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The Second International’s Conflicted Legacy

Second International Congress 1904

By Mike Taber: Virtually all socialists today are direct descendants of the Second International of 1889 to 1914.  Also known as the Socialist International, this movement grouped the greater part of the world’s organized working class under the banner of socialist revolution, and was viewed by capitalists everywhere as a threat to their existence. Yet relatively few twenty-first-century socialists know much about this organization’s history or what it represented.

Editor’s note: This text has also been published by Monthly Review Online

For left-wing socialists in particular, the Second International is often associated almost exclusively with its betrayal of internationalism in 1914 at the start of the First World War. At that time the Second International suffered an ignominious collapse, as its leading parties abandoned socialist principles and gave open support to their respective governments’ war efforts.

The fact that the Second International was re-created in 1919 as a formation committed to maintaining the capitalist order, with a few reforms, has contributed to such an image. Not only did the post-1919 Second International oppose the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia, but it worked energetically to suppress the revolutionary wave that engulfed much of Europe and Asia following the end of the war.  Its social-democratic successors have largely continued along these lines up to the present day.

This image of the pre-1914 Second International helps explain the fact that prior to the publication of my book, Under the Socialist Banner, the resolutions of its nine congresses had never before been assembled and published in English. Some of these resolutions were virtually unknown. Many had been exceedingly difficult to even find.

While there are good reasons to reject what the Second International became after 1914, ignoring or downplaying its legacy is nevertheless a mistake. Doing so means turning one’s back on an important part of the socialist movement’s history and traditions. Moreover, it means ceding this legacy to social-democratic currents that have betrayed or distorted socialism’s message for over a century. The best of this legacy, however, legitimately belongs to revolutionary socialists. Understanding the Second International’s strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions can be of major benefit for the movement today. Read more…

The Comintern’s Twenty-One Conditions, 1920

Editor’s Note on the 21 Conditions

During 1920, a wide range of socialist parties and currents were considering affiliation to the newly formed Communist International. Many of these formations were still mired, in their policies and practices, in the weaknesses of the Second International, which had collapsed at the outset of the World War in 1914.

Capitalism in Europe was still deeply shaken by the impact of world war and post-war crisis.

When the Communist International gathered for its first full congress in July 1920, many delegates raised the need to establish criteria for membership in the new International.

Giacomo Serrati – a leader of the centrist current in the Comintern’s Italian section – told the Congress that no tool yet existed – no “sincerometer” – to measure the sincerity of would be Comintern members.

Lenin retorted that “we already have an instrument for defining tendencies,” referring no doubt to the program of Marxism.

Nonetheless, the congress set up a commission to draft written standards. The result was a short list, the “Twenty-One Conditions,” which proved to be instrumental in the International’s subsequent expansion and consolidation. The first 19 conditions were drafted by Lenin; Theses 20 and 21 were developed in a commission during the World Congress. The Twenty-One Conditions appear here on line for the first time in searchable form. Read more…

Socialist Viewpoints on War in Ukraine

In his presentation to the London-based Online Communist Forum – printed on this website (“Debates in the Second International”) – Mike Taber made the following statement on Ukraine, drawing parallels to Second International debates on the question of militarism and war:

“Consistent with the approach that revolutionary socialists took following 1914, one can completely oppose and condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while at the same time refusing to give an ounce of support to the forces of the Ukrainian capitalist regime and its US and NATO backers. Above all, socialists within the United States and other imperialist countries should see as their number-one task to oppose the war moves of their own government.”

That statement elicited several comments by readers, along with a response to these by Taber. Given the importance of the question, we thought it best to separate these comments out into a separate post, beginning with Taber’s response.

By Mike Taber

Here is my response to various points raised in the exchange. Read more…

Debates in the Second International

The following is an edited version of a talk given at the Online Communist Forum, based in London UK, on 27 March 2022. In it Mike Taber discusses a new book he is preparing, to be published by Haymarket Books.

By Mike Taber: Thanks for the invitation to speak at the Online Communist Forum. Some of you will remember my forum here two years ago, when I spoke about Under the Socialist Banner, then in preparation. That book helped provide a clearer and more rounded picture of what the Second International of 1889–1914 actually was, as registered in its adopted congress resolutions. 

It also posed the way the Second International is viewed today by both right-wing and left-wing socialists. Most contemporary social democrats think there was too much Marxism in the pre-1914 Second International, not enough political realism, as they see it. For their part, many left-wing socialists and communists tend to think either that the Second International was fundamentally flawed from the outset, or else they simply don’t give it a lot of attention.

What such views have in common is that they tend to look at the Second International as a thing, a historical object. Not as a movement. And like any living mass movement, it had its own strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions that need to be studied and assessed accurately and in context. Read more…

‘Fascinating Material’ on Pre-1914 Socialist International

The following review was first published in Marx and Philosophy and is reposted with permission. Mike Taber’s 220-page collection of resolutions of the Second International is available as a paperback from Haymarket Books with bundled ebook for US$13.26. Page references are to the Haymarket edition.

By Daniel Gaido: Mike Taber has edited for the first time the resolutions adopted between 1889 and 1912 by the nine congresses celebrated by the Socialist International, which is also known as the Second International. This scholarly edition involved a considerable work of translation: the official proceedings of the congresses were published in German (all nine) and French (six of them), and only one congress had its proceedings published in English (the London Congress of 1896).

Besides providing English versions of all the resolutions in chronological order, the editor has accompanied them with an exceedingly useful critical apparatus. Taber’s Introduction provides an overview of the general characteristics and development tendencies of the Second International, its accomplishments and strengths as well as its weaknesses and contradictions, and finally its legacy and contemporary relevance. The critical apparatus also includes shorter introductions to each one of the nine congresses, expounding key debates within each congress, together with an Afterword on the collapse of the Second International in 1914 and an Appendix on several unapproved resolutions. Read more…

Clara Zetkin on the Path to Workers’ Power

Address to the Fifth Comintern Congress, 1924

Edited by Bob Schwarz: The following extended address by Clara Zetkin to the Communist International’s fifth congress (1924) presents the most rounded defense by a Marxist leader of the call for a workers’ united front, which the International had adopted in 1921.  Toward the end of Part 2 of this address, she provided a compact explanation of the “workers’ government” concept, probably the most precise left to us from the Comintern’s early years.

Zetkin’s speech was delivered 24 June 1924, at the 11th session of the fifth congress, during discussion of Grigorii Zinoviev’s opening address, “Report on the Work of the Executive Committee.”[1]

This English translation of Clara Zetkin’s speech is taken from International Press Correspondence (Inprecorr) issue no. 47 (23 July 1924) pp. 485–8. The transcript of Zetkin’s speech published in Inprecorr (English edition) is reproduced with light editing after comparison with the German-language stenographic transcript printed at the time in Internationale Presse-Korrespondenz, no. 85 (1924), pp. 1066–1070.

Zetkin’s address has been divided here into two sections of roughly equal length:

  1. October 1923: Zetkin Assesses a Communist Bid for Power
  2. 1924: Zetkin Reviews the Comintern’s Failed “October”

Read more…

Zhang Tailei: ‘Thunderstorm’ of China’s Revolution

Zhang Tailei

The following short biography of an early Chinese Communist was first published in Friends of Socialist China with the following introduction.

In this paper, presented at the Fifteenth Forum of the World Association for Political Economy (WAPE), held 18-19 December 2021 at the Shanghai International Studies University and online, John Riddell introduces the life of an early pioneer and martyr of the Chinese revolution, honoured in his own country, but who deserves to be better known internationally.

John, a lifelong socialist activist, is the founding editor of the Comintern Publishing Project and probably the foremost contemporary scholar of the early Communist International (Comintern) working in the English language. He has translated and edited numerous volumes of Comintern proceedings. We are grateful to him for making his paper available to us. – Friends of Socialist China.

By John Riddell: To understand the rise of China, it is helpful to get acquainted with the life and work of lesser-known figures who contributed to the liberation struggle. Such an activist is Zhang Tailei (1898–1927), whom I learned of while translating the proceedings of a global Communist congress held in 1921.[1] Read more…

The ‘German October’ of 1923: A Failed Bid for Workers’ Power

The text that follows will be included in a new collection, Lenin’s Comintern Revisited, scheduled for publication in 2022.

Hyperinflation: A trillion-mark banknote in Germany, 1923

By John Riddell: On 11 January 1923, France and Belgium sent their armies to occupy the Ruhr region, the industrial heartland of Germany. The invaders’ stated goal was to extract the reparations payments imposed on Germany in the 1919 Versailles treaty that ended World War I.

The French-Belgian occupation pushed Germany into a political and economic crisis that deepened as the year progressed, propelling the German working class toward revolutionary action.

In October 1923, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) launched an insurrectionary bid for power – an attempt to repeat the Bolshevik victory of October 1917 that became known to historians as the “German October.” The failure of this attempt led to widespread dismay in the KPD, an outcome that helped tip the Comintern as a whole into a process of retreat and decline.[1] Read more…

Reform or Revolution? The Lessons of Chile

The following article first appeared on, a website for online political analysis and interpretation of events. It is a contribution to a debate on the lessons of previous revolutions that was begun with articles by Eric Blanc and Mike Taber. Both earlier articles appeared on this website and were reprinted on in two parts: see part 1 and part 2.

By Geoff Mirelowitz: September 11, 2021, marked the 48th anniversary of the 1973 bloody military coup, backed by Washington, which overthrew the elected Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government led by Salvador Allende in Chile.

On September 12, Jacobin, a magazine that describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” published an interview by Mia Dragnic with Tomás Moulian titled, “Salvador Allende Was Overthrown Because His Government Showed Chile Could Be Transformed.” Moulian is a sociologist today. According to Jacobin, he was “one of the leading militants of the Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU Obrero Campesino), a left-wing party that played a key role in Allende’s Popular Unity government,” and a “pre-candidate for the Communist Party in the 2005 presidential election.”

Eric Blanc’s article, “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons from the Russian Revolution,” also originally appeared in Jacobin in July.

At first glance, these two articles may seem unrelated. Blanc does not discuss the defeat in Chile and Moulian’s interview does not refer to Blanc’s article. However, both pose the same issues: How can a fight be led to end the evils of capitalism and transform society to open the road to socialism? Is a genuine revolution led by the working class necessary to achieve this?

“The central task, and the key political dilemma,” Blanc argues, “is how to fight for transformative reforms that strengthen and unite the working class, especially in ways that open up, rather than close off, avenues for further organizing workers to overcome capitalist domination.” Read more…

China Sets Target of ‘Common Prosperity’

Effort for Social Equality Arouses Concern on Wall Street

By John Riddell: Addressing the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee on 17 August  2021, Xi Jinping, president of the Chinese People’s Republic, stressed the need for “common prosperity” as a fundamental requirement of socialism.[1] The Central Committee responded by calling on high-income individuals and businesses to “give back more to society.”[2]

Big-businesses media in the West have reacted to this development with expressions of concern. “The End of a ‘Gilded Age’: China is Bringing Business to Heel,” declared A New York Times headline. “Where once executives had a green light to grow at any cost,” the Times continued, “officials now want to dictate which industries boom, which ones bust.”[3]

From a capitalist viewpoint, it’s a troubling prospect. A study by the Brookings Institute, a U.S.-based corporate brain trust, warned darkly that the “common prosperity” policy could lead to a possible $1 trillion wipe-out of Chinese corporate market values.[4] In fact, stock markets in the People’s Republic of have remained stable. Read more…

Krestintern: The Comintern’s Troubled Peasant International

Part 9 of a nine-part series on auxiliary organizations of the Communist International.

Launched in  1923 in Moscow, the Peasant International, or Krestintern, was at least in organizational terms perhaps the least successful of the auxiliary bodies built by the Communist International (Comintern).

Within two years of its foundation, attention to the Peasant International “visibly languished,” according to historian E.H. Carr. Although the structure survived until 1939, its only “effective and durable creation,” Carr states, “was the International Agrarian Institute in Moscow.”[1]

Nonetheless, Krestintern was an expression of a historic breakthrough by Marxism in charting a path to unity of working people in the factories and on the land.

Revolutionary peasant movements played a decisive role in twentieth-century anti-capitalist revolutions, notably in China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Moreover, in recent decades, the most effective global alliance of exploited working people has been the peasant-based La Via Campesina.[2]

Read more…

The Red Sports International (1921–1937)

Harnessing Recreation to the Revolution

Part 8 of a nine-part series on auxiliary organizations of the Communist International

By John Riddell: On 23 June 1921, a gathering of about 20 Communists in Moscow founded an international association to unify “revolutionary proletarian sports and gymnastics organizations … into support centers for the proletariat in its class struggle.”[1]

Merging sports and class struggle on a global scale? A tall order, to be sure. But the 1921 Moscow initiative rested on two solid pillars: the traditions of the prewar Second International and the achievements of the young Soviet republic.

The Moscow consultation on sports brought together delegates from eight countries who happened to be attending the Third World Congress of the Communist International then in session. However, the initiative came not from the Comintern but from Nikolai Podvoisky, head of the Soviet Council for Physical Culture, an agency charged with preparing Soviet youth for military conscription.[2] 

Read more…

Comintern Engagement in the Global Cooperative Movement

Defending Unity in a Reformist-Led International

Part Seven of a nine-part series on auxiliary organizations of the Communist International.

By John Riddell: Among the Communist International’s “auxiliary” work areas, the workers’ cooperatives were unique in terms of the Communists’ focus on working through a mainstream, reformist-dominated movement. The Comintern made no attempt to form a separate International of revolutionary-led cooperatives.

This self-limiting policy may help explain why Communist involvement in cooperatives received relatively little attention either in the Comintern at that time or in subsequent historical writing.

Then and now, cooperatives have made up a vast and heterogeneous category of commercial and social enterprises. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) defines a cooperative as an “autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”

In such a cooperative enterprise, capitalists play no role – at least, not directly.

Read more…

‘International Manifesto Group’ Founded

A Report on the Manifesto’s 5 September Launch

The newly formed group International Manifesto Group, convened by Radhika Desai, unites socialists on six continents. The text of the group’s declaration: “From Pluripolarity to Socialism: A Manifesto,” is available at the International Manifesto Group website, along with a listing of its more than 200 signatories and videos of its past public meetings. The manifesto remains open for further signatories. The following account of its founding event was written by Charles McKelvey. The final section of his text expresses his personal assessment of the text. His article is excerpted with thanks from his blog, “Knowledge, Ideology, and Real Socialism in Our Times.”–John Riddell

By Charles McKelvey: The International Manifesto Group, a world-wide group of concerned activists and scholars, launched its recently released manifesto, “Through Pluripolarity to Socialism,” in a zoom event on 5 September 2021. More than 120 persons from around the world participated in the three-hour event, which consisted of ten minutes presentations by invited guests.

The event was convened by Radhika Desai, a professor in Canada. She explained that the group was formed shortly after the pandemic started. It was clear to the participants that humanity is in a moment of crisis, which implies both dangers and opportunities. In focusing on what ought to be done, the group decided to propose a manifesto, which has gone through various drafts and is now finalized.

Read more…

Trotsky, Krupskaya, and the Bolshevik Tradition

By Paul Le Blanc:[1] This discussion of Trotsky’s relationship to Lenin’s Bolshevik organization will be based on reflections of Nadezhda Krupskaya, one of the founders and central figures of the Bolshevik tradition, for three decades a close comrade and companion of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who led the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The life and ideas of Leon Trotsky are well known, and they will be touched on in the main portion of this presentation. But before coming to that, I want to focus additional attention on Nadezhda Krupskaya.[2]

Based in Pittsburgh, Paul Le Blanc is an educator, historian, and longtime socialist activist.  His newest book — ‘Revolutionary Collective: Comrades, Critics and Dynamics in the Struggle for Socialism’ — will be published by Haymarket Books later this year. See also Paul Le Blanc’s webinar presentation on Krupskaya and Trotsky, which includes with my own comment on Trotsky’s later collaboration with U.S. socialists.

Impressions and Reality

A diminished notion of who she was is common. We can see it in the attitude of a young Bolshevik intellectual of 1904 who later became an older Menshevik intellectual, Nikolay Valentinov. Recalling many years later his relations with Lenin and Krupskaya (in his book Encounters with Lenin), he conveyed his thoughts of that time in nine words: “Lenin interests me very much, Krupskaya not at all.”[3]

Nadezhda Krupskaya

One aspect of Krupskaya’s mediocre intellect, according to Valentinov, was reflected in what he viewed as her revolutionary platitudes. “I winced,” he writes, “every time Krupskaya enunciated, with a special stress and in the tone of a school mistress, such truisms as ‘the Russian worker lives badly,’ ‘our peasants have no rights,’ or ‘the autocracy is the enemy of the people.’” Of course, there was a flip-side: such truisms – free from interesting intellectual embellishments that might have interested him – were inseparable from her daily consciousness, animating the life she had chosen to live.[4]

Valentinov had little patience for such stuff. “Lenin was the only subject I cared to discuss with Krupskaya,” he tells us. “I respected her, but I thought that intellectually she was a very commonplace person. There was nothing striking or distinctive about her.” In saying this, he seemed to be missing the central role she was playing in coordinating communications and organizational work within the network of Bolshevik activists inside and outside of Russia. It may be that the essential byways involving such practical matters meant much less to him than the more interesting avenues of polemics and theorizing. He goes on to share these revealing comments: “There were undoubtedly hundreds of women revolutionaries like her: she belonged to the category of unfeminine women among them, I should say.… Lepeshinsky maintained that Krupskaya had been very beautiful during her Siberian exile, some five years earlier. Somehow, I did not believe this.…”[5]

Read more…