Second International

Born out of the regroupment of the various socialist parties as they re-emerged from the counter-revolutionary period that followed the Paris Commune. The Second International was formed essentially by marxist currents, and saw a bitter struggle in the years leading up to World War I between its internationalist left wing, and the opportunists. The victory of opportunism led to the Second International's definitive betrayal in 1914.

The world bourgeoisie against the October Revolution (part two): Social democracy and Stalinism forever in the bourgeois camp






Anti-Bolshevik propaganda poster 1919

In the first part of this article we highlighted the response of all the great imperialist powers to stem the revolutionary wave and prevent it from spreading in the major industrialised countries of Western Europe. In this article we look at the decisive contribution of social democracy to this reactionary project, and of Stalinism as one of the worst products of the isolation and defeat of the world revolution.

1914: How the 2nd International failed

Over and over, the 2nd International and its member parties had warned the workers of the coming war and threatened the ruling classes with their own overthrow should they dare launch Armageddon. And yet in August 1914, the International disintegrated, blown away like insubstantial dust, as one after the other its leaders and parliamentary deputies betrayed their most solemn promises, voted war credits and called the workers to the slaughter.

How could such a disaster happen?

1914: how German socialism came to betray the workers

In 1914, the German Social-Democratic Party was the most powerful party of the Second International. With more than one million members, it was the largest single political party in Europe and the largest party in any European parliament. Socialists throughout the world, faced with the threat of war in the last days before that fateful 4th August, waited for the SPD to live up to its solemn commitments made at the International's congresses at Stuttgart and Basel, and oppose the war. Yet on 4th August, the SPD parliamentary fraction voted for the Imperial government's war credits, and the way to war was open.

How the German Party degenerated in the years leading up to 1914 to the point where it betrayed its most fundamental principles, and the struggle of the left in the party against this degeneration, is the subject of the article that follows.

Friedrich Engels: A Great 'Builder of Socialism'

Born at Barmen in 1820, in what was then the Rhenish province of Prussia, Engels was an example of a militant devoted all his life to the struggle of the working class. He came from a family of industrialists, and could have lived in wealth and comfort without paying any attention to the political struggle. But like Marx, and many other young students revolted by the misery of the world in which they lived, while still young he acquired an exceptional political maturity, in contact with the workers' struggle in Britain, France, and then Germany. It was inevitable that the proletariat should attract a certain number of intellectual elements to its ranks, in this period when it was forming itself as a class, and developing its political struggle.

4 - The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism

In the first article in this series, published in International Review n118, we saw how the theory of decadence is at the very heart of historical materialism, of Marx and Engels’ analysis of the evolution of modes of production. Equally, we find the same notion at the centre of the programmatic texts of the organisations of the working class. Furthermore, not resting at merely adopting this foundation-stone of marxism, some of these organisations have developed the analysis and/or its political implications. It’s from this dual point of view that we aim here to briefly review the main political expressions of the workers’ movement. In this first part we will begin with the movement in the days of Marx, the Second International, the marxist lefts which came out of it, and the Communist International at the time it was formed. In the second part, which will appear in a future issue, we will examine more closely the analytical framework for the political positions developed by the Third International and then by the left fractions which emerged from it as it began to degenerate, and from which we draw our political and organisational origins.

The left fractions and the question of organisational discipline

In a previous article (InternationalReview n°108), we described the emergence of the leftfractions that fought the degeneration of the old workers'parties, in particular the German SPD that supported the wareffort of its national capital in 1914, and the Russian CP and theThird International as they were being transformed intoinstruments of the Russian state with the progressive defeat ofthe October Revolution. In this process, the task of the fractionswas to struggle to re-conquer the organisation for the fundamentalpositions of the proletarian programme, against their abandonmentby the opportunist right and the complete betrayal by theleadership controlling the majority of the organisation. Topreserve the organisation as an instrument of the class struggleand to save as many militants as possible, one of the leftfractions' main concerns was to remain in the party as long aspossible. However, the process of political degeneration wasinevitably accompanied by a profound modification in the partiesthemselves, and in the relationships between the militants and theorganisation as a whole. Inevitably, this situation posed for thefractions the problem of breaking party discipline in order tofulfil their task of preparing the new party of the proletariat.

1903-1904: the birth of Bolshevism, Lenin and Luxemburg

In the previous article in this series, we saw how the future Bolshevik, Trotsky, had failed to grasp the significance of the birth of Bolshevism, siding with the Mensheviks against Lenin. In this article, we look at how another great figure of the left wing of social democracy, Rosa Luxemburg – who in 1918 was to declare that “the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism” – also used her considerable polemical skills to support the Mensheviks against the so-called ‘ultra-centralism’ personified by Lenin.

1903-1904: Trotsky against Lenin

In 1904, the Russian empire was on the verge of revolution. The lumbering Czarist war machine was experiencing a humiliating defeat at the hands of a far more dynamic Japanese imperialism. The military debacle was fuelling the discontent of all strata of the population. In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, The Party and the Trade Unions, Rosa Luxemburg recounts how, already in the summer of 1903, at the very time that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was holding its s famous Second Congress, southern Russia had been shaken by “a colossal general strike”. The war brought a temporary halt in the class movement, and for a while the liberal bourgeoisie took centre stage with its “protest banquets” against the autocracy; but by the end of the 1904 the Caucasus was again aflame with massive workers’ strikes around the issue of unemployment. Russia was a tinder box, and the spark that set it aflame was soon to be lit: the Bloody Sunday massacre in January 1905, when workers humbly petitioning the Czar to alleviate their appalling conditions were slaughtered in their hundreds by the Little Father’s Cossacks.

1903-4: the birth of Bolshevism

One hundred years ago, in July/August 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held its Second Congress - not in Russia, since the scale of repression under the Czarist regime would have made this virtually impossible - but in Belgium and in Britain. Even then the need to shift the venue in the middle of the Congress was necessitated by the close surveillance of the "democratic" Belgian police. This congress has gone down in history as the one which saw the party split into its Bolshevik and Menshevik wings.

The Revolutionary Perspective Obscured by Parliamentary Illusions

At the end of the last article in this series, we looked at the principle danger posed to the social democratic parties operating at the zenith of capitalism’s historical development: the divorce between the fight for immediate reforms and the overall goal of communism. The growing success of these parties both in winning ever increasing numbers of workers to their cause, and in extracting concessions from the bourgeoisie through the parliamentary and trade union struggles, was accompanied, and indeed partly contributed to, the development of the ideologies of reformism...

1883-95: Social-Democracy Advances the Communist Cause

This series has now reached the period that followed the death of Karl Marx in 1883; coincidentally, the bulk of the material that will be examined in the following two articles is located in the years between Marx’s death and the passing of Engels, which took place 100 years ago this year. The immensity of Marx’s contribution to the scientific understanding of communism has meant that a considerable part of this series has been devoted to the work of this one great figure in the workers’ movement...

Part 3: The class nature of the social democracy

Understanding the decadence of capitalism also means understanding the specific forms of proletarian struggle in our own epoch, and how they differ from those of other historical periods. The continuity that ties together the proletariat’s political organisations emerges from the comprehension of these differences.

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