Reclaim our legacy

Mike Taber discusses the significance of the new book he has edited. This article is based on the talk he gave to the August 2 Online Communist Forum

First of all, thanks to the Online Communist Forum for inviting me to kick off the discussion here today. I hope participants will find it of interest.

I will be taking up five things:

  1. the conflicted appreciation of the Second International and its legacy;
  2. what the Second International was;
  3. debates that took place within it;
  4. the book I have prepared on Second International resolutions from 1889 to 1912;
  5. the relevance of all this today.

Conflicted appreciation

Chronologically the Second International obviously comes before the Third. But in my own case it was the other way around. For years I have worked on an ongoing project to edit and publish the record of the Communist International in Lenin’s time, in collaboration with John Riddell. In the process of working on these books, I would frequently come across references to Second International resolutions, which then had to be tracked down and sourced. In the process I saw how difficult it was to even find some of them. So a few years ago it occurred to me that it would be a worthwhile project if these resolutions could all simply be collected together and made available as a resource. Nothing more.

But, as I got into it, I realised there was much more involved. In particular, there were deeper issues to think about concerning the Second International’s place within the continuity of Marxism.

One thing that struck me as curious was that the resolutions adopted by the nine congresses of the Second International between 1889 and 1912 had never before been assembled all together and published in English. I wondered how this could be, especially in light of the fact that virtually all currents in the world today claiming to be socialist acknowledge the Second International during these years as part of their legacy. This was a riddle, and it called for an answer.

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 World War I and continuing over the next century, social democratic parties headed the government in many countries, as you in Britain know well. They all defended capitalist rule, both as parties in power and as loyal oppositions, and they were willing participants and/or accomplices in numerous colonial and imperialist wars. It is therefore not hard to understand why these parties would not want to be reminded of their revolutionary past. They would prefer to keep that chapter dead and buried.

But what about revolutionary socialists? Should they not, at least, be interested in the resolutions of the Second International during its Marxist period? The reality, however, is that most leftwing socialists and communists have had a conflicted view of the Second International’s legacy.

The roots of this are not hard to see. In the years after the formation of the Third, Communist International in 1919, many leftwing 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 organisation that stood in the way of struggles by the working class. Ever since then, generations of socialist activists have felt there was little value in seriously studying the work of the Second International.

Here I will speak for myself. When I first came to the revolutionary Marxist movement five decades ago, and for years after that, I had absolutely no interest in studying the Second International. Why should I? As I saw it, this was an outfit that had betrayed the working class, that supported the bourgeoisie in World War I, that was responsible for the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and that had committed untold other crimes. Why in the world would I want to take the time to go back and study the resolutions of its early years?

While that sentiment may be understandable, the conclusion is entirely unwarranted. For one thing, downplaying the legacy of the Second International’s Marxist period means cutting oneself off from an important part of the movement’s history, and the lessons to be learned from it. But there is another reason - perhaps more important. Ignoring the Second International’s legacy also means ceding that legacy to those who do not deserve it - to social democratic currents that openly abandoned Marxism long ago. But the best of this legacy legitimately belongs to us - to revolutionary socialists and communists.

The leftwing leaders who broke with the Second International after its betrayal of 1914, such as VI Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, were not sparing in invective to describe the stinking corpse that the Second International had become.

In making these political attacks, however, Lenin and Luxemburg never renounced the resolutions the Second International had adopted. Quite the contrary. During the years of World War I, for example, they constantly referred to the best of these resolutions - particularly those on militarism and war - to illustrate the extent to which the Second International majority’s leaders were violating these resolutions in practice. What Lenin and Luxemburg criticised, above all, was the Second International’s gap between word and deed. Its sheer hypocrisy.

There is another point that has to be considered when thinking about this question: the role of Frederick Engels, the co-creator of Marxism. If you read his correspondence - such as volume 48 of the Marx-Engels Collected works - you will see that Engels not only worked tirelessly to help found the Second International, but for the first six years of its existence he was probably its most important advisor, and gave general support to its decisions and resolutions. So any effort to belittle the Second International’s legacy - certainly in its early years - is by extension a criticism of Engels himself.

This is one of several reasons why I do not like an expression that you will sometimes come across: ‘Second International Marxism’. If such a Marxism existed, you would certainly have to call Engels a ‘Second International Marxist’. So the expression is problematic on that front and I simply do not think it is helpful: it confuses more than it clarifies.

But there is a more important problem with that term. It implies that we are dealing with a special, and inferior, version of Marxism; one that may be of interest to scholars or archivists, but which has little relevance to anyone else. However, as Ben Lewis correctly pointed out in his fine presentation on Kautsky given to this forum a few months ago,1 this was the Marxism that trained Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and virtually all the other leaders of the early communist movement.

What it was

The Second International was born in a struggle with a rival international workers’ congress held at the same time and in the same city - one organised by openly reformist forces (called ‘possibilists’, because their overriding goal was to achieve reforms they felt were possible under the capitalist system). Within a few months, however, the possibilist gathering was largely forgotten - relegated to a historical footnote - while the Marxist congress had a lasting impact and formed what became the Second International.

No formal name existed for the International in these years. The label ‘Second’ was given to the movement merely to distinguish it from the First International of Marx and Engels (whose formal name was the International Workingmen’s Association). Sometimes it was simply called the Socialist International.

What was its character? The new movement included in its ranks both political parties and trade unions, and was heterogeneous in character. The three largest contingents of the Second International were:

  1. Germany, with a mass Social Democratic Party and large trade unions that looked to that party;
  2. Britain, with a number of relatively apolitical trade unions and a wide assortment of small political organisations;
  3. 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; others were 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.

In the quarter-century of its existence before World War I, 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 popularise the movement’s stated 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 movement, affirming that:

the emancipation of labour and humanity cannot occur without the international action of the proletariat - organised in class-based parties - which seizes political power through the expropriation of the capitalist class and the social appropriation of the means of production.2

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 organised working class. It has been estimated that in the years before 1914 it counted 10-12 million members affiliated to its national sections, with over 50 million sympathisers and voters. Numerous socialist representatives and deputies sat in national parliaments, as well as regional and local legislative bodies.

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

But behind this real and potential power were significant weaknesses and contradictions. For one thing, the Second International was simply a federation of national parties and trade unions. True, it possessed moral authority and made decisions on broad policy and strategy, to be put into practice by its affiliates. So there was a positive side to this type of structure - particularly in the Second International’s early years, as the movement consolidated itself politically. In these years Engels himself opposed efforts to create a strong executive bureau, given the likelihood that such a body would fall under the domination of various reformist currents.

The lack of such a structure came to be a serious weakness over time. No mechanism existed for the 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 Grigory Zinoviev and other leaders 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 recognised, however, that these actions were generally organised 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 under the leadership of Marx and Engels.

Another weakness involved its geographic focus. Even though its reach extended to many countries, the Second International was still predominantly a European and North American movement. While congress resolutions gave support to anti-colonial struggles, most sections of the movement still had an under-appreciation 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.

Related to this, 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 point of friction and debate. An openly opportunist and reformist wing within its parties steadily grew.

Above all, the Second International was characterised by the gap between word and deed that I referred to earlier. This gap and the growing divergences within it grew into a chasm in 1914 with the onset of World War I. In clear violation of all its 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.

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 pretence of being a revolutionary movement. It consisted instead of open supporters of capitalist regimes and diehard opponents of the post-war revolutionary upsurge that developed in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Heated debates

I will turn now to a few of the issues and debates that these resolutions highlight. Such debates help show the significance of the Second International, and illustrate why its resolutions deserve study today.

In its first few years, the two most debated items were anarchism and the general strike.

Anarchism was a major current in the workers’ movement during the late 19th century - unlike today, where its appeal is primarily to a layer of youth. Marx and Engels devoted considerable attention to the debate with the anarchists in the First International - above all with their 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.

Relatively few anarchists participated as delegates in Second International congresses. But they constantly raised objections to political action, making their presence known through noisy disruptions of the proceedings. To prevent these 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. Similar resolutions were approved in 1893 and in 1896, at which time anarchists were definitively placed outside the International. The whole thing actually did not give rise to much controversy.

The question of the general strike, however, was more complex. This was a point of contention at numerous congresses. This issue was generally put forward by French delegates influenced by syndicalism - an ideology that saw unions as the essential instrument for revolutionary change. Many syndicalists viewed the general strike as the ultimate and sure-fire working class weapon - above all, to combat the threat of war. They elevated it almost to a religious level.

Their 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 to the general strike 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.

One way this question came up was around May Day.

The founding congress of the Second International in 1889 endorsed an initiative by the American Federation of Labor to set May 1 the following year as a day for demonstrations and strikes by working people around the world. From then on, May Day became an occasion 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 organisations in each country.

These two issues - anarchism and the general strike/May Day - were the most debated points of the early years of the Second International, at its first four congresses. During these years, the discussions were, as a whole, somewhat similar to those of the First International a few decades earlier. In 1900 the subjects of debate started to shift as the rise of imperialism altered the entire world political context. For this reason, the issues and debates at the congresses from 1904 on especially are closer to what we face today. I will mention a few of them.

One important issue of debate concerned political power - essentially the question of reform and revolution. This was a theme of many of the resolutions adopted at Second International congresses. Resolutions stressed that every 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.

This became a subject of debate specifically around the question of socialist participation in capitalist governments and relations with bourgeois parties. The background of this goes back to 1889, when French socialist Alexandre Millerand accepted a position as minister in the capitalist government of France. This move sparked a fierce controversy in the international working class movement, as socialists had always rejected accepting such posts. Following debates in 1900 and 1904, the Second International condemned all participation by socialists in capitalist governments - although, as Ben Lewis and I have discussed, it did not happen in a straight line, since Kautsky’s resolution of 1900 left the door open to opportunist interpretations. But at the 1904 congress Kautsky himself helped slam the door shut in an unambiguous resolution.

Alongside the condemnation of governmental participation, not giving support to bourgeois parties was seen by leftwing forces in the International as a principled question, in line with Kautsky’s assessment of “the bankruptcy of all capitalist parties”3 - something that young people could learn from today, certainly in the United States.

Related to the question of Millerandism was Eduard Bernstein’s attempt to revise Marxism by eliminating its revolutionary essence. Bernstein had been a follower and collaborator of Marx and Engels when they were alive. In the late 1890s, however, he became increasingly critical of Marxism’s political conclusions. His criticisms were codified in his 1899 book, Evolutionary socialism. In this work, Bernstein openly rejected the revolutionary aims of the socialist movement - the perspective he outlined came to be known as ‘revisionism’. Bernstein’s challenge found an echo in some sectors of the socialist movement, giving rise to sharp polemics and debates, as many prominent socialists forcefully rejected his conclusions and defended Marxism’s revolutionary foundations. The same resolution that rejected Millerand’s challenge also rejected Bernstein’s revisionism, and led to a reaffirmation of Marxism within the Second International.

Next, the question of war and militarism. There were resolutions on this subject at all Second International congresses. But, with the rise of imperialism around the turn of the century, the terms of the discussion changed.

The adopted position of the Second International was that workers needed to oppose all capitalist wars. Not an ounce of support should be extended to these ventures. 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, just as it remains the stance socialists and communists can look to now. The fight against militarism and war, together with the entire war machine, was seen as a key task - part of the overall working class struggle.

The 1907 congress of the Second International in particular adopted what still stands as the basic position of the Marxist movement in face of imperialist war. A resolution drafted by August Bebel presented some good general points, though in rather abstract terms. Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin did not think it went far enough. The two of them, together with Julius Martov, submitted a series of amendments to sharpen Bebel’s resolution: to spell out the need not just for the working class to oppose these wars formally, but to take concrete action against them; and to do so in such a way as to advance the perspective of proletarian revolution.

The Luxemburg-Lenin-Martov amendment was adopted, and the key parts of it were repeated word for word in the resolutions adopted by the congresses of 1910 and 1912, as well. That is why the Basel Manifesto of 1912 was such a powerful indictment of the betrayers of 1914, and was referred to repeatedly by both Lenin and Luxemburg.

Moving on, there were heated debates in the Second International over immigration at the 1904 and 1907 congresses, as some socialists accepted anti-immigrant arguments that ‘backward’, non-white workers could not be organised and took jobs away from native-born workers; as such, they endorsed the concept of restricting immigration. These openly 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 organised into the working class struggle. The 1907 congress rejected the racist, anti-immigrant position.

There were debates over colonialism. At the congresses of 1904 and 1907, the question of the new phenomenon of modern colonialism and imperialism was hotly contested. A significant minority at these congresses supported the perspective of supposed ‘socialist colonialism’ - criticising colonial abuses, but supporting the idea of colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’, and asserting that colonial rule and exploitation would, and should, still exist under socialism. The pro-colonialist position was ultimately rejected at the 1907 congress, but only by a surprisingly close vote.

There were debates over trade unions. At several congresses, there were differences over whether 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.

There were other important discussions and resolutions: labour legislation; public education; the death penalty; democratic rights; cooperatives; international solidarity, political asylum, and so on. Many of these will be of interest to socialists and communists today.

New publication

Now just a few words about the book I have edited, which will be published by Haymarket next spring. It is entitled Under the socialist banner: resolutions of the Second International, 1889-1912.

As I referred to earlier, putting this collection together was much more difficult than I originally anticipated. It required going through archival collections, old journals and newspapers, as well as the official congress proceedings in German and French.

French, German and English were the three official languages of the Second International. The big majority of its resolutions were thus prepared in all three languages. For my book the English-language versions that were prepared or published at the time were utilised, where possible. These versions were how the resolutions came to be known among socialists in the English-speaking world.

Most resolutions and motions, however, were drafted in either French or German, and some of the original English translations were not particularly readable or even accurate. All the resolutions were therefore edited against the French and German versions.

Sometimes even this wasn’t enough. One example that shows the challenges in putting this book together was the resolution adopted by the 1904 congress on anti-Semitic pogroms in tsarist Russia. This resolution was never published in English nor, as far as I can tell, in French or German either. The official congress proceedings refer to the passage of this resolution, but, unlike other resolutions, the text itself was not included. Nor is the text to be found in any of the Second International’s archives. In fact, the resolution appears to have been published only in Yiddish, by the Jewish Socialist Bund. So for this book the document had to be tracked down from the institution that houses the Bund archives in New York. It will thus appear in this book for the first time in English, translated from Yiddish.

One other aspect of the book that I think will be useful to readers is the appendix. It will include a number of unapproved resolutions that can help the reader see more clearly the counterposed positions featured in these debates.

Just a word on the nature of these resolutions. When you study those adopted by the Second International in their entirety, their uneven nature is observable. Some resolutions are sharp and clear; others are ambiguous, vague or even contradictory. A tendency existed toward adopting compromise resolutions, in which conflicting views were sometimes papered over. Some were drafted prior to congresses, were circulated broadly and received careful consideration. Others 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 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 relevant today.

Today’s relevance

I will end with what I consider to be valuable about this material today.

At the present time, new generations are entering into struggle throughout the world, as the recent upsurge around Black Lives Matter and police brutality demonstrates. By entering the struggle, these young people and others are giving themselves the opportunity to link up with the history and traditions of the revolutionary movement around the world.

In the United States, at least, this intensification of the struggle is combined with a growing interest in socialism. The recent tenfold growth of the Democratic Socialists of America is an indication of this. Many of these thousands of young people are revolutionary-minded, and are attracted to terms like ‘revolution’ and ‘class struggle’, and openly identify with Marx and Engels. Despite this sentiment, however, relatively few really know much about socialism’s history. Nor are most of them fully aware of the movement’s revolutionary thrust. For this reason, most get pulled into various reformist schemes.

Through studying the Second International during its Marxist period, however, it is possible to learn about the revolutionary nature of the socialist movement; to learn about its position on bourgeois parties and capitalist governments; to see clearly that only through the revolutionary transformation of society and its property relations will it be possible to eliminate the evils they see around them. So for young people like this, studying the resolutions of the Second international during this period can be a bridge, so to speak, to revolutionary Marxism. That is what I hope, in any case.

My aim in preparing a book of Second International resolutions is not to attempt to recreate the Second International, with all of its weaknesses and contradictions. I see the resolutions of the Second International of 1889 to 1912 not as a step backward, but, on the contrary, as a way forward, as a point of entry into the tradition of revolutionary Marxism: to enable new generations of radicalising young people to link up with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Zetkin and the early Communist International; to link up with the tradition of revolutionary action of the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and countless other struggles by the working class on the road to its emancipation.

  1. See ‘Dispelling the Kautsky myths’ Weekly Worker March 6.↩︎

  2. From the resolution on ‘International labour legislation’, based on drafts by August Bebel and Jules Guesde. By all indications this does not appear to have been published in English previously.↩︎

  3. marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1909/power/ch01.htm.↩︎