Second International: Imagination, inspiration and betrayal

Ben Lewis reviews: Kevin Callahan, 'Demonstration culture: European socialism and the Second International, 1889-1914' Troubador Publishing, 2010, pp324, £24.95

At the end of the 19th century, the movement we now know as the Second International was starting to set the pace of European and indeed global politics, completely transforming the way that democracy, citizenship and activism were understood.

Against the then rife ideas of nationalism, imperialism and chauvinism, it was able to rally its “greatest asset”, its huge supporter base, around an image of “humanity, international fraternity and universal peace” in a way that was simply incomparable with anything that bourgeois politics has ever been able to offer (p292). Crucially, it was in a position to do so through what the historian, Lars T Lih, has described as socialist “campaignism”, providing the working class with a world outlook that transcended the workplace and sought to politicise all aspects of its life. The aim was to imbue the masses with an understanding of their “world-historic mission” - overthrowing the capitalist order and ushering in a genuinely human society.

What is remarkable about this book is its detailed description of the vast array of means and methods that were deployed in order to get this message across: the spectacle of international socialist congresses, (“parliaments of humanity”), mass demonstrations, rich political symbolism, metaphor and iconography; songs, banners and slogans, speaking tours, rituals of reception to welcome delegates to socialist congresses, the issuing of manifestoes and statements against injustice, the avidly read socialist press, workers’ sport, theatre, dance and much more. International congresses embodied far more than mere meetings of international socialist leaders: they were the “highest form of demonstration”, a “model and vision of the socialist future, wherein nationalities coexist in a peaceful international framework”. This was exemplified by the Japanese socialist, Sen Katayama, shaking hands with the father of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, at the opening of the 1904 Amsterdam congress, during the Russo-Japanese war.

Callahan’s argument is that the newly formed parties of the International “created a mass-based political culture of demonstration that effectively displayed a united image of socialist solidarity in the public sphere, while promoting a sense of common purpose and fraternity amid great ideological, national and cultural diversity within its sections. As such, international socialism in the time of the Second International may best be defined as an inter-national performative movement of symbolic demonstration” (pxii).

For Callahan, this demonstration culture created a socialist “common language” (p294) that reconciled the goal of having a real impact in the public sphere with uniting the movement in the face of differing strategies and approaches. As such, “demonstration culture thus became itself a type of symbolic language, through which socialists communicated amongst themselves, with their followers and to external audiences” (p294).


Instead of looking at the problems and shortcomings that brought about this movement’s capitulation before the challenge of World War I, Callahan actually turns the question around: how did the International become the biggest political movement in the world and one of the most important of recent world history? What held it together for so long in the face of the various differences it contained?

Callahan’s approach dovetails with that of the French socialist, Jean Longuet, whose semi-official history of the International divided it into two distinct periods: 1889-1900 and 1900-13. The former, Longuet stressed, was characterised by discord, controversy and disorder, with congress business “absorbed by the purely negative need of the delimitation of the boundaries of socialism” (p1). The latter period moved beyond this, and was characterised by a growing sense of unity, common purpose and progress.

This should serve as a reminder to those in our movement today who cling to the idea that the Second International represented an approach that failed to distinguish between “party and class”, that it was open to more or less all shades of opinion in the class itself and that it therefore had nothing whatsoever in common with Lenin’s Bolsheviks of 1917.1 “Delimitation” was dominant - at least in the early years.

After all, there were actually two separate founding congresses in 1889 - a “possiblist” one and a “Marxist” one. In the 1890s there were constant fights with, and attempts to exclude, the anarchists, as well as (occasionally farcical) public fallouts over congress credentials, to which a young Rosa Luxemburg also fell victim! As Longuet puts it, the anarchists “sought to slide into the movement by denying the fundamental methods”, a struggle that, in many ways, was a “prolongation of the old struggle between Marxists and Bakuninists in the old international” (p1).

These issues were doubtless compounded by the chaos involved with language and translation. Yet they did reflect real problems: what was to be the political basis of the International and what was to be the relationship between the International and its sections? These difficulties refused to go away. Callahan notes some of the suggestions put forward in the early days: the Independent Labour Party’s Keir Hardie, for example, sought a typically bureaucratic solution of separate congresses or caucuses for the trade unions, the social democrats, the free communists and the anarchists respectively, each of which would then report back to the whole congress so that “friction could be avoided” and the International could “present a solid front to the enemy” (p8). The arch-revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, argued that the International should avoid theoretical issues, focus on practical politics and allow for a wide-ranging freedom of manoeuvre for individual sections in their application of the International’s politics. Quelle surprise! (p10).

Callahan argues that the International’s ability to more effectively deal with internal tensions from around 1900 onwards was attained through the “reform of congress procedures (the use of commissions whose debates were held in private and the formation of the International Socialist Bureau to assist in convening congresses) the art of forging congress resolutions and the creation of a vigorous congress demonstration culture”, all of which helped to contain dissent “for the sake of projecting an image of socialist unity” (p3).

Rubber resolutions

In the pursuit of such socialist unity, or at least the outward appearance of it, discussing and agreeing International congress resolutions became a type of intricate art form, in which key differences were diplomatically downplayed in the name of achieving unity and satisfying the prerogatives of the different national sections and political outlooks.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of Kautsky’s famous 1900 “rubber resolution”, which was supposed to address the question of ‘Millerandism’ - ie, whether socialists should join capitalist governments - but was so vague that the editorial board of Iskra called it the “caoutchouc [rubber] resolution”, not the “Kautsky resolution”. In summing up the discussion on such an issue of cardinal importance, the Belgian leader, Emil Vandervelde, was clear: the Kautsky resolution “should neither be envisioned as a condemnation of nor a tacit approbation of the conduct of the French socialists”. After all, the International was “not, moreover, a court of justice destined to condemn or to pronounce decrees of excommunication” (p9).

This was not the last “rubbery resolution” passed by the International either. Callahan notes that, while constantly achieving such “paper demonstration” unity can be seen as “significant feat” in and of itself, such an approach led to resolutions (and therefore politics) that were “vague and imprecise, often representing the lowest common denominator of all vested parties” (p293).

Yet for Callahan such ‘unity’ was a key aspect of demonstration culture in two respects: firstly in presenting the movement as a strong, united counter-order to the capitalist world (especially before the hordes of the world’s press and government spies who packed the congresses) and secondly because it instilled the movement’s supporters with a sense of cohesion and strength. Yet this obviously had deleterious implications for the International’s clarity and sense of purpose, with Callahan pointing out how potential divisions and discord could be submerged in the “seemingly ineluctable progress” (p140) represented by the International movement and the (ever more impressive) ritualised displays of its organisational muscle.


This cannot have been helped by the fact that in many ways the International essentially remained a “loose association of autonomous working class parties” (pxviii), in which the relationship between its various bodies was never really formalised. It could be argued that, as the International grew, so did the disparity between the rhetoric of the socialist future and the possibility of actually bringing into being through a common international strategy.

In order to theorise the problems associated with formulating a strategy across the different national sections, Callahan introduces the concept of “inter-nationality”, which he describes as “most accurately” capturing the “socialist self-identity” of the International, with the nation forming the “rudimentary basis” of the identity of most socialists at this time.

He details this by analysing the relationship between the French and German parties, both of which reckoned themselves to be key sections of the International. He details the rather defensive response of French socialists to the attack on German SPD members by nationalists at a joint congress in Lille and also provides an interesting table of French and German stereotypes/countertypes that occasionally surface in the heat of polemic (the Germans would see themselves as strong and organised, whereas the French were badly organised - in turn the French would counter that the German party was ineffectual and dogmatic, etc). Callahan then provides an interesting examination of the famous clash between the French leader, Jean Jaurès, and the German, August Bebel, at the 1904 Amsterdam congress, where a passionate exchange on the question of the republic2 occasionally took the form of Jaurès and Bebel arguing over which form of government was worse: ‘our’ French Third Republic or ‘your’ kaiser empire.

Shedding light on some of these tensions with the concept of ‘inter-nationality’ is a useful exercise that helps us to understand the limits of the movement’s internationalism and how this was manifested in its “demonstration culture”. Although the former concept has obvious limitations (the different stereotypes of the parties described above were held on both sides of the border, after all), it highlights the relationship between the International’s various sections and how the International often went out of its way to avoid challenging the particular perspectives of its national sections when formulating policy.

That said, I disagree profoundly with the author’s conclusion that “Voting for war credits was not forfeiting the conviction of internationalism and certainly cannot be construed as a failure”. “Both assertions,” he continues, “rest on false premises”: “The latter defines internationalism narrowly to mean that one is obligated to meet war with revolutionary agitation, a definition that the vast majority of socialists never espoused.” Further, “both assertions strongly imply that the International actually had the ability to prevent war” - “Leaders of the International were for the most part not naive about the amount of power their affiliated parties and trade unions held” (p300).

These statements are worth unpicking. Callahan is probably right to argue that the International allowed for its sections to define their own policies in a relatively autonomous fashion, but I do not think it is then possible to argue that voting for war credits can be in any way consistent with its “main preoccupation” (pxviii) from the outset: seeking to oppose, or prevent, a global conflict, however successful or unsuccessful this may have been. Moreover, this conclusion seems to be part and parcel of Callahan’s understanding of the International as a “possible forerunner to the United Nations” (!) (pxiv), which I think reveals a right reformist mindset.

Indeed, while it is true that the European movement was not in a position to stop the war in 1914, it could have been in such a position by 1916-18. Callahan’s narrative also overlooks another key issue here: namely that the turn to war by the ruling class should in no small part be seen as a response to the challenge represented by the European workers’ movement.

Even on its own terms, the August 4 war-credits vote in Germany, and the Burgfrieden (civil peace) policies of the unions agreed the day before, was a break with the International’s “inter-nationalism”: instead of pursuing an undeviating opposition to capitalism, the workers’ movement effectively played its part in helping the war aims of the state. 



1. Most recently by Alex Callinicos - see B Lewis, ‘Haunted by the real Lenin’ Weekly Worker March 7.

2. I also would humbly suggest that the author has not quite got to grips with the actual strategic issue at hand (he calls it a “tactical” dispute) in the confrontation between Bebel and Jaurès: namely the significance of Marxist republicanism and the form that classical Marxism has generally envisaged for working class rule.