4th August 1914: The Great Betrayal and Collapse of the Second International

This year marks not only 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, but it also marks the centenary of another debacle: the collapse of the Second International, the international body that brought under its banner all the mass workers’ parties.

August-1914-cover-of-VorwartsIt was not The War That Will End War, as the title of H. G. Wells’ 1914 book optimistically declared, but the starting point of a deepening world crisis. The “Great War” would last more than four years and result in the death of ten million people, with tens of millions more maimed and crippled. The imperialist rivalries that caused the War would not be eliminated or diminished, but would later emerge with a vengeance.

This year marks not only 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, but it also marks the centenary of another debacle: the collapse of the Second International, the international body that brought under its banner all the mass workers’ parties.

The Second International was established in July 1889, on the centenary of the fall of the Bastille, and gathered together the Social Democratic parties worldwide. It represented a high point of working class internationalism and was founded on the principles of world socialism. More importantly, the Socialist International formally adhered to the ideas of Marxism. Its leading party was the Social Democratic Party of Germany, headed by Karl Kautsky, August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, who had been personally tutored by Marx and Engels. Karl Kautsky, who had edited Marx’s economic writings and had led the battle internationally against Bernstein’s attempt to revise Marxism, had become the undisputed theoretician of the International. “For us it was not just a party of the International but the Party tout court”, explained Trotsky. Up until 1914, Lenin had paid homage to the German SPD as the “model of revolutionary social democracy”.

By 1914, the German SPD had over one million members, 111 deputies in the Reichstag, the support of a third of the German electorate, 90 daily newspapers and a giant party apparatus. The leaders of the trade unions were overwhelmingly SPD members. “The German Social Democratic Party became a way of life”, explained Ruth Fischer, a Left Communist. “It was more than a political machine; it gave the German worker dignity and status in a world of his own.”

However, the Socialist International had been born in a period of upswing of capitalism. The tops of the movement came under the pressures of capitalism, which had a deeply corrosive effect, pushing the leadership in an increasingly reformist direction. While the leaders of the trade unions and the party began to accommodate themselves to the day-to-day struggle over reforms, the socialist revolution was put off into the distant future. These alien pressures began to reflect themselves through class compromise and adaption. The top layers in the unions and in parliament, raising themselves above the masses, increasingly adapted themselves to this new environment. While espousing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “proletarian internationalism” in words, in practice they had gone over to the nation state and reformism. It would, however, take great events, namely world war, to expose this fact.

Resolutions unanimously passed by Congresses of the Socialist International, as at the famous Basle Congress in 1912, opposed the coming war as “an imperialist war” against which “the workers of all countries should set the force of the international solidarity of the proletariat.” The only reason that the proposal for a general strike against war was not agreed was only to avoid committing the movement to any fixed tactics. Even as Austria declared war on Serbia, the Brussels Conference of the Socialist International took the view that war could be avoided. The French socialist leader Jaurès, who was shortly to be assassinated by a French nationalist and then betrayed by his party, stated that France genuinely wanted peace. Keir Hardie declared that “there be no question” of Britain being drawn into war. The same point was also made by Hugo Hasse concerning Germany.

kautskyHowever, these illusions were quickly shattered. Three days later, on first of August, Germany declared war on Russia, a declaration that changed the course of history. Everyone expected the SPD to declare is opposition, in line with its principles. But to everyone’s shock and dismay, the German Party leadership declared that Germany’s declaration of war as a “defensive war” against Tsarist aggression. This betrayal meant supporting the imperialist war by voting in the Reichstag for the Kaiser’s war budget.

On the fourth of August 1914, the chairman of the Party read out their declaration in the German Reichstag:

“We are faced now with the iron fact of war. We are threatened with the horrors of hostile invasions. We do not decide today for or against war; we have merely to decide on the necessary means for the defense of the country. Much, if not everything, is at stake for our people and their freedom, in view of the possibility of a victory of Russian despotism, which soiled itself with the blood of the best of its own people.

“It is for us to ward off this danger and to safeguard the culture and independence of our country. Thus we honor what we have always pledged: in the hour of danger we shall not desert our Fatherland. We feel ourselves in agreement with the International, which has always recognised the right of every nation to national independence and self-defense, just as we condemn, also in agreement with the International, any war of conquest. We demand that, as soon as the aim of security has been achieved and the opponents show themselves ready for peace, this war should be ended by a peace which makes it possible to live in friendship with neighbouring countries.

“Guided by these principles, we shall vote for the war credits.”

There was not a single voice of dissent in the Reichstag on that fatal day.

When Lenin saw a copy of Vorwärts, the SPD newspaper, which proclaimed this support for the war, he refused to believe it and thought it was a forgery by the German General Staff. Paul Axelrod, a Menshevik leader, said “the news was a terrible, stunning blow. It appeared as if an earthquake had overcome the international proletariat. The tremendous authority of German Social Democracy had disappeared with one stroke.” “When the news came that the Social Democrats had unanimously sanctioned the military credits we did not believe it”, stated Hermann Greulich of the Swiss socialists. “It was a dumbfounding blow.” “The vote of the fourth of August has remained one of the tragic experiences of my life”, wrote Trotsky.

While many understood that the German SPD could not prevent the outbreak of war, at least it could have declared its political opposition to the war and kept clean the banner of international socialism. This would have preserved the credibility of the party and the International for the future cause of world revolution.

A few days before the declaration of war, the German SPD had stood square “unanimous” against war and had called anti-war protest rallies in Berlin. “The ruling classes, who in peacetime oppress you, despise you, exploit you, want to use you as cannon fodder”, declared the Party paper, Vorwärts.

“Everywhere the cry must ring out in the despots’ ears: ‘We want no war! Down with war! Long live international brotherhood’.” (Vorwärts, 25th July, 1914)

But on the fourth of August, the SPD had capitulated. It had voted in practice to abandon the class struggle and revolution in favor of a political truce with the monarchy, the Junkers and the capitalist class. For them, German absolutism was bad, but compared to Russian Tsarism, it was viewed as the lesser evil. The Social Democratic press spoke of nothing else in its campaign to justify its actions.

Bielefelder Volkswacht, fourth of August: “The slogan is the same everywhere: against Russian despotism and treachery!”

Braunschweiger Volksfreund, fifth of August: “The irresistible pressure of military power affects everyone. However, the class-conscious workers are not merely driven by force. In defending the soil on which they live against the invasion from the East, they follow their own conviction.”

Hamburger Echo, eleventh August: “We have to wage war above all against Tsarism, and this war we shall be waging enthusiastically. For it is a war for culture.”

The SPD leaders even extracted suitable quotes, torn out of context, from Marx and Engels from 1848 to justify the Party’s betrayal. Such sophistry was made by quotations that referred to an entirely different situation in an entirely different period of history.

liebknecktBehind closed doors, the SPD parliamentary group had in fact split over the support for war credits, with 14 deputies, including their chairman Hugo Haase and Karl Liebknecht, voting against. But in the Reichstag, all SPD deputies stood by Party discipline and voted as agreed.

The German-Austrian Social Democratic newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung, published in Vienna on fifth of August declared “that Germany is united in the struggle for her national honor, and will remain united to the last drop of blood”. It was a war “for the sacred cause of the German people.”

In France, also on the fateful fourth of August, the government’s request for war credits was unanimously agreed by all parties, including the Socialists, without debate. The French Social Democrats, like the Germans, voted unanimously with the bourgeois parties in a union sacrée to defend the country against Germany. Again, the imperialist war was justified as a “defensive struggle” against aggression, sanctioned by the International. Within a few weeks, the leadership of the French Socialist Party voted to nominate two of their well-known leaders, Jules Guesde and Marcel Sembat, to a government of “national defense”. Léon Jouhaux, general secretary of the Trade Union Federation, took the office of National Commissar. Their manifesto declared: “The entire nation must rise for the defense of its soil and its liberty in one of those outbursts of heroism which always repeat themselves in similar hours of our history…”

As soon as Germany had declared war on Belgium, the General Council of the Belgian Labor Party gave its support to the government. The meeting decided to abandon the peace demonstration planned for the following day and vote for the war credits. Its manifesto declared that “since this disaster is now an established fact, we are now animated solely by the desire to mobilize our forces as quickly as possible so as to set limits to this attack upon our national territory.” As a result, the party was “acting in the interests of democracy and political freedom in Europe.”

In Britain, as in Germany, the Labour Party initially opposed the rush to war and organize demonstrations against intervention. The executive of the South Wales Miners’ Federation called for an international miners’ strike to prevent war. George Lansbury had called on the transport workers to “strike against war”. Keir Hardie has made similar anti-war speeches. The Labour Party Executive itself opposed the war. However, once war was declared and the Parliamentary Labour Party discussed the question, they rejected Ramsay McDonald’s proposal to read the Executive’s opposition to the Commons and decided instead to vote for the war credits. MacDonald was forced to resign and Arthur Henderson replaced him as chairman and secretary of the party. Within six months, Henderson had joined the government under Asquith as President of the Board of Education. Later he was joined by to other Labour MPs as Minister of Labour and Minister of Pensions. Several others took junior posts.

The Independent Labour Party, which was an affiliate of the Labour Party, continued its opposition to the war, although this was mainly on pacifist lines. The British Socialist Party, led by the nationalist Hyndman, actually supported the war. The Labour Party immediately fell into line and joined the capitalist parties in a political truce, while the union leaders postponed the trade union struggle for the duration of the war. Both encouraged volunteers to join the army since compulsory military service did not exist in Britain. The Party issued a manifesto blaming the war on German militarism, and declared that “a German victory would mean the death of democracy in Europe.”

This betrayal by the leading parties of the Second International led to colossal confusion everywhere. Out of the eight warring countries, only the British ILP, the Serbian Social Democrats, and the two Russian parties, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, came out in complete opposition to the war and their own governments.

A mass military propaganda campaign, with the full support of the bulk of Social Democracy, created an unprecedented wave of chauvinism in its wake. Millions were caught up in this nationalist hysteria as hundreds of thousands enlisted for the “Great War”. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that the socialist movement would find itself isolated. With the best will in the world, the idea of a general strike or obstructionist actions would not have been possible.

“And therefore there is nothing particularly unexpected or discouraging in the fact that the working-class parties did not oppose military mobilization with their own revolutionary mobilization”, explained Leon Trotsky in 1914.

“Had the Socialists limited themselves to expressing condemnation of the present War, had they declined all responsibility for it and refused the vote of confidence in their governments as well as the vote for the war credits, they would have done their duty at the time. They would have taken up a position of waiting, the oppositional character of which would have been perfectly clear to the government as well as to the people. Further action would have been determined by the march of events and by those changes which the events of a war must produce on the people’s consciousness. The ties binding the International together would have been preserved, the banner of Socialism would have been unstained. Although weakened for the moment, the Social Democracy would have preserved a free hand for a decisive interference in affairs as soon as the change in the feelings of the working masses came about. And it is safe to assert that whatever influence the Social Democracy might have lost by such an attitude at the beginning of the War, it would have regained several times over once the inevitable turn in public sentiment had come about.” (Leon Trotsky, The Bolsheviks and World Peace, pp.176-77)

The leaders of the international failed in this elementary class duty and succumbed to the poison of nationalism, setting worker against worker.

Imperialism covers its predatory aims—the seizure of colonies, markets, sources of raw materials, spheres of influence, etc.—with the ideas of “protecting peace from the aggressors,” ”defense of the fatherland,” “defense of democracy,” and the like. These ideas are false to the core. “The question of whether one or another group struck the first military blow or was the first to declare war,” wrote Lenin in March, 1915, ”has no significance whatever in determining the tactic of socialists. Phrases about ‘defense of the fatherland,’ about resisting the invasion of the enemy, about a war of defense, and the like, are an utter deception of the people on both sides…” As far as the Marxists are concerned, the objective historical significance of the war is the only thing that has any meaning. The key question is: which class is waging war and for what aims? We must not be fooled by the ruses of diplomacy, which always seeks to represent the enemy as the role of the aggressor in any conflict.

The actions of the leaders of the Social Democracy constituted the greatest betrayal of socialism and workers internationally. As a vehicle for revolution, the Socialist International was now dead. Rosa Luxemburg openly referred to it as a “stinking corpse”. Lenin called for it to be buried and a new Third International formed.

“The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism”, wrote Lenin. “Down with opportunism, and long live the Third International, purged not only of ‘turncoats’… but of opportunism as well. The Second International did its share of useful preparatory work in preliminarily organzsing the proletarian masses during the long ‘peaceful’ period of the most brutal capitalist slavery and the most rapid capitalist progress in the last third of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. To the Third International falls the task of organising the proletarian forces for a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries, for the capture of power, for the triumph of socialism.”

But the revolutionary internationalists throughout the world found themselves completely isolated. They appeared as lone voices crying in the wilderness. Apart from the four parties mentioned, there were scattered groups and individuals, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, who led the Spartacist League, John McLean in Scotland, and James Connolly in Ireland.

The guns in Europe had silenced all opposition. It was a deadly silence. Karl Liebknecht, who had originally accepted group discipline and voted for the war credits in August 1914, realised he had made a big mistake. Already by the tenth of September, Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Merhring and Clara Zetkin had issued a declaration against the stand taken by the majority of the German Social Democrats. When the Reichstag vote again came up to renew the credits on the third of December, he voted against, one against 110 SPD deputies, and instantly became a symbol of resistance to the war.

Opposition to the War grew, despite the police and military suppression. This expressed itself in a flood of anti-war leaflets, papers and pamphlets, distributed illegally by small groups throughout Germany.

A more revolutionary stand was taken by the Italian Socialist Party through its newspaper Avanti. “It opposed chauvinism and exposed the selfish secret motives behind the appeals for war”, explained Krupskaya. “It was backed by the majority of advanced workers.” On the whole, the voices against chauvinism, those of the internationalists, were still very weak and isolated.

The isolation of the revolutionaries in this period was graphically illustrated by the anti-war conference held in Zimmerwald in Switzerland in September 1915. There Lenin joked that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists into a few coaches.

Lenin came out very sharply against opportunism, which had destroyed the old International. He was not prepared to make any concessions over this. This was directed not only against the social-chauvinists, but also the liberal pacifists who opposed the war. He explained that social-patriotism was the idea of defending the capitalist fatherland during the war. He pointed out that the imperialist war aims: democracy, defense of freedom, etc., were nothing but a sham to cover up their real intentions of conquest and domination. In opposition to this, Lenin advocated a policy of “revolutionary defeatism”.

There has been a great deal of confusion over this term. Certainly, Lenin did not mean by this that the defeat of one’s own country is a lesser evil as compared with the defeat of an enemy country. We are not inverted chauvinists, as most ultra-lefts believe. What he actually meant was that a military defeat resulting from the growth of a revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the working class than that assured by “civil peace”. While we would not support our own capitalist government, neither are we interested in supporting the capitalists of another country.

“The peace slogan is in my judgment incorrect at the present moment. This is a philistine’s, a preacher’s slogan. The proletarian slogan must be civil war”, explained Lenin.

“Objectively, from the fundamental change in the situation of Europe, there follows such a slogan for the epoch of mass war. The same slogan follows from the Basle resolution.

“We can neither ‘promise’ civil war nor ‘decree it’, but it is our duty to work in this direction, if need be, for a very long time.”

Lenin saw his task as drawing a dividing line between the opportunists and the genuine revolutionaries internationally. That is the reason for his sharp tone. Lenin constantly hammered home the lessons of the degeneration of the old International and the need to build a new International, but on sound political foundations.

Lenin through this period was not aiming his ideas at the masses. Lenin was isolated in Switzerland throughout this period. He was addressing the cadres of the movement, to educate and train them in these fundamental ideas. In and of themselves, anti-militarism and defeatism could never win the broad masses, who did not want a foreign conqueror. That was never Lenin’s purpose. It was for the cadres and the cadres alone.

As soon as the February Revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, Lenin turned from training the cadres, and advanced to the problem of winning the masses. While opposing the War, the whole emphasis now changed. The Bolsheviks won over the masses with the slogans “Bread, Land, and Peace!” and “All Power to the Soviets!” On that basis they were able to take power into their hands and declare a Soviet Republic.

The victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 entirely transformed the world situation. After more than three years of World War, the masses were war weary. Their initial enthusiasm had completely evaporated and turned to opposition. They became wide open to revolutionary ideas. That explains the whole series of army mutinies that took place, ending up with the German Revolution itself in November 1918. “We do not want a separate peace with Germany”, explained Lenin, “we want a peace among all peoples, we want the victory of the workers of all countries over the capitalists of all countries.”

From an isolated handful, the internationalists now had a mass audience. Lenin wasted no time in launching the new International as the Party of World Revolution. In March 1919, the foundation Congress of the Third (Communist) International met in Moscow. For Lenin and the internationalists, this was a great triumph, no less historic than the October Revolution itself. 1919 was a year of revolution and counter-revolution, with Soviet republics proclaimed in Budapest and Munich. Unfortunately, these republics were soon swept away by counter-revolution and the Russian Revolution isolated. Nevertheless, the Third International, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, carried the banner of world socialist revolution, based on the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, which became the beacon to millions of workers worldwide.

“Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure”, wrote Rosa Luxemburg. “All the revolutionary honor and capacity which Western social democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.”

Today, these ideas and traditions are held up by the International Marxist Tendency, which stands on the shoulders of the best of the Third International, on the shoulders of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Once again, in this epoch of crisis and revolution, the task of building a genuine revolutionary international remains a key task everywhere.

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