Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2010

History of the Marxist internationals (part 2, the Second International)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

This is the second in a series of posts on socialist internationals. The first dealt with the International Workingman’s Association (IWA) that collapsed not long after the defeat of the Paris Commune. The ensuing repression combined with an exhausting faction fight with Bakunin and the anarchists led to its demise.

Although conditions were ripening to inspire the formation of a new international (largely a function of the growth of an industrial working class), Marx was wary of launching it prematurely. In 1881, two years before his death, he wrote F. Domela Nieuwenhuis, a Dutch supporter, that “It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen’s Association has not yet arrived and for this reason I regard all workers’ congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.”

Despite these doubts, the growth of the socialist movements in France and Germany led to a new impetus for organizing internationally. Just as Russia was the natural center for the Communist International (a mixed blessing as we shall see), France and Germany formed the twin stars of the Second International. And despite their considerable national differences, the two sections would exhibit all the shortcomings that made the Second International fail.

Jules Guesde

One of the founders of French social democracy, and consequently the Second International, was Jules Guesde, a veteran of the Paris Commune. In 1889 the French government held an International Exhibition in Paris to celebrate the Centennial of the French Revolution that attracted leftists from across Europe eager to start a new world movement. There were already differences over strategy that would become more pronounced over the next decade or so leading up to the First World War. Guesde was allied with the German socialists who defended a “classic” reading of Karl Marx, like Wilhelm Liebknecht. Meanwhile, the British trade union movement oriented to the “Possibilists” in the French social democracy who, like it, believed in piecemeal reform. In an 1883 letter to August Bebel, a German socialist who was aligned with Liebknecht, Engels complained about the British trade union movement:

Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the basis of the political nullity of the English workers. The tail of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly but nevertheless sharing in its advantages, politically they are naturally the tail of the “great Liberal Party,” which for its part pays them small attentions, recognises trade unions and strikes as legitimate factors, has relinquished the fight for an unlimited working day and has given the mass of better placed workers the vote.

Obviously not much has changed in the trade union movement for the past 120 years or so.

The “Impossibilist” group led by Guesde and the “Possibilists” met in separate halls. It was the former gathering that effectively marks the beginning of the Second International. It should be mentioned, however, that the German allies of Guesde might have all been defending Marxism but not with the same degree of conviction. Eduard Bernstein, for example, who was urged by Engels to write a pamphlet attacking the “Possibilists” would become a key “revisionist” leader before long.

Jean Jaures

Although Guesde was one of the most prominent leaders of French socialism in this period, the most prominent public figure was Jean Jaures, who was born in 1859—making him fifteen years younger than Guesde. Unlike Guesde, who had a trade union background, Jaures was an intellectual. He was a classmate of Henri Bergson and would eventually become a philosophy professor. In James Joll’s serviceable history of the Second International, he is described as never having been a Marxist. His entry into the socialist movement was prompted mostly by an outrage over how working people were being treated. That being said, he was familiar enough with Marx’s writings to defend the theory of surplus value against Eduard Bernstein whose attack on this theory was essential to his “revisionist” critique.

In the French socialist movement, Jaures—an independent socialist by conviction and never a party member—functioned as a conciliator between its left wing and a right wing that was the ideological heir of the “Possibilists”. The differences between the two camps would be put to the test in the Dreyfus affair of 1897.

Accused of being a German spy in 1897, Dreyfus—a Jew—became a cause célèbre for French socialism and opponents of anti-Semitism. Jaures threw himself into the defense, perhaps too much so in Guesde’s eyes since Dreyfus—after all—was a member of the bourgeoisie. There was no excuse, of course, for this sectarian attitude but there were aspects of Jaures’s involvement that suggested willingness to bloc with bourgeois parties who supported Dreyfus against his tormentors.

In 1899 the French elections produced a new ministry led by René Waldeck-Rousseau, a Dreyfus supporter who looked to the socialists for support. Alexandre Millerand, a socialist independent like Jaures whose sympathies were with the rightwing of the party, decided to accept the post of Minister of Commerce in Waldeck-Rousseau’s government, arguably the first instance in our movement’s history of a kind of Popular Front. He was immediately denounced as a traitor by the French left.

What was galling in particular to Guesde was the participation of General Gallifet in Waldeck-Rousseau’s cabinet as Minister of War. This officer had suppressed the Paris Commune in 1871 and was one of the most hated figures on the French left. In 1899, a young woman named Rosa Luxemberg who was a rising star of the German socialist party, wrote an article titled “The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case” that conveyed the commitment to socialist principles that would distinguish her until her murder by soldiers taking orders from German socialist politicians:

As concerns the Dreyfus Affair in particular, the intervention of the proletariat in the case need not be justified either from on general point of view, on the subject of bourgeois conflicts, nor from the point of view of humanity. For in the Dreyfus case four social factors make themselves felt which give it the stamp of a question directly related to the class struggle. They are: militarism, chauvinism-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and clericalism. In our written and spoken agitation we always combat these direct enemies of the socialist proletariat by virtue of our general tendencies. It would thus be totally incomprehensible to not enter into a struggle with these enemies exactly when it is a question of unmasking them, not as abstract clichés, but through the use of living current events.

In the case of Millerand, the question comes down to whether the given situation in France made the entry of a socialist into a ministry truly necessary.

The sole method with the aid of which we can attain the realization of socialism is the class struggle. We can and we must penetrate all the institutions of bourgeois society, and put to use all the events that occur there and that permit us to carry on the class struggle. It’s from this point of view that the participation by Socialists was imposed as a measure of preservation. But it’s precisely from this same point of view that participation in bourgeois power seems counter-indicated, for the very nature of bourgeois government excludes the possibility of socialist class struggle. It’s not that we fear for socialists the dangers and the difficulties of ministerial activity; we must not back away from any danger or difficulty attached to the post in which we are placed by the interests of the proletariat. But a ministry is not, in general, a field of action for a party of the struggle of the proletarian classes. The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society. The government of the modern state is essentially an organization of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.

It is too bad we don’t have enough Rosa Luxembergs on the scene today to scream bloody murder about the kinds of class collaboration carried out in the name of socialism today. It is remarkable that after 110 years we still have to remind the movement that “The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society.”

As it turns out, Rosa Luxemberg had her hands filled with the “revisionists” in her own party who while not joining capitalist governments, would not be above this maneuver if invited to do so. A long period of prosperity and a decline in intra-European warfare had convinced Eduard Bernstein that the capitalist system might not be in need of revolutionary transformation. This rising prosperity, it should be added, was facilitated by the growth of empire that all the industrialized powers participated in, including the late-comer Germany. It was to Eduard Bernstein’s dubious distinction to defend this state of affairs with seeming Marxist orthodoxy.

Eduard Bernstein

In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco using the Communist Manifesto as ammunition.

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before. Even before the arrival of Europeans in Africa, brutal wars, robbery, and slavery were not unknown. Indeed, they were the regular order of the day. What was unknown was the degree of peace and legal protection made possible by European institutions and the consequent sharp rise in food resources…

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [a British anti-revisionist] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Despite Bernstein’s illusions in the peaceful nature of capitalism, most socialists were worried that war could break out any time, especially with the presence of large standing armies and an increasingly nationalist outlook among their own bourgeoisies. This led to Second International gatherings issuing proclamations for the need to oppose war and to replace standing armies by a popular militia. In his characteristically opportunist manner, Jaures defended such ideas in a book written four years before the start of WWI titled L’Armée Nouvelle that called for peace while simultaneously waxed rapturously over France’s past military successes. He also felt that wars could be avoided if a system of international relations based on arbitration between states could be established, a foolish belief that anticipated both the League of Nations and the UN. If Marxism was based on the idea that capitalism bred war, Jaures would have nothing of it.

Most importantly, Jaures expressed the idea that French socialists would be justified in resisting a German attack: “Those Frenchmen, if there are any left, who say that it is all the same to them whether they live under the German troopers or the French troopers…commit a sophism which by its very absurdity makes refutation difficult…The truth is that wherever there are countries, that is historical groups having a consciousness of their continuity and their unity, any attack on the freedom and integrity of these countries is an attack against civilization, a reaction into barbarism.”

Four years later WWI would break out, financed by war credits voted by Jaures, Guesde and the majority of German socialist parliamentarians who all believed that an attack on their country was “an attack on civilization” as Jaures put it. So overwhelming was the war fever that even an anarchist like Kropotkin supported it. This is not to single out the anarchists for opprobrium since Kropotkin’s countryman George Plekhanov—as orthodox a Marxist as ever there was—supported the war as well.

It was up to internationalists like V.I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemberg to take a stand against the social patriotism that would lead to millions of workers being slaughtered in a senseless war for profits and empire.

In the first year of the war, Lenin wrote Dead Chauvinism and Living Socialism: How the International Can Be Restored as an attempt to draw clear class lines between the revolutionaries and the traitors. He wrote:

An International does not mean sitting at the same table and having hypocritical and pettifogging resolutions written by people who think that genuine internationalism consists in German socialists justifying the German bourgeoisie’s call to shoot down French workers, and in French socialists justifying the French bourgeoisie’ call to shoot down German workers in the name of the “defence of the fatherland”! The International consists in the coming together (first ideologically, then in due time organisationally as well) of people who, in these grave days, are capable of defending socialist internationalism in deed, i.e., of mustering their forces and “being the next to shoot” at the governments and the ruling classes of their own respective “fatherlands”. This is no easy task; it calls for much preparation and great sacrifices and will be accompanied by reverses. However, for the very reason that it, is no easy task, it must be accomplished only together with those who wish to perform it and are not afraid of a complete break with the chauvinists and with the defenders of social-chauvinism.

In 1915 Rosa Luxemberg wrote The Junius Pamphlet.  It includes a paragraph that is one of my favorite in the entire Marxist literature, especially for its sardonic commentary on the “civilization” that Jaures was defending by voting for war credits:

This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It put into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed “great work of civilization” in the primitive lands. For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

The failure of the Second International to oppose war led to its eventual disintegration. Out of its ashes came the rise of a new international that will be the topic of my next post in this series.


  1. I’m guessing Bernie Sanders never read any Rosa Luxemberg?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 16, 2010 @ 3:22 am

  2. The International Workingmen’s Association and the original Socialist International, the Second International, were the only two internationals that united three distinct movements:

    1) The trade union movement;
    2) the socialist movement of diverse class backgrounds; and
    3) the independent, worker-class movement – or proletarian movement – with workers-only membership policies and the three political aims attributed to them by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.

    Upon the demise of the Second International, the first movement hobbled along to forge the “Labour and Socialist” International (which name-wise reminds me of the current Trade Union and Socialist Coalition ), and then later on today’s “Socialist” International.

    The second movement split in two, naturally between reformists and revolutionaries. The latter formed the Comintern, the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, the “World Party of Socialist Revolution” that was the Fourth International (Trotskyist), the International Conference of Communist and Workers Parties (official Communism), and other international groups. Except for the Comintern, none of these nutter groups and their subsequent sects had strong connections with the working class.

    However, there was no reforged proletarian / worker-class movement (the difference between a “merger” and a mere “connection”). The closest to this was the short-lived International Working Union of Socialist Parties, which was a mixture of liquidationist elements on the one hand (alas) and on the other realos that left the Comintern.

    In other words, I hope that at some point there will be an article on this site on the this Two-and-a-Half International.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 6, 2010 @ 5:36 am

  3. I forgot to add that somehow you omitted the true founder of “Marxism” entirely from your commentary on the Second International.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 6, 2010 @ 5:44 am

  4. Karl Radek in 1922 on the subject of the Two-and-a-Half International:


    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 6, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

  5. My next post is on the “centrist” Internationals that unfortunately have not been analyzed in any kind of depth in scholarly literature. Mostly we know about them from the furious polemics of people like Radek. I don’t think that they are any model for a new International today but the issues they raise are fundamental.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 6, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  6. Also, regarding WWI, the Zimmerwald conference was merely an attempt to follow up on the Basel Manifesto. Had centralism in democratic centralism been properly applied in the Second International, the various right-unionist leaders would have been stopped dead in their tracks from doing what they did: everything from voting for war credits to entering wartime coalitions.

    I’m not sure Luxemburg’s characterization of Jaures as a warmonger is accurate:


    “Jaurès was a committed antimilitarist who tried to use diplomatic means to prevent what became the First World War. He opposed Émile Driant’s 1913 law which implemented a three-year draft period, and tried to promote an understanding between France and Germany. As conflict became imminent, he tried to organise general strikes in France and Germany in order to force the governments to back down and negotiate. ”

    There is a reason why the modern pacifist Oskar Lafontaine mentioned him and Rosa Luxemburg in the inaugural congress of the Parti de Gauche:

    Click to access leftparties.pdf

    “The question of war and peace, more than ever, has at all times been a reason for schism at the heart of German socialism. Already in 1916 – under the impulse of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht – the war had divided German social democracy into two parts. And it wasn’t only in Germany that the left had a clear view. I remind you of the calls of Jean Jaurès that ‘capitalism carries war within itself, as storm clouds carry the storm’.”

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 6, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

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