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Storming the World’s Bastilles

Jean-Numa Ducange

On Bastille Day 1889, militants from around the world met in Paris to declare an international union of socialist parties. The Second International promised to spread the spirit of the revolution across borders, only itself to fall victim to nationalist passions.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd in 1907.

Interview by
David Broder

July 14, 1889 was a historic date for more than one reason. Coming exactly a hundred years after the storming of the Bastille, this day was the central focus of the centenary of the French Revolution, marked by official state pageantry as well as the Left’s own celebrations. Yet socialists didn’t just commemorate the glorious events of a century before. Meeting in Paris on July 14–16, delegates of socialist parties from around the world declared a new international organization to cohere their efforts.

The Second International founded in 1889 followed in the wake of the earlier International Workingmen’s Association (1864–76), in which Karl Marx had played a leading role. Formed six years after his death, the new International united such parties as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the French socialists (SFIO), and Russia’s Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). Mainly a European organization (with a smattering of delegates from the Americas and, later, Asia), it provided the key space for all development of socialist ideas and strategy in this period.

Today, the International is perhaps best known today for the circumstances of its collapse. Despite its longstanding campaign against militarism, in summer 1914 the International would splinter along national lines faced with the outbreak of World War I. This fiasco, and the denunciation of the Second International from Lenin onward, has however occluded more positive parts of its record, and its success in promoting the socialist project among millions of working people.

Historian Jean-Numa Ducange’s work focuses on the international exchanges between left-wing parties in Europe, including the legacy of the French Revolution in the social-democratic parties. He spoke to Jacobin about what “internationalism” meant at the turn of the century, the Second International’s role in propagating Marxist ideas among a mass working-class audience, and the reasons why international organization is not similarly commonplace on the Left even in today’s globalized world.


DB

The International’s founding congress was held on July 14, 1889 — centenary of the storming of the Bastille. How far did this inheritance of the French Revolution color the Second International’s parties — and were they themselves revolutionary?

JND

The French Revolution occupied a major place in the socialist imaginary of the nineteenth century: it was a major rupture not only in French history, but more generally in the history of humanity. There were many debates on how to characterize it: was this not above all “bourgeois revolution” that had opened the way to the development of capitalism, even if in a very particular way? Yet this particularity owed precisely to the fact that the Revolution was marked by episodes in which popular mobilization played a key role (the famous sans-culottes, for example). Among the “popular groups” involved, Jacques Roux’s Enragés in 1793 and indeed Gracchus Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals in 1796–97 asserted a radical critique of private property, already in this period foreshadowing the socialist currents of the nineteenth century. And this wasn’t just a battle over memory: in 1830, 1848, and in the Paris Commune of 1871, it was again the French Revolution that seemed to be resurgent and continuing.

So, it was no accident that the new International was established in Paris in 1889, upon the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. At the same time, the French Revolution had come up against its limits: many agreed with Marx’s famous formulation that “the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury the dead, in order to realize its own objectives.” For Marx, however glorious the tradition of the French Revolution was, it was now necessary to go beyond it. But to delegitimize the tradition of 1789 could serve very different goals: it could serve either to assert a new path of socialist revolution, or else to delegitimize any kind of revolutionary tradition and thus advocate a stageist, reformist approach. Tellingly, a fight over the French Revolution was key to the “revisionism” debate in the German SPD at the end of the nineteenth century, where Eduard Bernstein advocated this latter approach.

As for whether the social-democratic parties of this period — for instance, the pre–1914 SPD — were “revolutionary,” it depends what we mean by “revolution” . . .  My approach as a historian would tend to define as “revolutionaries” those who carried out a revolution, and not those who proclaimed themselves revolutionaries without having any mass base or historical experience. The events of 1918 (in which the SPD leadership defended the consolidation of a parliamentary republic, in open and even violent opposition to more revolutionary transformation) showed that a large part of the SPD wanted to limit any revolutionary subversion as far as possible. But then again, it was within this same party that revolutionary ideas and practices had been carried forth for decades. This was a profoundly diverse organization animated by contradictory movements. And I think that we can say that of most of the International’s organizations.

DB

The First International (1864–76) had been marked by a certain eclecticism — it was shaped by the clash between Karl Marx and the anarchist followers of Mikhail Bakunin, but also included less clearly working-class forces, for instance Italian republicans. How far did the Second International draw lessons from this experience — and for what purpose was it created?

JND

Many actors in this period shared Karl Marx’s view that it was essential to refound an international. The main difference with the Second International — created after his death — is that the first parties and groups identifying with socialism had now made considerable organizational strides. These were not yet mass parties, but they had become far better honed and structured political forces than what existed in the First International. The British trade unions, German Social Democracy, and the various socialist groups in France and Italy now rallied much wider forces. In 1889 the new International’s central objective was to win power and establish a new social, political, and economic order.

Already at this point there were major differences of method. In fact, in 1889 two competing congresses met in Paris: one (built around German Social Democracy and its French partisans Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue) identified with Marxism, whereas the other (built around the British and supporters of the French reformist Paul Brousse) was rather moderate and reformist in orientation. The former was however better structured, and by 1891 it had firmly established its dominance; anarchist groups were also involved but after a long series of debates and clashes they were excluded in 1896.

In 1889, it was the Marxists who had the wind in their sails — indeed, at this point Marx’s greatest comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels was still alive and observed developments very attentively. For older figures like Engels or Wilhelm Liebknecht (a veteran of the 1848 revolution in Germany and one of Marx and Engels’s supporters), the creation of the Second International was a powerfully moving moment. Internationalism was back on course, and socialism seemed within reach.

DB

The Second International has often been presented as turning Marxism, after Marx’s death, into a rigid dogma based on inevitable laws, embracing a direct connection between science and social progress. However, to take the example of Karl Kautsky’s writings, it seems that this was also linked to the goal of “popularizing” Marxism’s basic tenets to a general working-class audience, at the dawn of mass politics. Did “popularization” inevitably mean “vulgarization” — and with what effects?

JND

Kautsky was the living symbol of “Second International Marxism.” He held no specific political office, but he directed the SPD’s theoretical review Die Neue Zeit, which enjoyed a high standing across Europe and was itself able to confer legitimacy on theorists in other countries. The fervent defender of a certain kind of — sometimes rather dogmatic — Marxist orthodoxy, Kautsky was a point of reference especially for part of the left wing of the International (for instance Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin) which would long see him as the guarantor of fidelity to Marx.

Later on, a whole Marxist tradition did much to delegitimize Kautsky: heterodox Marxists from Karl Korsch to Michael Löwy saw Kautskyism as the very wellspring of social-democratic reformism and indirectly even the Stalinist Marxism of the Third International, each of which led to impasse. I’ll pass over the contradictions between the pre–1914 SPD and 1930s Stalinism, except to say that the historical conditions were so different that to draw such simplistic parallels shows a lack of understanding of the real ideological-political conditions of each era.

Most importantly, it’s a mistake to reduce the history of the Second International to theoretical debates. The International brought together mass parties and millions of workers who found in these organizations — for the first time in history — an opportunity to act together in view of their common ideal. That may sound obvious, but some people seem to completely forget this part of historical reality.

But you are right — I think the decisive thing is that this Marxism was developed to be a tool used by wide layers of the popular classes and especially workers. It articulated a utopian perspective (the future horizon of socialism/communism) with immediate demands (wage rises, shortened working hours, etc.). Tools of analysis that largely stemmed from Marx’s own concepts (the class struggle, exploitation, and so on) became meaningful in everyday life.

From this point of view, the term “vulgarization” should not only be seen in a negative sense: if it hadn’t existed, the workers’ movement surely wouldn’t have developed in the same way, especially in France and Germany. Of course, in certain situations this vulgarization caused problems, but to see this only as a matter of “flattening” thought is a purely intellectual stance, unable to recognize the contested power relations that existed in this era.

Despite the catastrophe of 1933, with the Nazi seizure of power and the destruction of the German left, I think it is very much worth plunging back into the universe of the Second International. For this was the era in which all the great questions that traverse the Left today — state, nation, migration, and so on — were posed for the first time.

Several recent works (especially English-language works by the likes of Lars Lih, Andrew Bonnell, and Ben Lewis) show that his work is much less simplistic and one-dimensional than certain commentators would tell us . . .  especially as most have only read a few famous quotes nor really engaged with Kautsky. We should recognize that most of Kautsky’s texts have become difficult to read, for they are marked by their time, and some are only historical in interest. But looking at his whole body of work, we also find texts burning with present day relevance, for instance his 1893 text on parliamentarism and socialism, which deals with the combination of parliamentary and direct democracy, or indeed his series of texts of republicanism and democracy — never cited by the critics of “Kautskyism.”

DB

One of the reasons the accusation of determinism is so effective is the fact that leading exponents of the International saw the colonial world as “backward,” counterposed to a Europe where “progress” had gone further. Were there counter-tendencies to this Eurocentrism? What figures in the International connected colonial exploitation to the inner dynamics of European societies?

JND

This is an important area of discussion, but one that shows that the International was less weak intellectually than is usually claimed. Of course, many socialist leaders of the era did refer to lower civilizations who ought to be the subjects of superior ones. But this was hardly a universal position — Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg first honed their weapons precisely in opposition to such views — and there was a considerable change over time.

The charge of “Eurocentrism” so dear to Edward Said and his partisans — so ready to stigmatize nineteenth-century Marxism — should not be applied unilaterally, especially when we compare Marxism to the other ideological currents of the era. Here again, it’s easy to pick on a few famous individuals and quotes, but if you don’t really get a handle on the sources from the time you’ll write all manner of nonsense.

For instance, I have worked at length on Jean Jaurès’s texts on colonization. Jaurès was the main founder of France’s Socialist Party in 1905. You can find a lot of texts in which Jaurès treats Arabs, for example, as an inferior people. But as he discovered Marxism and integrated it into his thinking, he became increasingly critical of colonial policy, articulating his republican universalism with multiple realities which he had not previously taken on board.

Also relatively little-known are Otto Bauer’s texts on this question. The Austrian socialist’s 1907 book on nationalities is often referenced for its original approach to the national question. But far less do we note the other texts he published in the Austrian party’s theoretical review, Der Kampf, in this same era. For example, in his article “The Eastern Revolutions,” he emphasized the importance of the revolutions that took place in Russia and Iran and other countries in 1905–6 and pinpointed the importance, within these movements, of the search for popular traditions that legitimized the uprisings. He made clear: “the revolutions in Asia and Africa may well be the signal for the liberation of the European proletariat.” Was this, too, Eurocentrism?

Of course, alongside this you had a strongly pro-colonial wing of the European socialist parties. But the idea that the whole International was Eurocentric doesn’t really hold water. Those who say that are copying things that were said in the past without really delving into the texts from the time. As historical studies based on police sources like Richard J. Evans’s work show, a certain sympathy for colonized peoples was often expressed among the parties’ proletarian base, having been attuned to an internationalist vocabulary.

DB

1889 also allowed the legalization of the SPD, which placed a central focus on winning universal suffrage as well as building up its own institutions. By the turn of the century, leading exponent Eduard Bernstein had launched the “revisionism debate,” essentially arguing that the real socialism lay in the day-to-day movement to change capitalist society, as opposed to being built after some eventual moment of revolution. How far was this already a reality of the SPD’s practice — and were the parties in other countries any different?

JND

Of course, despite the formal condemnation of Bernstein the SPD’s practice did indeed evolve toward an increasingly moderate practice and a desire for reconciliation with the existing order. Many studies — especially the works of Hans-Josef Steinberg — have highlighted this. But again, we should not give in to the idea that this represented nothing but a flatly reformist bureaucratic routine. If Rosa Luxemburg stayed within SPD ranks as long as she could, and did not want to leave the party, that is because she was well aware that the battle had to be fought within this organization, which rallied such vast numbers of workers. Through its very origins, the SPD preserved a contradictory character: doubtless, it increasingly accommodated to the system, but at the same time it was the source of an oppositional and subversive tendency, and despite the way it evolved it could never totally detach itself from its history and origins. Things were very different in other countries. Sometimes the nationalities question occupied such a central place that it tended to subordinate everything else (for instance, the Czechoslovakian question in the Austrian Empire). And in other countries like France or Italy, socialism differentiated itself from the republican tradition but despite everything maintained real links with it: here, too, we should emphasize the contradictory nature of these ties: in France, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Republic had become a “bourgeois republic” capable of shooting on the workers. But because of its — revolutionary — origins the Republic was nonetheless also the bearer of varied political perspectives, which could point either down the path of social order or toward the realization of its truly revolutionary original promise.

DB

Before 1914 the Second International sought to coordinate action against the looming war in Europe. To what extent was it the International that organized anti-war mobilizations rather than the national parties? When war came, the parties almost all backed their own national governments. Why did they collapse so quickly — and is there any evidence that this internationalist spirit had really imbued the mass membership of these parties?

JND

There were powerful mobilizations against war before 1914, indeed right up to the moment that war broke out. It’s clear that this was an abject failure, which moreover helped discredit the Second International’s wider record: what credit could be given to an organization which claimed to have promoted internationalism and yet ended up leaving the proletarians of Europe to shoot at each other?

But I think that we need a subtler reading. And a century after the events, we have a great number of studies on this question. I think what’s important to emphasize is that the development of a form of internationalist consciousness did not produce, in parallel, a weakening of national belonging — the opposite, even. When people considered their own country under threat or attack, for the great mass of them it was national belonging that won out over everything else: in Germany, for example, in 1914, they rallied to their own nation in the name of defending “civilization” against Russian barbarism, whereas in France they did so in the name of defending the Republic, and so on. And before 1914 many socialist leaders had declared that they would be ready to defend their homeland if it was threatened. The workers’ parties — and especially the strongest, the SPD — played the role, sometimes despite themselves, of integrating workers into the nation. Both Jean Jaurès and the SPD’s August Bebel died just before the war broke out, but you can find statements of theirs that suggest they may have declared themselves “loyal” to their own countries in time of war.

When Lenin denounced the collapse and indeed the treachery of the International, he was both entirely right, and also wrong in another way. Politically, he was right to insist on the International’s historic responsibilities, and he was one of the first to understand that the socialist parties’ support for the war effort would produce violent ruptures. Yet for most of the socialists going to war was just a parenthesis, which would be followed by a return to internationalism — they did not see the war as posing ever so much of a problem . . .  Lenin’s critique is also interesting for its analysis of imperialism. Some of the International’s leaders were institutional politicians who had entirely lost interest in theoretical debates, but even most of those who were interested shared the idea that there existed a “peaceful imperialism” and that the various countries’ leaders had no interest in going to war . . .  This is a complex subject, but I’ll note one other thing, too: when internationalism did come back into force, especially in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, this was of course explained by the events of the time (the horrors of war, a revolution breaking out, the exhaustion of the home front, the strikes, the mutinies, etc.). But at the time it was also well understood that this internationalism meant the rebirth of what had gone before: it was a continuation of the ideas of the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864 and the Second International of 1889. Proof, this, that even if though the International had collapsed in 1914, it had nonetheless left traces. Enough, anyway, for internationalism to enjoy a resurgence — and it didn’t come from nowhere.

DB

Today capital’s institutions are more international than in 1889, but this isn’t true of the Left and labor movement. We could find counterexamples, for instance from Latin America, but in Europe the Left has forums for exchanging ideas rather than real strategic coordination. Why do you think this is — is it a reaction against the centralization that characterized the Soviet-era Communist movement, or does it owe to a more general loss of grand collective projects?

JND

Of course, in a certain sense we’re still in the wake of the Soviet era. Whatever one says about it, in large part the “proletarian internationalism” of that era was, for millions of men and women, something closely tied to the fate of the USSR. The spectacular failure of this experience has had such a heavy effect that each party has preferred to tend to its own backyard, hanging on to whatever could be saved . . .  This is also mixed into a whole embrace of local, specific struggles — following in the trend of Michel Foucault’s theories, which though they are presented as subversive instead, paradoxically, serve to provincialize political debates by focusing on this or that aspect of a struggle and detracting legitimacy from more general problems like the question of reordering society. I know historians of the French and Italian communist parties who have studied these parties’ histories in a long-term perspective and show that discussions on internationalism were much more important in the 1970s than they were in the 2000s. The Left’s horizons were also narrowed considerably by the weakening or collapse of these parties.

But I think movements and parties do need to make an effort in this direction. Obviously, that can’t just be imposed by decree, but for example the adepts of “left populism” fail to notice the narrowing of their horizons, implicit within a political line solely centered on the questions concerning their own nations. That is not to deny the importance of the national context, which remains an essential level of political action. But to make this the insuperable or even only level of political action has a deadening effect, leading to disinterest in what is going on elsewhere. At the end of the nineteenth century, the development of internationalism was the fruit of a political struggle. Today, it is important that the will to action itself discovers such a path, for if not, then internationalism will be left up to elites and the ruling classes. Then we end up with a disastrous political cleavage like France’s, where “people” and “nation” are abandoned to the far right and “internationalism” to bourgeois-elite parties . . .  For all its weaknesses and failures, the experience of the Second International shows that you can be both rooted in the national context and also elaborate a thoroughgoing internationalism.