E. Belfort Bax

Some Reflections on the Paris Congress

(13 October 1900)

Paris Congress, Justice, 13th October 1900, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

That the recent international Congress in Paris was the worst organised we have ever had is one of the most obvious reflections which suggest themselves as regards it. But these are more important issues as to which it map afford us some clear insight – issues bearing on the present strength and condition of the Socialist Party. The one fact in connection wish this Congress which should give all genuine Social-Democrats unlimited satisfaction, is the evidence it has afforded of the strength of the international ideal. The one piece of solid work the Congress did was the establishment of the International Committee having its seat in Brussels. The resolution in question, which, if loyally carried out, should mean the re-establishment of the International in a form and under conditions adapted to the new time and circumstances and which may well constitute the beginning of a fresh era in International Social-Democracy, would alone justify the Congress of 1900 of its existence. The great practical problem before Social-Democracy at the present moment is the combating of Imperialism in all countries in the interests of International Solidarity. This great problem will need all the energies of Social-Democracy to solve. The present General Election has shown how far behind the proletariat in this country is, in understanding its true interests. The gospel “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” has as yet failed to touch more than the merest fringe of the working-classes of Great Britain. One might well think oneself justified in giving way to despair, did one not remember how quickly events move nowadays, and how revolutionary an influence on the British proletariat certain events might easily have. That the first great step in welding together the forces of International Social-Democracy has been taken by the Paris Congress is certain. Much though it be that remains to be done, this essential first step has been made, and may well give us hope for the future.

But the Congress in other ways has given cause for less pleasant reflections. Of the division in the French party (as also in the American) it is inadvisable for an outsider to say much, the question being so largely personal. The continuance of Millerand in the Ministry is, we understand, disapproved of by many of those who support the section associated with the name of Jaurès, who, like their opponents, on principle disapprove of the participation of Socialists in bourgeois Governments – i.e., in Governments whose function it is to keep the capitalist system in working order at any price as the official representatives of the existing order of society – save as an exceptional measure for an exceptional object. For the rest, the groups forming the majority of the French National Congress seem absolutely sound on every point of principle, while the anxiety they have shown throughout to consult Socialist opinion in other countries as to their action is of itself an evidence of the practicality of their Internationalism. Splits of this nature time and circumstances must inevitably heal, so far, at least, as practical co-operation in a large sense is concerned.

What gives more serious cause for consideration is the tendency, noticeable in various national parties, to fall back into a mere reforming policy and to relegate all those Socialist principles which do not show any prospect of being realised in the next session of Parliament, Congress, Reichstag, or Chamber, to the position of “pious opinions.” (Not, by the way, that many of the supposed practical measures are in reality one whit nearer realisation than the more despised ulterior principles, in spite of their plausible sound!) It cannot, I think, be denied that the German Party has shown in certain quarters a tendency to subordinate the main objects of Socialism to such questions of detail or to borrow a well-known antithesis, to sacrifice the “goal” to the “movement.” This tendency, particularly strong in South Germany, necessarily leads to an undervaluing of the international standpoint in favour of a national or parochial view. It has found expression at recent International Congresses in the steady attempt to increase the length of the interval between these gatherings. In 1893 at Zürich, on the motion of the German section, the two years interval agreed upon in Paris in 1889, was extended to three years. At the London Congress of 1896 while the three years was nominally retained, the country fixed upon for holding the Congress being Germany, the option was left with the German Party of postponing it for another year on the ground that circumstances might render it undesirable for the Congress to be held in Germany. This was done, the pretext alleged being that the political extradition treaty existing between Germany and Russia would render the presence of Russian and Polish delegates dangerous, a fact which, seeing that the treaty in question dates from the early eighties, one would have thought would have been as obvious in 1896, when the proposition to bold the Congress in Germany was favourably received by the German Party, as two years later, when they decided it should take place, a year after the original date fixed, in Paris. Finally, at the Congress just concluded, the preposterous motion for extending the time before the next Congress to five years emanated from our German friends. The inference can hardly fail to be drawn that the German party wish to “shelve” international congresses altogether – to quietly and unobtrusively bury them. It is true most of the German delegates voted for the international bureau, but the vote was certainly not given with enthusiasm, doubts being afterwards let fall as to its advisability, while the more reactionary elements, such as Vollmar, actually voted against it.

We take it, this want of keenness manifested by the German party in the international side of Socialism is only one illustration of the general “slump” in enthusiasm and intensity of conviction, as compared with twenty years ago, which has often been remarked upon of late years, and which is directly due to the expansion of Socialism numerically, and its accession to the position of one of the great political forces of the day. Among the immense numbers who of late years have joined the ranks of the Socialist movement, many there are who are above all concerned with the domestic affairs of their respective national parties, with their attitude towards immediate and oft-times ephemeral questions of the day, rather than with the final aims and objects for which the party exists as a party, and which differentiates it from all other parties. We do not complain of this, It is a necessary phase through which every great world-movement has to pass – this loss of intension coinciding with gain of extension. But what we wish to point out is that the drawbacks of the present phase of Socialist development imperatively demand as a corrective an organised international movement finding expression not merely in the work of a standing committee such as has just been instituted, but also in the more frequent holding of these international congresses, where the fundamental principles of Socialism are reiterated and applied to the burning questions of the day in a manner at once general and definite. Nothing is more calculated to keep the various national movements “straight” than being continually recalled to the bedrock of first principles in gatherings which are themselves affirmations of the principle of international Solidarity. For this reason we of the SDF must earnestly press at the Amsterdam Congress the two years’ limit, in the hope that once the International Committee is in working order it will ultimately be found feasible for the representatives of Social-Democracy to meet regularly, not once in two years only, but once every year, to decide upon general questions of policy and tactics in an international sense as they arise.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004