rs21 member Gus Woody explains the flawed nature of the Second International, and what we can learn from the new historical collection edited by Mike Taber.

Reform, Revolution, and Opportunism: Debates in the Second International, 1900-1910. Ed. Mike Taber, Haymarket | archival photograph by British Library via Unsplash license.

The Second International, which operated from 1889 to 1916, has gone down in history as one of the greatest failures of the international socialist movement. It attempted to put into practice Marx and Engels’ Manifesto refrain that ‘working men have no country’, by linking together all the various different socialist groups across countries. At its pre-WW1 height, delegates came from most European countries’ socialist parties, as well as Japan, Canada, and the USA – representing the force of several million socialists worldwide.  

It collapsed after its leading member organisations voted to support the imperialist war of 1914-19. The working class of each nation was mobilised to kill the other, all with the vocal support of various socialist parties. Clara Zetkin, speaking of the Second International in 1919, gave a poetic and morbid description of its functioning: 

‘Loaded with shame it perished on the battle-fields where German proletarians and French proletarians murdered one another with the blessing of German social democracy and the united socialist party of France. The grand body of the Second International, its glittering pompous garments contained but a small, weak and timorous soul. A soul that over its joy of the earthworms of reform had lost its craving for the golden treasures of socialism. A spirit that failed to understand that the epoch of slow social evolution had been replaced by a period of stormy revolutionary progress. A will that preferred trading with bourgeois society for small concessions rather than fighting it for a high stake.’

What do socialists today have to learn from this failure? Was it not rotten from the beginning? Why should we care about it? 

Mike Taber, following his edited collection of resolutions of the Second International, Under the Socialist Banner, has released Reform, Revolution and Opportunism, a collection of extracts from key debates in the International from 1900-1910. In his opening, he tackles the above question by highlighting the presence of themes that still matter: ‘war and militarism, women’s rights, immigration, imperialism, and socialist tactics.’ He goes on to say that:

‘Just as important, however, is the need to study the Second International itself. From 1889 to 1914 that organization, with all its strengths and weaknesses, was an example of a mass socialist movement, embracing the majority of the world’s organized working class. Many thousands today aspire to just such a socialist movement’ (p1).

In this regard, Taber’s latest volume, as well as Under the Socialist Banner, provide an excellent window into the successes, contradictions, and failures of the Second International. An important lesson for any international socialist today. 

Colonialism, Immigration, and Suffrage

Reform, Revolution and Opportunism provide a great insight into the range of social opinions which could be found on three topics within the International: colonialism, immigration and women’s suffrage.

At its 1904 and 1907 Congresses the International debated its position on the colonial territories controlled by the various European powers. In the late 1890s, a leading right-wing theorist of the German SPD, Bernstein, had begun speaking against the anti-colonial stance found amongst many socialists, stating ‘we will not condemn the idea that savages must be subjugated.’ At these two Congresses, a block cohered to attempt to push for a ‘socialist colonialism’ – the idea that a socialist state would need colonies, and that colonialism should not be opposed tout court.  

Such right-wing arguments were pushed particularly by Hendrick van Kol, a leading Dutch socialist, who succeeded in 1904 in securing something of a watered-down resolution, which prevaricated on the need for anti-colonialism. As Taber’s book shows, in 1907 this was reversed for a motion which promoted a clearer anti-colonialism, however this only passed by 127 to 110 votes. Taber’s record of the debate rightly ends with the intervention by one of the few colonised socialists, Bhikaji Cama from India, who called on the congress ‘to raise its protest against this vicious tyranny’ (79). This intervention, along with others like Kautsky’s against Bernstein and Kol, succeeded in rejecting the idea of a ‘socialist colonial policy.’ But the narrowness, as Taber recognises, speaks to the Eurocentric nature and thinking of the European socialists, as well as the rightward trend of many of its members. 

Similarly in 1904 and 1907, the Second International debated the socialist response to immigration. In 1904, Morris Hillquit, a leading member of the Socialist Party of America, introduced a resolution complaining of the immigration of ‘workers of backward races’ (p88) and suggested that socialists should strongly oppose efforts by capitalists to ‘import’ workers. This was opposed strongly by the commission working on immigration, in the end seeing the issue deferred till 1907. 

In 1907, the American Socialist Party again called for the International ‘to combat with all means at their command the willful importation of cheap foreign labor’ (p92). This would allow socialist parties to tacitly support the introduction of greater border controls. This was again defeated. However, several representatives, notably the representatives of colonial states Australia and South Africa, make explicit their xenophobia – particularly to Chinese and Japanese workers. It is Kato Tokijiro, delegate from Japan, who rightly pointed out that the anti-immigration resolution was not just xenophobic, but at its core, racist towards workers from Japan and China. It was obvious then, as it should be now, that xenophobia and the border system are inseparable from racism globally. However, similar to the debate on colonialism, the visible and loud right-wing of the Second International makes itself known. 

Finally in 1907, the Second International debated its approach to women’s suffrage. In 1907, the Second International had women’s suffrage placed on its agenda (it formally supported it from previous congresses, but it is fair to say that it was uneven in fighting for it globally). This was due to the efforts of Marxist women like Clara Zetkin, who organised the first International Socialist Women’s Conference, which put a motion to the International calling for an international campaign for universal women’s suffrage.

Notable in this debate are the two attempts to resist such a call. Victor Adler, leading figure of Austrian Marxism, attempted to defend his party’s stance – which was to avoid calling for women’s suffrage to maximise its own electoral chances. Adler attempts, rather pathetically, to insert a clause arguing that ‘it is up to organizations in each country to choose the appropriate method’ (113) and ‘when to undertake the struggle’ (114) for women’s suffrage. Given many of the parties reinforced traditional gender roles, limiting leading women, this would in practice allow socialist parties to underplay their commitments to women’s suffrage. 

Milicent Murby from the Fabian Society was the only one to vote against the final motion calling for universal suffrage. The motion was completely opposed to partial suffrage – that is a situation where only wealthy women or women of certain standing are allowed to vote. Murby made it clear, as many wealthy suffragettes did, that she was willing to accept voting rights for wealthy women – stating ‘it is better to give the hungry half a loaf of bread than none at all’ (119). This led another British representative to rightly state ‘it would be more accurate to compare a whole loaf to half a loaf that’s poisoned. For us socialists, the right to vote is poisoned when it strengthens the possessing class.’ (120). There was to be no compromises, votes for all women, not just the wealthy. 

In a barnstorming speech defending the full suffrage motion, Zetkin rightly identifies that the struggle for political equality was central to organising the masses of proletarian women as part of the class struggle. She goes to state:

‘Needed are not patient bearers of the cross or slaves resigned to their fate, but resolute, fighting women. From her bones will arise avengers – children nourished by the ideas in her brain and the passion in her heart; agents who not only will replace those fallen on the battlefield, but whose combative virtues will surpass those of their elders!’ (119)

To which Taber quite rightly notes ‘[Stormy applause]’.

Governments, War, and Collapse

If the debates around colonialism, immigration and suffrage reveal a right-wing tendency in the International, it is never clearer than in the debates which bookend Taber’s collection – the debates around socialists in government and those around war. 

Alexandre Millerand, a member of the Independent Socialist group in the French Parliament, accepted a cabinet position in the Government of France in 1899. This posed the problem of lone socialists, or even socialist parties in their entirety, entering into ministerial or coalitional agreements with capitalist parties – something the International was somewhat split upon. 

The 1900 Congress faced a resolution drafted by Kautsky, which subsequently came to be known as the ‘rubber resolution’. It condemned participation in capitalist governments by socialists, but left it open for ‘exceptional’ circumstances – something opposed by Ferri and Guesde, who wanted it opposed in every circumstance. Kautsky’s prevarication to either side won the day. 

However, the topic emerged again in the 1904 Congress, when the French Socialist Party again raised a motion opposing any participation, ironically based on an internal German motion passed in 1903 and written by Kautsky. This new motion won the day, re-asserting the strategy that elected socialists are not to participate or ally with capitalist forces in government. Finally, Reform, Revolution and Opportunism closes with the various militarist and antimilitarist motions brought to the Second International. In 1907 several different motions were brought, which varied from effectively restating the previous opposition to war that socialists had, to proposing greater antimilitarist campaigning, to advocating a general strike in the case of military conflict. In the end, whilst there is vigorous debate, the result was a sub-commission who drafted amendments to the motion brought by Bebel which passed unanimously (partially drafted by Luxemburg, Lenin, and Martov). This left the underlying differences still festering within the International. 

In 1910, further discussion was had about militarism, in the context of the rising chance of war in Europe. Four resolutions were brought, which include more detail on the need for disarmament and includes an attempt by French socialist Vaillant and British socialist Keir Hardie to again raise the issue of a general strike against war. Again, in 1910, the Congress agreed a general resolution that acted to restate the previous anti-war resolutions whilst putting important debates off until it was far too late. How anti-militarism was to look was left up to each national group. This meant that whilst the Stuttgart motion was strong on many matters, many of those committed to the standing army and defence of the nation continued to operate with little regard to it. 

What emerges in these militarist debates is a key tension between the classical Marxist demand that the standing army should be abolished and replaced by the arming of the masses; and those who see the standing army as still having a defensive function. The end result is clear, the International leaves open the participation of socialists in a ‘defensive war’. When 1914 rolls around, every state claims the war is defensive, and most major socialist parties vote to support and fund military action. The professed anti-militarism collapses under the rot built over the years, in many parties, their right-wing managed to rally many of those nominally against war towards supporting butchery. 

Second in Command

What becomes clear from Taber’s book is just how politically broad the Second International ended up being. Here we have nominal socialists defending colonialism, xenophobia, fudging the question of anti-militarism and compromising into Government. At the same time, we have virulent and passionate calls for women’s suffrage, anti-colonial struggle, anti-militarism, and revolutionary proclamations of international socialism. Perhaps a split was inevitable? Some would say that as long as one agreed with the programmatic statements of the various socialist parties, everything was up for grabs, and to have these debates was healthier. But the closeness of many of these votes and debates shows just how many had become compromised over this period – how clearly the opportunist element cohered itself. It was this which Lenin came so strongly to speak against following 1914, stating in 1915: 

‘The old theory that opportunism is a “legitimate shade” in a single party that knows no “extremes” has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement.’

Taber’s book currently highlights extracts of the various debates only, particularly highlighting the opportunism and resistance to it; we still lack in Britain a full written transcript of the Second International’s congresses, currently available in limited forms in French and German. The consequence is obvious – this is a ‘best bits’ with clear extracts that highlight the differences between those that go on to reform the Second International after the First World War and those that form the Third and ‘Second and a Half International.’ It’s exciting and makes clear the opportunistic drifts, mistakes, and compromising elements, whilst also highlighting key heroes. To fully comprehend the International, we still need the full extracts, albeit their readership may be a limited number of very nerdy socialists.  

The big question we are left with following Reform, Revolution and Opportunism is why words did not match up to action on so many issues – why did the Second International become compromised? Taber attaches two reflection essays from Lenin at the end, which help in many ways to understand but more work is needed. There are the stated resolutions of the International, the spoken and written politics of the key figures like Kautsky, Bebel, and others, but there is also the day-to-day engagement with these by the actual national parties as they operated. Taber helps by identifying organisational elements in this regard, particularly the deeply male and deeply Euro-centric nature of these parties and their key figures. Such information must be combined with the stated politics of these groups. Often, our analyses of the Second International confuse these different elements. We critique the supposed reformism of Kautsky, assuming there is a direct relation between his positions and the wider organisational culture of the German Social-Democratic Party. This ignores the role that particular notable socialist theorists had in the organisational leadership, their changing positions, and how that actually fed into the culture in the organisation. 

We need to understand how the leading lights of the Second International wrote, spoke, and conducted themselves, how the International functioned as a body, and what the lifeworlds of the socialist parties were themselves – understanding only then how they interlock, overlap and conflict with each other. To do this, Reform, Revolution, and Opportunism is a massive aid. This book, along with the various renewed resources around the First, Second and Third International will help us sort the wheat from the chaff and avoid their mistakes.  

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