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The Second International’s Conflicted Legacy

July 3, 2022

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.

Revolutionary Origins and Program

Through reading all the resolutions adopted by Second International congresses between 1889 and 1912, one conclusion is inescapable: these documents were guided, as a whole, by revolutionary Marxism.

While Second International congresses championed the fight for reforms in the interests of working people—the eight-hour day, state-sponsored insurance and pensions, public education, votes for women, the right to asylum, and other reform measures—they rejected the idea that capitalism as a system could be reformed. They called for the working class to take political power and expropriate the capitalist owners of the major industries. They insisted that the working class itself was the agent of its own emancipation.

Such a perspective was firmly established at the Second International’s founding congress in 1889 held in Paris by the Marxist wing of the workers’ movement. A rival congress was organized by reformist forces in France—the “Possibilists,” who held that working people should restrict themselves to fighting for what they considered possible under capitalism. From the very beginning the Second International therefore needed to counterpose a revolutionary program to a reformist one.

One resolution adopted by the 1889 congress summarized the revolutionary goal of the new movement—known at the time as Social Democracy—declaring “that the emancipation of labor and humanity cannot occur without the international action of the proletariat—organized in class-based parties—which seizes political power through the expropriation of the capitalist class and the social appropriation of the means of production.”[1]

One generally overlooked fact is the key role played by Frederick Engels in the Second International’s birth. As the lifelong collaborator of Karl Marx, Engels worked tirelessly on the organization and preparation of the Second International’s founding congress. He gave special attention to ensuring that it not compromise on programmatic questions with the Possibilists. While not opposed in principle to a united congress with them, he insisted that only a clear revolutionary program could lay the foundations for a successful international movement. Engels’s extensive correspondence with the congress organizers would fill a small volume.[2]

Through his work, Engels helped link the Second International back to the Communist Manifesto that he had co-authored with Marx forty years earlier. Until his death in 1895, Engels played an important advisory role in the world movement, helping to ensure that it maintained its perspective as an irreconcilable revolutionary opponent of capitalism.

Strengths and Weaknesses

In the quarter century of its existence prior to World War I, the Second International had a number of important accomplishments to its credit. Among these were its efforts to unify the global working-class movement under the banner of Marxism and to popularize the movement’s strategic aim: the revolutionary overturn of the capitalist class and its replacement by the rule of the proletariat, as a first step toward the establishment of socialism.

Two dates on the calendar today owe their existence to the Second International: May Day, established at the movement’s founding congress in 1889 as a demonstration of working-class power around the world; and International Women’s Day, initiated in 1910 as a worldwide day of action for working women in the fight for full social and political rights.

The Second International showed the potential power of the organized working class and its capacity to remake society. By winning millions of working people to socialism and organizing them into the fight against capitalism, the Second International helped create the preconditions for successful revolutionary struggle.

But behind this real and potential power were significant weaknesses and contradictions.

One such weakness involved its geographic axis. Even though the Second International’s reach extended to many countries, it still remained predominantly a European and North American organization, and never became a truly world movement. While congress resolutions gave support to anticolonial struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, most sections of the Second International still possessed an underappreciation of them.

Similarly, the International’s resolutions often lacked an adequate appreciation of the strategic allies the working class would need in its struggle—from toilers in the colonial world to working farmers and peasants, small shopkeepers, victims of national oppression, and others.

More importantly, even though congress resolutions formally called for the revolutionary replacement of capitalism, the Second International as a whole lacked a clear perspective on the role of revolutionary action in such a transformation. The relationship between reform and revolution was a constant point of friction and debate.

Gap Between Word and Deed

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Second International, however, was the gap that developed between word and deed.

During the early twentieth century, the day-to-day practice of most Social Democratic parties became increasingly dominated by a reformist and nonrevolutionary perspective, focused around winning incremental reforms and putting the perspective of socialist transformation off to the distant future. Within the trade unions—most of which were led by socialist parties—bureaucracies developed with a class-collaborationist outlook.

The consequences of this evolution were fully seen in 1914. In clear violation of numerous the Second International resolutions, the main parties of the Second International renounced their past pledges and lined up, one by one, behind their governments’ efforts in World War I. Millions of workers and others were sent to their deaths with the support of these parties.

It was precisely this gap between word and deed that revolutionary socialists at the time pointed to as the central problem of the Second International. The biggest critics of the betrayal of 1914, such as V. I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, spoke of this gap in the sharpest terms.

In making these criticisms, however, Lenin and Luxemburg never renounced the resolutions the Second International had adopted. Quite the contrary. During the years of the First World War, they constantly referred to the best of these resolutions as a way of illustrating the extent to which the Second International’s majority leaders were violating these resolutions in practice.

When the Communist International was organized in 1919, it openly stated that its intention was to bridge the gap between word and deed. The manifesto of the Comintern’s First Congress, in fact, openly described itself as “the International of the deed.”[3]

Issues of Relevance Today

Most of the major questions facing socialists at the present time are not new, having come up previously in different forms and in other contexts. Many of the issues in the fight today nevertheless bear a similarity to what the Second International took up over a century ago:

Political power. Probably the single biggest thread running through the resolutions adopted at Second International congresses was that every major issue facing working people was inextricably tied to the question of political power, and the need to replace domination by capitalists and landlords with the rule of working people. A revolutionary transformation of the entire social order was necessary.

War and militarism. Workers need to oppose all imperialist wars, Second International resolutions asserted. Not an ounce of support should be extended to these ventures, they insisted. The fight against militarism and war, together with the entire war machine, is a key task, part of the overall working-class struggle.

Democratic rights. Resolutions adopted at international congresses stressed the centrality of political and democratic rights. They viewed these rights as tools in the revolutionary struggle, and pointed to why the working class has the biggest stake in the fight to win them.

Trade unions. Central importance was placed on unions, seeing them as the most basic organization to defend workers’ interests. The right to unionization needs to be defended, along with eliminating all restrictions on the exercise of union power.

Imperialism and colonialism. Colonial conquest and plunder of the Third World was seen as simply an extension of capitalist exploitation, according to the Second International’s adopted resolutions. Workers therefore need to actively support and champion the struggle for freedom by oppressed peoples fighting imperialist and colonialist domination, along with its racist justifications and rationalizations.

Immigration. The Second International’s resolution of 1907 pointed to the need to oppose all restrictions on the free immigration and emigration of workers, as well as to combat all forms of racist scapegoating. Immigrant workers should be viewed not as helpless victims but as allies and reinforcements in the struggle against capitalism.

Labor legislation. The fight for laws limiting working hours, regulating working conditions, banning child labor, mandating equal pay for equal work, and guaranteeing workers the right to organize was central to socialists in the Second International.

Public education and cultural advancement. As socialists recognized over a century ago, the right of public education is a conquest of the working class in the fight to advance society. Access to education—including higher education—must be available to all, free of charge.

Women’s emancipation. Multiple resolutions of the Second International addressed the oppression of women and how it is built into the very structure of capitalism. The fight against this oppression will play a central part in the overall revolutionary struggle, they pointed out.

As can be seen, adopted Second International resolutions from the pre-1914 period presented a revolutionary perspective on a number of questions that still remain before us today. While much has changed in the world, the Second International’s resolutions on these questions nevertheless retain their value and indicate an approach that twenty-first century socialists can learn from.

Why Continuity Matters

In today’s world, working people and youth confront numerous issues that will require intense struggle in the years ahead—battles over the consequences of climate change, over imperialist wars and war moves, abortion and women’s rights, racist police killings, the health care crisis, assaults on the rights of working people and unions, the threat from ultrarightist and fascist forces, and numerous other issues.

These struggles will pose both opportunities and challenges for socialists and all fighters for social change: How can we fight most effectively? What must be done to maximize our chances of success?

To answer these questions, a study of socialist legacy and continuity can be of major benefit. Doing so is not merely of interest to scholars and specialists. Rather, it relates to the most pressing day-to-day tasks of activists in the struggle.

Obviously the Second International of 1889 to 1912 cannot offer a guidebook for today. Nevertheless, by properly examining this movement in context, it can help point us in the right direction on many questions. The goal should be not to re-create the pre-1914 Second International, but rather to understand its strengths and its weaknesses, its accomplishments and its failings.

Today a new generation of young people and others are being won to socialism, having seen the dead end of capitalism and its threat to human existence. A challenge before these activists is to help situate themselves within the socialist tradition going back to the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, through the major revolutions of the twentieth century, and continuing right up to the social movements of recent years.

By seriously studying the Second International’s tradition and legacy—without overlooking its contradictions and weaknesses—those coming to the socialist movement today can help find their place within the socialist movement’s proud history, and its fight for a revolutionary transformation of society.


[1] Mike Taber, ed., Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International 1889-1912 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), p.  22.

[2] Engels’s letters on plans, preparations, and strategic considerations in organizing the 1889 congress can be found in volume 48 of Marx Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 2001).

[3] Drafted by Leon Trotsky, the “Manifesto of the Communist International to the Proletariat of the Entire World” can be found in John Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987).

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