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The European Socialist movement of the late nineteenth-century found itself in a constant identity crisis. As industrial expansion took itís toll, more and more workers were becoming receptive to radical ideas. However, the leaders of the movement were often engrossed in complex debates over doctrines and theories that in the end did little to bring about a new world order. As the nascent movement struggled to find itís way, the Second International, largely a product of the French and German Marx-inspired parties, served as a forum for the polemics that raged within the movement. Born in 1889, the Second International hoped to bridge the nationalist gaps that divided the proletariat of Europe. After the wars between France and Germany in the 1870ís, it was widely known that another major conflict was imminent. The socialist movement hoped that by organizing the workers of Europe in solidarity with the socialist cause they could foil the war plans of the capitalist superpowers. (Joll, 1975) However, it seemed that the leaders of the International would become more interested in petty doctrinal disputes than anything else. Of course not all of these debates were petty. Eduard Bernstein substantively made the case that the Marxists were misguided in their commitment to revolution. The fierce counterpoints of Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg was equally worthy of the Internationalís time as well. But no matter who would prevail in these debates, the German SPD had already become entrenched in the German political process, and would consistently drift toward a kindler, gentler socialism than that which its leaders espoused.
The International continued to grapple with the question of whether it would be an advocate of revolution or reform. But by the time World War One broke out, these squabbles mattered little, and the International had little right or reason to go on existing. (Lichtheim, 1970)
The socialist movement in Europe prior to the formation of the Second International had come to be dominated primarily by the French and German socialist parties. Both of these countries experienced a very different development of Marxist ideas. In France, the movement was highly decentralized and refused to coalesce around any one particular ideology or doctrine. French radicals admired anarchists such as Proudhon, violent revolutionaries such as Blanqui, and utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier, and were therefore hesitant to line up behind a proper Marxist Socialist Party. (Lerner, 1994, Joll, 1975) However, unlike Germany with itís highly disciplined and politically successful Social Democratic Party, the French socialists had Franceís revolutionary tradition to build on. The uprisings of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 stood as examples of the revolutionary potential of the French workers. (Joll, 1975) Despite the fickleness of the French Socialists, faithful Marxist Jules Guesde was able to build a substantial following for his Parti Ouvrier Francais. Guesde believed in the primacy of the class struggle over all else, and attempted to keep the party out of the affairs of the bourgeois French government. This turned off members of the party who wished to engage in conflicts other than those that had only to do with overthrowing the capitalist system. (Hobsbawm, 1973) In 1882, Dr. Paul Brousse left Guesdeís party and founded the Federation Des Travailleures de France. Brousse feared that strict adherence to Marxist doctrine would narrow the prospects of the socialist movement. Brousse and his followers became known as the Possibilists, for their ability to forge alliances with different groups inside France. Whereas Guesde and the Marxists sought solely to agitate class warfare, Brousse and the Possibilists desired to work toward a broader progressive social democratic agenda. The French radicals were not limited to Marxists and Possibilists in their growing choice of socialist factions. There were anarchists, utopians, and non-Marxist revolutionaries such as Edouard Vaillant, founder of the Parti Socialiste Revolutionaire, heir to the revolutionary traditions of August Blanqui and Babuef of the Conspiracy of Equals, which goes back to 1796. (Joll, 1975) However, it is primarily the Marxists and the Possibilists that would come to animate the early stages of the Second International.
In Germany, it was a different story. August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht built a strong, united Marxist movement in the German Social Democratic Party, or SPD. During the 1870ís, the new German nation underwent a rapid industrialization which swelled the ranks of the proletariat, and allowed the SPD to make impressive inroads in to the Reichstag, the German Parliament. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck attempted to rein in the growing socialist movement with a series of anti-socialist laws designed to curb the socialistsí increasing political power. However, these repressive measures only served to make martyrs out of the socialists, and ended up helping them more than hurting them. (Joll, 1975) For all the Chancellorís efforts, the SPD won a fifth of the ballots cast in the parliamentary elections of 1890. (Lerner, 1994)
The year 1889, being the centennial of the French revolution was not only symbolic for French radicals, but for much of Europeís socialists as well who saw the revolution as liberating France from feudalism and ushering in a class consciousness which would later inspire socialism. (Lerner, 1994) In honor of the storming of the Bastille, the two major French radical groups, the Marxists and the Possibilists planned two separate meetings in Paris for the 14th of July. The goal was to create an international congress. The Marxists led by Guesde and joined by the German Marxists held their meeting in the Salle Petrelle. The Possibilists, lead by Dr. Paul Brousse met in the Rue De Lancry. Members of the two groups were hardly attached to their particular factions, as many had traveled back and forth between both meetings. (Lichtheim, 1970) One of the central points of contention amongst the French was the Possibilists willingness to support the French Republic against the possibility of a coup by conservative nationalist General Boulanger. The Marxists spurned the idea of cooperating with the solidly bourgeois French Republic, keeping their efforts on class struggle itself instead. The Marxists cared little for the logic that a bourgeois French Republic would be better than a military dictatorship, and refused to waste time and energy to fight for one over the other. These tensions anticipated the Dreyfus Affair which would rattle the French Socialist movement a decade later. (Lichtheim, 1970) Eventually, Wilhelm Liebknecht from the German SPD attempted to serve as mediator between the two rival French factions in order to bring them together, but only seemed to aggravate the situation. Fed up, Liebknecht and the Germans formally endorsed the Guesdists, and attempted to isolate the Possibilists. This was a result of the German SPDís influence in the international socialist movement. (Niemeyer, 1966) Before long, the Marxistsí meeting in the Sal Petrelle became a multinational affair, attracting socialist leaders from various countries, while support for the Possibilists dwindled. With this victory, the Marxists announced that their meeting was the founding congress of the Second International; the heir to Marxís International Workingmenís Association established several decades earlier in 1864.
Despite the disagreeable nature of the Socialists participating in the international, they managed to come together to produce one of the internationalís most memorable accomplishments: the creation of the May Day strike, to be held for the first time on May 1st, 1890. It was meant to be an international day of worker solidarity, during which participating workers would go on strike to demonstrate the power of the proletariat and to raise awareness of critical working class issues. (Lerner, 1994)
The unity displayed during the creation of May Day evaporated soon after, as the Marxist movement fell prey to a crippling internal debate over theories and strategies. Would the International continue to sound the call for revolution, despite the fact that mass worker uprisings were not imminent? Or would it opt instead to work within the bourgeois system and fight on behalf of workers interests? Despite a seeming commitment to the former choice, the leaders of the Second International gradually displayed an eagerness to placate larger moderate elements. Such was the case with the exclusion of the anarchists in 1896. After nearly several decades of bombings and assassinations, the anarchists, whether fairly or not, had achieved a reputation as bloodthirsty terrorists. The International carefully weighed the consequences of anarchist involvement. On the one hand, the anarchists were necessary if revolution was to take place. However, anarchists in the International meant that trade unions would withdraw support, which was something that Bebel and Liebknecht could not afford to consider. (Lerner, 1994) There was also the embarrassing debacle of the First International, which could be directly blamed on the anarchists, particularly Bakunin. Bebel, Liebknecht and the German SPD were certainly not willing to let history repeat itself. But while the leaders of the Second International battled forces from their left, another force was gathering strength on the right.
The introduction of Marxist revisionism would ignite a fierce debate that would occupy much of the Internationalís time in the latter half of itís existence. The most well-known of these revisionists, was a German Social Democrat named Eduard Bernstein. Throughout much of the 1880ís Bernstein lived in England to avoid Bismarckian anti-socialist laws. In England, he worked briefly with Marx and Engels, but was clearly much more impressed with the Fabian movement taking place in London. Bernstein saw promise in the Fabian approach which de-emphasized the importance of worker revolution in seeking social change. (Lerner, 1994) In 1899, Bernstein published Evolutionary Socialism. In this attack on orthodox Marxism, Bernstein claimed that through the efforts of trade unions and the socialist movement, the conditions of the working class had improved considerably. According to Bernstein, this changed the entire situation. It occurred to him that perhaps the working class might gain improvements through democratic methods instead of revolutionary ones. (Hook, 1955) Although the leaders of the International condemned Bernstein, it is without question that his version of Marxism brought a wider array of workers into the socialist camp. This helped to attract trade union support and increased the SPDís parliamentary power. However, had Kautsky and Luxemburg not fought Bernstein so vehemently his reformist agenda would have crept into the SPDís platform and would have alienated revolutionaries, possibly causing a split in the party. (Schumpeter, 1946) Ironically, Bernstein eventually resigned from the SPD, not because of itís condemnation of his ideas, but because of its support of the First World War. (http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/bernstein.htm, "n.d")
Revolutionary Marxists did not sit idly by while Bernstein attempted to revise Marxís doctrines. Karl Kautsky, often called the High Priest of Revolutionary Marxism, fought Bernsteinís influence tooth and nail. Kautsky was considered the partyís leading theorist. In 1883, he founded Neue Zeit, which would become the worldís foremost Marxist publication. He later went on to write the fourth volume of Capital, and advance Marxís theory of historical materialism. (Hook, 1955) When Bernstein published Evolutionary Socialism, Kautsky rallied the troops against him. According to Kautsky and the rest of the German leaders Bernsteinís revisionism was "nothing less than heresy". (Lerner, 1994, P. 66) Kautsky even went as far as to say that Bernstein should remain in England lest he corrupt the Germans with his errant brand of reformist socialism.
However fierce Kautsky was in his opposition to revisionism, it could not be matched by that of Rosa Luxemburg. In her book Social Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg angrily accused Bernstein and the revisionists of selling out the movement. To her they were nothing but traitors. She had absolutely no tolerance for them and even suggested that revisionism was a bourgeois conspiracy to weaken the socialist movement. She derided the achievements hailed by Bernstein and the Fabians, as scraps from the bourgeois table, and supported nothing short of a mass general strike that would paralyze capitalism. (Lerner, 1994) Luxemburgís powerful voice proved somewhat threatening to the leaders of the SPD as Luxemburg did not rise through the German party like the rest of them. Luxemburg was Polish, and worked only briefly within the Polish socialist movement. When she came on to the scene, she relied solely on her abilities as a writer and an intellect. Her book Social Reform or Revolution demonstrated these talents remarkably. (Waters, 1970)
Meanwhile the French movement was at odds with itself as well. In the mid 1890ís Alfred Dreyfus, a jew, was convicted of spying for the Germans and thrown in jail. Evidence began to suggest that Dreyfus might be innocent and that the case against him might have been the result of anti-Semitism in the military. At first the issue didnít have much bearing on the French socialists, but by the late 1890ís the country was torn between Dreyfusards and antiDreyfusards, and the issue was about much more than the accusations against Dreyfus. The Dreyfusards supported the Republic, while the anti-Dreyfusards were anti-Republicans, some of whom supported restoring monarchy. Socialists originally resolved to stay out of the matter, but the growing importance of the conflict forced them off the fence. The Socialists threw their support behind the Dreyfusards and fought to defend the Republic. (Lerner, 1994) This touched off divisions in the French Socialist camp. Internal strife intensified when Socialist Alexandre Millerand signed on to serve as Minister of Commerce and Industry in the French government. Guesde, who battled fellow socialist Paul Brousse on this issue a decade earlier, came out against Millerand, calling him a traitor, while Jean Jaures, a French revisionist, akin to Eduard Bernstein, defended Millerand, employing something of a lesser-evil logic to the support of the French Republic. (Joll, 1975)
During the first few decades of the 20th century, the Socialist movement was getting a small taste of power, with Millerand in France, and the German SPDís impressive electoral successes. The socialists now had a tiny foothold in the governments of France and Germany. This gave them something of an ability to prevent the carnage of the first World War that lay on the horizon. That the Second International did not even try to exercise what little power it had to prevent the war, is one of the greatest failures of the socialist movement. In 1907, the Second International adopted the Stuttgart Resolution which committed the socialists to preventing war. As small flare-ups before 1914 threatened to set off a major conflict, the socialists seemed prepared to make every effort to uphold the Stuttgart Resolution. But by the Summer of 1914, the Socialistís resolve had begun to falter. The international class solidarity preached by the international rapidly gave way to loyalty to country, and in the end the entire delegation of the Social Democrats voted to approve war credits for Germany. Although the power of the SPD in the Reichstag was limited, there still remained the possibility that with enough effort the socialists could have successfully denied Germany war credits, which would have restrained the spread of the war, and have unthinkably altered the course of history. (Lerner, 1994) As the continent went to war, the Second International was left to die as large contingents of Socialists abandoned the cause of worldwide revolution, to support their nations at war. Just how much the International could have done to stop the war remains unclear. Some feel that the International did all that it could be expected to do. Others feel that it could have organized an international general strike against the war. However, the prospect of a general strike in 1914, at the outbreak of war, was not likely. In the end, it was not the International, so much as the individual parties who could certainly have done more to oppose the war effort. (Schumpeter, 1946)
At the outset of war, much hope seemed lost. But as the war began to take itís toll on a weak regime in Russia, and as Germany was being decimated, new prospects began to arise. In Russia V.I. Lenin went on to lead a successful revolution against the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky, and subsequently removed Russia from the war. In Germany too, socialist revolution was thought to be possible as well. A year after the Soviet revolution in Russia, German Socialists mounted the Spartacist Uprising against the provisional government of right wing socialist Friedrich Ebert. The German political system was weakened, however its military infrastructure was still too strong to give way to a mass socialist rebellion. Before long the Spartacist uprising was crushed by the German army, and itís leaders Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Liebknecht, (son of Wilhelm Liebknecht) were captured and executed. The future of the socialist movement now lay solely in the hands of Lenin and Soviet Russia. The socialist movement, much like the rest of the world, would never be the same again.
Hobsbawm, E.,J., (1973). Revolutionaries
New York: Pantheon Books
Hook, S., (1955). Marx and the Marxists
New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.
Joll, J., (1975). The Second International, 1889-1914
Harper and Row.
Lerner, W., (1994). A History of Socialism and Communism in Modern Times, 2nd Ed.
Lichtheim, G., (1970). A Short History of Socialism.
New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc.
Niemeyer, G. (1966). The Second International: 1889-1914.
In M. Drachkovitch (ed.), The Revolutionary Internationals, 1864-1943.
California: Stanford University Press
Schumpeter, J., (1946). Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd Ed.
New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers
Waters, M. (Ed.). (1970). Introduction. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks.
New York: Pathfinder Press