1960s >> 1968 >> no-766-june-1968

The Socialist Party and the Second International pt.2

    Last month we described the early attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to the Second International when we saw ourselves as part of the intransigent wing of international social democracy.

There was a good deal of discussion on the question of the International by the delegates to the Socialist Party’s first annual conference in 1905. T.A. Jackson pointed out that the British delegation had been the largest of all at the Amsterdam Congress and that it was “composed of persons opposed to the principles of this Party.” For all that, Fitzgerald argued that the Socialist Party “should keep steadily fighting at the Congress for the principle that only Socialist parties should be admitted to the Congresses. When this had been done for two or three Congresses many of the other parties would adopt this view” (!) This, of course, was nothing more than wishful thinking. Parties like the SPD were not likely to adopt policies which, if applied rigorously, would have excluded themselves from the International. The only chance of their taking this step would have been for them to first adopt a Socialist programme—but this would have meant somehow overcoming the objections of the vast majority of their members and supporters, who were committed to capitalism almost to a man.

In the end the Conference instructed the executive committee to draw up a series of resolutions embodying the following points:

    That only Socialist organisations recognising the class was in theory and practice should be represented at International Socialist Congresses.

    That disputes between the carious parties in each country as to the genuine Socialist nature of their organisations should be settled by the Congress itself.

    That the Socialist Party should endeavour to raise these questions on the floor of the Congress.

The executive committee carried out its orders and a statement along these lines was sent to the International Bureau in July 1905. Particularly interesting was its explanation, for the benefit of the Bureau, of just what features distinguish a Socialist party.

    “Socialist bodies (must) accept the essential principles of Socialism: socialisation of the means of production and distribution; union and international action of workers; Socialist conquest of public powers by the proletariat organised as a class party, recognising and proclaiming the class war, running all candidates upon this basis, and adopting an attitude of hostility, under all circumstances to all individual members and sections of the Capitalist Party.”

The next few months saw a number of clashes between the Socialist Party and several leaders of social-democratic parties abroad. The first was in October 1905 when Paul Brousse and a group of municipal councillors from Paris, all members of the French “Socialist” Party, were entertained by the Liberal-controlled London County Council during a visit to Britain. A protest telegram was sent to the National Congress of the French party and this was backed up by a letter in which the general secretary explained that this “interchange of capitalist municipal courtesies” would be utilised by the Liberal party to obtain the votes of the British working class at the approaching general election. In fact, this election sparked off a much bigger row when, after the Liberals had been returned, Bebel of the SPD sent a telegram to Reynold’s News saying that he “welcomed the result of the elections”. The executive committee’s first reaction was to give Bebel the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was being misrepresented. After the general secretary had written to him, however, he replied that he had been correctly reported and that “by the way of explanation I wish to state that concerning ‘progress internally’ (a phrase which had appeared in Reynold’s) I have above all in mind possible progress in the amelioration of the working class position.”

On receiving this the executive committee passed a resolution with the ominous wording “That action be taken regarding A. Bebel  . . . ” Nonetheless, measured against the Socialist Party’s normal handling of this sort of dispute, Bebel was treated very gently. Although an “emphatic protest” was sent to the SPD leader and the German party’s daily, Vorwaerts, the editorial in the Socialist Standard (April 1906) suggested that “our comrade Bebel” has “allowed himself to be betrayed into an act calculated, because it lent the countenance of approval to what was merely a capitalist victory, to defeat the purpose of Socialist propaganda . . . ” This was a rather charitable explanation when it is recalled that Reynold’s sent Bebel a pre-paid telegram form inviting him to write whatever comments on the election he chose. Bebel’s reply to the Socialist Party’s criticism was characteristic. He made matters worse by attempting to justify his talk of progress with a reference to the “entrance of representatives of the Socialist Party into Parliament”. By this he meant that a few members of the Labour Representation Committee (the Labour Party’s forerunner) had been elected. He also fell back on the bluff and boast technique which the frock-coated leaders of the SPD always used when their arguments ran out: “Let no one ascribe to me what, in consideration of my past career, nobody dare impute.” (6)

Shortly afterwards Lafargue was taken to task for an article he had written in the SDF’s Justice along the lines that Socialists throughout the world recognised that the election of the Labour MPs was a “victory of International Socialism”. The Socialist Party’s reply was something of a classic and still bears repeating sixty two years later.

    “We cannot agree that the election of the nominees of the Labour Representation Committee were working class victories. We have shown them to have been achieved partly in alliance with capitalist Liberalism, and wholly by a class-unconscious vote. Does our comrade believe that because Trade Unions stimulated into political activity by certain legal decisions having the effect of endangering the financial reserves of their organisations, have entered into a loose association for the purpose of recovering a position they had thought themselves secure in, that, therefore, they have established themselves upon a definite class basis in opposition to the political expressions of capitalist interests? Why, every indication gives a flat denial to the supposition . . . it is idle and mischievous to endeavour, as both Bebel and Lafargue have done, to invest the movement with an importance that may only be correctly applied to an enlightened proletarian organisation on well defined class lines.”(7)

The boot was on the other foot when, the following year, Neumann analysed the results of the German elections in the March 1907 Socialist Standard. While social-democrats throughout Europe were rejoicing at the quarter of a million extra votes which the SPD had secured, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was pointing out that this was no indication of a spread of Socialist ideas among the workers in Germany. Neumann emphasised that the reformist rubbish in the SPD’s programme would have induced countless supporters of capitalism to vote for social-democratic candidates. Therefore “the German Socialist Party have pursued and are still pursuing a policy that has resulted in conveying a false impression as to the real extent of class-consciousness among the German proletariat.” Yet there was still a conciliatory tone in all this:

    “Let us hope that the criticism given in a fair, comrade-like spirit, will be of some assistance in bringing the oldest section of the international labour movement to the reconsideration of their tactics and their adopting in the near future a position of ‘no compromise’, and of hostility to capitalism every time and all the time.”

The Socialist Standard was also hopelessly exaggerated in its estimates of the number of Socialists in the  SPD. As well as referring to “the pleasant fact that a small but steadily growing faction of the German Party has for some years put forward a tremendous effort to induce the Party to abandon its policy of reform and compromise”, it was suggested that “there is every reason to believe that in at least the twelve constituencies where the Socialist vote was in 1903 between 52 to 58 per cent of the electorate, and where at the recent elections there has been throughout an increase of 2 to 3 per cent, that there are many who thoroughly understand the working-class position.” All the same, the trend was for a definite hardening of attitude and there was a good indication of how far this had gone when, a few months later, Bebel was again attacked in the column of this journal. He had given an interview to a French reporter in which he had argued that, as long as the danger of war existed, every country must have armed forces to defend itself against invasion. Watts’ reply in the Socialist Standard(8) appeared under a headline of “German Party Leader as a Jingo”; this time there was no references to “our comrade”!

Once again there was a lengthy discussion on the International at the third annual conference of the Socialist Party in 1907. This mainly centred on whether delegates should be sent to the 1908 International Congress in Stuttgart. Some members argued strongly for representatives at the Congress. Fitzgerald was one of these and his point was that in this way we could gain information about parties in other countries similar to ourselves. Neumann went further, suggesting that “if we could get in contact with these others we could organise the nucleus of an International Congress that would that would be Socialist”. But a majority of the delegates were doubtful that anything useful could be achieved in light of our previous experience and Killick probably spoke for most when he argues that if men like Ferri, Michels, Guesde and Lafargue really were thinking along our lines then they, being stronger, would have taken the initiative. Bearing in mind what eventually became of the “left wing” of the social-democratic movement, this showed a good deal of insight. At any rate the Conference decided not to send delegates to Stuttgart but recommended the executive committee to “use their best endeavours to get in touch with those abroad who occupy our position”.

(to be concluded)

John Crump



6. Vorwaerts—15/3/1906. Socialist Standard—April 1906.

7. Socialist Standard. May 1906

8. Socialist Standard. June 1907.

Leave a Reply