England were turning toward goals more sweeping than the removal of one French tyrant. From 1855 to 1859 they operated a front organization called the International Association, which had attracted interest in America as well as Europe, and the expansion of the labor union movement in the years before 1864 opened the prospect of organizing the working classes under Philadelphe leadership. The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), as the First International was originally known, was launched under Philadelphe auspices to carry out this project.

In its first year the IWA remained essentially a Philadelphe front. Nearly a third of the members of the Association’s governing board, the General Council, were members of one or another Philadelphe lodge. Yet the secret society had already brought its own nemesis aboard, in the person of a German economist named Karl Marx. Already a major figure among European radicals, Marx and his co-author Friedrich Engels had burst on the scene in 1848 with The Communist Manifesto, and a growing number of radical groups across Europe were taking up Marxist ideas during the formative years of the International. Marx was indispensable, but the Philadelphes made the mistake of believing they could manipulate him to their own ends. By the end of 1865 Marx and his allies had removed the last Philadelphes from the policy-making subcommittee of the General Council and had effective control of the International.

Ironically, another secret society filled the vacuum, causing the political explosions that wrecked the First International in the 1870s. This was the International Brothers, an anarchist secret society founded and headed by the Russian radical and ex-Nihilist Mikhail Bakunin. Founded in Italy sometime around 1864, the International Brothers formed another secret society, the Secret Alliance, as a front group; they then launched a public front group for the secret one, the International Alliance of Social Democracy. In 1868 the International Alliance applied to enter the First International. The leadership of the International rejected the application, but allowed each national subdivision of the Alliance to join as a local branch of the International. See Anarchism; International Brothers; Nihilists.

With this as his way in, Bakunin attempted to take over the International, only to run up against the same Marxist bloc that had defeated the Philadelphes. Marx and his then-ally, French radical politician Auguste Blanqui, fought Bakunin’s party for four years before finally expelling Bakunin in 1872. Though Marx ended up victorious, the struggle weakened the International fatally and drove a wedge between Marx and Blanqui. When Marx forced through new rules giving the General Council dictatorial powers over the International, the local sections rebelled. By 1873 the International was moribund, and the General Council, by then relocated to New York, formally dissolved in 1876. A new International did not begin to take shape in Europe until 1889, and when it did, it had no connection to secret societies at all.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006