National Sections of the L5I:

The Second International

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The Second International was founded in Paris in 1889 and it ended the national isolation of socialist organisations after the collapse of the First International. By this time, powerful socialist parties had been created in many European countries, often on the basis of the programmatic documents of the IWMA.

The struggle against anarchism waged in the First International was to continue in the first four congresses of the Second. The struggle centred around the question of “political action” – should socialists stand for parliament and, once elected there, should they propose measures achievable under capitalism, i.e. reforms? The anarchists argued that should they limit themselves to “direct action”, by which some meant strikes and insurrectionary outbursts while others also included terrorist attacks on ruling class individuals – called by Kropotkin the “propaganda of the deed”.

This time, though, the Marxists in the Second International could point to the fact that by taking up and fighting for the immediate political and economic needs of the working class, by organising and building trade unions, fighting for universal suffrage for both men and women, hundreds of thousands of working class militants had been won to the International and the programme of Marxism.

The Second International developed the tactic of the general strike, which came out of the struggle for universal suffrage in Belgium in 1896 and 1902 and was later used to achieve revolutionary aims in the Russian Revolution of 1905. It supported the right of self-determination for oppressed nations; it said its organisations should provide “neither a penny nor a man” for the capitalist war machine. It took up the idea of a common day of global workers’ action – May Day – for the eight hour day and democratic freedoms.

It upheld the principle of the independence of the working class from other classes – including the independence of the workers’ party. Therefore it insisted that the parties of the International should not participate in capitalist governments and should use their position in parliament to fight for social and democratic rights and to argue for socialism.

It denounced colonialism and imperialism and predicted that a war in Europe between the powers would be an imperialist war, in which socialists should not defend their own fatherlands but use the war crisis to hasten the social revolution.

However, for all its correct and progressive positions, the programme of the International was divided into a maximum programme (socialism) and a minimum (immediate reforms). This divide proved to be a cover for reformism in the Second International since it allowed the minimum programme to become only a matter of accumulating votes and waiting for a parliamentary majority to give them power. Likewise, it allowed trade unionism to be focused solely on economic questions.

Around the specialised routines of parliamentarism and trade unionism, and because these parties mainly organised the better paid skilled workers, the “aristocracy of labour”, a powerful labour bureaucracy emerged and took over even the most apparently Marxist of parties, the German Social Democracy.

The later history of the International saw a struggle between a growing reformist tendency, based on the trade union bureaucracy and the majority of parliamentarians, and, in a number of countries, a small revolutionary wing.

In the end, it was the dominance of these reformist forces that meant the International collapsed as each of its sections, starting with the German SPD, broke the pledges made at the International’s Stuttgart and Basel congresses in 1907 and 1910 and voted to support the war effort of their respective capitalist governments and, thus, plunge the world into the bloodiest war the world had ever seen.

The Second International proved beyond doubt that political struggle, trade union action, electoral campaigning and wide scale agitation and propaganda can rally mass forces to working class parties everywhere. But, when a bureaucracy emerges in a national labour movement, based on privileged sections of workers, it can quickly make its peace with the exploiters and back even the worst excesses of the bourgeoisie, marshalling the workers for fratricidal war as the Second International did in 1914 and as its national sections have been doing ever since.