WWI and the Second International: It failed the test but it did not live in vain

Written by Alicia Sagra
Saturday, 16 August 2014 19:20

The 1871 Franco-Prussian War was the midwife for the first proletarian revolution.

The Paris Commune and its defeat sparked off the decadence of the First International, which was later on, in 1872, was dissolved due to the unfair intrigues spread by Bakunin, father of anarchism. This was the end of the first great organizational experience of the international working class.

But at the same time, the victory of Germany in that very same Franco-Prussian War began creating the conditions that almost 20 years later would produce the second great experience: The Socialist International, the II International.

After their victory in the 1871 Franco-Prussian war, Germany initiated a great industrial expansion; similar to the one England had lived through 20 years before. This gave vigour to the industrial workers’ movement. In his letter to Bebel, a social-democratic leader, Entels wrote:

“Our great advantage is that with us the industrial revolution is only just in full swing, while in France and England, so far as the main point is concerned, it is closed. (…) With us, on the other hand, everything is in full flow. (…) So we achieved an industrial revolution which is more deep and thorough and spatially more extended and comprehensive than that of the other countries, and this with a perfectly fresh and intact proletariat, undemoralised by defeats and finally–thanks to Marx–with an insight into the causes of economic and political development and into the conditions of the impending revolution such as none of our predecessors possessed.”

The advantage Engels was speaking about was expressed not only in the great development and strengthening of trade unions but also in the same process of the socialdemocratic party, that defended the theses of Marxism. In elections for the House of Representatives, the socialdemocratic party shifted from 120,000 votes in 1871 to 493 000 in 1977 to 550 000 in 1890 and over a million votes in 1890-

In the late 1780, the situation begins to match that of the rest of Europe. In France, Jules Guesde, who had been granted amnesty for his participation in the Paris Commune, recruited politically important sectors of young people from the trade union movement and, in 1879, together with Paul Lagargue, founded the French Workers’ Party, the programme of which was edited with the help of Marx. In the eighties, the foundations were laid and socialist and labour parties were organized in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. The first Marxist groups began to work in Finland and Russia. In 1877, Socialist Labour Party was organised in the USA. In England, the loss of industrial monopoly caused unemployment and poverty. The outcome was a great process of mobilisation and the emergence of a new type of trade unionism of unskilled workers and a series of organisation were founded in order to spread socialist and Marxist ideas. According to Engels, “the new trade unions were founded at a time when the confidence in the eternity of the salaried system was seriously deteriorated; their founders and promoters are socialist, either due to their awareness or to their feelings; the masses, the adherence which made them stronger, are crude and despised by the labour aristocracy; but have an immense advantage of having brain that are virgin, completely free from the heritage of the “respectable” bourgeois prejudices that fill the brains of the “old”, better off trade unionists.”

The foundation of the Second International

In 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution was commemorated. Sixty-nine international congresses we held simultaneously to the World Exhibition organized in Paris by the French government. One of them was summoned by German socialists and organised by the Guedists of France. This was the first Congress of the Second International.

Reflecting the situation of the working class that spawned it, this foundational Congress produced a summons to the workers to support a programme for an international legislation of labour. This resolution was controversial for those who upheld that, “labour legislation was incompatible with socialist principles” and decision was passed to support the struggle for an eight-hour labour day that was being carried out by the American Federation of Labour (AFL). AFL had sent in greetings and requested support for the campaign to be launched on the First of May 1890. The Congress resolved to hold an international demonstration for the eight-hour working day.

The Second International: a great leap forward in the organisation of the international working class

Unlike the First International, the Second International was not a United Front between labour organizations but a Federation of Socialdemocratic Parties that claimed to be Marxists and some of which had mass eight. Engels played an important role in its formation.

In the ten years that followed, the influence and prestige of the Second International accrued. It was performing an important role in Marxist education of the labour movement and important resolutions on the main problems that were posed to the workers’ movement were discussed and voted during its congresses. Before and after each congress these issues were discussed and voted in national parties. The international character of thee discussions was great headway for European working class and its political and theoretic level grew.

The battle against opportunism and sectarianism

As capitalism evolved deeper into its imperialist phase, important debates were held and different wings started shaping in the German Social Democratic Party, the most important one in the Second International hinging round the relation between “reform/revolution”. This is the way Rosa Luxemburg, in her 1889 pamphlet, explained the Marxist position on this point:

“The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”[1]

But within the Second International and in relation to this issue, Marxists had to confront two equally harmful deviations: the opportunistic and sectarian one. The sectarians, who on principle denied the struggle for reforms were a mistaken response to opportunism that had increasing material bases for their development stemming out of the development and strengthening of imperialism.

Imperialism, as Lenin asserted, divided the world into a group of privileged, exploiting and militarised oppressing powers (England, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and USA) and the most mankind who supported their colonial yoke. The great profit extracted from the exploitation of colonial and semi-colonial countries allowed the great powers to grant some crumbs to their own workers. These privileged workers constituted the workers’ aristocracy that was the social base for strong political and union bureaucracies. This came together with the great growth of the parties expressed in the achievement of a great many members of parliament. This happened in different European parties, but noticeably in the German party.

Leaders of parliamentary labour parties, together with trade union leaders began to lead increasingly affluent lives. As their welfare accrued, they became increasingly isolated from the suffering, the poverty and aspiration of the broke and impoverished masses in the colonial countries and their willingness to fight dwindled.

In the heat of these theoretic and political debates, three wings were formed inside the German party. The right wing, headed by Berstein and Vollmar; the left wing with Rose Luxemburg, Karl Liebkenecht, Clara Zetkin, Leo Jogiches, Ernst Meyer, Hugo Eberlein, Frantz Mehring and the centre in the leadership of the party represented by Kautsky and Bebel.

Opportunists defeated at the congresses; the highlight of the II International

Opportunist positions kept on developing in the International and there was not a sole theoretic component there for it was all expressed in concrete policies. In France, the struggle reached its pinnacle in 1889, when Alexander Millerand, member of the Independent Socialist party accepted the position of minister of industry in the bourgeois government. That was the first time that a socialist leader joined a bourgeois government. Millerand offered the alibi for his action that it was necessary to defend democracy in the face of the jeopardy coming from the monarchists and Buonapartists. The struggle against the Milerand’s betrayal led to a split between the right wing and the left wing of the French Socialist Party.

At the congress of German socialdemocracy held at Dresden in 1903, a resolution was passed saying “this Congress strongly condemns the efforts of the revisionists to change the tactical guideline that has been successfully put to test in the past and that originates in the idea of class struggle, substituting the policy of conquering power by defeating our enemies for a policy of concessions to the established order (…) These revisionist tactics would unavoidably change the character of the party (…) from a party struggling to replace the current bourgeois society by a socialist society and to become a group satisfied with reforming the bourgeois society.”

“The congress declares, (…) that the Socialdemocratic Party cannot struggle for a quota of power within the government of bourgeois society.

Furthermore, the congress condemns all the efforts tending to conciliate the current and increasing antagonisms between classes so as to facilitate the cooperation with bourgeois parties.”

This resolution was passed with the votes of the left and centre wings against the wing headed by Berstein.

In 1904, at the Amsterdam Congress of the Second International, the Dresden resolution was adopted. This Congress, with 444 delegates present, showed that the II International had turned into a great world movement.

The weight of the Second International increased when the Russian Revolution took place and the young working class under the leadership essentially of social democracy showed the world its revolutionary potential. This was the climax of the Second inter national. Its decadence was to begin soon after that.

The decadence of the Second International

The powerful 1905 movement in Russia moved revolutionary trend all over Europe. Trotsky said:

“The Russian Revolution was the first great event to bring a fresh whiff into the stale atmosphere of Europe in the thirty five years since the Paris Commune. The rapid development of the Russian working class and the unexpected strength of their concentrated revolutionary activity made a great impression on the entire civilized world and gave an impetus everywhere to the sharpening of political differences. In England the Russian Revolution hastened the formation of an independent labour party. (…) And in Germany the influence of the Russian Revolution showed itself in the strengthening of the young Left wing of the party, in the rapprochement of the leading Centre to it, and in the isolation of Revisionism. The question of the Prussian franchise, this key to the political position of Junkerdom, took on a keener edge. And the party adopted in principle the revolutionary method of the general strike.”[2]

But this great revolution was defeated and as from then a reactionary period began in the entire Europe and had consequences that Trotsky described as follows:

“In Russia the counter-revolution triumphed and began a period of decay for the Russian proletariat both in politics and in the strength of their organizations. In Austria the thread of achievements started by the working class broke off, social insurance legislation rotted in the government offices, nationalist conflicts began again with renewed vigour in the arena of universal manhood suffrage, weakening and dividing the Social Democracy. In England, the Labour Party, after separating from the Liberal Party, entered into the closest association with it again. In France the Syndicalists passed over to reformist positions.(…).And in the German Social Democracy the Revisionists lifted their heads, encouraged by history’s having given them such a revenge.(…) The Marxists were compelled to change from offensive to defensive tactics. The efforts of the Left Wing to draw the party into a more active policy were unsuccessful. The dominating Centre swung more and more towards the Right, isolating the Radicals. Conservatism, recovering from the blows it received in 1905, triumphed all along the line.”[3]

Between 1906 and 1914, even if this was not clearly formulated, the Second International began to act from a different point of view. They began by saying that since in the latest hundred years the capitalists kept on expanding and developing productive forces, this made it possible for them to raise the standard of workers’ livelihood and achieve greater political liberties. This point of view justified what became known as the minimum programme. This minimum programme turned gradually into the real programme of the party and the maximum programme, based on revolutionary struggle was only used for speeches of the First of May.

At the same time, the justifications were posed for the existence of imperialism. At the Stuttgart congress (1907), opportunists headed by German unionists resisted any kind of struggle against imperialist policies. Bernstein, the maximum expression of the opportunist right, argued that necessarily two classes of peoples existed: the dominated and the dominant. Some people, he said, were children unable to develop. Consequently, the colonial poly was unavoidable even under socialism.

These positions were defeated, but only by 127 votes against 108. This congress already preannounced what was to become the great betrayal of the Second International: their position in the face of the First World War.

First World War; the great betrayal and death of the Second International 

In October 1912, Montenegro declared war on Turkey. The bureau of the Second International organised meetings against the world war that was looming on the horizon and summoned for an extraordinary congress in Basle for November 24 and 25 1912. Delegates unanimously passed a manifesto, known as the Manifesto of Basle that asserted that the forthcoming war could only have an interimperialist character. The principled postion passed at previous congresses of workers’ struggle against the war. Bearing in mind the examples of the Paris Commune after the Franco-Prussian war and of the Russian revolution 1905 during the Russian-Japanese war the manifesto posed that in case the war was declared workers were to “use forcefully the economic crisis caused by the war in order to arouse the masses and thus precipitate the downfall of capitalist class rule.”

In July 1914 the Austro-Hungarian empire posed an ultimatum to Serbia. The parties of the Second International put into practice the first term of the Basle Manifesto: in case of danger of war breaking out (…) “make your best to prevent it from happening and use all means that may be effective”. On 29th of July, when Austrian troops were entering Belgrade, immense demonstrations occurred in Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Belgium. The German party issued a manifesto demanding their government to abstain from entering the war.

On August 1st, when Germany declared war against Russia, the German leader Herman Müller asserted that his party would not vote for any war credits.

Social democratic leaders believed that all these actions would force their governments to recoil. This, however, never happened. Interimperialist war could not be avoided. In this case, the Second International and its parties had to put the second mandate of the Basle Manifesto. You had to confront your own imperialism, practicing revolutionary defeatism, transforming the imperialist war into a revolutionary war. The war was the watershed between the real revolutionaries and the capitulators.

Wars and revolutions are always great tests. The Second International failed this test. The immense majority of the leaders of all the parties finally voted for the war credits of their countries and revolutionaries were reduced to an absolute minimum. As far as the parties were concerned, there were only two honourable exceptions who did not vote for their own governments: the Russians and the Serbs (even if the latter supported the pressure of the invasion of the Austrian troops).

In Germany, the only socialdemocratic representative who voted against the war credits and what is more, called on the workers and soldiers to turn their weapons against their own government was Karl Liebknecht. All the remaining socialdemocrat were, according to Rosa Luxemburg, “a stinking corpse.”

In January 1915, the leadership of the German party, in agreement with the military command of the bourgeoisie, agrees to have Liebknecht finally silenced by recruiting him into the army. In this way he is barred from taking the floor or attending assemblies of militants. On February 18th 1915, Rosa Luxemburg was convicted to jail until 1916 and, except for just a few months between February and July 1916, she was to remain in jail till October 1918. In September 1915, Ernst Meyer, Hugo Eberlein and later on the 70-year-old Franz Mehring together with many others were jailed.

In spite of being a minority, the right managed to impose their policy. The centre represented by Kautsky, who in previous congresses had asserted the revolutionary position on the issue of the war, capitulated totally to socialpatriotism.

In April 1917, Lenin defined the role o centrism as follows:

“The crux of the matter is that the “Centre” is not convinced of the necessity for a revolution against one’s own government; it does not preach revolution; it does not carry on a whole-hearted revolutionary struggle; and in order to evade such a struggle it resorts to the tritest ultra-“Marxist”-sounding excuses.

“The “Centre” consists of routine-worshippers, eroded by the canker of legality, corrupted by the parliamentary atmosphere, etc., bureaucrats accustomed to snug positions and soft jobs. Historically and economically speaking, they are not a separate stratum but represent only a transition from a past phase of the working-class movement—the phase   between 1871 and 1914, which gave much that is valuable to the proletariat, particularly in the indispensable art of slow, sustained and systematic organisational work on a large and very large scale—to a newphase that became objectively essential with the outbreak of the first imperialist world war, which inaugurated the era of social revolution.” (The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution, Collected Works, Vol XXIV)

And Trotsky wrote the brilliant epitaph for this great and frustrated project of proletarian international organisation, “The Second International has not lived in vain. It has produced a gigantic piece of educational work. Nothing like this has ever existed in previous history. It has educated and united around itself the oppressed classes. Now the proletariat does not need to start again from the very beginning. It does not enter the new path empty handed.”


Responding the arguments of the betrayal


Rosa Luxemburg, “the argument of the house on fire”

The leaders of the Second International intend to justify the betrayal with the argument that once war could not be prevented, the central issue was to impede the invasion of the different countries by foreign powers. In 1916, Rosa Luxemburg responds brilliantly with a brochure showing that this posture is a revision of Marxists principles.

“But since we have been unable to prevent the war, since it has come in spite of us, and our country is facing invasion, shall we leave our country defenceless! Shall we deliver it into the hands of the enemy? Does not socialism demand the right of nations to determine their own destinies? Does it not mean that every people is justified, nay more, is in duty bound, to protect its liberties, its independence? ‘When the house is on fire, shall we not first try to put out the blaze before stopping to ascertain the incendiary?’”

“These arguments have been repeated, again and again in defence of the attitude of the social democracy in Germany and in France.

“Even in the neutral countries this argument has been used. Translated into Dutch we read for instance:

“‘When the ship leaks must we not seek, first of all, to stop the hole?’

“To be sure. Fie upon a people that capitulates before invasion and fie upon a party that capitulates before the enemy within.

“But there is one thing that the firemen in the burning house have forgotten: that in the mouth of a socialist, the phrase “defending one’s fatherland” cannot mean playing the role of cannon fodder under the command of an imperialistic bourgeoisie.

“Is an invasion really the horror of all horrors, before which all class conflict within the country must subside as though spellbound by some supernatural witchcraft? According to the police theory of bourgeois patriotism and military rule, every evidence of the class struggle is a crime against the interests of the country because they maintain that it constitutes a weakening of the stamina of the nation. The social democracy has allowed itself to be perverted into this same distorted point of view. Has not the history of modern capitalist society shown that in the eyes of capitalist society, foreign invasion is by no means the unmitigated terror as it is generally painted; that on the contrary, it is a measure to which the bourgeoisie has frequently and gladly resorted as an effective weapon against the enemy within?

“Did not the Bourbons and the aristocrats of France invite foreign invasion against the Jacobins? Did not the Austrian counter-revolution in 1849 call out the French invaders against Rome, the Russian against Budapest? Did not the “Party of Law and Order” in France in 1850 openly threaten an invasion of the Cossacks in order to bring the National Assembly to terms? And was not the Bonaparte army released, and the support of the Prussian army against the Paris Commune assured, by the famous contract between Jules Favre, Thiers and Co., and Bismarck?

“This historical evidence led Karl Marx, forty-five years ago, to expose the “national wars” of modern capitalist society as miserable frauds. In his famous address to the General Council of the International on the downfall of the Paris Commune, he said:

“That, after the greatest war of modern times the belligerent armies, the victor and the vanquished, should unite for the mutual butchery of the proletariat – this incredible event proves, not as Bismarck would have us believe, the final overthrow of the new social power, but the complete disintegration of the old bourgeois society. The highest heroic accomplishment of which the old order is capable is the national war. And this has now proved to be a fraud perpetrated by government for no other purpose than to put off the class struggle, a fraud that is bared as soon as the class struggle flares up in a civil war. Class rule can no longer hide behind a national uniform. The national governments are united against the proletariat.

“In capitalist history, invasion and class struggle are not opposites, as the official legend would have us believe, but one is the means and the expression of the other. Just as invasion is the true and tried weapon in the hands of capital against the class struggle, so on the other hand the fearless pursuit of the class struggle has always proven the most effective preventive of foreign invasions.”[4]

Lenin: “the ‘honest’ opportunists are the most dangerous ones”

Another piece of Lenin’s works in which he exposes the traitors of the Second International also comes from 1916. It explains the class background of opportunism and reasserts that the war opens the conditions for the triumph of the proletarian revolution.

“What is the economic substance of defencism in the war of 1914-15? The bourgeoisie of all the big powers are waging the war to divide and exploit the world, and oppress other nations. A few crumbs of the bourgeoisie’s huge profits may come the way of the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats, and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. Social-chauvinism and opportunism have the same class basis, namely, the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with “their” national bourgeoisie against the working-class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting.

“Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of British liberal-labour politics, of Millerandism and Bernsteinism.


“This is very well understood by the shrewd representatives of the bourgeoisie. That is why they are so lavish in their praise of the present socialist parties, headed by the “defenders of the fatherland”, i.e., the defenders of imperialist plunder. That is why the social-chauvinist leaders are rewarded by their governments either with ministerial posts (in France and Britain), or with a monopoly of unhindered legal existence (in Germany and Russia). That is why in Germany, where the Social-Democratic Party was strongest and where its transformation into a national-liberal counter-revolutionary labour party has been most obvious, things have got to the stage where the public prosecutor qualifies the struggle between the “minority” and the “majority” as “incitement to class hatred”! That is why the greatest concern of the clever opportunists is to retain the former “unity” of the old parties, which did the bourgeoisie so many good turns in 1914 and 1915.

“The views held by these opportunists in all countries of the world were expounded with commendable frankness by a German Social-Democrat in an article signed “Monitor” which appeared in April 1915, in the reactionary magazine Preussische = Jahrbücher.[18] Monitor thinks that it would be very dangerous for the bourgeoisie if the Social-Democrats were to move still further to the right. “It must preserve its character as a labour party with socialist ideals; for the day it gives this up a new party will arise and adopt the programme the old party had disavowed, giving it a still more radical formulation” (Preussische Jahrbücher, 1915, No.4, pp.50-51).


“But Monitor represents only one variety of opportunism, the frank, crude, cynical variety. Others act with stealth, subtlety, and “honesty”. Engels once said that for the working class “honest” opportunists were the greatest danger. Here is one example.

“Kautsky wrote in Die Neue Zeit (November 26, 1915) as follows: “The opposition against the majority is growing; the masses are in an opposition mood…. After the war (only after the war?—N. L.) class antagonisms will become so sharp that radicalism will gain the upper hand among the masses… . After the war (only after the war?—N. L.) we shall be menaced with the desertion of the radical elements from the Party and their influx into the party of anti-parliamentary (??, meaning extra-parliamentary) mass action… Thus, our Party is splitting up into two extreme camps which have nothing in common.” To preserve unity, Kautsky tries to persuade the majority in the Reichstag to allow the minority to make a few radical parliamentary speeches. That means Kautsky wants to use a few radical parliamentary speeches to reconcile the revolutionary masses with the opportunists, who have “nothing in common” with revolution, who have long had the leadership of the trade unions, and now, relying on their close alliance with the bourgeoisie and the government, have also captured the leadership of the Party. What essential difference is there between this and Monitor’s “programme”? There is none, save for the sugary phrases which prostitute Marxism.

“We’ve had enough of empty talk, and of prostituted “Marxism” à la Kautsky! After twenty-five years of the Second International, after the Basle Manifesto, the workers will no longer believe fine words. Opportunism is rotten-ripe; it has been transformed into social-chauvinism and has definitely deserted to the bourgeois camp. It has severed its spiritual and political ties with Social-Democracy. It will also break off its organisational ties. The workers are already demanding “illegal” pamphlets and “banned” meetings, i.e., underground organisations to support the revolutionary mass movement. Only when “war against war” is conducted on these lines does it cease to be empty talk and becomes Social-Democratic work. In spite of all difficulties, setbacks, mistakes, delusions and interruptions, this work will lead humanity to the victorious proletarian revolution.”[5]

[1]Rosa Luxemburg , “Reform or revolution”

[2]Leon Trotsky, “The War and the International”


[4]Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet (The crisis of socialdemocracy), 1915.

[5]Lenin, “Opportunism and the collapse of the Second International

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