Sunday 2 January 2000

Histories of the four Internationals

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez [right] has called for the formation of a Fifth International to unite socialists around the world. The previous internationals were places of debate and action, established to strengthen the international socialist movement. Dan Swain of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has writen a breif history of each one, arguing that we “can learn an enormous amount by studying them”.
The First International was forged in struggle In the first of a new series Dan Swain looks at how socialists have organised for change globally. On 28 September 1864, delegations of workers from different countries met in London to form the International Working Men’s Association. This was later known as the First International. It was an historic moment uniting working people in a genuinely international organisation. Uprisings in Poland against the Russian empire provided the spark for its formation. British workers issued a call to workers in Paris to deliver joint solidarity. A delegation from France travelled to London. By the time the first meeting was convened large numbers of Polish, German and Italian workers were also present. Battle of Węgrów, Poland 1863 The first few years of the international saw some impressive successes. It won solidarity from British workers for a strike of bronze workers in Paris, which went on to victory. It was also crucial to defeating attempts by bosses to use scab labour to break the London tailors’ strike in 1866 and the Geneva building workers’ strike in 1868. Arguments for international solidarity had a strong resonance with workers across Europe. In 1869 mine owners in Belgium unleashed an attack on working conditions. Workers and their families rose up and were met with vicious repression. Belgian troops killed or wounded many workers. The First International organised solidarity meetings and provided legal representation for the arrested miners. They were acquitted, increasing support for the International. It was a place of intense debates. [Karl] Marx and his supporters were not the only voices. Anarchists, represented mainly by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon from France and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin were one strand.
Karl Marx Mikhail Bakunin Utopian Socialism was another. Utopians saw the route to socialism through enlightenment and education. Robert Owen, one of its key proponents, had established co-operatives and ideal working communities to show how work and society could be organised differently. Marx argued that while these were good examples, they would not lead to socialism—building isolated communities could never be enough. “To conquer political power has... become the great duty of the working classes”, he said in his first address to the International. Many of Marx’s most important political arguments were made in debates with these trends. The International’s biggest challenge was the Paris Commune in 1871. War had broken out between France and Prussia. The defeat of France led to the collapse of the government and the declaration of a new republic. In Paris workers rose up and declared their own government under the Commune. Marx offered his full support, and his analysis of it is among his most important writings. His The Civil War in France offers a powerful defence of the Commune and a stark description how far the ruling class would go to crush a revolution. The Paris Commune, 1871 These events saw socialism condemned internationally, and Marx was labelled the “Red Doctor” by the press. There was debate within the International itself. Faced with a revolutionary moment, the divisions in the International became increasingly important. Anarchists and [Marxist] socialists drew very different conclusions. The English trade unions left the International because of its support for the Commune and the British representatives resigned from its general council. They argued that change should come through parliament and trade union activity. With the loss of the British section the divisions between Marx and the anarchists became more intractable. It led to the eventual dissolution of the International in 1872. While the International had brought together workers across Europe, the division between reformists and revolutionaries was too much. It remains a crucial question in debates about building international organisations in the future. The Second International: From class war to imperialist slaughter In the second part of our series Dan Swain looks at the rise and fall of the Second International. Last week I explored how divisions over the question of revolution led to the break up of the First International. The same problem was also of decisive importance to the fate of the next attempt to unite socialists across borders. The Socialist International, known as the Second International, was established in 1889. It brought together socialist groups from across the world, the most successful being the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). These organisations were generally well rooted in the working class. They spoke of the need for revolution, and were involved in organising unions and contesting elections. The SPD participated in every aspect of workers’ lives, even organising socialist choirs and socialist gyms. It is because of calls by the Second International that we celebrate International Workers Day on May Day, and International Women’s Day on 8 March. May Day was launched as part of an international campaign for an eight-hour working day. Workers across Europe stopped work and demonstrated on 1 May 1890. Governments were forced to recognise the day as a national holiday. As capitalism underwent a period of stability at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the parties of the Second International were able to gain legal recognition and win some major reforms. As a result, many began to draw the conclusion that capitalism could be reformed to benefit the working class. While most of these people still called themselves Marxists, and paid lip service to the idea of revolution, they began to move away from it in practice. Karl Kautsky, a leading intellectual in the SPD, was a key figure in this debate. Formally he supported revolution against a section of the party who wanted to abandon it. Karl Kautsky However, while denouncing them at party conferences, he also accommodated to them, allowing them to set the agenda. This meant the left was isolated. The leading Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin called for the reformists to be expelled from the International. He argued that having two different currents in the same organisation could only paralyse it. Revolutionaries and reformists should, and must, work together, but they need to organise separately, he said. The tensions in the International began to reveal themselves in an argument about colonialism, as the great powers grabbed parts of the world. Some delegates to the International’s 1907 congress defended aspects of colonialism, saying that it could be a force for good. Lenin proposed an alternative, opposing all colonialism. This was passed, but the vote was very close. Even worse was the debate over war. All agreed that socialists should oppose war, which resulted from the competitive nature of capitalism. But there were disagreements over how to do this. Many argued for mass strikes and uprisings, but some of the German delegates were concerned about this affecting their legal status. A compromise was reached. This said that if war broke out, it was the duty of socialists “to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule”. But this did not happen when the First World War broke out in 1914. The majority of SPD MPs in the German parliament, including Kautsky, voted for war. Most of the other Second International parties followed suit, voting to support their country’s war effort. This was a terrible betrayal. Lenin refused to believe the news at first, presuming the newspaper story was a forgery. Failure to oppose the war ripped apart the International. It left many confused and demoralised. However, those who did break with it and opposed the war would go on to form the backbone of a genuinely revolutionary international movement. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1914, “The Second International did not live in vain. It carried out enormous cultural work, the likes of which the world has never seen: the education and rallying of an oppressed class. “The proletariat does not have to begin all over again… The period now concluded bequeathed it a rich arsenal of ideas.” The Third International: Revolutionary hope crushed by Stalinism Dan Swain continues our series with a look at the third attempt to unite workers across borders. Poster for the Third International When the parties of the Second International voted to support the First World War many socialists were left uncertain about what to do next. From the carnage of the war, however, came a beacon of hope that inspired millions across the world. A revolution in Russia put workers in control in October 1917. The Bolshevik Party argued for forming a workers’ state by placing power in the hands of the soviets – councils of workers based in the factories and communities. The Bolsheviks had opposed the war. After the revolution they ended Russia’s involvement. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had argued that revolutionaries and reformists should organise separately. The success of the revolution had proved how important this was. It inspired the creation of Communist Parties across Europe. Trotsky, Lenin and Kamenev in 1919 In 1919 these organisations were formally united in the Communist International, known as the Third International. It was formed in a period of huge social upheaval. There were mass strikes all over Europe. Soviets similar to those in Russia were formed in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. Socialists in Russia knew that if the revolution did not spread to other countries it would be defeated. Germany, which had the largest working class in Europe, was the most important country. Lenin declared in 1918 that, “It is an absolute truth that without a German revolution we are doomed.” German sailors revolt ended World War One and sparked the German revolution. Their placard reads: “Soldiers warship Prince Regent Luitpold. Long live the Socialist Republic” However, the Communist Party in Germany was a new and relatively small one. It had only recently broken from the Social Democratic Party. Revolution was a real possibility in Germany between 1919 and 1923. But the leaders of the Communist Party made a series of tactical mistakes that led to their defeat. They squandered the trust of workers through irresponsible uprisings that were doomed to defeat. As a result of this they were too timid to take a lead at other times. The defeat of the German Revolution led to Russia becoming increasingly isolated. Lenin’s death in 1924, and the enormous damage done to Russia by civil war, created the conditions in which a growing bureaucracy could concentrate their power. Joseph Stalin, who headed the bureaucracy, asserted that it was possible to construct “socialism in one country”. This was the complete opposite of what Lenin had argued. Joseph Stalin The International increasingly became a tool of Russia. Communist Parties around the world were instructed to respond to every whim from Moscow. This led to bizarre twists in strategy. First, members of the International were told not to work with social democrats at all. Instead they were denounced as “social fascists”. This was utterly disastrous. The left was divided when unity was needed against the Nazis. Then suddenly the International switched, and Communists were ordered to seek alliances with anyone and everyone. This “Popular Front” tactic even led to Communists participating in governments in Europe and breaking strikes. As the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, the International had become a “submissive apparatus in the service of Soviet foreign policy, ready at any time for any zigzag whatever”. Against this, Trotsky argued consistently for the idea of the united front. This had been a strategy put forward at the Third International’s 1922 congress. It argued that the Communist Parties must seek to work with social democratic parties in an effort to influence the majority of workers. The policy adopted in 1922 argued that the role of the International “is not to establish small communist sects aiming to influence the working masses purely through agitation and propaganda, but to participate directly in the struggle of the working masses”. The Third International brought together millions of workers under a banner committed to the need for world revolution. It inspired millions to fight for a better world. It educated generations of activists and militants, and played a key role in many struggles. The early struggles of the International still hold many important lessons for us today. However, its fate was too closely tied to that of Russia. Stalin misled the workers organised in the International as did their own national leaderships, who too often meekly obeyed every command. Also of interest, from the the British Socialist Worker newspaper: The Communist International – a major nine part series How a workers’ uprising ended the First World War The Fourth International: Keeping the flame alive Our series concludes by looking at Trotsky and the Fourth International. Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, opposed Joseph Stalin’s increasing stranglehold on the Soviet Union and the Third International. Leon Trotsky As a result he was exiled from Russia. In 1938 he gathered together a small number of his supporters to form the Fourth International. The contrast between the founding congresses of the other internationals and the fourth was stark. There were only 21 delegates representing 11 organisations. The largest was the US section, with only 2,500 members. This was not the mass organisation that the previous internationals had been. Nonetheless Trotsky believed that the extraordinary world situation demanded a new formation. The Great Depression was feeding the rise of fascism, while Stalinism prevented workers fighting back successfully. The Fourth International argued that capitalism was entering a terminal crisis. It was no longer possible to fight for reforms within capitalism. The choice was either revolution or fascist dictatorship. The old Communist parties had been turned into tools of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, and were now opposed to revolution. It was necessary to form new revolutionary organisations, however weak they might start out. Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent two years later. Unfortunately, the remaining leadership of the Fourth International stuck to this perspective even when circumstances changed. Far from collapsing following the war, capitalism went through a period of sustained growth and prosperity. Under these conditions reformist and Communist parties grew rapidly. They were able to win many reforms. Trotsky had also predicted that the war would lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. Instead, the Soviet Union’s influence expanded and Stalin consolidated his position. Yet in 1946 James Cannon, a leading figure in the Fourth International, announced that Trotsky was still right, “only we disagree with some people who carelessly think the war is over”. This was an extraordinary denial of reality in an attempt to stick to all of Trotsky’s words! The Fourth International debated the nature of the Soviet Union and the replica regimes it established across Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. Its position became that the Soviet Union was a “degenerated workers’ state”. The theory was of a genuine socialist revolution that had developed defects. The East European satellites were however “deformed workers’ states”, defective from birth. This created a huge problem. Karl Marx had argued that socialism must be brought about by the working class themselves. But the regimes in Eastern Europe had been instituted by Stalin’s armies, not by the workers of those countries. To argue that they were in any sense workers’ states abandoned a key principle of Marxism. These were “workers’ states” that the workers had never had any say in. Against this, the Palestinian Marxist Tony Cliff, a founder of the SWP, argued that the Soviet Union and its mirror images in Eastern Europe were state capitalist regimes, in which the workers had no control. The revolutionary upheavals that began in May 1968 created an opportunity for Trotsky’s ideas to gain influence and for organisations that looked to his legacy to grow. But by this time the “official” Fourth International was split into warring factions, and Cliff had left to form the International Socialists, the predecessor of the SWP. Unfortunately, dogmatic adherence to Trotsky’s 30-year old ideas helped many squander these opportunities. The logic of the “deformed workers’ state” argument was that socialism could be brought about by forces other than the working class, for example students, peasants or guerrilla armies. Some parts of the Fourth International did stay closer to the real Marxist tradition. Whatever the later difficulties of some his followers, Trotsky’s break from the rotten politics of Stalin’s Third International kept the flame of revolutionary internationalism alive. It is this tradition that we should gain inspiration from today.

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