SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 180 July/August 2014

The capitulation of the Second International

Before 1914, the Second International, grouping together socialist and workers’ organisations throughout Europe, resolved to act to prevent war. Once war had been declared, however, nearly all of these parties backed the capitalists in their own countries. This was a betrayal of the workers’ movement of truly historical proportions, and with far-reaching consequences. ROBERT BECHERT writes.

The first world war was both predicted and a surprise. Predicted, because the increasing competition and arms race between the powers meant that, for many years prior to 1914, a conflict was seen as inevitable sooner or later. A surprise in that, initially, the assassinations of the Austro-Hungarian archduke and duchess in Sarajevo did not seem to many to immediately threaten a European war, something that changed within a few weeks. The biggest shock for socialists, however, was that the majority of the leaderships of socialist and workers’ organisations supported their ‘own’ ruling classes in the bloody conflict.

In the years before 1914 the increasing threat of war was a constant issue which was discussed many times within the then growing mass workers’ and socialist organisations. Campaigns against militarism, arms expenditure and the threat of war were regular features of socialist activity, sometimes leading to arrest and imprisonment. There were widespread discussions as to what could be done to stop war in national parties and in the Second (Socialist) International which linked together socialist and other workers’ organisations from many countries.

As the war clouds gathered there were many statements of opposition to war from both the International and national parties. A couple of weeks before the first world war started a congress of the French socialist party, the SFIO, called for a general strike if war broke out. Demonstrations against war were held in many countries, including France and Germany.

Initially, many thought that the Sarajevo killings would not lead to war, as had previously been the case with other international ‘incidents’ such as the 1905 and 1911 crises between France and Germany over who would dominate Morocco. Those incidents, along with the arms race and changing international alliances – for example, Britain forming an alliance, symbolised in the 1904 Entente Cordiale, with its old enemy, France – fuelled the public discussion of the possibility of war in Europe. While this was not a peaceful world period, witnessed by the colonial wars which imperialist countries like Britain, France and Germany were almost continually waging in Africa and Asia, there had been no major war in most of Europe since 1871, apart from the Balkans.

The fear of war was increased by dread at the huge casualties and damage which modern military technology could bring. It was Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, who in December 1887 forecast with striking accuracy the human, economic and political impact of a future war, which he notably described as a ‘world war’: "And, finally, the only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war moreover of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the thirty years’ war compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle. Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class". (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 26)

It was these experiences and fears that had laid the basis for the rising workers’ movement opposing both capitalism and war. Many socialist and worker activists had drawn the conclusion that capitalism means war and this led to the heated discussions on what should be done to prevent such a catastrophe.

International opposition to war

This came to a head in 1912 when the first Balkan war was seen as threatening to expand into a wider European war. Mass demonstrations throughout Europe began in October, the largest being 250,000 in Berlin, leading up to a European-wide day of protest, called by the Second International, on 17 November. The International, founded in 1889, brought together workers’ organisations, especially but not exclusively, from Europe. Over the years it had played a vital role in helping the development of mass organisations and as a forum to discuss socialist ideas and the tactics of the workers’ movement. In an age of imperialism and the threat of war, the International was a symbol of internationalism and unity of the working class. Its 1912 call saw protests throughout eleven European countries, with the largest single one taking place in Paris with 100,000 marching. A week later in Basle, Switzerland, an emergency congress of the International took place. Attended by over 500 delegates from all over Europe, it was greeted by an international demonstration of up to 30,000 opposing war.

Politically, this special congress followed on from and developed the debates and decisions at the previous congresses of the International held in Stuttgart, 1907, and Copenhagen, 1910. One of the issues was whether to call for a general strike to stop a war breaking out. This call was supported by, among others, the French SFIO which, on 21 November 1912, held an extraordinary congress and included the call for "a general strike and insurrection" if an outbreak of war was threatened.

The declaration of the Basle congress summed up much of the previous years’ debates and, despite some weaknesses, spelled out a clear opposition to war between the capitalist powers: "If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

"In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule…

"[The International] calls upon the workers of all countries to oppose the power of the international solidarity of the proletariat to capitalist imperialism. It warns the ruling classes of all states not to increase by belligerent actions the misery of the masses brought on by the capitalist method of production. It emphatically demands peace. Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves. Let them remember that the Franco-German war was followed by the revolutionary outbreak of the Commune, that the Russo-Japanese war set into motion the revolutionary energies of the peoples of the Russian empire, that the competition in military and naval armaments gave the class conflicts in England and on the continent an unheard-of sharpness, and unleashed an enormous wave of strikes. It would be insanity for the governments not to realise that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class. The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties…

"The proletariat is conscious of being at this moment the bearer of the entire future of humankind. The proletariat will exert all its energy to prevent the annihilation of the flower of all peoples, threatened by all the horrors of mass murder, starvation, and pestilence.

"The Congress therefore appeals to you, proletarians and socialists of all countries, to make your voices heard in this decisive hour! Proclaim your will in every form and in all places; raise your protest in the parliaments with all your force; unite in great mass demonstrations; use every means that the organisation and the strength of the proletariat place at your disposal! See to it that the governments are constantly kept aware of the vigilance and passionate will for peace on the part of the proletariat! Counter-pose the proletarian world of peace and fraternity of peoples to the capitalist world of exploitation and mass murder!"

Shocking capitulation

Given the growing strength of the International’s parties, especially the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) which in the same year won over a third of the vote in Germany, there was the widespread expectation that the parties, even if not capable of stopping a war breaking out, would oppose it and utilise the subsequent crisis to overthrow capitalism.

Hence the complete shock to many activists when in August 1914 practically all leaders supported their ‘own’ ruling classes. In many countries there were mass demonstrations in July 1914 against a war, albeit often with rather vague demands. Throughout Germany, 25-30 July, a minimum of 750,000 attended anti-war protests called by the SPD. In France, although street demonstrations were banned in Paris, around 90,000 attended protests outside Paris between 25 July and 1 August. But, as the countdown to war continued, increasing ruling-class pressure was piled onto the leaders of workers’ organisations to support their ‘own’ governments. At the same time, ruling-class propaganda played on popular fears and historic prejudices to whip up and mobilise support for war. The Austrian socialist leader, Victor Adler, explained to an International meeting on the very eve of the war that "we now see the results of years of [ruling] class agitation and demagogy… In our country, hostility to Serbia is almost second nature".

To be sure, excuses were given in every country to present the war as one of ‘national defence’, often repeated by the pro-war ‘socialists’. In Germany it was the threat of tsarist Russia, while in Britain and France the threat of Prussian/German militarism and the defence of ‘poor little Belgium’. This was completely hypocritical. None of these European states were even formally democratic, all denying every woman and many men a vote. All were colonial powers, continually involved in brutal wars to create and maintain their empires. Britain, France and Germany were involved in carving up China. Between 1904 and 1907 the German army carried out the mass killings which have become known as the ‘Herero and Namaqua genocide’, in what is now Namibia. Only days after the 1914 war broke out, the British army was shooting unarmed demonstrators in Abeokuta, in the then newly created Nigeria, as part of a drive to suppress protests against new colonial taxes and forced unpaid labour. The capitalist class running ‘poor little Belgium’ were not that ‘poor’ and its king, Leopold II, had written to a minister, ‘Il faut à la Belgigue une colonie’ (Belgium needs a colony), before going on to establish a particularly brutal, personalised rule over the Congo.

Even some of those opposing the war, like the French leader Jean Jaurès who was assassinated by a nationalist as the war was starting, had hopes that the capitalists would stop the war. At an International anti-war rally in Brussels, two days before he was killed, Jaurès argued: "We do not have to force a peace policy on our [French] government. It is carrying out such a policy… at present the French government wants peace and works to maintain peace. It is the best ally of the peace efforts of the splendid British government, which took the initiative for conciliation". How Jaurès, who generally was on the right of the workers’ movement, would have reacted to the fact that, five days later, it was Germany that formally declared war on France is an open question.

What the war revealed was the difference between words and actions, namely that, while many leaders had publically maintained a ‘revolutionary’ position, ie a rejection of capitalism in words, the reality was that they were being effectively incorporated into the capitalist system and becoming traitors to socialism.

In many ways this was symbolised most in Germany where the SPD, the strongest party in the International, had in effect fallen into the hands of leaders who, in reality, had no intention of leading a struggle against capitalism. The old SPD motto, ‘Diesem System keinen Mann und keinen Groschen!’ (For this system, not one man and not one penny!), with which one of its founders, Wilhelm Liebknecht, greeted the 1871 foundation of the German empire, was superseded in August 1914 by ‘Burgfrieden’ (civil peace).

While the SPD leaders had ‘civil peace’ with the kaiser and the capitalists, they increasingly imposed a police regime inside their own party to stifle critics and, when that did not work, began expelling those opposing the war. When revolution broke out in Germany in 1918 some of these traitors worked with the military and prototype fascist gangs to bloodily suppress the revolution – including the summary executions of the revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, on 15 January 1919, at the behest of the SPD leadership.

The SPD leaders were not alone in co-operating with their ruling class in government. The same occurred in Britain, France, Belgium and, in 1917, in the first period of the Russian revolution before the Bolsheviks came to power. The impact of what happened in Germany was all the greater, both because of the country’s economic and scientific strength, and because, before 1914, the SPD was internationally seen as a model workers’ movement. Effectively, it politically led the International, which then fundamentally comprised Marxist parties.

The growth of reformism

Internationally, the SPD had paved the way in building massive working-class organisations which, formally at least, had the aim of overthrowing capitalism. Rejecting the ‘revisionist efforts’ to commit the party to simply attempting to reform capitalism, the 1901 SPD congress, for example, condemned attempts "to supplant the policy of the conquest of power by overcoming our enemies with a policy of accommodation to the existing order". Organisationally, the SPD enjoyed massive growth. After emerging in 1890 from twelve years of illegality, the SPD’s vote increased in every subsequent national election, reaching 4.25 million (34.7%) in 1912. In 1913 its individual membership peaked at 1.085 million, when Germany’s total population was around 68 million.

However, the SPD’s revolutionary heritage was being undermined by a combination of illusions sowed by that period’s economic growth and, paradoxically, the year-by-year growth of the SPD itself. Most of the leading layers within the SPD and trade unions began to assume that the movement would continue to progress almost automatically until it won a majority and that, step-by-step, reforms would steadily improve workers’ lives. Over time, this led to the de facto abandonment of the expectation that crisis would grip the system, and of a revolutionary perspective, as the majority of the leadership thought that capitalism generally would carry on steadily developing.

This development, an adaptation to capitalism, was strengthened by the fact that the growing workers’ organisations naturally had to do more than just propaganda activities. Increasingly, they had to engage in struggles over day-to-day workplace issues or for reforms that could immediately improve workers’ lives. With the SPD having no bridge between its maximum programme of revolution and a minimum programme of immediate reform this meant that daily struggles were often seen as separate from the wider goal of building a conscious movement aiming to end capitalism.

At the same time, the very growth of workers’ organisations produced the danger this growth would come to be seen as an end for itself. These expanding organisations also faced the risk that they could become vehicles for the personal comfort or careers of a privileged minority, something that could only be checked by a politically active rank and file. In many cases, there was a conscious ruling-class policy of developing a layer of pro-capitalist leaders within workers’ organisations – who the pioneer US socialist, Daniel De Leon, called the ‘labour lieutenants of capital’.

There had been previous examples of individual socialist leaders moving to the side of capitalism. The most famous was when Alexandre Millerand joined the French government in 1899, a step which led to an international debate that culminated in the International denouncing his position in August 1904. While Jaurès succeeded in 1903 in preventing the French Socialist Party congress expelling Millerand, he was expelled by the Seine regional federation in January 1904. But the ‘moving over’ by entire parties was a new phenomenon in 1914, hence the shock of what happened. Unfortunately today socialists have far more experience of once socialist forces or individuals adapting and becoming integrated into the capitalist system, but have also learnt lessons on how to combat the growth of pro-capitalist and careerist tendencies.

It was deeply shocking to many activists when the news spread that the SPD MPs had voted in favour of the war. This brought into the open the fact that the majority of the SPD leadership had clearly adopted a pro-capitalist position and would, in future, oppose a socialist revolution. This was the essential meaning of the turning point of 4 August 1914, when the SPD voted in parliament to support ‘their’ side in an inter-imperialist war waged by what were, at best, only semi-democracies.

The SPD leadership’s decision to support this war, unlike its founders’ opposition to the 1870 Prussian-led occupation of France, and its collaboration with the government, was a stunning blow that effectively marked the end of that party’s claim to be revolutionary. This was a decisive step towards the SPD leaders’ integration into the capitalist system and prepared the way for the openly counter-revolutionary role they played in and after the 1918-19 German revolution.

Preparing for revolution

It was not entirely a bolt from the blue, however, although hardly anyone expected the SPD to fully support a war. Before 1914, in a sharpening political struggle within the SPD, Rosa Luxemburg had become the leading opponent of the growing reformist, non-revolutionary, trends within the party. By 1914, the SPD was divided into three tendencies: the openly reformist wing; the so-called centre, led by Karl Kautsky; and the radicals (the Marxist left), led by Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others. But, unlike the Bolsheviks in their struggle between 1903 and 1912 in the Russian Social Democracy, Luxemburg did not try to draw together the Marxist wing into a coherent opposition that systematically fought for its ideas and to build support. Tragically, this contributed to their weakness at the beginning of war and, later, at the start of the German revolution in 1918.

As war approached, the patriotic wave in most countries frightened many leaders and became another reason not to oppose the war. The Austrian leader, Adler, told the last meeting of the International’s Bureau before the war started that "we run the danger of destroying 30 years’ work without any political result".

Clearly, no workers’ leader wants to destroy or weaken the movement by adventurism, but sometimes it is necessary to say the truth, albeit skilfully, in order to prepare for the future. The challenge was how to prepare for the inevitable revolutionary effects of the war which, as Engels had predicted, would have only one "absolutely certain" consequence: "universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class".

In his article, The Collapse of the Second International, Vladimir Lenin argued that the abandonment of the idea in the Basle Manifesto of preparing for the revolutionary events that war would bring in its wake should it be impossible to prevent, was equally indicative as the vote for war credits of a fundamental, qualitative change in the old parties. "Without spreading or harbouring the least ‘illusions’, the Basle Manifesto spoke specifically of this duty of the socialists – to rouse and to stir up the people… to take advantage of the crisis so as to hasten the downfall of capitalism, and to be guided by the examples of the Commune and of October-December 1905. The present parties’ failure to perform that duty meant their treachery, political death, renunciation of their own role and desertion to the side of the bourgeoisie". It was Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolsheviks who, in Russia in 1917, were guided by these examples in winning mass support to carry through the October revolution and set an example that inspired millions around the world.

The first world war marked the end of the Second International as a force for socialism, something which has helped shape subsequent history. But out of this defeat came a new movement, striving to learn the lessons of the past and of the 1917 Russian revolution, that built a new International, the Third (Communist) International. This was the largest worldwide revolutionary movement seen so far, built by a combination of pre-war activists and those, especially young people, radicalised by the experience of war and revolution. Tragically, this new International too was then undermined, by the growth of Stalinism in the then Soviet Union which ultimately led to its collapse.

Today, the basic characteristics of capitalism are the same as before the first world war. It is still a system which means instability and, in many cases, wars. Even if the main powers want to avoid direct confrontation between themselves, this has not meant a peaceful world. Tens of millions have died in conflicts since the end of the last world war in 1945. In this sense, the fight to end war, in all its different forms, continues and is still a task for the workers’ movement. The character of the fight can be different – for example, striving to build a united workers’ and poor people’s response to sectarian conflicts or fighting against repression. However, they all depend on whether a workers’ movement able to respond can be built. As we have seen with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even if the capitalists are able to start wars, it is only the workers’ movement which can hold them to account, both individually and collectively.

Today’s world is more linked together than ever before. The idea of an International linking together working people around the globe in a movement to transform the world has more potential than ever before. The Committee for a Workers’ International is striving to build upon that potential, learning from past experiences in order to help realise the aim of the pioneers of the workers’ movement of transforming the world by ridding it of the chaos of capitalism and the threat of violence and war.

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