The Socialist Party and the Second International pt.3
Last month we described the growing realisation amongst members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain that even the leading figures on the intransigent wing of international social democracy were tainted with reformism. This month we describe how our party, long before Lenin, came to see the uselessness to Socialism of the Second International.
In December 1907 Neumann wrote an article on “The International” in the Socialist Standard which, in the passages dealing with the SPD, was a good deal harsher than his previous analysis had been. The so-called International Socialist movement, he wrote, embraced organisations, which were “purely bourgeois radical in composition and action”, while the SPD was “steeped in the eyebrows in bourgeois reforms and palliatives”. The number of revolutionaries in the German party was put, more realistically than before, at “a very few”. In France, however, the followers of Guesde were still seen as “a body of revolutionaries” who had been “temporarily bamboozled” by the reformers. Neumann argued that a split might well occur between these two factions in the French “Socialist” Party and that this would lead to the building of an uncompromising revolutionary organisation resembling the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It is easy to see how this impression had been formed. Whatever the inconsistencies of the Guesdists, their leader was writing some excellent expositions of the Socialist case and frequently his articles in Le Socialisme were reprinted in the Socialist Standard. In particular Guesde’s position appeared close to ours in his emphasis on the importance of the ballot and in his exposure of the reactionary barricade mentality of the syndicalists.
“The vote, however legal it may be, is revolutionary when on the basis of class candidatures it organises France of labour against France of capital . . . Anti-revolutionary, reactionary in the highest degree, would the riot on the other hand be, in spite of its character of illegality and violence, because by furnishing the popular blood-letting that moribund capitalism needs for survival, the riot would put back the hour of deliverance.”(9)
There were, of course, plenty of social-democrats who could boast of their prowess in Marxist theory (Kautsky in particular) and, while Socialists are prepared to acknowledge the high standard of some of their writings, there can be no doubt that any contributions they made to the working class movement in this way were more than outweighed by their readiness to support the capitalists. Guesde was no exception. He failed to come out against the reformist policies of his party and the Socialist Party soon ceased to look upon any section of the Unified “Socialist” Party in France as potential allies. F. C. Watts, who was living in Paris at the time, analysed their election campaign in 1910. While conceding that their manifesto “opened excellently with an intelligible statement of the Socialist position”, he explained that it “ended wretchedly by tailing off into a supreme insistence on the immediate importance of trumpery reform such as Proportional Representation . . . I could fill a page of the Socialist Standard with instances to hand where “Unified” candidates have thrown all Socialist principle to the winds in their desire to get elected.”(10)
But, if the French “Socialist” Party was now seen as completely bankrupt, there was at least one other party besides the SPGB which was ready to take a stand against the opportunists of the Second International—the old Socialist Party of Canada. The Socialist Party was very encouraged when, in 1909, the Dominion Executive Committee of the SPC drew up a statement explaining that it was against affiliation to the International Bureau, since this would have meant “compromise and fusion with non-socialist parties” such as the British Labour Party.
An interesting note appeared in the Socialist Standard for May 1910 when James Fletcher asked for an explanation of our criticisms of the SPD and, quite reasonably, wanted to know why—if the Socialist Party were hostile to the German party—it had referred to their members as “our German comrades”. The reply summed up the Socialist Party’s attitude towards the SPD and emphasised that only “a small number” of its members were Socialists who were working “for the formation of a straight party”. It also attempted to justify the use of the term “our German comrades” by the excuse that “it were a sorry state of affairs were we not in a position to so express ourselves”. Fletcher’s probing, however, seems to have hit home and from then on there were no further references to “our comrades” in the parties of the Second International.
An article in the Socialist Standard for October 1910, reviewing the proceedings of the International Congress at Copenhagen, showed that the Socialist Party’s attitude towards the International was by now fully matured. Neumann’s attack on the social-democratic parties was merciless: the French “Socialist” Party stood for “bourgeois Republicanism”; the Austrian social-democrats were “an effective mixture of such elements as the British Labour Party, ILP and SDP”; while in Italy “the United Party has forced its compromising policy on its members with the result that the Socialist element has been swamped”. The Menshevik and Bolshevik sections of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party were also included in this onslaught and the verdict on the Second International as a whole was that it had been “captured by the capitalists”. In Europe at any rate, the Socialist Party stood alone; “it is a sad reflection that, except the SPGB, everybody that contained the germ of Socialist existence has been swallowed up by that congress of compromise and confusion.”
This conviction that the International was completely useless for Socialist purposes stood the Socialist Party in good stead when the first world war broke out. While the few social-democrats, like Lenin, who opposed the war could scarcely believe that a powerful organisation involving millions of European workers could suddenly collapse and come out in favour of militarism, the Socialist Party had expected nothing else. In fact, for years we had been explaining that this would be the logical outcome of the policies which the parties of the International were pursuing. One such warning in particular is worth quoting. In 1912, when the SPD gained 4¼ million votes in the general election in Germany, this was generally heralded as a gigantic victory for peace and socialism. Only the Socialist Standard refused to be carried away. In retrospect its grim words seem virtually prophetic:
“In that day of dire disaster, woe betide those who have counted heads in the ballot and put their faith in numbers.
Only those who understand the principles of Socialism can give strength to the revolutionary army. Let ignorance march against us since our foes can turn it against us when they will.”(11)
These sentences came into their own on August 4, 1914.
During the war international contacts were difficult to maintain, but early on anti-war manifestoes were received from the Socialist Parties of Canada, North America and Italy. In September 1915 the Socialist Standard also reprinted Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Rebuilding of the International”. The drawback of this statement was its insistence that the reconstruction of the International could only be based on a recognition of “our own weaknesses and failures since August 4, by giving up the tactics introduced since that time . . . ” This was the dangerous illusion, later to be fostered by the Third International, that August 4 had represented a general volte face when Socialist principles, which had been in force up till that date, were suddenly abandoned. Naturally, the Socialist Party would have none of this, It explained that it was publishing Luxemburg’s ideas because she was fighting “the old policy of compromise”, but that “we cannot endorse the writer’s remarks as to rebuilding the International.”
Also in 1915 the Socialist Standard gave front page treatment to Litvinov’s declaration to the London Congress. Although Litvinov, operating under the pseudonym of Maximovich, had been the representative of the Bolsheviks in London since 1912 he did not get an invitation when a conference of allied social-democrats was organised in February 1915. This was because of the anti-war agitation of his party. Those present at the meeting included Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald from Britain, Longuet from France and Vandervelde from Belgium. Julius Martov, the Russian Menshevik, was unable to get to London because his passport was blocked. In the end, Litvinov contrived to make a statement at the Congress but, when the Labour paper refused to print this, the Socialist Party allowed him to make use of the Socialist Standard.(12)
In opposition to Luxemburg’s talk of rebuilding the Second International, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was concerned above all that a new Socialist International should be formed which would organise such Socialist parties as existed on a class-conscious basis. Here and there were echoes of agreement, principally from the Socialist Party of Canada, whose executive committee wrote that they were “all heartily in accord with the attitude of the SPGB, and hope that before long we will be affiliated with them in a new ‘International’.”(13) Thus, when a proposal for organising an international congress in neutral Stockholm was being widely discussed in 1917, the Socialist Party issued a statement that although any delegates it might appoint would not be issued with exit visas by the “democratic” British Government, nonetheless:
“To the Socialists of other countries we extend our fraternal greetings. As soon as conditions will permit us to do so we shall endeavour to join forces with our Comrades for the purpose of establishing a Socialist International Congress where Socialist policies shall be decided, where misleaders and tricksters who use the name and fame of Socialism will be exposed and denounced, where the message of Socialism will be sent forth to the toilers of all countries in clear unmistakeable terms . . .” (14)
Unfortunately such a genuine Socialist Congress was never held. A few months later the October revolution was to raise Lenin from his previous obscurity and the vast majority of the anti-war social-democrats were to follow him into the Third International, where they were to repeat all the mistakes of the previous organisation as well as patenting not a few ingenious blunders all of their own. The Socialist Party, of course, was hostile to the Bolsheviks’ International right from the start.
A study of the relationship between the Second International and the Socialist Party of Great Britain is useful if only because it demonstrates that the Socialist Party was not the artificial creation of a bunch of intellectuals flaunting some pre-determined, universal plan of action. The Socialist Party sprang into existence when a group of Socialist workers decided to organise for Socialism. Mistakes were made at first but these were never more than minor miscalculations since the Party refused to deviate from its principles and, above all, never kidded itself that numbers were an adequate compensation for compromise. Viewed against the wreckage of the Second, Third and so-called Fourth Internationals the programme of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties have stood them in good stead. After all, we are the nucleus of the Last International – the one which will achieve Socialism.
9. Socialist Standard. February 1908.
10. Socialist Standard. June 1910
11. Socialist Standard. February 1912.
12. Socialist Standard. March 1915.
13. Western Clarion—April 1916. Socialist Standard—1916.
14. Socialist Standard. July 1917.