The Internationals: A Brief History

 Delegate Card to the Second International 1896/Union History

By Jason Schulman

Few people in the United States know anything about the history of the socialist movement. The term “social democracy” is not part of the U.S. political vocabulary, and its achievements in Western Europe almost never discussed in U.S. high school social studies; the origins and development of socialist political thought (social democracy, Communism, Trotskyism, etc.) are rarely explored outside of little-known political journals. Furthermore, those who are new to the U.S. socialist movement often wonder where all the little groups that dot the landscape of the U.S. left came from. This piece summarizes the history of organized socialism around the world.

The First International was initiated as a mutual aid association of British and French trade unionists, and transformed politically by the activity within its leadership of Karl Marx. It was a very diverse body, and was eventually torn apart by an internal struggle between Marxists and secretive, anti-electoral anarchists led by Mikhail Bakunin. It dissolved in 1876.

The Second International arose during the period of mass growth of the labor movement in the late 19th century. It was officially Marxist and dominated by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Under the intellectual guidance of its theoretician Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), the SPD’s strategy was to build the organized workers’ movement, and especially the workers’ political party as its central institution.

In Kautsky’s view, as the organized movement of the working class grew stronger, so would the self-confidence of the class and its ability to take political decisions and impose them on the capitalist class and the state. Both in the struggle for reforms and in mass strike waves or revolutionary crises, a powerful mass socialist party which had at the core of its aims the perspective of the working class taking power and overcoming the rule of capital would be the essential instrument of the working class asserting its ability to run society.

But while the official SPD platform was ideologically uncompromising, over time the party’s activities became increasingly pragmatic. Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), once a close companion of Karl Marx’s political partner, Frederick Engels, challenged prevailing SPD orthodoxy in The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy (1899; translated as Evolutionary Socialism, 1909). He appealed to the SPD to drop its “revolutionary baggage” and recognize theoretically what he thought it had already decided in practice: that Germany would not have to go through revolutionary convulsions in order to reach socialist goals. Influenced greatly by the Fabian Socialists of Britain, Bernstein urged the SPD to travel along the “English road” in hope of gradually transforming capitalism through socialistic reforms brought about by parliamentary legislation, cooperating in government with the most “progressive” of the capitalist class’s political parties.

The struggle between Kautsky’s orthodoxy and Bernstein’s revisionism shook the SPD. Bernsteinian doctrine was officially defeated in 1903, but revisionism increasingly permeated the party, especially its parliamentary and trade union leaders. At the outbreak of World War I practically all the leaders supported the German government and the war, consequently ending the SPD’s revolutionary pretensions.

The truth is that Social Democrats’ successes within the parliamentary framework were simply too impressive for many to accept the idea that revolution was necessary. By the dawn of World War I, it appeared to many trade unionists and socialist parliamentarians that advanced capitalism, as contrasted to its competitive, cutthroat predecessor, had produced a large economic surplus that was available to the workers and their parties—provided that they maintained a high level of organization and political will. While Bernstein’s views may have been scorned by Marxists, at the time they seemed to resemble social and political reality more than dire predictions of impending systemic crisis. It seemed that the material interests of the labor movement could be fulfilled within, and not necessarily against, the existing social and political order.

And then, in 1914, came World War I. Contrary to socialist principles regarding the international solidarity of the proletariat, the working classes of the various European powers largely rushed to go to war with each other. And instead of opposing the war, organizing strikes against it, and calling for the overthrow of their own capitalists, the Second International sections in France, Germany and Britain voted for war credits and sided with their own capitalist class to wage war. This effectively destroyed the International, although it was re-formed in 1923, and reconstituted again (in its present form) after World War II (during which many socialist parties had been suppressed in Nazi-occupied Europe).

When most of the leaders of the Second International rallied to their national governments in 1914, Russian socialist Vladimir Lenin (1870­­­­–1924) denounced them as traitors to Marxism and sought to lay the groundwork for a new global organization of revolutionary socialists. After their seizure of power, Lenin’s Bolsheviks (later, Communists) resolved to create a Third International. By the time its delegates had assembled in Moscow in 1919, a revolutionary uprising in Berlin had been crushed and leaders of German Communism—most notably Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)—murdered. The majority of the German working class was still supportive of the right-wing Social Democratic leadership of the new German republic. But to the Russian Communist leaders world revolution still seemed possible. Soon after the first congress of the Third International a short-lived “soviet republic” was proclaimed in Hungary and another in the German state of Bavaria. Communist parties started appearing in all the major countries of Europe.

When the Communist International (Comintern) met for its second world congress in July 1920, it was no longer a small gathering of individuals or representatives of small sects but a union of delegations from a dozen major Communist parties. The outcome of this meeting was to give the Russian leaders control of the new International, now broken away sharply from the Social Democratic movement. It adopted twenty-one conditions for membership in the Comintern, demanding that its adherents reject not only those Social Democratic leaders who had been “social patriots” in the war but also those who had been anti-war but did not support the Bolshevik revolution. It aimed at creating an tightly disciplined and insurrectionary world organization that would willingly accept the direction and authority of the Russian leadership.

By 1923 the hoped-for revolutionary tide in Europe had not developed. New uprisings in parts of Germany in 1923 failed completely. The Russian Red Army’s attempted invasion of Poland had been thrown back. Many socialists who had for a time joined the Comintern, including the leadership of the Norwegian Labour Party, electoral-abstentionist Communists in Germany, and syndicalists (anti-electoral proponents of revolutionary trade unions) in France and Spain, now turned away, rejecting its policy of centralized dictation.

Europe soon achieved a degree of economic and social stabilization. By the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, Moscow was beginning to use the parties over which it still held command as tools of Russian foreign policy. Although some Comintern leaders like Leon Trotsky (1877–1940) still believed that world revolution was on the agenda (or at least necessary), the majority of the Russian leadership no longer shared their beliefs.

In January 1928, Trotsky and his principal followers were exiled to remote parts of the Soviet Union, Trotsky himself being assigned to Central Asia. In January 1929 Trotsky was banished from the territory of the Soviet Union. He was initially received by the government of Turkey and lived on the island of Prinkipo. He plunged into literary activity there and completed his autobiography and his history of the Russian Revolution. In 1933 Trotsky secured permission to move to France. After the German Communists failed to prevent the victory of the Nazis, Trotsky gave up the hope of reforming the Comintern and called on his followers to establish their own revolutionary parties and form a Fourth International.

The formation of a new International was difficult, though, because Stalin’s secret police killed many potential Trotskyists in the period 1934-38, so that the ranks of the Trotskyist movement were thin. Nevertheless, a founding conference was held in Périgny, France, in 1938; it proclaimed the Fourth International and adopted a program calling for a broad range of goals between those of minimum reform (e.g., higher wages, better working conditions) and those of the maximum program (i.e., the abolition of capitalism and the transition to socialism).  But the Fourth International failed to attract many workers to its ranks, and since 1940 there have been innumerable splits in the Trotskyist movement, over finer and finer points of dogma. There are presently at least twenty tiny Trotskyist internationals, the largest of which is the “official” Fourth International, whose most famous figure was the late political economist Ernest Mandel. Most Trotskyist groupings are not known for their tolerance of internal dissent.

Stalin dissolved the Third International in 1943, though the official Communist parties around the world remained more-or-less supportive of whoever was the head of the Kremlin. A few orthodox Stalinist parties still exist in the advanced capitalist countries, most notably Greece and Portugal. Beginning in the 1950s, a number of Western European Communist parties—most conspicuously the Italian CP—professed independence from Soviet foreign policy and criticized the USSR’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. For a time these parties—even before their break with the USSR—embraced a strategy of a parliamentary road to socialism somewhat similar that of Social Democracy before World War II. But so-called Eurocommunism is no longer a factor in European politics. Also, since the split between Chinese and Russian Communism in 1964, there have been numerous parties around the world claiming allegiance to the insurrectionary, peasant-centered, and at times quite murderous, Maoist version of Stalinism (or “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought”), though there has been no official Maoist International. The splits that plague Trotskyism are echoed by Maoism, or what remains of it.

 The Second International was reformed as the Labor and Socialist International in 1923 and then again as the Socialist International (SI) in 1951. In Western Europe, the SI parties often achieved great popularity and formed governments which legislated significant reforms. Indeed, largely thanks to their social democratic movements, Germany and the Scandinavian nations became the most humane countries in the world, without any real poverty to speak of, with strict health and safety regulation, progressive taxation, and guaranteed health care, child care and housing. 

However, no SI parties have any anti-capitalist pretensions left and the SI itself today functions essentially as a United Nations-type body. It is also true that many of these parties, when in government, have not delivered substantial reforms in decades, and have in many instances scaled back reforms that they once implemented or simply continued the counter-reforms instigated by their Conservative or Liberal predecessors. Social democratic parties largely no longer see the working class as what the writer Gerassimos Moschonas calls a “privileged sociological marker.” They have lost votes from workers and gained them from the salaried middle strata. The class character of social democratic parties is increasingly “catch-all”—sociologically, ideologically, and programmatically. So, too, is the SI. It counts among its member parties with no working-class roots: the Partido Liberal Colombiano, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional of Mexico, and, until recently, even the dictatorial National Democratic Party of Egypt headed by former President Hosni Mubarak.

For decades it was primarily the parties of the SI which had the allegiance of the working classes of the liberal-democratic world. Many radical leftists determined that it was necessary do work inside these parties, building wings that would make these parties re-embrace the goal of a socialist transformation of society. In order to maintain connections to such radicals, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been a member “party” of the SI, and the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) a member of the International Union of Socialist Youth. But the number of radical leftists in SI parties is ever fewer, and the SI itself seems to be falling apart. A number of its prominent member parties, including the British Labour Party, have let their dues lapse, and in 2013 the SPD, along with other center-left parties, founded a rival organization to the SI called the Progressive Alliance out of criticism of the perceived corrupt and “outmoded” nature of the SI. This new organization is broad enough to associate with such mainstream U.S. Democratic Party politicians as Howard Dean and Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin; it has no more commitment to moving beyond capitalism than does the SI. Meanwhile, parties offering a more left-wing alternative to official Social Democracy are gaining mass support in parts of Europe, such as Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain, and—most notably—Syriza in Greece, now in government for the first time. (The parties of the “pink tide” in Latin America, also, have no association with the SI, not even the quite moderate Workers’ Party (PT) of Brazil.)

Thus, the era of the Socialist International seems to be coming to a close. What this means for DSA—which, however small our numbers, retains a commitment to transcending capitalist society—remains to be seen.


Jason Schulman teaches political science at Lehman College in the Bronx and St. Francis College in Brooklyn. He is a member of New York City DSA, the editor of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and the author of Neoliberal Labour Governments and the Union Response: The Politics of the End of Labourism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).


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