Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Introduction to Under the Socialist Banner (2 of 2)
by Mike Taber
Estimated Reading Time: 14 min

This is part 2 of Taber's great introduction to the complicated history of the Second International. Later Sooner? Samir Amin critiqued the naive cosmopolitanism of the Second International writing, "That tendency [towards Eurocentrism] leads to a refusal to grant imperialism all of the decisive importance that it has in really existing capitalism. The Marxism of the Second International (including Karl Kautsky) was pro-imperialist and consequently encouraged an interpretation of Marx that is linear, evolutionist, and semi-positivist. Lenin, followed by Mao, opened the way to go further. In Lenin, this occurred with the theory of the weakest link: the (global) socialist revolution begins in the peripheries (in this case, Russia), but must be followed quickly by socialist revolutions in the centers. Since this expectation was disappointed by sub- sequent events, hopes were transferred to other peripheries (after Baku in 1920). This expectation was confirmed by the success of the Chinese Revolution."

Footnotes Slightly Abridged
we will get into the criticisms of the Second International, but for now, let's return to the Taber's introduction to both the issues of the Second International as well as his book Under the Socialist Banner. Enjoy.

Debates in the Second International

Many of the resolutions adopted by the Second International were subjects of debate and controversy. Among these:

Debates with the anarchists. During the earlier years of the First International, there were heated exchanges with anarchists, a major current in the workers’ movement at the time. Marx and Engels devoted considerable attention to this debate, above all with the anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin. A central tenet of anarchist ideology was to reject all forms of political action, including participation in elections and the fight for political reforms and social legislation.

There were relatively few anarchists who participated as delegates in Second International congresses. But they once again raised objections to political action, making their presence known through regular disruptions of the proceedings. To prevent such disruptions, in 1891 a resolution on conditions of admission to the congress was adopted that called for recognition of political action as a precondition for attending international congresses, thereby excluding anarchists. Similar resolutions were approved in 1893 and in 1896, at which time anarchists were definitively placed outside the International.

Debates over the general strike and May Day. The question of the general strike was a point of contention at numerous congresses. This issue was generally put forward by delegates influenced by syndicalism, an ideology that tended to see unions as the essential instrument for revolutionary change. Many syndicalists viewed the general strike as the primary and surefire working-class weapon—above all, to combat the threat of war.

This overestimation of the potential of a general strike, however, was met by an opposite tendency to dismiss even the possibility of such a strike. Much of this opposition came from the German trade unions and their defenders in that country’s Social Democratic Party. German unions were expanding rapidly at the time, along with a growing bureaucracy within them. Given the precarious legal situation then facing the working-class movement in Germany—even after the law banning socialist activity was lifted in 1890, restrictions on political and union activity remained—the German unions were afraid that such strikes could lead the government to outlaw them.

The overly cautious opposition to the general strike could also be seen on the question of May Day. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) voted to organize actions throughout the United States for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890, in commemoration of the movement that began in the United States in 1886—a movement that had become known worldwide because of the Haymarket events that year in Chicago. 8. 8 Following a rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886, to support striking workers, a bomb was thrown at police officers by an unknown person, after which the police opened fire on the crowd, killing a number of workers. The incident was used to stage a frame-up against the workers’ leaders, who were anarchists. Eight were tried and convicted of murder. Four were hanged, and one committed suicide before his scheduled execution. The Haymarket martyrs were defended and honored by the workers’ movement throughout the world, and they became associated with the establishment of May Day as an international workers’ holiday. The book this essay introduces is coincidentally published by Haymarket Press. 8

The founding congress of the Second International in 1889 endorsed the AFL’s initiative and voted to set May 1, 1890, as a day for demonstrations and strikes by working people around the world. From then on, May Day became a day to demonstrate the strength and solidarity of the international working-class movement.

Debates on May Day occurred at a number of congresses. The German and British trade unions and parties in particular were opposed to calling for strikes on May Day, preferring instead to schedule parades and rallies on the first Sunday in the month. Compromise resolutions were adopted at international congresses calling for strikes and demonstrations on May 1 where possible, but leaving the matter for ultimate decision by organizations in each country.

Debates over participation in capitalist governments and relations with bourgeois parties. At the congresses of Paris (1900) and Amsterdam (1904), debates centered on the question of socialist participation in capitalist governments and relations with bourgeois parties.

In 1899 French socialist Alexandre Millerand accepted a position as minister in the capitalist government of France. This move sparked a fierce controversy in the world socialist and working-class movement, given that socialists had always rejected accepting such posts. In the end, Second International resolutions condemned all participation by socialists in capitalist governments. Alongside that view, not giving support to bourgeois parties was seen by left-wing forces in the International as a principled question, in line with Karl Kautsky’s assessment of “the bankruptcy of all capitalist parties.”

Debates over immigration. Heated debates occurred at the 1904 and 1907 congresses, as some socialists accepted anti-immigrant arguments that “backward,” nonwhite workers could not be organized and took jobs away from native-born workers; as such, they endorsed the concept of restricting immigration. These racist arguments were sharply answered by those who supported the traditional socialist view opposing all immigration restrictions, a view that saw immigrants as fellow workers to be welcomed, championed, and organized into the working-class struggle.

Debates over colonialism. At the congresses of 1904 and 1907, the question of the new phenomenon of modern colonialism and imperialism was a hotly contested issue. A significant minority at these congresses supported the perspective of “socialist colonialism”—criticizing colonial abuses but supporting the idea of colonialism’s “civilizing mission,” and asserting that colonial rule and exploitation should still exist under socialism. The pro-colonialist position was ultimately rejected, but only by an astonishingly close vote.

Debates over trade unions. At several congresses, debates occurred over whether trade unions should be neutral on the question of working-class political power. Many conservative-minded trade union officials supported the idea that unions should focus exclusively on narrow, everyday issues such as wages and working conditions and not take up broad social and political questions. Coming out of these debates, the Second International reaffirmed the traditional Marxist view opposing the “neutrality” principle and stressing the need for permanent and close contact between trade unions and socialist parties.

Through the debates around these and other issues, three distinct currents in the Second International crystallized in the years leading up to 1914: a large reformist and opportunist wing, a small but growing revolutionary left wing, and an amorphous centrist grouping that sought to straddle the other two sides, using Marxist language but increasingly adapting to opportunist forces.


By studying the Second International’s adopted resolutions and motions in their entirety, their uneven nature is observable. Some resolutions are sharp and clear; others are ambiguous, vague, or contradictory. A tendency existed toward adopting compromise resolutions, in which conflicting views were sometimes papered over. Some of the adopted resolutions were drafted well prior to congresses, were circulated broadly, and received careful consideration. Other resolutions came about through delegates’ motions on the congress floor that were approved with little or no discussion.

Despite this unevenness, the resolutions as a whole—with a few significant exceptions—were guided by the spirit of revolutionary Marxism. Most presented a clear socialist perspective on the major questions facing the working class and the oppressed, many of which remain acute today.

Contemporary Relevance

What is the value of these resolutions for new generations coming to socialism today?

Most of the major issues facing socialists at the present time are not new. Some have come up in different ways and contexts, but many of the issues in the fight today nevertheless bear a remarkable similarity to what they were over a century ago:

Political power. Probably the single biggest thread running through the resolutions adopted at Second International congresses was that every single major issue facing working people was inextricably tied to the question of political power, and the need to replace domination by capitalists and landlords with the rule of working people. In this spirit, it was generally assumed by the Second International that workers needed their own independent party, and that no political support was to be extended to the capitalist class or its parties. While the working class fights aggressively for reform measures, Second International resolutions stressed, the capitalist system as a whole was unreformable. A revolutionary transformation of the entire social order was necessary.

War and militarism. Workers need to oppose all imperialist wars, Second International resolutions asserted. Not an ounce of support should be extended to these ventures, they insisted. The old slogan of the German socialist movement “Not one penny, not one person” to the capitalist war machine guided the work of most socialists then and remains the stance socialists can look to now. The fight against militarism and war, together with the entire war machine, is a key task, part of the overall working-class struggle.

Imperialism and colonialism. Colonial conquest and plunder of the Third World was seen as simply an extension of capitalist exploitation, according to the Second International’s adopted resolutions. Workers therefore need to actively support and champion the struggle for freedom by oppressed peoples fighting imperialist and colonialist domination, along with its racist justifications and rationalizations.

International solidarity. Numerous resolutions of the Second International centered on the international solidarity essential to the struggle of working people. Solidarity is a life-and-death question for the working class. Extending it is not an act of charity but rather an essential precondition for the success of workers’ struggles.

Immigration. The Second International’s resolution of 1907 pointed to the need to oppose all restrictions on the free immigration and emigration of workers, as well as to combat all forms of racist scapegoating. Immigrant workers should be viewed not as helpless victims but as welcome allies and reinforcements in the struggle against capitalism.

Democratic rights. Resolutions adopted at international congresses stressed the centrality of political and democratic rights. They viewed these rights as tools in the revolutionary struggle, and pointed to why the working class has the biggest stake in the fight to win them. Among the specific issues taken up in these resolutions are the fight against all antidemocratic restrictions, against political repression, for freedom of all political prisoners, for voting rights, for defense of the right to asylum, and for abolition of the death penalty.

Trade unions. The central importance of unions remains what it has been for over a century: as basic organizations to defend workers’ interests. As Second International resolutions recognized, economics and politics are closely connected, which is why unions cannot be “neutral” in the political struggle. Strikes, boycotts, and other weapons in unions’ arsenal need to be defended against all attempts to restrict the exercise of union power.

Labor legislation. The fight for laws limiting working hours, regulating working conditions, banning child labor, mandating equal pay for equal work, and guaranteeing workers the right to organize was central to socialists in the Second International. All of these issues remain of decisive importance for working people today.

Public education and cultural advancement. As socialists recognized over a century ago, public education as a right is a conquest of the working class in the fight to advance society. All attacks on this right need to be strongly combated. Access to education—including higher education—must be available to all, free of charge.

Women’s emancipation. Under the impetus of female socialists like Clara Zetkin, multiple resolutions of the Second International addressed the oppression of women and how it is built into the very structure of capitalism. The fight against this oppression will play a central part in the overall revolutionary struggle, they pointed out. The struggle around this question today involves many decisive issues, including the fight for safe, legal, and accessible abortion; equal pay for equal work; free or low-cost child care; affirmative action; and elimination of all legal and social restrictions that prevent women from playing an equal role in society.

Who will bring about change? Resolutions of the Second International took it as a given that the working class itself is the agent of its own liberation. In the words of Karl Marx, incorporated into the founding rules of the First International, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” This same idea is at the heart of the rarely sung second verse of “The Internationale”:

We want no condescending saviors
To rule us from a judgment hall;
We workers ask not for their favors;
Let us consult for all.
To make the thief disgorge his booty
To free the spirit from its cell,
We We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide, and do it well.

The long history of this fight for working-class self-emancipation extends back to the Revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and other revolutionary overturns around the world in which the working class entered onto the stage of history and sought to transform it—“storm-ing the heavens,” as Marx described working people during the Paris Commune.

By linking up with the Second International’s tradition and legacy— without overlooking its contradictions and weaknesses—those coming to the socialist movement today can take their place as part of this proud history.

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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