First Published: In Struggle! No. 216, September 2, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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This week’s article starts around 1890. As we have already seen, the bourgeobde went through many zip and zags, suffered frequent setbacks and made lots of compromises with the landed aristocracy in making its revolution. Yet by 1890 capitalism was soildly established in Western Europe and North America. Indeed, it had gotten so “ripe” that by the turn of the century, monopolies were replacing free competition and had extended their tentacles social, economic, cultural and political life. The imperialist era had begun. The rule of monopolies set new conditions for the working class struggle.
The long recession which had been going on since 1873 was coming to a close in 1896. It gave way to an incredible period of boom which lasted until the First World War. Important scientific discoveries were made: the quantum theory, relativity, atomic physics all date from the beginning of the twentieth century. Production itself was changing and extending to a previously unheard of scale. New needs appeared that were filled by products coming from the four corners of the globe. International trade doubled and tripled in a few short years.
Capital was increasingly ravenous for raw materials. It needed markets and zones of influence where it could invest at maximum profit just as badly. After 1885, a veritable race began to take over the unconquered territories of the globe. Flocks of explorers went for the first time into continental Africa and to the North and South Poles. In 1880, there were very few colonies in Africa. It had been completely carved up among different imperialist countries by 1914. As the war opened, 65% of the world’s peoples were under European rule. The colonial settlement of the American West was completed by 1890. The United States went on from there to establish hegemony over the Caribbean and Latin American peoples while at the same time trying to check the expansion of Japan and the European powers in the Pacific area.
This divvying up of the world was already, however, out of whack with the real relative strengths of the different countries. Britain had been in relative decline since 1880 yet its immense empire, set up before the rival ones, remained intact. Germany faced the opposite situation. It was enjoying an incredible economic expansion. By 1896, German steel production exceeded British production and it had a far more dynamic industrial sector. But Germany had got into the race for colonies too late. It had few colonies and those it did possess were among the least profitable. The stage was set for intensified rivalry between imperialists. Different countries progressively aligned themselves into opposing blocs. On the one side stood the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria, Italy) and on the other the Triple Entente (France, Britain, Russia). The arms race was on. Submarines were perfected as were machine-guns, poisonous gases and so on. Specific crises broke out such as that in relations between Germany and France over the control of Morocco (1906 and 1911) and local wars as in the Balkans (involving Greece, Turkey etc.) in 1912-13 presaged the First World War. Despite all this, the overall climate was relatively peaceful: Europe went without war or revolution for more than 40 years.
In the imperialist countries themselves, the State put aside its policy of systematic non-intervention appropriate to previous epochs. Public services grew everywhere and there were more nationalizations. Free and compulsory schooling became the rule. Social legislation was passed and elementary democratic rights were won in most cases. In Russia, industrialization came about thanks to massive State loans. In Germany, the State helped co-operatives get formed. The federal U.S. government increased its control over the activities of the banks, etc. The State was being modernized everywhere.
All this had its effects on the class structure of the different countries. The number of proletarians went up everywhere. Skilled workers became separated out from the mass of workers in all the advanced capitalist countries. In crisis periods, they managed to maintain their living conditions relatively well while the mass of workers were hit hard by unemployment. In 1910, in South Africa, the skilled workers even demanded, through the Labour Party, that Black workers be confined to reserves.
The structure of the petty bourgeoisie also underwent changes. New categories appeared like State technocrats, middle management in large companies, journalists in the mass media, intellectuals who gained positions in the education boom. As the distribution of products became more important the number of shop-owners and persons engaged in commerce increased appreciably. The peasantry continued to make up an imposing proportion of the working population: 43% in France in 1911, almost as many in Germany. The penetration of imperialism into the colonies stimulated the growth of a native bourgeoisie which started to demand more powers for itself, self-government and even, in the case of some wings of India’s Congress Party, independence.
The issue of oppressed nationalities remained explosive. National hatreds and conflicts in Austro-Hungary boiled up to the point that German terrorist movements threatened employers who had taken on Czech workers. In the Balkans, the oppressed nations took advantage of the disintegration of the Turkish empire to try to escape from its yoke. National movements continued to build in Ireland, the Ukraine and Finland.
Such relatively peaceful economic progress and the passage of new social legislation did nothing to advance the cause of revolution. In fact, it appeared that fairly large sections of the population profited from these developments albeit unequally. A lot was said in those days about the widespread enthusiasm for the imperialism of one’s own nation. As the inter-imperialist rivalries stepped up, so did racism, anti-semitism and various other ultra-reactionary nationalist trends as well as support for law and order, country and opposition to democracy. Italy had been unlucky in efforts at world conquest. The reactionary trends in Italy insisted that the “proletarian nation” had the right to have its colonies. In all countries, the mass-distribution capitalist press systematically engendered nationalistic passions which were to prove so useful in 1914 in sending millions of working people into battle to murder one another with patriotic smiles on their faces.
The socialists had to adjust to the situation which was having its effects on them too. The collapse of capitalism no longer looked so imminent as it had. A few attempts at revolutionary strikes in Australia put down in blood in 1890-1 were enough to convince most workers that was not the way to take power and establish socialism. Henceforth, the approach would be to gradually and continuously strenghen the working class by a long and patient work on all fronts: physical, moral, political, economic and cultural. Violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat did not seem to be such a pressing necessity anymore. In fact, the Erfurt programme of the German Social-Democratic Party (1891) didn’t breath a word about either. This was the programme upon which most of the other social democratic parties modelled themselves for many years.
The proletariat got stronger quickly. The small illegal unions which had been barely tolerated. in the previous period (50,000 unionists in Germany in 1880) became truly massive organizations (700,000 unionists in 1900 and 4 million in 1914). The new labour centrals now had reached a position of influence and leadership for important parts of the working class. And there were other forms of working class economic organization too the most important being cooperatives which were set up in large numbers.
Politically, the social-democratic parties also became mass organizations. The biggest was the German Social Democrats which had over a million signed up members on the eve of the war (150,000 members in Austria, 125,000 in the United States, 80,000 in France etc.). These parties received an impressive vote: more than 4 million votes went Social Democrat in Germany in 1912 which gave the party 110 out of 395 seats. In France, the figures were 1.5 million votes and 103 MP’s. It was the same all over Europe. The social democratic parties were playing a greater and greater role in the Parliaments.
Socialism clearly had come out of the days of more or less closed circles that characterized the preceeding period. The working class was becoming politically mature. As well, it began to spread its ideas outside Western Europe just as capitalism had. It reached the Balkans, Japan (which was being forceably westernized), Australia, North America, Russia and Scandinavia.
The social-democratic parties worked actively to build the economic organizations of the proletariat. In 1914, social democracy controlled 30,000 distribution cooperatives with more than 9 million members and 7 million trade unionists had some form of links with the different parties. The parties managed dozens of newspapers, singing groups, and all sorts of businesses. Their bureaucracy grew as they continued to make progress. The German party which had 400 staff people in 1902, saw this number grow to 2,500 in 1907. These staff people, who had in the past come from the rank and file and had been self-taught, were increasingly ambitious intellectual youth searching for a lucrative career in the party apparatus. The middle and lower cadres generally came from the labour aristocracy, while the membership was very proletarian. The same social composition could be found among the members of parliament, with a strong representation of staff people from the big union apparatus.
Although the proletariat had increasingly developed organizations within each country, the situation was not the same on the international level. The Socialist International (S.I., also known as the Second International), founded in 1889, was not at all the “world party of the proletariat” as were, to different degrees, the First and Third Internationals. This was so much the case that for a dozen years the S.I. did not have a programme, a constitution, a name nor a central body to coordinate and lead the work between congresses. Its existence was limited to its periodic congresses whose decisions were not binding the members. The creation of the International socialist Bureau (ISB) in 1900 did nothing much to change the situation, which was maintained by the big parties which were jealous of their autonomy. A comission on women was established in 1907, as were youth organizations. Socialism broadened its field of action.
The S.I. was thus a federation of parties. But it was also a federation of different political tendencies all claiming to be socialist. The only tendency which was ever expelled from the S.I. were the “extreme-left” trends, notably the anarchists, which rejected parliamentary action. On the other hand, the S.I. comfortably inetgrated right wing trends within its ranks, like the “possibilists” who limited their actions to demanding the reforms “possible” under capitalism. Marxism generally remained the dominant, trend, at least in the beginning.
As we saw above, the context of imperialism, the reinforcement of the proletariat’s organizations under bourgeois democracy, and its growing electoral success led to serious differences among socialists on the interpretation that had to be given to these new phenomena. Shortly before 1900, a revisionist crisis began with the publication of a book by Bernstein, a German social democrat, entitled. The premises of socialism and the tasks of social-democracy. Contesting Marxism from A to Z, the book observed the first manifestations of imperialism and came to the conclusion that it would gradually transform itself into socialism, without the need for revolution. Democracy was all that was needed for the proletariat to take the place coming to it. Rejecting class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat, Bernstein came out in favour of coalitions with the liberal sectors of the bourgeoisie and the participation of socialists in governments. Taking a patriotic stand as well, he also came out in favour of colonialism.
With his book, Bernstein systematized the majority of the more or less diffused ideas circulating within the right wing of social democracy. In the following years, the debates around these ideas grew within each party and in the congresses of the S.I. Revisionism was regularly beaten in words, which did not stop it from being increasingly put into practice. A right and a left wing were formed with a vacillating center which finally sided with the right. The right relied on the bureaucracy in the parties and especially on that in the unions. Bernstein’s famous formula “The movement is all, the final goal is nothing.” is a good representation of this bureaucracy which was only used to daily skirmishes with the bosses for immediate gains. The left fought against this revisionism, but, scattered and divided in terms of its ideas, it was not able to counter the right. People like Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebnecht, de Mehring and Lenin were members of the left. The revolutionary unionists who adhered to anarchy and were supporters of direct action were also part of the opposition.
Parliamentary activity was one of the major points in these confrontations. What could the working class expect from the new universal suffrage, which it had no experience with then? For Rosa Luxembourg, parliamentarism could never be anything but a tribune for denouncing the bourgeoisie, because social democracy could never be anything but an opposition within the capitalist system. In contrast to this, the right saw this as an occasion to turn the capitalist State into an instrument in thi service of the proletariat. These two conceptions can be found in the following compromise resolution: “Political action (i.e., parliamentary action-ed.note) is necessary both from the point of view of agitation and the integral affirmations a socialist principles and from the point o view of realizing reforms of immediate interest. Consequently, it (the 1903 congress-ed.note) recommends that workers in all countries conquer their political rights and use them in all the legislative and administrative bodies to achieve the demands of the proletariat and to seize political powers which today are but the instruments for capitalist domination, so as to transform them into means for the emancipation of the proletariat.” 
The revolutionary unionists also criticized this type of parliamentarism where, in fact, the social democrats behaved like the left wing of the bourgeoisie and were a cog in the State apparatus. The popularity of revolutionary unionism in the Latin American countries and the U.S. can be attributed in part to the deception of the most radical strata of workers in the face of this parliamentaary cretinism.. Because of its rejection of the principle of the general strike and the accent it placed on parliamentary activity, the left was handicapped when it came to channeling all the potential for revolt which existed whithin the lower strata of the working class.
The Russian revolution of 1905 arrived like a breath of fresh air over social democracy which had ended up by forgetting the force of the masses. In 1905 in Russia, there were vast strike movements. Peasants, soldiers and workers, overwhelmed by the misery caused by the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-05, took to the streets to demand political freedom, the sharing of land, the convocation of a Constituent Assembly and better wages. This revolution aggravated the differences within the social-democratic forces and reinforced the criticism of right opportunism. Within the left, the idea of mass strikes as a way of moving the proletariats’ demands forward was rehabiliated, although the German union bureaucracies continued to reject it and forced the party to do likewise.
But beyond this particular aspect, the 1905 revolution revealed the flagrant contradictions between the line followed by the Bolsheviks and most of the ideas which were held until then in the socialist ranks. First there was the question of the party which Lenin had been developing since 1903: instead of being an amorphous and divided body, the party brought together the vanguard around a single programme and, contrary to the German party for example, it was always able to pass into clandestinity.
During this the Mensheviks, who quite faithfuly defended the line of the International, considered that the bourgeoisie had to take over with the support of the proletariat, and establish quite a long period of capitalist development in Russia. Then, as was the case in Europe, the proletariat could progressively get organized and become reinforced. For Lenin, on the contrary, the revolution had to be led by the proletariat allied with the peasantry and directed against both the feudal regime and the liberal bourgeoisie. The success of this revolution would then ensure a very quick transformation into socialism.  Lenin, who was not very well-known within the S.I. was considered to be a left extremist and his influence was limited even within the left. He was reproached for having unhesitatingly expelled the Menshevik opportunists from his party.
There were thus major differences within the S.I. at a time when it was necessary to establish the working-class position on a series of new questions and when a global analysis of imperialism was still lacking.  The national question was one of the burning questions, put on the agenda by the breakup of the Austrian party and unions into several national groups. Rosa Luxembourg of the German Comunist Party and the very anti-patriotic revolutionary unionists were opposed to all demands of a national character, including the right to self-determination, which they considered to be factors of division within the proletariat.
But when it became clear that a world confrontation was on the horizon, especially after 1907, debates centred around the question of war. Besides some empty slogans against the war, for disarmament and international arbitration, the S.I. could not come to an agreement on concrete ways to struggle. At the Bale Conference in 1912, Lenin and some others succeeded in having adopted (unanimously!) the fact that the character of the approaching war was imperialist and that the proletariat had to be ready to benefit from the crisis created by the war to overthrow its bourgeoisie. Except for Russia, these remained empty words in the S.I.
At almost the same time, the socialist MPs in France and Germany were voting military credits, thus supporting their respective bourgeoisies in their goals to pillage the world. The dominant opportunism in the S.I. led to social chauvinism and the complete and blatant betrayal of the interests of the working class in the name of “the defence of the homeland”. 
In the next article we will see what took place in Russia where the call to transform the imperialist war into a civil war became a reality.
 Quoted in Hauppt, Georges. La Deuxième Internationale 1889-1914, Editions Mouton. 1964 (our translation).
 We can find out more about this opposition in Lenin, Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution Complete Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, Vol.9.
 The missing. analysis of imperialism was produced by Lenin with the publication of Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism in 1916. This work has been published by Foreign Language Press, Peking.
 On this subject. see Lenin. The collapse of the Second International, Complete Works. Vol. 21