The resolutions of the Second International are a revealing way of uncovering the contradictions in the pre-1914 workers’ movement, finds Chris Bambery

Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International 1889-1912, ed. Mike Taber (Haymarket Books 2021), 220pp.

In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin declared that: ‘the Second International is dead … Long live the Third International.’ He explained the demise of the Second International as a result of it being ‘overcome by opportunism’, its leadership having ‘betrayed the working class’.i

On 4th August 1914, social-democratic deputies in both the German Reichstag and the French Chamber of Deputies had voted unanimously for war credits, the economic means to finance the mobilisation for the war. Among those who voted for war were deputies who had, less than a week earlier, met together in Paris under the banner of the Socialist (Second) International to defend peace and to promise to work in every way possible to stop war. Already, two days before the votes in the Berlin and Paris parliaments, the Belgian socialist deputies had voted for war. Shortly after, British Labour MPs followed, having ditched their leader, Ramsay MacDonald, for his fuzzy pacifism (which he did not act on).

Millions would be drawn into the horrific slaughter, unprecedented thus far in history, of what became known as the Great War. The German revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, stated that the leaders of the Second International had altered The Communist Manifesto’s call, ‘Workers of the World Unite’, to ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite in peace time and cut each other’s throats in wartime’ (p.6).

I start here because when revolutionaries have discussed the Second International, this is usually the start and the finish. What this little volume does is point out that this is a mistake, not least because, as the editor Mike Taber, points out:

‘In making these criticisms, however, Lenin and Luxemburg never renounced the resolutions the Second International had adopted. Quite the contrary. During the years of the First World War, for example, they constantly referred to the best of these resolutions – particularly the resolutions on militarism and war – to illustrate the extent to which the Second Internationals were violating these resolutions in practice’ (p.8).

The two also used the congresses of the Second International to begin organising the revolutionary left. So, at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress, they worked closely on the resolution agreed on war and militarism. At the 1910 Copenhagen Congress, Lenin organised a small meeting of left-wing delegates to begin collaborating together.

Rooted in revolutionary tradition

The Second International was launched on Bastille Day, 14th July 1889, one hundred years after the French Revolution. A massive red banner emblazoned with the golden words ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ hung in a Paris ballroom full to the brim. Another banner displayed in the hall bore the inscription: ‘In the name of the Paris of 1848 and of March, April and May 1871, in the name of the France of Babeuf, Blanqui and Varlin, greetings to the socialist workers of both worlds!’

Key to its creation and its success was Frederick Engels, Marx’s long-time friend and collaborator. It brought together key socialist leaders: Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein and Clara Zetkin from the mighty German Social Democratic Party (SPD); Jules Guesde, Édouard Vaillant and Paul Lafargue from France; Eleanor Marx, William Morris and Keir Hardie from Britain; Viktor Adler from Austria; and Georgy Plekhanov from Russia. Valiant had fought in defence of the 1871 Paris Commune, and joining were other veterans, César de Paepe and Leo Frankel, both of whom had taken part in the First International, which had effectively been dissolved amid factional disputes between socialists and anarchists.

The Paris Congress passed resolutions on the need for unity of socialist organisations, international labour legislation, ways and means of winning demands, the abolition of standing armies, and the need for political and economic action. Another issued the world-wide call to make May Day a day of international solidarity. It followed the lead of the American Federation of Labour, when, in 1888, it called for 1st May to be a day of protest in support of the eight-hour day.

The resolution passed read:

‘A great international demonstration must be organised to take place at a certain time and in such a manner that simultaneously the workers in every country and every town should demand of the public authorities the limitation of the working day to eight hours and the operation of the other decisions of the Paris International Congress.

In view of the fact that the American Federation of Labor at its Congress held in St. Louis in December 1888 decided to hold such a demonstration on the First of May 1890, that day is accepted as the day for the international demonstration.

The workers in the different countries are to organise the demonstration along lines dictated by the conditions of their country’ (p.25).

This founding congress also issued a revolutionary goal for socialists:

‘… the emancipation of labour and humanity cannot occur without the international action of the proletariat – organized in class-based parties – which seizes political power through the expropriation of the capitalist class and the social appropriation of the means of production’ (p.22).

Mass workers’ parties

The mainstays of this first congress were the German SPD, a truly mass party to which the largest trade unions were affiliated; British delegates from the trade unions, and a wide assortment of small political organisations; and France, with a strong revolutionary tradition, but where the left was divided into opposing political currents.

Within a short time, mass social-democratic parties (we should recall the Bolsheviks were, prior to 1914, part of the wider Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party) existed across Western Europe, in North America and Australasia. A weakness was that the only other countries represented at the Second International’s congresses were Argentina, Armenia (part of the Turkish Empire), Japan and South Africa. Yet, national liberation struggles were on the rise, with significant revolutions in Iran in 1906, Mexico in 1910-1920, and China in 1911.

The colonial question was addressed at the congresses, particularly as crisis developed, for instance, in relation to French and Spanish military operations in Morocco. However, the anti-colonial policy adopted fell short of championing national-liberation struggles, and in 1907 it was only passed in opposition to a rival motion espousing ‘socialist colonialism’!

Reflecting such a chauvinist position, there were heated debates in the Second International over immigration at the 1904 and 1907 congresses, with speakers stating anti-immigrant arguments that ‘backward’, non-white workers were taking jobs away from native workers, and arguing for immigration controls. The majority, however, rejected such racist arguments, advocating the traditional socialist view opposing all immigration controls and arguing that migrant workers should be welcomed, defended and organised.

One sustained criticism that has been made of Marxism is that it did not address the liberation of women. Yet, in 1910, the Second International would issue a call for the working class around the world to support women in the fight for full social and political rights. So, International Women’s Day came to be.

What is interesting in this book are the resolutions passed in defence of working women, in support of women’s suffrage and equality. At the 1891 Brussels Congress, the motion on Women’s Equality called on member parties of the International to contain in their programmes, ‘the complete equality of the two sexes and to demand that women be granted the same political and civil rights as men and the repeal of all laws placing women outside public rights’ (p.34). The names of the authors are worth checking out: Wilhelmina Drucker, Emma Ihrer, Louise Kautsky, Anna Kuliscioff and Ottilie Baader.

At the 1904 Amsterdam Congress, a resolution on Universal Women’s Suffrage stated clearly, ‘socialist parties must put forward the demand for women’s suffrage,’ adding that: ‘This demand must be maintained as a principle in agitation and defended energetically’ (p.91). The 1907 Stuttgart Congress followed an International Socialist Conference of Women Workers held in the city. The Russian Bolshevik, Alexandra Kollantai, wrote an excellent report. Subsequently, Clara Zetkin moved a hard hitting resolution on women’s suffrage which was passed with just one vote against, the British Fabian Society, who rejected its message criticising ‘bourgeois feminists’. It’s worth buying the book just to read this.

Reform or Revolution?

Returning to the need to oppose war it’s not hard to see why Luxemburg and Lenin were keen to stand up for the motions adopted, such as this warning addressed to the international bourgeoisie by the 1911 Basel Congress:

‘Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves; let them remember that the Franco-German War was followed by the revolutionary outbreak of the Commune, that the Russo-Japanese War set into motion the revolutionary energies of the peoples of the Russian Empire, that competition in military and naval armaments gave the class conflicts in England and on the continent an unheard-of sharpness, and unleashed an enormous wave of strikes. It would be insanity for the governments not to realise that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class. The workers consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties’ (p.141).

In his introduction and afterword, Mike Taber addresses the weaknesses of the Second International, which contributed to its effective collapse in August 1914. The Second International was simply a federation of national parties and trade unions. It had great moral authority, but no more. Implementing decisions was left to the individual affiliates.

Secondly, while the Second International stood for the revolutionary replacement of capitalism, it never addressed how such a revolutionary change could happen. This resulted in debates and differences between those who looked to parliamentary reform as a strategy, those who stood for revolution, and a majority who tended to obscure the difference using Marxist rhetoric.

Thus the claim by the International’s leading ideologue, Karl Kautsky, that ‘the Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a party that makes a revolution’ (Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 1909). His argument rested on a belief in the inevitable victory of socialism. The man regarded as the ‘Pope of Marxism’ saw revolutionary change happening like the change of seasons. His revisionist opponent, Eduard Bernstein, advocate of a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism, could score a point by pointing to the economic fatalism from which Kautsky drew such political conclusions.

Above all, the Second International was characterised by the gap between word and deed. That gap became unbridgeable with the outbreak of the First World War. So, while the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International adopted a resolution originally drafted by the SPD’s August Bebel, which was rather generalised, it was sharpened by an amendment written by Luxemburg, Lenin and Julius Martov. This argued not just for opposition to war, but for the need to take concrete action in ways which would advance working-class revolution. The amendment was passed, and key parts were repeated word for word in resolutions adopted 1910 and 1912. That is why Lenin and Luxemburg would maintain their support for the 1912 Basel Manifesto after war broke out, accusing the majority of betrayal.

Marx and Engels had not addressed the problem of bureaucratisation, which by 1914 was very apparent in the trade unions, where a layer of officials was materially distinct from their members, and which was also strong within the new mass parties. That task fell to Lenin in the wake of the 1914 collapse.

What the Second International did was to create broad working-class parties, albeit concentrated in the most developed capitalist countries. This marked a huge step forward, breaking from the sectarian divisions which had so hampered Marx and Engels’s First International, and blighted socialist organisation in so many countries. It popularised socialism and created serious organisations, but at a necessary price: grouping together those who supported revolution and those who opposed it, in a way which was never resolved.

As said, the general approach revolutionaries have taken to the Second International was to concentrate on the betrayal of 1914 and move on. Reading Under the Socialist Banner was a revelation for me because there is so much that is rich in these resolutions, and that in August 1914, what Luxemburg and Lenin stood for was a break and continuity.

i Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 21, pp.40-1.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.