Red Letter
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Introduction to Under the Socialist Banner (1 of 2)
by Mike Taber
Estimated Reading Time: 8 min

This is a good introduction to the Second International. I was reading an article by Taber around the time of the publication of his book, of which he is also introducing and is linked to at left. In the article Taber establishes a pretty good Why people on the left should understand the Second International:

For left-wing socialists in particular, the Second International is often associated almost exclusively with its betrayal of internationalism in 1914 at the start of the First World War. At that time the Second International suffered an ignominious collapse, as its leading parties abandoned socialist principles and gave open support to their respective governments’ war efforts.

The fact that the Second International was re-created in 1919 as a formation committed to maintaining the capitalist order, with a few reforms, has contributed to such an image. Not only did the post-1919 Second International oppose the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia, but it worked energetically to suppress the revolutionary wave that engulfed much of Europe and Asia following the end of the war. Its social-democratic successors have largely continued along these lines up to the present day.

This image of the pre-1914 Second International helps explain the fact that prior to the publication of my book, Under the Socialist Banner, the resolutions of its nine congresses had never before been assembled and published in English. Some of these resolutions were virtually unknown. Many had been exceedingly difficult to even find.

While there are good reasons to reject what the Second International became after 1914, ignoring or downplaying its legacy is nevertheless a mistake. Doing so means turning one’s back on an important part of the socialist movement’s history and traditions. Moreover, it means ceding this legacy to social-democratic currents that have betrayed or distorted socialism’s message for over a century. The best of this legacy, however, legitimately belongs to revolutionary socialists. Understanding the Second International’s strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions can be of major benefit for the movement today.

Taber is going to develop some of these ideas in the introduction. The stage will be set for us to read some selects from the Second International over the next week or so.

An International Movement

A central tenet of the socialist movement for over 170 years has been internationalism.

“Workers of the world, unite!” has been socialism’s slogan ever since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels issued this clarion call in the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. Along these lines, the universal anthem of world socialism has been “The Internationale.”

Footnotes Slightly Abridged

Putting that perspective into practice, Marx and Engels in 1864 helped organize and lead the International Workingmen’s Association, better known as the First International. That association played a vital role in consolidating the emerging working-class movement around the world. It became known in particular for promoting the concept of international working-class solidarity, through the organization of support to strikes and other struggles by working people across borders. As Marx put it in 1872, “Let us bear in mind this fundamental principle of the International: solidarity! It is by establishing this life-giving principle on a reliable base among all the workers in all countries that we shall achieve the great aim which we pursue ... the universal rule of the proletariat.”

Due to the primitive conditions of the early working-class movement, the First International had a short life span, declining precipitously after 1872 and formally dissolving in 1876. During the thirteen years that followed, various attempts were made to revive it. All were unsuccessful, however, coming up against the weakness of the organized proletarian movement in most countries. But by 1889, mass working-class parties and a growing trade union movement had begun to emerge. In this context, the world organization that became known as the Second International was founded.

The new movement—known at the time as Social Democracy—was formed under the direct guidance of Frederick Engels, who, after Marx’s death in 1883, was the recognized leader of world socialism. Among the Second International’s leading figures over the next twenty-five years were prominent left-wing socialists and Marxists: Eleanor Marx, August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Paul Lafargue, Karl Kautsky, Jules Guesde, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Georgy Plekhanov, Christian Rakovsky, and V. I. Lenin.

The role of Engels in the early years of the Second International is often not fully appreciated. Marx’s lifelong collaborator played a central role in the Second International’s founding in 1889, advising the organizers in detail on virtually all questions related to the political preparation and organization of the founding congress, along with helping to publicize the event. Engels subsequently played an important advisory role in the Second International’s development up until his death in 1895.

A Heterogeneous Movement

From its beginning, the Second International was a loose association of widely divergent forces, with differing perspectives and expectations.

The movement included in its ranks both political parties and trade unions. A few of the political organizations were mass parties; others were small propaganda groups. Some of these forces had clearly defined Marxist programs; others still bore traits of pre-Marxist brands of socialism, with a multitude of conflicting perspectives, such as anarchism and syndicalism. The three largest contingents of the Second International were those in Germany, with a mass Social Democratic Party and large trade unions that looked to this party; Britain, with a number of relatively apolitical trade unions and a wide assortment of small political organizations; and France, with strong revolutionary traditions, but with the movement divided into opposing political currents.

The Second International’s affiliates in different areas faced a wide variety of social and economic situations. Some countries, like Germany and Britain, were industrial powers with a well-developed proletariat. Other countries had primarily agrarian economies, with a large peasantry and a small working class. Some countries where socialists lived had ruling classes that possessed colonial empires; other peoples lived under the boot of colonialism and imperialism. State repression against socialist parties ranged from intermittent harassment to the imposition of total bans. As a result of all these differences, prevailing political cultures within the movement varied considerably.

Accomplishments and Strengths

In the quarter century of its existence, the Second International had a number of important accomplishments to its credit.

Perhaps its greatest achievement was to unify the international working-class movement under the banner of Marxism. And it helped disseminate and popularize the movement’s strategic aim: the revolutionary overturn of the capitalist ruling class and its replacement by the rule of the proletariat, as a first step toward the establishment of socialism.

The founding congress in 1889 laid out the revolutionary goal of the new organization, affirming “that the emancipation of labor 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.”

The Second International of these years was, in its adopted resolutions, an irreconcilable revolutionary opponent of the capitalist system. While it championed the fight for reforms in the interests of working people—the eight-hour day, state-sponsored insurance and pensions, public education, votes for women, the right to asylum, and many other reform measures—it rejected the idea that capitalism as a system was reformable. It called for the working class to take political power and expropriate the capitalist owners of the major industries. It insisted that the working class itself was the agent of its own emancipation. And it defended the interests of all the oppressed and exploited around the world.

Two dates on the calendar today owe their existence to the Second International: May Day, established at the movement’s founding congress in 1889 as a demonstration of working-class power and solidarity around the world; and International Women’s Day, established in 1910 as a worldwide day of action for working women in the fight for full social and political rights.

The Second International showed the potential power of the organized working class. Camille Huysmans, the International Socialist Bureau’s secretary, estimated that in the years before 1914 the Second International counted ten to twelve million members affiliated to its national sections, with over fifty million sympathizers and voters. Numerous socialist representatives and deputies sat in national parliaments and regional and local legislative bodies.

For many workers, these signs of strength and seemingly uninterrupted growth gave them confidence that a revolutionary transformation of society was possible in the not-too-distant future.

Weaknesses and Contradictions

But behind this real and potential power were significant weaknesses and contradictions.

For one thing, the Second International was simply a loose federation of national parties and trade unions. The International possessed moral authority and made decisions on broad policy and strategy, to be put into practice by its affiliates. There was a positive side to this type of structure, particularly in the Second International’s early years, as the movement consolidated itself politically.

But that structure came to be a serious weakness over time. No mechanism existed for implementation of the International’s decisions, even after the 1900 creation of the International Socialist Bureau as the movement’s executive body. Resolutions were often not put into practice. In the derisive words of the early Communist movement, the Second International functioned essentially as a “mailbox.” Such an appreciation was undoubtedly exaggerated and unfair, given that parties of the Second International regularly carried out important internationally coordinated actions during this period. It should be recognized, however, that these actions were generally organized on a party-to-party basis, without any real central control or coordination, even compared to that of the General Council of the First International decades earlier.5. In the Second International’s early years, Engels had strongly opposed attempts to create an international center similar to the First International’s General Council. He felt that such a move would be premature given the state of the movement at the time, and could lead to nonrevolutionary currents attempting to impose their perspectives on the world movement as a whole. For example, in 1891, on the eve of the Second International’s Brüssels Congrèss, Engels wrote, “The Brüssels chaps who are, in their heart of hearts, themselves Possibilists [reformists] and have stood by the latter as long as they could, have made a complete volte-face; they aim at becoming the General Council of a new International.”5

Another weakness involved its geographic focus. Even though the Second International’s reach extended to many countries, it was still predominantly a European and North American movement. While congress resolutions gave support to anticolonial struggles, most sections of the movement still had an underappreciation of those struggles. Moreover, the Second International never became a truly world movement. The only countries outside Europe, North America, and Australia that were ever represented at Second International congresses during the 1889–1912 period were Argentina, Japan, South Africa, and Turkish Armenia.

Similarly, the International’s resolutions often lacked an adequate appreciation of the strategic allies the working class would need in its struggle—from toilers in the colonial world to working farmers and peasants, small shopkeepers, victims of national oppression, and others.

Finally, even though it called for the revolutionary replacement of capitalism, the Second International as a whole lacked a clear perspective on the role of revolutionary action in such a transformation. The relationship between reform and revolution was a constant point of friction and debate. An openly opportunist and reformist wing within its parties steadily grew.

Above all, the Second International was characterized by a gap between word and deed, as the day-to-day practice of most parties became increasingly dominated by a reformist and nonrevolutionary perspective. This gap and the growing divergences grew into a chasm in 1914 with the onset of the First World War. In clear violation of all the Second International’s resolutions, the main parties of the Second International renounced their past pledges and lined up behind their governments’ war efforts. Millions of workers and others were sent to their deaths, with the support of these parties.

In the words of Rosa Luxemburg, the Second International’s leading representatives had thereby amended the Communist Manifesto’s call of “Workers of the world, unite,” changing it to “Proletarians of all countries, unite in peacetime and cut each other’s throats in wartime!”

The betrayal of 1914 marked the political death of the Second International. Even though it was formally reconstituted in 1919, the new body lacked even the pretense of being a revolutionary movement. It consisted instead of open supporters of capitalist regimes and diehard opponents of the postwar revolutionary upsurge that developed in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

A Conflicted Legacy

Virtually all currents claiming to be socialist today formally acknowledge the Second International as part of their legacy. Yet, the Second International’s resolutions during its Marxist period remain virtually unknown. Most are exceedingly difficult to even find. Astoundingly, the resolutions from its first nine congresses have never beforeTaber's book does this. been assembled together and published in their entirety in English.

What can be the explanation for this fact?

One obvious answer is that the Social Democratic parties of the post-1919 Second International were not interested in doing so. And for good reason.

Following the First World War and continuing over the next century, Social Democratic parties headed the government in a number of countries: Australia, Belgium, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and others. They all defended capitalist rule both as parties in power and as loyal oppositions, and were willing participants or accomplices in numerous colonial and imperialist wars. It’s not hard to understand why such parties would not want to be reminded of their revolutionary past. They would prefer to keep that chapter hidden and deeply buried.

But what about revolutionary socialists? Shouldn’t they be interested in the resolutions of the Second International during its Marxist period?

The reality, however, is that most left-wing socialists and communists have had a conflicted view of the Second International’s legacy.

In the years after the formation of the Third International—the Communist International (Comintern)—in 1919, many left-wing socialists wavered on whether to seek to rebuild the Second International or to construct an entirely new world movement. To these wavering elements, supporters of the Comintern repeatedly stressed the Second International’s betrayal, and the need for a definitive break with it. Emphasis was placed on the need to turn one’s back entirely on what had become a bankrupt organization that stood in the way of struggles by working people. Ever since then, generations of socialist activists have felt there was little value in studying the work or legacy of the Second International.

7. In his “Notes of a Publicist,” Lenin cited Rosa Luxemburg as the author of this metaphor, referring to her alleged words: “Since August 4, 1914, German Social Democracy has been a stinking corpse.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33). Luxemburg never actually wrote those words, however.
Lenin was perhaps referring to the opening lines of Luxemburg’s 1915 article, “Rebuilding the International,” which he might have been recalling from memory: “On August 4th, 1914, German Social Democracy abdicated politically, and at the same time the Socialist International collapsed.”
Luxemburg also used the corpse analogy elsewhere. For example, her article “Das Versagen der Führer” (the failure of the leaders), published in the January 11, 1919, issue of Rote Fahne, stated, “Above all the next time must be devoted to the liquidation of the USPD, this rotting corpse, decayed products of which are poisoning the revolution”. In this article, however, Luxemburg was referring to the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany), not to German Social Democracy as a whole.

While that sentiment may be understandable, the conclusion is unwarranted. Downplaying the legacy of the Second International’s Marxist period means cutting oneself off from an important part of the revolutionary movement’s history, as well as the lessons to be learned from it. Doing so also means ceding that legacy to currents that sullied socialism’s banner following 1914, and continue to do so. But the best of this legacy legitimately belongs to revolutionary-minded socialists and communists.

The revolutionary leaders who broke with the Second International after its betrayal of 1914, such as V. I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, were not sparing in invective to label the betrayers. The vivid metaphor of the German Social Democratic Party as a “stinking corpse” is one of the more graphic descriptions. 7 What these revolutionaries criticized, above all, was the Second International’s gap between word and deed, its hypocrisy.

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 International’s majority leaders were violating these resolutions in practice.

In addition to these programmatic points of continuity, the congresses of the Second International became places where the emerging revolutionary left wing began to collaborate and lay the foundations for their subsequent international efforts. At the 1907 congress, for example, Luxemburg and Lenin worked closely on the resolution on war and militarism. And at the 1910 congress, Lenin organized a small meeting of left-wing delegates to discuss areas of collaboration.

We will continue this reading tomorrow.

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