Socialism Past, Socialism Present

William Smaldone

Reform, Revolution, and Opportunism
Debates in the Second International, 1900-1910
Mike Taber, editor
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2023, 272 pages, $21.95 paperback.

ONE OF THE positive results of the multi-faceted and deepening crises of capitalism in recent years has been renewed interest in “socialism” as an alternative to the system. Although this has not resulted in the growth of the traditional socialist parties in most of the western world — indeed, it is the parties of the far-right that have flourished in Europe, often at the expense of the socialists — in the United States the traditionally miniscule socialist movement has grown markedly following the economic collapse of 2008, the rise of the Occupy Movement, and, as a counter-pole to the Tea Party and Trumpism, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016.

The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, which expanded from a tiny group of about 5000 members a decade ago into the country’s largest socialist organization with about 90,000 comrades in 2021, reflects this new interest in socialism.

Although membership in DSA has since ebbed, the critique of capitalism that fueled its growth continues unabated as the intensifying environmental crisis alters even the language of mainstream discourse and forces it to question fundamental elements of the system, such as need for continued growth and ever-expanding consumption.

In a context in which deeply embedded axioms related to the nature of the economy, to class, race and gender relations, and to the meaning of freedom itself are openly challenged, the need for education about alternatives, including socialist ones, is critical. That is where the work of Mike Taber comes in. Reform, Revolution, and Opportunism: Debates in the Second International, 1900-1910, is one of a series of document collections that Taber has produced on the history of the Socialist and Communist Internationals over the past several years.

With succinct introductions that effectively provide context to the documents, this collection provides a solid foundation for those interested in the history of the international socialist movement in the pre-1914 period.

A Mass-based International

Founded in 1889, the Socialist or “Second” International was the successor to the International Workingmen’s Association in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels played important roles and which lasted from 1864-1876. The revived International united a burgeoning labor movement at a time when new socialist mass parties were emerging in virtually all the industrializing states of Europe, North America, and elsewhere.

Dominated by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1912 was by far the world’s largest socialist party with over one million dues-paying members and the support of a third of the country’s 12 million voters, the International terrified the ruling classes and gave hope and confidence to millions of workers who felt like they were marching in step with history. The coming of socialism seemed to be just a matter of time.

Taber’s collection shows, however, a very broad range of opinion within the International about how socialists should deal with key issues under capitalism and about how socialism would be achieved.

As the labor movement became an increasingly significant force, some of its exponents, led by such figures as Edward Bern­stein in Germany and Jean Jaurés in France, argued that in alliance with liberal forces, it could use the institutions of parliamentary democracy to introduce incremental social and political reforms that would ultimately lead to the creation of a socialist society.

Others, such as the Polish-German radical Rosa Luxemburg, held that the party and unions should adopt tactics, such as the general strike, that would push for more radical reforms and prepare workers for revolutionary action.

Between these poles was a broad spectrum of “centrist” opinion, expressed most clearly by Karl Kautsky, Europe’s preeminent Marxist thinker after the death of Engels in 1895, and August Bebel, co-founder and long-time leader of the German party. They advocated policies that retained the socialist movement’s revolutionary vision but did not actually alter its electoral strategy.

Working in societies in which socialists still faced substantial state repression, they aimed to avoid risk. For them, building and protecting the movement’s economic, cultural, social and political organizations trumped radical action, and they had the support of the majority of the party rank and file.

Key Issues in Debate

Taber aims to use his collection to portray the International “not just as an object worthy of historical study, but as a living movement (emphasis in the original).” He does this in several ways.

First, on the practical level, he has judiciously chosen to focus on just five of the many major issues taken up by the International during the four congresses that occurred between 1900 and 1910.

These include debates on Socialist participation in government (Millerandism), on colonialism, immigration, women’s suffrage, and militarism and war. In Taber’s view, the International’s efforts to grapple with these issues remain instructive for socialists today, who are often dealing with similar questions albeit under very different circumstances.

Taber has organized his book into five sections, each treating one of these themes. Providing excerpted texts from the actual debates on these issues, the collection sheds light on the nature of the discourse that unfolded among the contending forces.

Instead of merely providing the dry language of the various resolutions, he includes enough of the debates to reveal the ways in which the representatives of the different parties comported themselves with one another, showed respect and contempt for particular ideas and personages, and illustrated how nationalist and internationalist feelings permeated the leaders’ discussions.

For each of the book’s main sections, Taber provides background and interpretive material to make the debates accessible for readers with little knowledge of socialist history.

For Americans today, party congresses are fully scripted, staged affairs in which virtually all decisions regarding candidates and party programs have been taken well ahead of time. The “conventions” of the Republican and Democratic Parties are really about the pageantry designed to mobilize and unite the faithful around their respective candidates in upcoming elections and have nothing to do with debating policies.

It was much different in the early 20th century in the United States and in Europe. While Socialist party congresses were also carefully choreographed, they were often raucous affairs where issues were heatedly debated, and factional and personal divisions were very clear.

This environment also characterized the meetings of the International. Each of its congresses aimed to show the world that the workers’ movement was a united force moving toward the goal of socialism, but was also meant to showcase workers’ leaders engaged in democratic decision-making based on majority votes. How these debates unfolded, the nuances that separated different proposed resolutions, and the complexity of satisfying the contending factions are clearly reflected in each chapter.

The debate on whether socialists should participate in coalition governments with bourgeois parties, for example, illustrates well the challenges facing the delegates. The issue had long been simmering but came to a head in France in 1899, when the republic was threatened by a major political crisis precipitated by the Dreyfus Affair (a frameup trial motivated by antisemitism –ed.) and Alexandre Millerand, an Independent Socialist parliamentary delegate, accepted an invitation to become Commerce Minister in a bourgeois coalition government.

For socialists who asserted, as Millerand did, that the movement should use parliamentary institutions to defend the republic against the forces of reaction, or as others believed, to promote working-class interests, such an action made sense. But for the majority of the delegates at the International’s congresses of 1900 and 1904 it represented the slippery slope toward “opportunism” and the surrender of socialist principles.

The issue was made even more complicated by the question of whether or not the decision to participate in bourgeois coalition governments should be left up to the respective national parties, all of which were operating under substantially different circumstances, or to the International.

In an attempt to resolve these dilemmas, at the Paris Congress of 1900 Kautsky put forward a resolution condemning participation in bourgeois governments under “normal circumstances” but allowing for exceptions.

This effort won the support of a large majority but met with substantial opposition back in Germany. When the SPD’s Dresden Congress of 1903 passed a resolution, formulated by Kautsky and Bebel, condemning participation in bourgeois cabinets under any circumstances, the issue landed on the agenda of the International’s Amsterdam Congress of 1904.

There, a heated debate ensued between Jaurés, who, along with Emile Vandervelde (Belgium) and Victor Adler (Austria), argued that the purpose of elections was to actually use the political power thus gained and that local circumstances should determine whether or not to enter a government, against Bebel, who defended the SPD’s record and insisted that it was essential for socialists to make clear their fundamental opposition to the capitalist state.

Bebel’s resolution ultimately won the day but only after a close vote.

Debating Colonialism

The debates on colonialism were equally intense. It was the era of “high imperialism,” during which economic, political, and cultural rivalries led the great powers to seize much of the world for themselves. The British and French Empires controlled one third and one quarter of the world’s territory, respectively, with Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and the United States also boasting large overseas holdings.

With the exception of Ethiopia, all of Africa, much of South and East Asia, and all Pacific islands were under direct colonial rule, and the conquest, administration and pillage of the subdued territories was always a bloody business. Events such as the brutal American suppression of the Philippine independence movement (1898-1902), the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) and the German genocide against the Herero people in Southwest Africa (1904-1907) fueled intense international controversies about the moral and practical bases of imperialism.

Drawing on a long history of socialist solidarity for people of oppressed nations, the member parties of the International generally condemned imperialism and called for either the “full autonomy” or independence of territories under colonial yoke. However, a significant minority within the movement argued that it was more important to correct colonial “abuses” of the subject peoples than to end colonialism itself.

Indeed, in 1896 Bernstein asserted that socialists “will not condemn the idea that savages must be subjugated and made to conform to the rules of higher civilization.” (54) His position won the support of many others, such as Henrik van Kol (Holland) and the Eduard David (Germany), who argued that colonies were necessary for the prosperity of the metropolis and called for a “socialist colonialism” that would limit capitalist development’s exploitation of the natives, while lifting the “savages” out of their “barbarous” condition. (71-72)

These views were vigorously opposed by such figures as the German leader, George Ledebour, who rejected “the tutelage of one people over another” and Julian Marchlewski of Poland, who noted that “we Poles know the real meaning of this tutelage, since both the Russian Tsar and the Prussian government have exercised tutelage over us.” (72)

After a decade of increasingly contentious debate, during which the racist attitudes of many participants on both sides of the issue were clearly articulated, the Stuttgart Congress of 1907 rejected the call for “socialist colonialism,” but the close vote of 127-108 (with 10 abstentions) reflected the strength of the opportunist current in the movement.

Rifts Revealed

Additional chapters on immigration and women’s suffrage also make the divisions among Europe’s socialists quite clear. While all Socialist parties put forward demands to protect the rights of immigrants and to grant women the franchise, substantial minorities proposed alternative policies to limit immigration and deny women equal rights.

These minority efforts were defeated, but the rifts they revealed were substantial. In the book’s closing section, on the struggle against militarism and war, readers get the clearest sense of how difficult it was to oppose war in principle and to prevent it in practice.

Did nations have the right to defend themselves against attack? If so, under what circumstances? If not, then what should workers do to stop the conflict?

The International debated these issues repeatedly, culminating in a resolution of the Stuttgart Congress which asserted that, in event of war, all parties were “bound to intervene for its speedy termination and to employ all their forces […] to rouse the masses of the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist rule.” (171)

As the events of 1914 would show, few of the participants were prepared to live up to this pledge.

For socialists in 2024, many issues at the core of this book will be familiar. Battles over the causes and impacts of mass migration, over the efficacy of parliamentary politics, over the nature of imperialism and war, and over gender equality, continue to be among the most important issues facing society.

Socialists remain divided over how to deal with them, as the messy politics of “big tent” organizations such as the DSA make clear. Taber’s collection is instructive because it shows how, despite very substantial divisions, the international socialist movement was able to provide a political home for millions of socialist workers.

At the same time, it reveals how the cleavages in the organization eventually undermined that unity and prepared the ground for its collapse. In that sense, for those who wish to avoid such a disaster, it should be essential reading.

March-April 2024, ATC 229

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