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Debates in the Second International

April 3, 2022

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.

Mike Taber

With that in mind, today I’ll speak about a new book I’m working on, a follow-up to Under the Socialist Banner. The earlier book contained all the resolutions adopted by Second International congresses from 1889 to 1912. The new book will consist of excerpts from oral debates at Second International congresses that took place between 1900 and 1910. These debates help round out the picture that can be gotten from the resolutions alone.

Key figures in the Second International participated in these exchanges — among them Karl Kautsky, August Bebel, Jules Guesde, Georgi Plekhanov, and Édouard Vaillant. Also included are right-wingers like Eduard Bernstein, Jean Jaurès, and Hendrick Van Kol. And there are left-wing figures who subsequently went on to play prominent roles in the Communist movement, such as Karl Radek, Christian Rakovsky, Clara Zetkin, and Rosa Luxemburg.

Of course, there were numerous debates at Second International congresses on many different questions. Out of all of them, the five debates I selected were: Millerandism, colonialism, immigration, women’s suffrage, and militarism. I’ll go over each one.


First, the debate on Millerandism, which concerns socialist participation in bourgeois governments. This came up at the Second International congresses of 1900 and 1904.

Alexandre Millerand had been a member of the Independent Socialist group in the French parliament. In June 1899 he accepted a position in the capitalist government of France as minister of commerce, a role that most socialists had long rejected. The controversy in the working-class movement over Millerand’s action came on the heels of the debate over Eduard Bernstein’s challenge to revolutionary Marxism, known as revisionism. These two challenges – Bernstein and Millerand – were often lumped together by revolutionary Marxists at the time.

At the Paris Congress of 1900, the main resolution on the question was drafted by Karl Kautsky. This resolution condemned socialist participation in capitalist governments in general. But he did so under so-called “normal” circumstances, leaving the door open to exceptions. “If in some special instance the political situation necessitates this dangerous expedient,” the Kautsky resolution stated, “that is a question of tactics and not of principle.” Kautsky’s intention in making this motion, as he subsequently related, was to defend a revolutionary perspective while seeking socialist unity. It was meant to be a compromise.[1]

Counterposed to the Kautsky resolution at the Paris Congress was one put forward by Enrico Ferri and Jules Guesde, rejecting the compromise and opposing socialist participation in capitalist governments under all circumstances.[2] A long debate on this question took place in a commission and at the congress plenary. I’ll quote from it.

Explaining why he supported the Kautsky resolution, Émile Vandervelde said: “we believe that the ministerial question is a question of tactics and not of principle.” Jean Jaurès stated, “I support the Kautsky motion because it leaves to the judgment of the Socialist Party how to decide the issue in each specific situation.” On the other side, Ferri warned: “We believe that the Kautsky motion contains more dangers than its author realizes. It is a slope in which the beginning is known, but not where it ends.”

At the debate’s conclusion, the Kautsky resolution was adopted by the 1900 congress by a vote of 29 to 9. Nevertheless, there was dissatisfaction with the ambiguity of this resolution, which was humorously labeled the “rubber resolution,” owing to its pliability.

Amsterdam Congress 1904: “Prolerians of All Countries: Unite!”

At the 1903 congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) held in Dresden, a resolution was adopted drafted by Kautsky and August Bebel that unambiguously condemned all socialist participation in capitalist governments, with no exceptions. The French Workers Party, led by Jules Guesde, submitted the SPD’s Dresden resolution to the 1904 Second International congress in Amsterdam, where it became known as the Dresden-Amsterdam resolution. Opposed to it was another resolution presented by Victor Adler and Émile Vandervelde, which sought to reaffirm the Kautsky resolution of 1900, with its ambiguities.[3]

It’s worth noting that at the Amsterdam Congress the only person who openly defended Millerand was Jaurès. In some ways the debate on Millerandism was reminiscent of the discussion in the world socialist movement on revisionism, in which very few people openly stated their support for Bernstein, preferring to simply carry out his perspective in practice. But to his credit, Jaurès openly defended his position, justifying it by the need to defend the French republic against monarchist threats. “[W]e believe that if the interests of our beliefs and our proletariat compel us to assist the republican bourgeoisie to resolve [such] questions, … we would not at all be betraying the principle of the class struggle.”

August Bebel answered him. While socialists certainly prefer republics as opposed to monarchies, Bebel pointed out, it’s important to recognize that both are capitalist regimes. “However much we may envy you French on account of your republic, and however much we may wish it, we do not think it worthwhile to let our heads be cracked for it. Whether bourgeois monarchy or bourgeois republic, both are class states, both must, due to their very nature, be considered as supports for the capitalist social order.” (I would interject here that Bebel’s formulation perhaps belittled a bit the importance of defending democratic rights. But his overall point was correct.)

Almost all the speakers at the congress opposing the Dresden resolution insisted that while they themselves didn’t support Millerand, nevertheless it should be left to parties in every country to make such decisions.

But there were a number of participants in the debate who expressed principled opposition to Millerandism: Luxemburg, Kautsky, Christian Rakovsky, Plekhanov, and others. Several of them brought up the question of socialist unity. Rakovsky, for example, pointed out the obvious truth that “Socialist unity is not desirable if it impedes socialist action.” And Luxemburg stressed that socialist unity could be achieved only on the basis of the class struggle.

At the conclusion of the debate, the Adler-Vandervelde resolution failed, but only by a tie vote of 21 to 21. The Dresden-Amsterdam resolution was then approved. But the closeness of the vote tells us something about the relationship of forces in the Second International at the time.


The second debate I’ll go over is on colonialism, which took place at the 1904 and 1907 congresses.

By the time of these congresses, the world socialist movement had acquired a tradition of solidarity with the struggles of oppressed nations and peoples, going back to writings by Marx and Engels on Ireland, Poland, and India.

This tradition was reaffirmed by a resolution adopted by the Second International’s congress of 1896: “The Congress declares in favor of the full autonomy of all nationalities, and its sympathy with the workers of any country at present suffering under the yoke of military, national, or other despotisms.” A second resolution of the 1896 congress gave solidarity to independence struggles in Cuba, Crete, and Macedonia.[4]

But alongside this view, a different one had begun to develop within the socialist movement. Eduard Bernstein was one of the first to openly question the socialist movement’s anticolonial stance. Writing in 1896, he stated, “We will condemn and oppose certain methods of subjugating savages. But we will not condemn the idea that savages must be subjugated and made to conform to the rules of higher civilisation.”[5]

At the Second International’s 1904 congress in Amsterdam, such a view was openly expressed on the floor.

Hendrick Van Kol, a leader of the Dutch party, began to present the perspective of “socialist colonialism” — the idea that socialism too would require colonies. He and others also defended the view being spread by capitalist spokespeople as to colonialism’s “civilizing mission” and the supposed necessity of colonialism in order to meet the needs of modern industry.

After a relatively brief discussion, a resolution was adopted by the 1904 congress that avoided either endorsing or opposing the procolonialist arguments. At the same, time, however, the congress decision backed away from the perspective adopted in 1896 of giving support to independence struggles and the fight for self-determination. The adopted resolution of 1904 instead presented an ambiguous perspective that limited itself to condemning colonial abuses but not colonialism itself. Its goal was “[t]o claim for the natives that liberty and autonomy, compatible with their state of development, bearing in mind that the complete emancipation of the colonies is the object to pursue.” In line with this perspective, the Amsterdam Congress then proceeded to adopt a resolution on India drafted by Henry Hyndman that called for “the establishment of self-government in the best form practicable by the Indians themselves.” Hyndman then inserted into his resolution three parenthetical words to show what he really meant: “under British paramountcy.”[6]

The Amsterdam Congress of 1904 thus marked a retreat from a consistent anticolonialist position. That set the stage for the debate at the Stuttgart Congress of 1907.

Reflecting the growth of opportunism within the Second International, the proponents of “socialist colonialism” secured an outright majority in the Stuttgart Congress’s colonialism commission. Reporting for this majority to the congress plenary, Van Kol laid out its procolonialist perspective, under the guise of adopting “positive” measures instead of simply putting forward “negative” views condemning colonialism.

I’ll quote from the debate to give a flavor of it.

Eduard David from Germany: “Europe needs colonies. It does not have enough of them. Without colonies, we would be comparable from an economic point of view, to China.”

Van Kol: “Certainly the crimes of colonialism are abominable. But it is not true that we are unable to reduce them and mitigate colonial policy. We Dutch are one of the oldest colonizing peoples. But we have reached the point where murder, torture, burning, and plundering are no longer everyday occurrences.”

Bernstein: “We must reject the utopian notion of abandoning the colonies. The logical consequence of such a view would be to give the United States back to the Indians.”

These views, however, were sharply answered. Opponents of colonialism rejected them entirely and called for support to the worldwide struggle against colonial rule. Among these speakers were Georg Ledebour, Emmanuel Wurm, and Harry Quelch. Julian Marchlewski refuted arguments about colonialism’s “civilizing role” by stating, “We have absolutely no right to be conceited about our so-called civilization, nor to impose it on the Asiatic peoples with their ancient civilizations that are perhaps even more advanced.”

For his part, Kautsky responded to the view “that there are two groups of peoples, one destined to rule and the other destined to be ruled.” Kautsky replied: “This is the same argument of the slave masters.”

At the end of the debate at the plenary, Van Kol sought to answer the anticolonialists. I want to read from his words verbatim, along with some of the audience interjections. You’ll see why.

“Our friend Kautsky made matters even worse with his advice on how to develop the colonies industrially. We are supposed to take the machines and tools to Africa! … Suppose we bring a machine to the Negroes of Central Africa, what will they do with it? Perhaps they will start up a war dance around it. [Loud laughter] Or increase by one the number of their innumerable gods. [Laughter]…. Perhaps the natives will destroy our machines. Perhaps they will kill us, or even eat us, and then I fear that given my superior corporeal development [Van Kol rubs his belly] I would have precedence over Kautsky. [Laughter] If we Europeans go there to Africa with tools and machines, we would be defenseless victims of the natives. Therefore we must go there with weapons in hand, even if Kautsky calls that imperialism.”

I think the sickening laughter from one section of the congress hall speaks even louder than Van Kol’s grotesque and racist words.

When the counterposed commission resolutions were brought into the congress plenary, another debate occurred. But this time the full body adopted the anticolonialist perspective of the commission minority. But only by a surprisingly narrow margin: 127 votes against 108, with 10 abstentions. The closeness of the vote indicated the strength of the opportunist trend within the Second International and its parties, foretelling what was to come.

While the procolonialist forces were pushed back at Stuttgart, the debate nevertheless shined a spotlight on one of the Second International’s weak spots: the fact that it never became a truly world movement. Even though the Second International’s reach extended to many countries, it was still predominantly a European and North American movement.

What was largely missing from the colonialism debates of 1904 and 1907 was a perspective of the colonial masses themselves as conscious architects of their own liberation. Such a view was put forward by at least one leading figure in the Second International – V. I. Lenin. On this I’d recommend you read or reread his 1913 article, “Backward Europe and Advanced Asia.”[7] Lenin’s approach would later be adopted and championed by the early Communist International.


The third debate I’ll go over is the one on immigration at the 1904 and 1907 congresses.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration became an important world political issue. In the United States over twenty million immigrants arrived between 1880 and 1920. In Argentina the figure was close to five million. In Australia it was about a million.

While most of these immigrants came from Europe, many did not. The arrival of nonwhite immigrants from Asia and Africa provoked significant racist campaigns in the United States and Australia in particular. In 1882 the US Congress adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese immigration and making it nearly impossible for those who had already come to become citizens. This law was renewed by Congress in 1892 and made indefinite in 1902. For its part, the state of California enacted laws excluding Japanese immigrants, as well.

Australia adopted an even more restrictive approach. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 established a “White Australia” policy that effectively halted the entry of non-European immigrants into the country.

The racist laws in the United States and Australia found support among major sections of the organized labor movements of these countries. The American Federation of Labor supported Chinese exclusion, and Australian unions were among the biggest supporters of the White Australia policy.

Some socialists also succumbed to the pressure, promoting hostility and racism toward immigrants. Right-wing US socialist Victor Berger, for example, warned that the country would soon have five million “yellow men” invading the country each year. If something were not done, he warned, “this country is absolutely sure to become a black-and-yellow country within a few generations.”[8]

During the 1890s, the Second International began to address the immigration issue. In 1893 a resolution urged trade unions and socialist parties to champion arriving immigrants, urging the workers’ movement “to extend among the latter the organization and the propagation of the principles of international solidarity.”[9]

At the 1896 congress, a motion put forward by Edward Aveling on behalf of a number of British labor organizations, stated that trade unions “should not appeal for restrictive legislation against the immigration of aliens.” That was adopted. A second resolution in 1896 called for solidarity with Italian immigrant workers in Switzerland who had been targeted by anti-immigrant riots.[10]

Nevertheless, the influence of anti-immigrant sentiments within the socialist movement was felt.

In 1904 the Amsterdam Congress established a separate commission on the question. A minority of this commission, led by Morris Hillquit of the American Socialist Party, presented a resolution that targeted “workers of backward races (Chinese, Negroes, etc.)” and called for the International to oppose such immigration. A majority of the commission strongly disagreed, and condemned “all legislation designed to prevent emigration.”[11]

When the commission’s counterposed resolutions came to the floor, it was decided to postpone a full discussion until the next international congress at Stuttgart in 1907.

Prior to then, the American SP submitted a resolution that called on the International “to combat with all means at their command the willful importation of cheap foreign labor calculated to destroy labor organizations, to lower the standard of living of the working class, and to retard the ultimate realization of socialism.” Although this resolution did not expressly call for immigration restrictions, such prohibitions were implied. That perspective was responded to by the majority of the immigration commission, who presented a resolution opposing all laws to exclude immigrants, terming these “in conflict with the principle of proletarian solidarity.”[12]

The debate on this question was particularly acute. Calls for immigration restrictions were advanced by Hillquit and others, along with openly prejudiced views toward Asian and Black immigrants. I’ll quote from two such remarks:

Victor Kromer from Australia: “Our workers have no hostility in principle to the Chinese and Japanese, but they are compelled to fight an immigration that is simply a capitalist maneuver to wrest from the workers the advantages they have gained. We believe that such an attitude is not contrary to the principles of socialism.”

Hillquit: “While we have absolutely no racial prejudices against the Chinese, we must frankly tell you that they cannot be organized. Only a people well advanced in its historical development, such as the Belgians and Italians in France, can be organized for the class struggle. The Chinese have lagged too far behind to be organized.”

Numerous delegates, however, answered these antisocialist views and expressed solidarity with immigrants as fellow workers.

Jules Uhry from France: “We cannot replace our unitary slogan of ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ by the declaration: ‘Proletarians of all countries: expel yourselves!’”

Julius Hammer from the US Socialist Labor Party: “There is no middle ground on this question of immigration and emigration. Either you support immigration restriction, or energetically combat it. Hillquit’s resolution … is completely antisocialist.”

Kato Tokijiro from Japan: “So why is it that only the Japanese are being excluded? The race question obviously plays a role here, and the Americans are clearly being influenced by the famous spectacle of the ‘yellow peril.’”

At the end of the debate, the US and Australian proposal was defeated, although the votes on these resolutions in both the commission and the plenary were unfortunately not recorded in the official proceedings.

But as with the debate on colonialism, the expressions of open racism and chauvinism in the immigration discussion foreshadowed the split that was to occur following 1914.

Women’s Suffrage

The fourth debate I’ll go over was on women’s suffrage at the 1907 congress. It’s worth reviewing the background to this.

Ever since the books by Bebel and Engels on the question decades earlier,[13] the Marxist movement had rooted the oppression of women squarely in capitalism and class society, and pointed out that the road to women’s emancipation lay through the proletarian struggle for socialism. Based on this perspective, socialists around the world took a firm position opposed to women’s oppression, in particular the denial of full citizenship rights such as the right to vote.

Yet while the Marxist movement had consistently supported women’s rights, there were also major weaknesses. Socialists often failed to fully see the centrality of the fight for women’s emancipation within the overall proletarian struggle. As a result, a tendency existed among many socialists to stand aside from concrete struggles for women’s rights, seeing them as diversions, and viewing women’s emancipation as simply a by-product of socialism.

Recalling this situation years later, Clara Zetkin stated: “Women’s activity was regarded more or less as that of a servant to the party or union, and its true significance as a meaningful factor in the proletarian struggle for liberation was not recognised.”[14]

Prior to 1907, the Second International had adopted a number of resolutions on women’s emancipation, including support for women’s suffrage.

Despite these formally adopted resolutions, however, most socialist parties tended to downplay the women’s suffrage issue, along with women’s rights in general. This political stance reflected the small number of women in the socialist movement at the time and the minimal role they were assigned, with their efforts and capabilities consistently underestimated and undervalued.

To address this situation, among other reasons, women within the socialist movement began to organize collectively. Right before the Stuttgart congress founding conference of the international socialist women’s movement took place. The main organizer and leader of this conference was Zetkin.

The central political campaign outlined at the 1907 women’s conference was the fight for the right to vote. A political debate occurred there around this issue, with divergences coming from two directions.

Firstly, delegates from the British Fabian Society and Independent Labour Party advocated support for measures to grant limited women’s suffrage, based on property qualifications, viewing this as a step in the right direction. Such property-qualification proposals were being supported by some organizations of more privileged women, who could accurately be characterized as bourgeois feminists.

Secondly, some delegates from Austria backed the position of that country’s Social Democratic Party during an election campaign that had recently been held there. A fight was under way in Austria for universal male suffrage, and the party had decided not to make an issue of women’s suffrage, seeing it as secondary to what it saw as the more important fight.

Zetkin strongly opposed both views. “Our opinion is that the struggle for women’s suffrage cannot be separated from the political struggles of the male proletariat. We oppose those who want women’s suffrage to be separated from future struggles for tactical reasons.” As for limited suffrage, Zetkin explained that “Limited suffrage is a privilege of property and not a universal right…. [T]he disenfranchisement of proletarian women is a blow against the working class as a whole.”

The international women’s conference adopted Zetkin’s resolution by a vote of 47-to-11 calling for an international campaign for universal women’s suffrage. The resolution of the women’s conference was then brought into the Second International’s Stuttgart congress, where it was debated first in commission and then at the full plenary. In the commission, a motion by Victor Adler to largely uphold the policy of the Austrian party was defeated by 9 votes against 12. In the plenary, the resolution was adopted with a single opposing vote, coming from the representative of the Fabian Society.

It’s worth pointing out that that Zetkin’s forceful presentation at the Stuttgart Congress defending women’s rights still bears reading today in its description of the role of the struggle for women’s emancipation as an indispensable component of the working-class fight for socialism. It will be included in the new book.

Militarism and War

The fifth and last debate I’ll take up was on the question of militarism and war at the 1907 and 1910 congresses.

All but one of the nine congresses of the Second International between 1889 and 1912 adopted resolutions on militarism and war. No other single question received so much attention. The various resolutions contained a number of elements: A call to abolish the standing army, to be replaced by an armed citizen’s militia; the need to oppose capitalist military expenditures; the demand for disarmament and binding arbitration to settle international disputes; opposition to secret treaties; among others.

But it was the 1907 debate at the Stuttgart Congress on the subject that had the deepest impact.

Four resolutions were originally presented to the congress commission taking up the question. The main one, put forward by August Bebel on behalf of the German SPD, was largely a restatement of resolutions adopted at previous congresses condemning capitalist militarism. But it lacked any concrete provisions regarding action to be taken by the working class in response to the threat of war. A second resolution, put forward by Jean Jaurès and Édouard Vaillant for the majority of the French delegation, presented the position that French delegates had been pushing for years on the need to meet war threats with a general strike. A more extreme version of this view was a resolution by Gustave Hervé, which called for meeting war threats with insurrection and military disobedience. The final resolution, put forward by Jules Guesde, rejected any special antiwar measures apart from the general fight for socialism.

In the discussion, Bebel defended his resolution, saying that “we struggle with all our strength against the prevailing militarism, as expressed in the army, the navy, and any other form. Beyond that, however, we must not allow ourselves to be pressured into using methods of struggle that could gravely threaten the activity and, under certain circumstances, the very existence of the party.”

Hervé then gave a somewhat comical defense of his ultraleft position. Whatever his speech may have lacked in political content, it made up for in entertainment value.

For their part, Jaurès and Vaillant defended their resolution. In Vaillant’s words, “It is necessary that the International no longer be a large force whose weapons are latent, with its arms dangling helplessly, assisting in events. Rather, it must be a living force that knows how to push back our enemies, until the day comes when they can be annihilated.”

Of note is that the debate featured a few hints of the chauvinist degeneration of the Second International that would become evident in 1914. Georg Vollmar, a prominent opportunist within the SPD stated: “I know why socialism must be international, but my love for humanity can never prevent me from being a good German.”

While the debate had some interesting moments, it at first lacked focus. Until Rosa Luxemburg took the floor and presented a series of amendments to Bebel’s resolution prepared by her, V. I. Lenin, and Julius Martov. These amendments sharpened the Bebel resolution considerably, spelling out the need not just for the working class to oppose these wars formally but also to take concrete action against them. And to do so, as she told the delegates, “our agitation should aim at not merely ending the war, but also utilizing it to hasten the overthrow of class rule in general.”

These amendments were eventually incorporated into Bebel’s draft, and the amended resolution was unanimously adopted by the commission and the plenary as a whole. This was a major victory for the left. The decisive last paragraph of the resolution, coming out of these amendments, would be repeated verbatim in the resolutions adopted by Second International congresses in 1910 and 1912. I’ll read it:

“In case war should break out … [socialists] shall be bound to intervene for its speedy termination, and to employ all their forces to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war in order to rouse the masses of the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”[15]

But for most leaders of the Second International, this revolutionary call was merely words.

Three years later, at the 1910 congress in Copenhagen, discussion on militarism and war focused on demands for disarmament and international arbitration of disputes. There was some debate on these questions in the militarism commission. Karl Radek, representing Poland, pointed out the utopian nature of many of the disarmament demands. Most other commission members, however, disagreed with him.

An amendment was put forward by Keir Hardie and Édouard Vaillant calling for aggressive international action against war threats, similar to the Vaillant-Jaurès resolution at Stuttgart. This amendment was tabled to a future world congress.

The resolution ultimately adopted by the Copenhagen Congress restated the conclusions of the Stuttgart resolution. There was little in the discussion, however, that would give much confidence that it would actually be put into practice.

As can be seen when you read the debates, confusion existed within the Second International on the question of national wars and on the distinction between offensive and defensive conflicts. Such a distinction had meaning during some of the wars that occurred during the nineteenth-century, when one could distinguish wars of conquest from wars to defend national sovereignty. At the Stuttgart Congress, Bebel stressed this distinction, declaring “that it is easy now to determine in any given case whether a war is defensive or whether it is offensive in character.”

But the distinction between offensive and defensive conflicts came to have little meaning in the era of imperialist wars. During World War I, for example, social chauvinists within the Second International from all countries claimed their countries were each fighting defensive wars, using this argument to justify support to one or another side in the conflict.

Today, over a century later, we’ve also seen how the issue of national defense and national sovereignty can obscure the tasks facing the working-class movement in wartime. I’m obviously referring here to the events in Ukraine.

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.

Second International’s Legacy

I’ll conclude by making three short observations on the debates I’ve talked about:

First, each of them clearly shows the development and growth of opportunism, and the crystallization of trends within the Second International. Not just does this emerge clearly from the positions expressed in formal written resolutions they presented, but even more so in the words used to justify positions.

Second, they show the Second International’s strong points, and not just its weaknesses. Many of the opportunists’ arguments were answered clearly and effectively in the spirit of revolutionary Marxism.

Third is the need to situate oneself in time, and not to look at these debates solely in hindsight. Readers should instead try and put themselves in the shoes of the protagonists. To see things as they would have seen them, given what they knew at the time.

Reading these debates today, you can’t help but see the inevitability of the split that took place following 1914. Yet in the years prior to 1914, not a single left-wing leader raised the need for such a split. Not Lenin. Not Rosa Luxemburg. None of them challenged the Second International’s unity.

Here something important needs to be kept in mind. Prior to 1914, the Second International was not just an international organization of socialists. It was also seen by both left and right alike as a sort of world parliament of the working-class movement. Maintaining the unity of this parliament was considered by all sides as virtually a matter of principle.

Were Lenin and Luxemburg wrong not to call for a split earlier? Were they simply blind to what was going on? The answer to these questions is no. History doesn’t work that way. Rather, one has to situate all the figures during the time in which they lived, and assess them based on what they knew then and what their parties faced in practice.

The last thing I’ll say is to come back to a point I made at the beginning. The Second International was a movement. A living movement of human beings, containing different trends, contradictions, strengths, and weaknesses. And it was a reflection of the working-class movement of the time. One can’t fully appreciate the Second International prior to 1914 without grasping this point.

Finally, I hope that reading these debates will serve as a contribution to obtaining an accurate and rounded assessment of the Second International. Doing so can be of benefit to a new generation of socialists and communists, helping them to better understand socialism’s legacy and to see where they fit into it.


[1] Mike Taber, ed., Under the Socialist Banner (USB) (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), p. 77.

[2] USB, p. 150.

[3] USB, pp. 83–4, 151.

[4] USB, pp. 52, 64.

[5] From Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (eds.), Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p. 11.

[6] USB, pp. 89, 90.

[7] Lenin, “Backward Europe and Advanced Asia” in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 19, pp. 99–100. It can also be found in Marxists Internet Archive at:

[8] John Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1984), p. 16.

[9] USB, p. 43.

[10] USB, pp. 60, 64.

[11] USB, p. 153.

[12] USB, p. 156, 110.

[13] August Bebel, Women and Socialism (1879); Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[14] In John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Haymarket: 2016, p. 780.

[15] USB, p. 105.


  1. Aaron Ruby permalink

    Excellent presentation by Mike Taber, as always.

    His comment on the current war against Ukraine was on the money. However, I have one question that I have been ruminating over.

    “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.”

    I have no difficulty demanding: Russia Out of Ukraine AND U.S. Out of Europe, AND Abolish NATO!

    There indeed exists a capitalist government in Ukraine, and at present there appears to be no working class revolutionary movement. Obviously, a workers movement would demand that the Trade Unions be armed.

    I can’t recall the last time that a capitalist government has engaged in a fight of National Liberation by an oppressed people, and not simply acquiesced to imperialist domination. Perhaps someone can provide some example.

    How does the fight against the Russian invaders in the absence of a workers movement get articulated now, under these conditions? Wouldn’t communist workers join the armed forces of Ukraine (the Territorial Militia)?

    Thanks for publishing this.

  2. Mike Taber says Russia’s war on Ukraine is an inter-imperialist war. Revolutionary Marxists “can completely oppose… the Russian invasion” but they must at the same time refuse “to give an ounce of support” to the resistance of the Ukrainian people, which he identifies with “the Ukrainian capitalist regime and its US and NATO backers.” The “distinction between offensive and defensive conflicts” has little meaning in the era of imperialist wars, he says. The “issue of national defense and national sovereignty can obscure the tasks facing the working-class movement.” We should no longer “distinguish wars of conquest from wars to defend national sovereignty. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Russia’s war is a war of conquest, as Putin openly admits, a war for “regime change” and the forcible incorporation of Ukraine into the Great Russian sphere of influence. Although the backdrop to the war is NATO’s encirclement of Russia, this does not justify the attempt to eliminate Ukraine’s sovereignty, its political independence, which the Ukrainian masses are fighting to defend. Ukraine is not threatening to invade Russia. Revolutionary Marxists should have no hesitation in defending the Ukrainians’ heroic resistance to Russia’s aggression, even though Ukraine is led by a capitalist government and “backed” by NATO.

    Even if you reduce it to an inter-imperialist conflict, as Taber does, that does not mean that socialists should deny support to the Ukraine resistance. Has he forgotten the Zimmerwald conference, the first major gathering of antiwar Marxists in WWI? Its Manifesto stated that “entire nations and countries like Belgium, Poland, the Balkan states, and Armenia are threatened with the fate of being torn asunder, annexed in whole or in part as booty in the game of compensation.” Listing the tasks before the international working-class movement, the Manifesto said “The right of self-determination of nations must be the indestructible principle in the system of national relationships of peoples.” In a joint statement to the conference, the German and French delegations denounced “the violation of Belgian neutrality” and demanded “restoration of Belgium to its complete integrity and independence.” In a message to the conference from prison, the German antiwar deputy Karl Liebknecht called for “a peace that could restore unfortunate Belgium… to freedom and independence….” And Belgium was an imperialist country, a brutal colonizer of a large section of Africa, the Congo! See Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (ed. John Riddell). Further materials may be found by consulting the book’s index under “Belgium” and “Self-determination.” See also Lenin, “The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up” (1916).

  3. prianikoff permalink

    Simply defending Ukraine’s right to self-determination can easily become an excuse for dissolving into a cross-class patriotic opposition to the Russian forces. Such a position is no more valid today than it was in France during World War 2.

    This is precisely the position advocated by an Anarcho-Syndicalist called Taras Kobzar, in an interview published by International Viewpoint on April 4th.

    Kobzar claims :-
    “ Three tendencies with their own historical traditions, stemming from the revolution and civil war of a century ago (1917-1922), are now organically linked in Ukraine: the Makhnovschina, the Petlyurovschina and the Hetmanschina.

    The Makhnovshchina has its roots in the anarchist tradition of the Ukrainian people, which is embodied today in the self-organization …and territorial defence; the Petlyurovshchina is the army and national republican associations; the Hetmanschtchina is state power and the business world.

    All these tendencies are now united by the same desire to defend the country, by the same concern to see this country develop freely and independently.”

    In case anyone needs reminding;

    * Nestor Makhno’s forces alternately allied themselves with the Reds and Whites during the Civil War, before being suppressed by Trotsky’s Red Army.

    * Petliura was President of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic and commanded its armed forces when they fought the October Revolution, carrying out numerous pogroms in the process. (He was subsequently assassinated in Paris by Sholom Schwarzbard, whose relatives were amongst their victims)

    * The Hetmanate was a warlord government sponsored by German Imperialism.

    It’s sickening that IVP can publish such an interview, which implies that uniting these groups in the name of ‘national defence’ is justifiable in modern Ukraine.
    What next, OUN-B?

    This is why simply defending self-determination is a dangerous trap.
    And why Trotsky explicitly called for an Independent *Socialist* Ukraine.
    Nor was he under any illusion that this was the key demand in the impending Imperialist World War.

  4. Cathy Gutekanst permalink

    It’s very inspiring to see early leaders of the socialist movement fighting for women’s rights, for immigration rights, and against racism and national chauvinism, particularly when these debates are put in the context of the time that these debates took place.
    Thanks, Mike

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