Thomas is delving into the early history of the modern workers movement and one of its giants: August Bebel who today died exactly 100 years ago.


 A giant of the workers movement

The launch of this site marks the 100th aniversary of August Bebel’s death. Bebel was the leader of the German social democratic party from its inception until his death in 1913. By using Bebel as a guide, I delve into the proceedings of the second congress of the Socialist International of 1891. This article about the attitude of both Bebel and the Second International towards labour legislation is the first of a three-part series. Part two will conclude the congress while part three will tell you more about the propagation of a Belgian social democratic model and how came into conflict with Bebel’s social democracy.

The economic programme of the early Second International

“A menagerie”, “a revolutionary keeve” or “a market full of fishwives”, the conservative press did not mince its words when it came to describing the second International Socialist Congress of 1891. It was held in Brussels, Belgium’s capital, and although it had the traits of a discussion club, it featured an importnat debate on protective labour legislation. How could the working class achieve such legislation and how could socialists relate it to the socialist programme? The German Marxists pressed August Bebel to clarify it once and for all.

It’s 9 o’clock on a warm Saturday morning in August 1891. A few hundred international delegates from social democratic and workers’ parties around the world gather for some coffee. Upon entering the Maison du Peuple (House of the People) in Brussels, they receive a warm welcome from the members of the National Committee of the Belgian Workers’ Party (BWP). Exceptionally so, reads the Belgian report, there are a lot more delegates than expected.

Immediately, there is an atmosphere of general relief. While some greet the people they’ve heard so much about for the first time, others are happy to finally meet again. There are even some journalists in the café of the Maison, among them a reporter from the Times on which this account is partially based. Each day, the Times had published an article containing a concise report from the congress floor.

Absent from the German delegation is the party leader August Bebel who’s still on his way. Instead the German delegates gather around Wilhelm Liebknecht, who time and again needs to interrupt his discussion to greet so many of the international delegates he had once met before in his long carreer as an international socialist. It is on occasions such as this one that he is at his best. The old man, already in the last decade of his life, had decided somewhere after the first international congress of 1889 to embark on a mission to build a unified, socialist workers’ movement.

Meanwhile members of the BWP put a finishing touch on all the decorations in the main hall of the Maison, a magnificent building in Art Nouveau. Here will be held the first and final sessions of the congress. The first ever unified social democratic congress. Reflecting the split in the French socialist workers’ movement, in 1889 two international congresses were held. One was the short-lived ‘Possibilist’ congress that believed that a national revolution was impossible. The other was the so called ‘Marxist’ congress.

The next day, on Sunday, the delegates take their seats in the great party hall of the Maison du Peuple. Against the wall are visible the many flags, banners and signs from all the socialist associations from Brussels. The table in front has a red cloth with the words “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” on it. The Belgians preside and faced towards the crowd of socialists from all over the world they could only see “the international proletariat, represented by its elite”.

At noon the Belgian leaders welcome their guests to the congress. They wish that the congress, according to the keynote speaker, would confine itself to practical work and that it would not engage in theoretical discussions as has happened on other occasions. Instead it must, with the emancipation of the proletariat from wage slavery in mind, pursue the realisation of workers’ issues. All personal and sectarian issues have to be discarded exclusively in favour of positive answers and for the good of the international working class.

The Belgians were given the mandate to organise the congress from both the congresses in Paris in 1889. This was not the first Belgian attempt at reunification. One in Ghent of 1877 was unable to unify the anarchists with the socialists. It explains how important this congress was in the eyes of the BWP. Confident as they were, they early on expressed two apparent results. First of all, this really is the first unified congress since the dissolution of the International Workingmen’s Association. Secondly, there is the presence of the English Trade Unions which are leaning towards socialism.

The congress resolves to vote by nationality. In small committees, each nation chooses its representatives. Each nation is asked to include in their representation the respective associations and (opposing) currents. The French, for example, were still very much divided. Each nation is then invited to file a report to the bureau, which, taken together, would serve as pieces of information for the delegates and to complete the account written by the Belgians that will summarise the work of the congress.

A last quarrel with the anarchists

At 2.30 p.m. at the opening session, the Belgian keynote speaker mentions with joy the presence of so many members of European parliaments among the delegations. Fifteen from the German Reichstag, one from the Danish Riksdag, eight come from the French Lower Chamber, one from Romania, three are from the British Lower House and then there is one former member of the Dutch Second Chamber and one former member of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives. August Bebel, who is a member of the Reichstag, has yet to arrive and therefore did not take part in the German delegation.

The congress elects two presidents for this rather symbolic session. There’s Vaillant from France and Singer from Germany. This choice and their respective speeches express and stress the importance of internationalism. While the rulers tend to divide the different peoples in the world and prepare for war, Valliant says, the socialists who represent the working class are joined together through their accomplishments to assure people’s liberty. Singer then says that the proletariat does not engage in patriotism. “Long live the Workers’ International”, he shouts.

A Belgian speaker from the floor explains how important it is for him and his comrades to see the French and Germans united against war. He also grieves for the Belgian socialist internationalist César de Paepe, “the real founder of the international”. He died the year before. He also mentions the presence of Marx’s daughter among the British delegates, the other founder who had died less than a decade ago.

Then the congress agrees to send a telegram with expressions of sympathy to Lafargue and Roger, two French socialists who are in prison. Later on they collectively express their sympathy for the many victims of that have fallen on International Workers’ Day, an event they had agreed on organising only two years before.

“I must protest against this system of obstruction employed by the anarchists. They always want to do it their way. It must stop.”
A Belgian delegate

A small dispute arises over several anarchist mandates. Though they wanted to partake in the discussions, the socialist delegates decided not to allow the anarchists to attend the congress. They were never invited, the Belgian bureau explains, and socialists stand for the formation of a socialist party which has nothing in common with anarchy. To close the dispute, the delegates unanimously vote for the exclusion of the anarchists from the congress.

The next couple of days the dispute would flare up again. Once it did over the presence of a newly arrived Spanish anarchist “delegate”. The Belgian bureau protests against what they thought was a system of obstruction employed by the anarchists “who always seem to do whatever they want”. After some explanation done by the Spanish socialist representative on the attitude of the anarchists towards legislation and the development of Mayday, the congress unanimously decides to remove the delegate.

The other moment was when, after a break, the police arrest an Italian and a French delegate. After a few contributions from various delegates some anarchists come into the hall and protest against the removal of the Spanish delegate by the congress. They also mention the arrest of the Italian socialist, who is then a contributor to an anarchist newspaper. When the anarchists leave the hall, the bureau says the congress would protest against the arrest of the Italian delegate. Once you get the police to let him go, Wilhelm Liebknecht says from the floor, you should make it the anarchists understand good an proper that this isn’t the first time that the socialists free one of their contributors.

It’s 10 a.m. on the second day of the congress when the delegates commence the discussion one of the biggest issues on the agenda: international labour legislation. But immediately after the American report, which served as an introduction, the French M.P. Baudin informs the congress of a formidable strike going on among French weavers. Because word has spread that the state would send in the troops, he asks the congress for permission to leave together with three other French delegates. His intention is to use their presence as M.P.’s to support the strikers. Warmly applauded by the congress, he left the congress.

Discussion on the Paris resolutions

After this astonishing news and yet another dispute with an anarchist intruder, a keynote speaker addresses issue number one named “The state of the protective labour legislation from a national and international point of view and the means to accomplish it and make it useful”. The report by the Belgian speaker explains how almost nothing has been done since the two congresses of 1889. Only a few countries succeeded at implementing new protective labour laws, while the so called bourgeois congress of Berlin on the subject of labour legislation proved to be a pretext to block further developments in that direction.

The Paris congress of 1889 agreed on several resolutions that together form a general programme of economic demands such as the reduction of the labour day to eight hours, a work week of six days, free and secular compulsory education, support for the poor children organised by municipalities, a minimum wage for the public works, etc. These economic demands implied some political content as they were meant to partially free the working class from the degrading tendencies of capitalism, and to strengthen workers’ associations and institutions of self-government.

By presenting the congress a resolution, the speaker concluded that much of the current legislation is poor and ineffective. He proposed to the international working class to struggle for the realisation of the programme of the Paris congress op 1889. Such agitation by our class cannot have but this result, he says: to establish the fact that the ruling class is the enemy of all efficient and active protection of labour. The concrete proposals from the draft, that had to unify the effort of the different socialist parties, were: the organisation in each country of an inquiry into the labour conditions in relation to legislation; an exchange of information for the development and unification of industrial legislation; and the unification of efforts by the working class to counter the resistance by the bourgeois parties and to refuse to vote for all those who don’t support their demands.

“Our primary goal must be to remove bourgeois society from the face of the earth. There’s no divergence of opinion on that point. He who aknowledges another tactic than the one I pointed out, must leave the party.”
August Bebel

When the congress resumes its work after the break, a British speaker confirms the need to elect workers’ representative in parliament. They are needed block and argue against the reactionary proposals of the bourgeoisie. While he’s closing off his rather dull contribution, the German Reichstag representative August Bebel walks to the podium. Cheered on by the congress, he steps onto it. The Germans, he says with a cutting voice, don’t think that the main effort of social democracy should be aimed only at the material well-being of the working class. As a supporter of the class struggle he is of the opinion that the main goal must be the removal of bourgeois society from the face of the earth.

Because the German press had days before written about a potential split within the German party, Bebel felt then need to respond to such allegations. Concerning this point, he assures the congress, there’s no divergence of opinion. “If there’s anyone who supports another tactic, he should leave the party.” According to Bebel the German socialists support the programme of the Paris congress and the conclusions of the report that was put forward in the morning. Because everything that improves the economic state of the workers makes them stronger and prepares the ground for the disappearance of the bourgeois order. Yes, it would excite the workers even more to accomplish that.

The bourgeoisie is incapable of delivering the reforms the workers need, he explains. The role of this social class has been reduced to giving small concessions to the workers. Yet this class is mistaken when it believes that these concessions would be able block the growth of socialist ideas and the development of the workers’ movement. The German socialist party has come to the conclusion that the Berlin congress has nothing to offer to the working class.

To confirm what the British delegate said, he explains that one of the means of the socialist movement would indeed be the electoral conquest of seats in parliament. It should be done in order to overpower the government and to use it to advance the cause of the proletariat. Bebel recommends the establishment of a workers’ statistics and the exchange of such information internationally. But he estimates that this proposition would be hard to realise because the workers don’t have the same means at their disposal as the government.

So maybe the Germans will abstain from voting on this party, he explains. Concerning the proposal only to support candidates who support the demands of the proletariat, Bebel says the following: “Now, that might mean anything. The resolution should be more definite. It ought to affirm, as we in Germany affirm, that no candidate is worthy of support unless he advocates the whole programme of the Social Democratic Party from beginning to end.” While climbing down from the stairs Bebel receives a warm applause. “His speech”, writes the Belgian report, “left a profound impression”.

The sharpening of the resolution

After a few other contributions from delegates about the state of the labour-protecting laws in their respective countries, the sessions ends. On Wednesday, at 10 a.m., the congress begins the final session on the subject of industrial legislation. After the reading aloud of new telegrams and welcoming some newly arrived delegates at the start of this session, contributors inform the congress of the situation in their respective countries. Only a few stand out. One is an American delegate who complains about the vagueness of the Paris programme.

We should reformulate parts of the current resolution, he says, because we need to affirm the class struggle. Just like Bebel he acknowledges the difficulties that arise from the exchange of statistical information on an international scale. Concerning participation in parliamentary elections, he stresses the need for representatives who pledge to abolish wage slavery. “Legislators”, he says, “need to stand at our service”.

The Austrian delegate Adler, who approves of Bebels contribution, tells the congress how the Austrian bourgeoisie is just the same as in Germany. Even though Austria already has a relatively advanced labour legislation, it is nothing more than words on paper. Therefore, and because we are revolutionary social democracy, he concludes, all the means we employ must be aimed at the revolution.

Some amendments are proposed to sharpen the wording of the resolution, such as the affirmation of the class struggle on both the economic and the political front. Frankel, a Hungarian from France, proposes to emphasize to use all the achieved rights and liberties of the workers to free them from wage slavery. Adler proposes to add to the third resolution that all candidates need to adhere to the programme of the socialist congress before they can be assured of a socialist vote. Holmes, a British trade-unionist, disagrees with Adler and Frankel. Some trade unions might break away from the socialist movement: we should think before we inscribe such words in our resolutions, he says.

Somewhere after 3 p.m., a summary performed by the Belgian socialist Emile Vandervelde receives applause when it mentions that the proposals of Frankel and Adler are adopted and that unlike the fear of Holmes, it must be stressed that during this congress, where British trade unions and continental social democracy are united, Marx’s slogan, workers of the world unite, has become a reality. So the tone of the resolution was sharpened and the political and militant aims of the economic programme for protective labour legislation accentuated.

“British representatives held a meeting for the purpose of determining whether they should vote for the resolution respecting the support be accorded to labour candidates at elections in its present form, or for the more definite and restricted policy advocated by Herr Bebel. Hobson of the Sheffield Trades Council moved that the resolution should be allowed to remain in its present open form, but this motion was lost.”
The Times

Bebel’s speech not only left a profound impression on the delegates. It also stirred arousal among the reporters of the conservative press. “A menagerie”, “a revolutionary keeve” or “a market full of fishwives”, the conservative press did not mince matters: the congress was only a talking shop. Overwhelmed by all the languages that were spoken at the congress, one catholic commentator reverts back to the biblical story of Babel and calls the event the “Tower of Bebel”.

Days after the congress, a small dispute arises in the partisan press about Bebel’s message. His visit was so important for the Belgian socialists, that the conservative press besmirched him in order to discredit the Belgians. According to the newspaper La Patriote, Bebel had told that “we German socialists, we don’t want any legislation for the working man. What we want is to keep the wound open in the body that is present society. What we want is to remove bourgeois society from the face of the earth. That’s why we don’t have any interest in remedies for the bad conditions of the working class.”

Immediately, the Belgian socialist press responds to this libel, writing that he had said the exact opposite. On top of that, the congress was more than just a talking shop. It was an important step for both the Belgian party and the international workers’ movement, they claim. They seize on the impression that was left by Bebel’s clarification on the subject of labour laws to construct a defence of the achievements of congress. Under the social democratic method, that of Bebel, actual material and social gains were won.

“Well then”, begins a socialist reporter his defence, “go forward, Tower of Bebel! Bebel is one of the most brilliant representatives of scientific international socialism. His writings, speeches and works make up a great tower, a strong arsenal, from which the working class should take their arms. We cannot recommend it enough… And if the congress deserves to be named Tower of Bebel – if the theories, the opinions of this learned German, have won the day at the congress – well, then we are lucky to have such a Tower of Bebel with us.”

“If only we could build and establish such a Tower of Bebel in the brains of every worker”, they sighed. Because then, when the working class has understood the socialist programme, “gentlemen, believe us, your rule would soon disappear for ever… The Tower of Bebel will survive this mischief [of the conservative press].”


  1. Newsclippings of the 1891 International Socialist Congress, from The Times
  2. International socialist workers’ congress held at Brussel, Belgian report from 1893
  3. Articles and reports from the 1891 Congress, from Vooruit (Belgian socialist newspaper)