Previous: Second International

Revisionism in the SPD

On May 11, 1878 an apprentice named Godel took a couple of shots at the German emperor. F. Mehring, an official historian of the party, represents Godel an an "idiot". The social-democratic press adopted a mocking tone towards the terrorist and loyal one to the Prussian government.

Then there was a second attempt at the emperor committed by a socialist named Nobiling. There was a general sympathy among the population towards the terrorists. For example, "one woman in Brandenbourg got 1 year 6 months of jail for saying, upon getting the first news of the attempt of Nobiling: 'The Emperor, at least, is not poor, he can get a medical care'."

On 19 October 1878, as a consequence of assassination attempts, the Reichstag passes a law outlawing socialists. The Social Democratic party does not go underground but simply dissolves itself. These are early signs of weakness of the party.

At this time, two illegal publications appear, "Lantern" in Brussels (started to publish in 12/1878), and "Freedom" in London (first issue on 1/1879). These two publications were rejected by party leadershipfor two reasons: 1) they were too radical; 2) the party was afraid of further persecutions.

However, "Freedom" was gaining influence upon the more revolutionary layers of the party. To counteract that influence, the party organizes in September of 1879, in Switzerland, a publication of its own newspaper, "Social Democrat". Its stated goal was "enlightenment and organization of the masses and struggle against 'making' of revolution". Moreover, the editors said that even though they are outside the power of the German and Austrian law, they intend to avoid any provocations, i.e. even a hint at violence.

In 1880's Germany enters upon the imperialist race and begins to exploit the colonies. The number of middle class and well-to-do Germans increases, as the table of Eduard Bernstein below shows:

Assessed Incomes Increase
£ 1892 1907 Absolute Per cent
150 to 300 204,714 387,247 172,533 84.3
300 to 1525 103,730 151,574 47,847 46.1
1525 to 5000 6,665 17,109 10,444 156.7
5000 and over 1,780 3,561 1,781 100   

A similar situation existed in Britain. Bernstein writes: “In the 'British Review' of May 22nd, 1897, there are some figures on the growth of incomes in England from 1851 to 1881. According to those England contained in round numbers, in 1851, 300,000 families with incomes from £150 to £500 (the middle and lower bourgeoisie and the highest aristocracy of labour) and 990,000 in 1881. Whilst the population in these thirty years increased in the ratio of 27 to 35, that is about 30 per cent., the number of families in receipt of these incomes increased in the ratio of 27 to 90, that is 233 per cent."

Hence, Bernstein argues, "If the collapse of modern society depends on the disappearance of the middle ranks between the apex and the base of the social pyramid", as Marx argued, this collapse, in countries like England, France and Germany, is not likely very soon. And he was correct, for the time period.

The question we have before us: is "the middle class" disappearing today in the imperialist countries? This question requires a careful scientific investigation in global terms, but there are some suggestions that that the answer to the question may be positive. 

"The New York Times" writes on December 29, 2003: "A couple of million factory positions have disappeared in the short time since we raised our glasses to toast the incoming century. And now the white-collar jobs are following the blue-collar jobs overseas. Americans are working harder and have become ever more productive — astonishingly productive — but are not sharing in the benefits of their increased effort. If you think in terms of wages, benefits and the creation of good jobs, the employment landscape is grim. The economy is going great guns, we're told, but nearly nine million Americans are officially unemployed, and the real tally of the jobless is much higher. Even as the Bush administration and the media celebrate the blossoming of statistics that supposedly show how well we're doing, the lines at food banks and soup kitchens are lengthening. They're swollen in many cases by the children of men and women who are working but not making enough to house and feed their families. I.B.M. has crafted plans to send thousands of upscale jobs from the U.S. to lower-paid workers in China, India and elsewhere. Anyone who doesn't believe this is the wave of the future should listen to comments made last spring by an I.B.M. executive named Harry Newman: 'I think probably the biggest impact to employee relations and to the H.R. field is this concept of globalization. It is rapidly accelerating, and it means shifting a lot of jobs, opening a lot of locations in places we had never dreamt of before, going where there's low-cost labor, low-cost competition, shifting jobs offshore.'"


Rostock, Germany, 2007

e phenomenon of "globalization" is not limited to the U.S. The biggest protests take place in Western Europe. In June 2007 we have witnessed "anti-globalization" rally in Rostock, Germany, with cars overturned and people hurt. In autumn of 2013 we have seen an international "Occupy" movement, whose epicenter was the Wall Street in New York, and it quickly spread to other leading imperialist nations. These are signs that "all is not well in the Dutch kingdom". 

Reformism in the SPD

There were many signs that SPD is not a revolutionary party, but reformist. For example, Julius Braunthal, a prominent Social-Democrat after WWII, writes: "German Social Democracy, the oldest and strongest party of the (Second) International, had refused to call on the workers to stop work on May Day, confining itself instead to public meetings on the first Sunday in May". Bebel explained a reason for this decision at the Zurich Congress of the Second International: "Any attempt to honor such a commitment (a decision made by the International to celebrate the May Day), would bring about, as nowhere else in the world, a head-on collision with the bourgeoisie and the government. If we want such a struggle, we should prefer to choose our own time" (J. Brauthal, "History of the International, 1864-1914", London, 1966, p. 249)


Eduard Bernstein

Eduard Bernstein draws the following picture of the SPD before World War I: "And in what sense has the party expressed itself since Stuttgart? Bebel, in his speeches on the attempts at assassination, has entered the most vigorous protests against the idea that social democracy upholds a policy of force, and all the party organs have reported these speeches with applause; no protest against them has been raised anywhere. Kautsky develops in his 'Agrarian Question' the principles of the agrarian policy of social democracy. They form a system of thoroughly democratic reform just as the Communal Programme adopted in Brandenburg is a democratic programme of reform. In the Reichstag the party supports the extension of the powers and the compulsory establishment of courts of arbitration for trades disputes. These are organs for the furtherance of industrial peace. All the speeches of their representatives breathe reform. In the same Stuttgart where, according to Clara Zetkin, the “Bernstein-iade” received the finishing stroke, shortly after the Congress, the social democrats formed an alliance with the middle-class democracy for the municipal elections, and their example was followed in other Wurtemberg towns. In the trade union movement one union after another proceeds to establish funds for 


Karl Kautsky

out-of-work members, which practically means a giving up of the characteristics of a purely fighting coalition, and declares for municipal labour bureaux embracing equally employers and employees; whilst in various large towns – Hamburg, Elberfeld - co-operative stores have been started by socialists and trade unionists".   

Regarding the use of violence, Karl Kautsky, the most prominent theoretician of the German SPD and the whole Second International, has given a "magnificent" picture of a revolution without violence, and even of a civil war without violence. In "The Social Revolution", 1902, Kautsky writes: “one does not necessarily join to these last words (i.e. the civil war) the idea of actual slaughter and battles”(!) Kautsky is for methods of enlightenment of workers and democratic reform, against any dictatorship. For this reason, he rejected the October 1917 revolution in Russia. He writes that Bolshevism “relies upon victory in civil war rather than upon intellectual and economic elevation of the masses”.

Brief description of the Second International

Sources of information

Main source of information on the history of the II International:

1) V.I. Lenin. In his collected works, there are many articles which discuss the Second International and its demise. The main ones are: (1) "The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart", 1907; (2) "The Collapse of the II International", 1915; (3) "Socialism and War", 1915.

2) Fridland and Slutsky, "The History of the Revolutionary Movement in Western Europe. 1789-1914. A Reader". Published originally in 1923-24 in Moscow and Leningrad, this is one of the best books on the subject of which it is the title.

3) N. Rosnitsky, "A Brief History of the Three Internationals", Penza, Soviet Russia, 1923. This is a good overview of the subject (the three Internationals), even though the author himself doesn't think so. The main fault that I see is that in giving a review of the main parties in the Communist International, the author misses the main one - the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks).

4) A. Essen, "The Three Internationals", Moscow-Leningrad 1926. This book is curious for often quoting Trotsky, yet seems to argue against him. But look at the date of the publication...

5) Joseph Schumpter, "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy", 1942. The fifth part of the work is called "An essay in the history of socialist parties". The book is written from an anti-Marxist, radical bourgeois point of view.

6) William Z. Foster, "History of the Three Internationals. The World Socialist and Communist Movements from 1848 to the Present", NY 1955. This is a book by a Stalinist, and full of lies. For example: Lenin was "from a simple peasant family". There are many general and empty phrases. W.Z. Foster mentions Josef Lenz', "The Rise and Fall of the Second International". This book I was not able to get.

7) R. Palme Dutt, "The International", London 1964. This book is written from the standpoint of "a struggle for world peace".

8) Julius Braunthal: "History of the International" (in 3 Volumes), 1961-1971. Published in German, translated into English. 

9) Igor Krivoguz: "The Second International, 1889-1914: The History and Heritage". (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989).



1904 Amsterdam Congress of the Second International. Rosa Luxembourg and Plekhanov in the center.

The first congress of the Second International took place in Paris, from 14 to 20 July, 1889. It was dedicated to 100 years' anniversary of the French revolution (on July 14, 1789 the Bastille was taken). This congress was marked by struggle of Marxists with anarchists, but at the following congresses the anarchist delegates were thrown out (e.g. at the Zurich congress in 1893). Here we notice a law-like tendency: each new International starts with a struggle against those who are responsible for the demise of the previous International. Thus, the Second International split with anarchists; the 3-rd International split with social-democrats; the 4-th International split with Stalinists. 


1904 Congress in Amsterdam. A view of the hall. On the platform: Luxembourg, Plekhanov, Katayama.

Another way to put this: a new International, or a new revolutionary organization, starts by overcoming the problems of the previous International, or revolutionary organization

Joseph Schumpter makes an interesting remark about the structure of the International:

"There was a bureau of the International, there were congresses with debates on the most important problems of theory and tactics, but if one is to judge from concrete results, the meaning of the Second International was close to zero. This organization was not meant for any concrete actions; any action, either revolutionary or reformist, was at the time possible on country level, not international. The aims of the Second International were to create connections between parties and various groups, to develop a uniform point of view, to develop harmonious plans of action, to reprimand the irresponsible and to hasten the slackers, to create, as much as possible, an international socialist public opinion"

The structure of Second International we would characterize as a loose gathering of socialists. Shumpeter writes: "For them the business was to put their signature under 39 points of a common declaration, reserving to themselves a complete freedom of its interpretation". However, this was not how radical participants of the International saw the matter. Lenin, at the time of the Stuttgart Congress (1907) wrote: "formally the decisions of international congresses are not binding on any one nation, but their moral import is such that disregard for decisions is in reality an exception". The war of 1914 proved this was an illusion.

Imperialism was the main problem before the II International. However, most of the prominent leaders of the Second International either supported "the colonial policy" of their respective states, or at best avoided the problem. Eduard Bernstein saw "no reason to assume that such such acquisitions (i.e. colonies) were objectionable in themselves... The important thing is not whether, but how, they are effected... Since we enjoy the products of the tropics... there can be no  real objection to our cultivating the crops ourselves... the right of savages to the soil they occupy could be recognized only as a conditional right. In the last resort,  the higher culture enjoys the higher right. It is not the conquest but the cultivation of the land that gives the occupier his historical and legal titles". Such sophisms were used to whitewash imperialism, and still are used today, for example by some Americans in conversations about their "influence" in other countries. 

As is well known, the Second International collapsed in the face of "the Great War" (to use the phrase of Winston Churchill, a Navy minister at the time of the war in the British government). The German social-democratic deputies in the parliament voted for war credits on August 4, 1914. Similar action was followed by social-democratic deputies in most other countries. The social-democracy turned out to be a left-wing support for the imperialist ruling classes. 

In 1915 Lenin analyzed the reasons for collapse of the Second International. Lenin explains: "Economic basis of opportunism and social-chauvinism are the same: interests of a paltry layer of privileged workers and petty bourgeoisie for their privileged position, their 'right' for crumbs of profits, obtained by 'their' national bourgeoisie from robbery of foreign nations, from advantages of being 'a great nation'."

Statistics show differential wages for workers in different countries. Igor Krivoguz writes: "In England a worker was getting 1.12 dollars per day, in Japan - 0.78 dollars, but in India only 16 cents". That's why, in reporting on the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart in 1907, Lenin wrote that "colonial policy has led to the situation whereby European proletariat is partially in a position when the society is supported not by his labor, but by labor of almost enslaved colonial natives". In other words, the workers of imperialist countries have lived (and continue to live!) at the expense of labor of workers of colonized countries. Their reformist and centrist leaders only reflect the economic and social position of the workers in the global economy. 

Next: World War I

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