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Reformism breaks the International

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Sean Murray looks at the history of the Second International and draws the lessons for what kind of International we need today

The Second International was founded from disparate political forces the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), various reformist and mass trade unions. Under the guidance and advice of Frederick Engels, the Marxists triumphed over the reformists. But the reformists were not excluded from the new international. See The first mass global gathering January 2003) Stuart King, Workers Power 271.

Indeed, the whole history of the Second International was to be a struggle between these forces. The leading Marxists August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Karl Kautsky at first seemed to act as the guardians of "orthodoxy". But by the new century as imperialism, the threat of global war and the growth of bureaucracy in the workers movement posed new problems this orthodoxy became a cover for reformist practice. This had disastrous consequences for the International. A younger generation not only defended what was correct and principled in "orthodoxy" but renewed and developed Marxist theory and practice to meet the above challenges. Unknowingly they were laying the foundations of yet another new International.

The early years

The Second International ended the national isolation of socialist organisations after the collapse of the First International (1864-1874). During this period powerful socialist parties in many European countries Êparticularly the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) Êhad emerged.

The SPD had been subject to repressive anti-socialist laws. Thousands of party members were jailed or were thrown out of their jobs. From 1878 to 1890, all its public activity (except the right to stand in elections) was banned. Yet the party maintained an illegal organisation: apparently harmless "front" organisations, such singing and sports clubs were used to win workers to socialism and group them around the underground party.

The Social Democrats smuggled into Germany from Switzerland an Marxist newspaper. And, despite the best efforts of the police, the party's influence grew dramatically. During 12 years of illegality its share of the vote rose from 7 per cent to 19 per cent. In the same period the party became more and more overtly Marxist. Its leading theoretician Karl Kautsky Êwho worked with Engels in London during the 1880s Êran a journal that spread Marxist ideas and developed theory not only for Germany but across the continent.

The German party had enormous prestige and became, informally, the leading party in the Second International. The smaller socialist parties in Europe looked for the support of a powerful international movement to help them follow in the SPD's footsteps. The founding conference of the international in 1889 had only raised the questions such as: what was the role of parliamentary elections, of the trade unions, of direct action? Subsequent congresses Brussels in 1891, Zurich in 1893 and London in 1896 ÊAttempted to answer them.

Political action and the struggle with anarchism

The struggle against anarchism waged by Marx and Engels 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, or should they limit themselves, as the anarchists suggested, to "direct action".

The appeal of direct action was a strong one. Not only was there a tradition in favour of it in many countries in Europe, there was also the living memory of barricades and street fighting, from the revolutions of 1848, to the Paris Commune of 1871.

The anarchists, however, did not understand that the tactics of insurrection were made possible by deep socio-economic crises and a revolutionary situation not the other way around. Revolutions could not be manufactured by the "propaganda of the deed". In most countries in Europe in the period 1889 to 1903 there was nothing approaching such revolutionary situations.

By wilfully ignoring elections and workers' eagerness for major social and political reforms the anarchists were reduced to propaganda circles, to individual terrorist acts (a tactic they borrowed from the Russian Populists) or eventually a variety of trade unionism (anarcho-sydicalism). Only the latter brought them near to achieving mass influence, in Spain, France and Italy.

Meanwhile, the SPD took up the issue of workers' rights and organised and built trade unions; it fought for universal suffrage for both men and women; it organised a women's movement and a youth movement; and it won hundreds of thousands of working class militants to the programme of Marxism.

Other socialist parties in the Second International were soon gaining similar successes by employing the same tactics. The Belgian socialists were solidly rooted in the trade unions and the cooperative movement, with 30 MPs. In 1886 they had unsuccessfully used the mass strike to try and win universal suffrage. A tactic they repeated with more success in 1893 and 1913 when universal suffrage (for men only) was finally won.

It was by being able to point to these real achievements and generalise the tactics and experiences of taking "political action", that heavy blows were delivered to the Anarchists and Syndicalists.

The rise of reformism in the German SPD

When the anti-socialist laws were repealed in Germany in 1890, the SPD had the opportunity to meet and revise its programme. During the period of the anti-socialist laws a large left-wing opposition developed in the party that condemned parliamentary action as futile. But at the same time, the party's deputies in the Reichstag parliament became tribunes, denouncing the system, advocating socialism and fighting for reforms under capitalism.

Of course, few of these reforms were carried through by the Reichstag because of the right-wing majority. But the SPD was able to show by this very fact that socialism and working class power were needed to really achieve even these democratic and social gains. In elections and in parliament the SPD remained intransigently opposed to all the bourgeois parties: the Liberals, the Catholic Centre Party as well as the right. They refused any "progressive bloc" for elections with the left liberals and stood on an outright socialist platform.

The socialist goal and immediate demands (reforms) had to be reconciled, and this culminated in the Erfurt programme, which was adopted in 1891. The programme was divided into two parts, the first outlining a theory of capitalism and the goal of working class power and socialising the economy. The second part laid down a series of far-reaching immediate aims that the SPD would try to win with in the framework of capitalist society. The former came to be known as the maximum programme and the latter the minimum programme.

The synthesis of the two ideas, reform and revolution, would hold as long as the workers could meet some of its immediate needs and was not driven to revolt.

It was in the south of Germany, where the liberals were stronger than the conservatives that reformism first appeared in strength and the revolutionary aspects of the programme were toned down as the party tried to win small landowning peasants to the party. But this reformism was soon to spread to the Trade Unions in an even more dangerous form.

With the lifting of the anti-socialist laws the SPD increased its efforts to organise the working class into unions. A tendency grew within the party that was in favour of watering down the programme of the party in an attempt to win workers to the trade unions. With economic expansion the second half of the 1890s the danger became more acute. The apparatus of full-time officials in the unions grew bigger and bigger. The leader of the unions Karl Legien swung towards the reformist right wing of the party.

The unions became large and wealthy organisations. The bureaucracy, unlike the party's left wing, saw its success in terms of collective agreements and the improvements in wages and conditions it achieved for its members Ênot in terms of organising the working class for revolution. Inevitably the interest of union leaders and the better-paid union members became more closely identified with capitalism. Reformism had developed powerful social roots that Engels and Marx had not foreseen.

Against this background, Eduard Bernstein put forward a theoretical justification for the party's increasingly reformist practice. A debate broke out in the SPD, the result which was to have a profound effect on the International's trajectory.

Bernstein summed up his views in The Presuppositions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy, published in 1899. He rejected Marx's view that capitalism was doomed to ever more deepening crises, believing capitalism promised growth and stability.

He said. "I cannot believe in a final aim of socialism. But I strongly believe in the socialist movement, in the march forward of the working classes, who step by step must work out their emancipation by changing society form the domain of a commercial landholding oligarchy to a real democracyÉthe goal is nothing, the movement everything." He urged the SPD to direct all its resources to winning government and they would have the support of a large section of the bourgeoisie if they dropped their revolutionary phraseology.

Rosa Luxemburg - young Jewish Marxist from Poland - was his sharpest revolutionary critic. She replied to him in the pamphlet, Reform or Revolution: "People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society."

She pointed out that fighting for reforms would prepare the working class for revolution, not by their success, but by their failure. The very nature of capitalist society made fundamental alteration to society impossible by reformist means, and this would make the necessity for the seizure of political power by revolutionary means clear to the working class.

Bernstein and revisionist ideas were formally condemned at the German SPD's Hanover Congress in 1899, and again at the Dresden congress of 1903 by an alliance of the left wing and the party leadership. But they party did so by appealing to the traditional principles and practice of the party, not by clarifying how the fight for reforms was linked to the need for revolution.

The growth of reformism internationally

Revisionism and reformism were two growing international trends and were the main debates at the Paris congress in 1900, and Amsterdam in 1904.

In France too socialists saw their support and representation in parliament grow. A constitutional crisis hit the French government in 1897. The ruling class was split over the trial of a Jewish army officer, Dreyfus, who had been framed as a German spy by the more reactionary wing of the capitalist class. French socialist leaders like Jean Jaurs rushed to the defence of Dreyfus and were criticised from the left for spending too much time on the affair, which after all was a fight among the ruling class.

In 1899 the socialists who had allied themselves with the bourgeois supporters of Dreyfus found themselves in an even more difficult position. A new government was formed and the liberal wing of the ruling class was looking for support to defend the French Republic from the right wing. Alexandre Millerand, a leading socialist, accepted the position of Minister of Commerce. The Minister of War in the same government was General Gallifet, the man who bloodily suppressed the Paris Commune in 1871!

All over Europe, the growing strength of the socialist parties in the 1890s was accompanied by growing reformist practices and compromise.

When the fifth congress of the International opened in Paris in September 1900, Jules Guesde, leader of the French orthodox Marxists, and the Italian, Enrico Ferri, wanted to condemn any participation in capitalist governments, in any circumstances. They held that the workers' party cannot share power with a bourgeois party simply because it has some tactical points in common.

They argued that the rest of such a "progressive" government's policies defended and strengthened capitalism. Participation would mean socialist ministers taking collective responsibility for crushing strikes, increasing workers' taxes, supporting militarism and colonialism and ultimately war Êcalling on workers in uniform to shoot their proletarian brothers in the opposing army. Such a sell out of fundamental principles for short-term gains was the rankest opportunism.

Guesde pointed out that "with an Italian Millerand, a German Millerand, and an English Millerand there would be no International possible any more". But there were many who wanted just such an opportunist policy. Belgian leader Emile Vandervelde put the case that a "coalition is legitimate in the case where liberty is threatened as in Italy; it is legitimate again when it is a question of defending the rights of the human personality as recently as France (Dreyfus). It is legitimate finally when it is a question of winning universal suffrage as in Belgium."

Karl Kautsky presented a resolution on behalf of the German delegation that aimed at compromising these two irreconcilable positions. This allowed socialists, as an exceptional, temporary measure, to enter a capitalist government. But it also condemned Millerand because his actions in joining the government before his actions were approved by the party. The left rightly called this an "India rubber resolution" that could be stretched to cover anything.

The decision was a victory for the "centre" around August Bebel and Kautsky. Neither the left nor the right obtained what they wanted. But, as we will see, Kautsky's "exceptional, temporary measure" was the gap through which the majority was to stampede during the extreme "exception " of an imperialist war. Their excuse was that of the necessity of the defence of the republic or fatherland or even of the workers' organisations themselves.

Also at the Paris congress an International Bureau of representatives of the leading parties was appointed and provided with its own secretariat and offices in Brussels. Emile Vandervelde was its first President. Great hopes were placed in this new leadership of the International. As it became more active and held regular meetings attended by the leading socialists of Europe, it was hoped the ISB would become a real general staff of the revolution.

It soon became clear, however, that in practice its functions were strictly limited because the biggest parties of the International had no intention of submitting their tactical decisions to the vote of an international body. All it could do in practice was to co-ordinate the activities of the individual member parties and promote unification in those countries where there were several competing parties.

At the next congress in Amsterdam in 1904, Bebel and Jaurs debated the issue of revisionism in front of the congress. Jules Guesde presented a motion that had been passed at the German SPD congress the year before. The argument took four days, three in a sub-committee and one full day in front of the entire congress. In the end the motion was passed.

It correctly condemned the revisionists saying the results of their tactics would mean the International would end up being content with a reformed capitalism. It restated the position of 1900 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.

Those in favour of the motion used the debate in Germany around Bernstein and revisionism for their defence and as a justification for their policy. But just as in Germany the year before the International was not clear on how the fight for reforms was connected to the struggle for power and the need for a revolution to overthrow capitalism. This separation was never overcome and would be the source of future conflicts.

The mass strike

In 1902 the Belgian working class launched a general strike in an effort to win universal suffrage. In 1903, the Dutch labour movement utilised the same weapon to combat anti-union laws that severely limited the right to strike.

The Amsterdam congress of 1904 rejected the position that the general strike was "the most effective means to achieve the triumph of labour" and warned the socialist world against being "taken in by the anarchists". Yet the congress recognised that a "strike which spreads over a few economically important trades or over a large number of branches of a trade, may be a means of bringing about important social changes, or of opposing reactionary designs on the workers". This was a step forward. At previous congresses the German leadership had declared that the general strike was "not for discussion". But it remained vague and was never implemented.

The Russian revolution of 1905 shook the world. It showed in practice how a mass strike could be used to achieve revolutionary aims. It revived the debate in the sections of the International about the tactics of seizing power. It placed the question of working class power before the eyes of the world. It also provided ammunition to the small revolutionary wings of various parties to fight against reformist practices and especially the growing union bureaucracy who were only interested in calling strikes over immediate, economic questions. Such was the effect of the Russian revolution that in the following two years strike waves were common all over the world.

Socialism and war

At the same time the rivalries between the European powers were increasing. War, never off the agenda of the International, was becoming a more immediate issue. In France, in discussions over war, the issue of the mass strike was constantly raised. War was to be the central issue at the Stuttgart congress of 1907.

Gustave HervŽ proposed a motion, that he had moved at the French congress the year before, that any declaration of war should be met with a revolt and a general strike. He also used the occasion to attack the growing bureaucracy of the German movement.

Bebel tried to maintain that there was no need to discuss the question any further because it had been dealt with at previous congresses. Of course all the previous resolutions were useless because they did not require any action to be taken by any of the sections of the International. Vandervelde stressed that the movement was now an international one, "on which the sun never set', and more had to be done other than stating that war was inherent to capitalism and that popular militias had to replace standing armies Êthe position from the first congress.

Lenin and Luxemburg, drawing on the experience of the Russian revolution of 1905, realised that a European war would weaken the machinery of the capitalist state and give socialists the opportunity to make a successful revolution. Luxemburg urged that agitation, insurrection and strikes on the outbreak of war should not only be aimed at ending the war, but the overthrow of class rule.

Out of the debate emerged a resolution that contained something for everyone while committing no one to anything. It was adopted unanimously.

The resolution stated that war was inherent to capitalism; that the working class and its organisations should provide neither a penny nor a man for the capitalist war machine; it was in favour of the abolition of standing armies and for their replacement with popular militias; that the International couldn't say what action to take against wars as it would be different in each country; that the International should work for peace and disarmament; if a war should break out it is the duty of the working class and its representatives to hasten the end of the war and the end of capitalist rule. It was wholly inadequate as events were to prove.

The outbreak of war in the Balkans in the summer of 1912 sent the alarm bells ringing in the International. The International Bureau met to decide what action to take. An emergency congress was held in Basle, Switzerland. More than 550 representatives form 23 different socialist groups assembled. Nearly all the leaders of the international socialist movement were there.

Speech after speech painted the horrors of war and affirmed the strength of the working class to stop it. There were many more hollow sounding speeches such as one from a Dutch delegate, who said that: "The proletariat of the small countries stands with it positions and its blood at the disposal of the international for anything it decides in order to banish war." The problem was it didn't decide to do anything.

On the 29 June 1914, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. After an initial expectation that war would break out, the whole of Europe heaved a sigh of relief when the Austrian government remained silent. But three weeks later an ultimatum was issued to Serbia Êthe Austrian government was bent on war.

The German government announced it would stand by its Austrian ally, and it prepared for war, as did the rest of the European powers.

The International Bureau was summoned to meet on 29 July. The socialist leaders of the world cut short their summer holidays and rushed either to Brussels or home. Demonstrations against war were held all over Europe. No specific action was called by the International. Most of the time was taken up with the call for a Congress to discuss "the War and the Proletariat".

In Berlin, the SPD members in the Reichstag met. In the years since 1907 the trade union bureaucracy had increased its hold over the party leadership. It had long since made its peace with capitalism and was willing to suspend the class struggle and join the war effort.

On 4 August the SPD members in the Reichstag voted for war credits and with that, international solidarity was shattered. When the others socialist parties followed suit, the Second International was no more. Europe embarked upon the bloodiest war in history where millions of working class men and women fought each other on behalf of the capitalist class.

"With an Italian Millerand, a German Millerand, and an English Millerand there would be no International possible any more." How right Jules Guesde had been in 1900. The forces of reformism had triumphed in the international and now the working class would pay a heavy price.

The lessons for today

Today there is a burning need for a new International, a world party of social revolution that organises and co-ordinates the struggle against capitalism Êa Fifth International.

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. Like the Second, a Fifth International must use the techniques of mass political action.

The new International must have a common programme of action too, but the programme can not repeat the mistakes of the past and be divided in to a maximum (socialism) and a minimum (immediate reforms) programme. It must overcome this divide, that proved to be a cover for reformism in the Second International, and bridge the gap with an action programme that takes up the immediate needs of the working class and relates them to the need for working class power.

But never again can we repeat the fatal error of tolerating reformist officials and careerist place-seekers in our ranks. Bureaucracy, national chauvinism, parliamentary or trade union reformism will all mean bloody defeat for the anti-capitalist movement and have to be fought at every opportunity. But the main lesson we have to learn from the Second International is that the only way forward is the seizure of power and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class.