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The Second International: From class war to imperialist slaughter

This article is over 13 years, 9 months old
In the second part of our series Dan Swain looks at the rise and fall of the Second International
Issue 2188
Karl Kautsky
Karl Kautsky

Last week I explored how divisions over the question of revolution led to the break up of the First International.

The same problem was also of decisive importance to the fate of the next attempt to unite socialists across borders.

The Socialist International, known as the Second International, was established in 1889.

It brought together socialist groups from across the world, the most successful being the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

These organisations were generally well rooted in the working class. They spoke of the need for revolution, and were involved in organising unions and contesting elections.

The SPD participated in every aspect of workers’ lives, even organising socialist choirs and socialist gyms.

It is because of calls by the Second International that we celebrate International Workers Day on May Day, and International Women’s Day on 8 March.

May Day was launched as part of an international campaign for an eight-hour working day. Workers across Europe stopped work and demonstrated on 1 May 1890. Governments were forced to recognise the day as a national holiday.

As capitalism underwent a period of stability at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the parties of the Second International were able to gain legal recognition and win some major reforms.

As a result, many began to draw the conclusion that capitalism could be reformed to benefit the working class.

While most of these people still called themselves Marxists, and paid lip service to the idea of revolution, they began to move away from it in practice.

Karl Kautsky, a leading intellectual in the SPD, was a key figure in this debate. Formally he supported revolution against a section of the party who wanted to abandon it.

However, while denouncing them at party conferences, he also accommodated to them, allowing them to set the agenda.This meant the left was isolated.

The leading Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin called for the reformists to be expelled from the International.

He argued that having two different currents in the same organisation could only paralyse it.

Revolutionaries and reformists should, and must, work together, but they need to organise separately, he said.

The tensions in the International began to reveal themselves in an argument about colonialism, as the great powers grabbed parts of the world.

Some delegates to the International’s 1907 congress defended aspects of colonialism, saying that it could be a force for good. Lenin proposed an alternative, opposing all colonialism. This was passed, but the vote was very close.

Even worse was the debate over war. All agreed that socialists should oppose war, which resulted from the competitive nature of capitalism. But there were disagreements over how to do this.

Many argued for mass strikes and uprisings, but some of the German delegates were concerned about this affecting their legal status.

A compromise was reached. This said that if war broke out, it was the duty of socialists “to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule”.

But this did not happen when the First World War broke out in 1914.

The majority of SPD MPs in the German parliament, including Kautsky, voted for war.

Most of the other Second International parties followed suit, voting to support their country’s war effort.

This was a terrible betrayal. Lenin refused to believe the news at first, presuming the newspaper story was a forgery.

Failure to oppose the war ripped apart the International. It left many confused and demoralised.

However, those who did break with it and opposed the war would go on to form the backbone of a genuinely revolutionary international movement.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1914, “The Second International did not live in vain. It carried out enormous cultural work, the likes of which the world has never seen: the education and rallying of an oppressed class.

“The proletariat does not have to begin all over again… The period now concluded bequeathed it a rich arsenal of ideas.”

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