Thomas continues with his three-part on Bebel and the congress of 1891 in Brussels.

Socialists can do nothing to stop the war, they can only use it to spread socialist awareness.

Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel (1889). A life-long struggle against capitalist wars and the general strike tactic.

This is the second part of a three-part series on the influence of August Bebel and of German social democracy in general on the proceedings of the international socialist congress of 1891 1. We left off on Wednesday morning August 19, with the vote on protective labour legislation. This important debate featured a speech by German party leader August Bebel, who reaffirmed the unity within the German party and who defended the general Marxist attitude towards labour legislation. After a short discussion on the Jewish question had resolved that the Jewish worker cannot liberate himself when he does not struggle together with the international proletariat, the congress moved on to the more contentious issues of international organisation and tactics. In part three I will use the last days of the congress to discuss the existence of conflicting social democratic models within the Socialist International.

International organisation, socialist agitation and strikes: on the tactics of the Second International

The fifth and sixth day of the international socialist congress, the “Tower of Bebel” as one conservative paper had called it, were to finally bring about the underying divergence on the question of international organisation and the strike tactic. Supported by the presence of the Dutch, the left made itself heard by uttering how disappointed it was. “Every party can support our resolution”, one leading Dutchman said, “the Pope and the Salvation Army have already done so!”

Thursday morning, August 20. The female delegates are just concluding an early morning gathering on the topic of the establishment of a network for all groups that are involved with the struggle for the rights and interests of women. While they return from their meeting, the Italian delegate Filippo Turati opens the fifth day of congress. with the discussion on interntional working class organisation, freedom of assembly and association and international socialist agitation.

At the beginning of the congress (see part one), the delegates had resolved to fuse the session on trade unions, strikes and boycotts with the discussion on the practical organisation of international social democracy. This session will prove to be the longest, yet not the most controversial of all the proceedings that week. The most controversial debate is the one on the socialist attitude towards militarism and the general strike.

Strike-action: a double-edged sword

Less than four months before the congress, in the French town of Fourmies, the French army opened fire on a manifestation of strikers demanding the eight-hour day.

Less than four months before the congress, on 1 May 1891, in the French town of Fourmies, the French army had opened fire on a manifestation of strikers demanding the eight-hour day.

Introducing the issue is Arthur Groussier. This 28 year old French delegate, a representative from the French federation of metallurgists, lays out the decisions of the majority within the section which drafted the congress resolution. Stating how it is of the utmost importance to exchange information among the separate national and local trade unions, he explains the need for an international trade union commission. Though such an international organisation is deemend necessary, “the workers’ organisations are not yet sufficiently strong for this”, he says. “What one could do”, however, “is to establish a trade union commission in each country, one that corresponds with the other commissions in other countries. Every country is free to create such a commission at its own will.”

International, political organisation against strike fantasies and legalism

But “there are governments”, he continues, “that prohibit such international organisations. We know that, though we must confront this prohibition, we must resist imprisonment and persecution to achieve a truly international cooperation. Because that, comrades, is our only salvation.” (applause) On the question of strikes and boycotts, deemed “the only weapons of the workers”, the Belgian reports write that the section thought it useful to warn the workers not to go on (isolated, local) strikes without the assurance of success. The Times however has a more liberal interpretation, writing that workers need to take very precaution. “The workers’ question is one and international”, Groussier retorts the strikists, “and can only be solved through international means”.

In an attempt to tackle those trends within the international that favour the use of strike waves, and with the bloody suppression of the demonstration in the French town of Fourmies in mind, Groussier immediately links the question of labour strikes and boycotts with the question of organisation and politics. According to the reporter, legislation concerning the freedom of assembly and association must be attempted first while the trade unions should not remain mere local organisations. “The question of workers’ rights”, Groussier says, “should be one, and should be resolved at the same time by the workers of all the different countries and different professions.”

The section on tactics has resolved by way of resolution that the workers, to combat capitalist exploitation and to establish a global egalitarian society, need to organize themselves internationally, that the workers of all countries need to break through their respective national barriers. In concreto, they need international trade unions on the basis of an alliance of the national trade unions, and they need to gain general laws establishing the freedom of assembly and association.

To achieve such international cooperation the reporter sets out to explain that individual secretaries are to be appointed in each national organisation to maintain an international correspondence. Because without international organisation and the achievement of the freedom to organise, the working class cannot win any material and political gains. To facilitate the establishment of such vast organisations, each country must establish a trade union commission charged with the collection of statistical data. Concerning trade unions, strikes and the boycotts must be vigorous if at all. All other organisations of the working class must aid the trade unions in their struggle. Nevertheless, Groussiers warns that, if possible, the workers must make more use of arbitration than of strikes

When Groussier finishes his report, the German delegate Boch steps onto the stage in name of a German minority in the section on international organisation. He comes to warn the assembly that in Germany the legal situation is different from that of France: there are barriers that hinder the accomplishment of such a plan for international organisation. He points out the part of the resolution where it says that workers must build strong organisations in case there could be a general strike. We Germans, so he says, tough we are internationalists, cannot legally support the idea of a general strike as promoted in the last articles of the majority resolution.

Concerning international correspondence, the official Belgian report, the report in Vooruit and the one from the Times all have different opinions of what Boch said. According to the Belgian sources, the Germans are not fond of an international organisation or secretariat because of laws prohibiting Germans from entering such combinations. The Times went further and claims that the German delegate would have said that they, Germans, cannot even support the idea of a national secretary because national workers’ organisations are forbidden in Germany. Therefore he proposes that individual trade unions would maintain a link with each other. Already some German trade unions maintain international relations with other unions, Boch says, but they cannot support the idea of a general strike.

“One of the Deputies for Paris in the French Chamber reported the result of a visit made by him to Wivegnies, near Fourmies, in the Nord, where 2,000 workmen had gone out on strike to compel the reinstatement of a miner (…). There was a strong force of gendarmes and cavalry in the district, but the strikers maintained a firm attitude, and he had been escorted back to the station by a crowd of 4,000 men and women.”
The Times


Several speakers, among them Marx’s son-in-law, the British dr. Aveling, explain that an international secretariat is still an impossibility, though some of the trade union federations they represents already have their own means with which they maintain some form of international relations with other unions. Several amendments are read aloud on the question of an international secretariat, all favouring to resolve this contradiction between the will to create an international organisation and the legal boundaries imposed by the bourgeois states. The German minority declares itself in favour of the amendment of the French delegate Delescluze who proposes the union of the separate national secretariats instead of the creation of an genuine international secretariat.

Among the other contributions, those of a Belgian and a Dutch delegate stand out. The Belgian delegate proposes to concilliate the supporters of the strike-tactic with those who emphasize politics and organisation. Socialist should agree, he says, that socialists need to support mass strikes, and that such strikes have more success if they are backed by an international workers’ movement. It’s no use to sharpen the differences such an issue.

The Dutch delegate expresses a feeling of concern and disappointment. “We Dutchmen are disappointed by the conclusion of the commission, which again postpones the creation of a (true) International. A creation which would have enjoyed us so much. We would like to set up an international bureau of statistical inquiry, but the German text concludes that the laws don’t permit us to support it. And the French say that the conditions don’t allow us to. But we think that the laws and conditions can always be circumvented if only we would want to. Twice already has Nieuwenhuis told parliament in The Netherlands that a central bureau for statistical inquiry needs to be set up. The state must do this, it’s obliged to.”

The British delegate Parnell, however, says that the British delegation has agreed that national secretariats suffice and that a genuine general strike is impossible. “If all the workers were members of their respective trade unions, then they would be masters of their surroundings. Then they wouldn’t need a strike to be free.” At the end of the day, after a lot of toing and froing, the question is raised whether or not the session should be closed and a vote can be held. Eventually it’s decided that a vote on a final resolution, which is still being produced, will be held Friday morning.

That Friday, right before the vote on the final resolution, a French delegate climbs the stage to inform the assembly of a strike and lockout going on in France. After a warm, sympathetic applause, a collection is held among the more than three hundred delegates to support the strikers. The new resolution on international organisation, strikes and socialist agitation, with the amendment of Delescluze, is distributed. When the vote is held, each national delegation seems to agree with the new resolution, though there are small minorities within the French and Belgian sections that vote against it.

The new resolution considers that under current economic conditions strikes and boycotts are indispensable to the workers in the wake of attempts to curb the political rights and to aggravate living conditions. The strike can either be used to push back attacks on working and living conditions, or to ameliorate the political and social situation of the working class as much as capitalist conditions can allow. Although the strike is a sword, it can cut both ways. Under bad conditions, it can be more damaging than practical in the interests of the working class.

Therefore the congress asks the workers to, above all, examine the concrete conditions before they act upon them. And therefore the congress also advises workers to organise themselves in trade unions which by their mass and resources can engage in the class struggle. Reaffirming the centrality of the political struggle, the main resolution consequently demands the repeal of all the laws that directly or indirectly obstruct the freedom of assembly and association.

According to the resolution, the workers need to pursuit this aim by all means and effort. Although desirable, a centralised international organisation is still deemed hindered by several difficulties. The congress, so the resolution declares, decides to stimulate international workers’ solidarity and the by which it can give a definite expression to it. Among them are the national trade union commission which need to create secretariats for international correspondence.

The organisational policies of early social democracy

August Bebel at desk

August Bebel urged the workers’ movement to produce data independently from both bourgeois and state institutions.

The discussion on international organisation, workers’ associations and socialist agitation, which started on Thursday morning and was complemented by the discussion on the “serious and practical organisation” of the Socialist International, was indisputably an attempt to emulate the First International or Internatonal Workingmen’s Association. The “practical” instructions that were on the agenda in fact formed a partial copy of the plan of organisation recommended by the Provisional Central Council of the IWA in 1866.

Statistical inquiry

Within both the First and Second International, it soon became clear that an independent workers’ party cannot act upon what’s unknown and that it cannot be wholly independent if it depends on the bourgeoisie for information. Moreover, the creation of a statistical inquiry into the living and working conditions of the workers would stimulate the workers’ self-emancipation and self-management.

As the fruitless efforts of Nieuwenhuis in The Netherlands have shown, the 19th century bourgeois state was not really interested in an inquiry into the conditions of the workers. That changed with the advent of social democracy and big capital at the end of the century.

Big capital needs a trade union bureaucracy and some form of welfare (state) to discipline the work force. The labour bureaucracy needs a welfare state to bribe the workers into accepting the huge profits of big capital. Hence the need for statistical information provided by the bourgeois state. Nevertheless, bourgeois states only started gathering such information under threat of insurrection after World War I and II.

On top of that, the reliance on the bourgeois state means a diversion of the working class from its political tasks. Instead of building some sort of “state within a state” – a working class organisation sufficiently strong enough to take power when the bourgeois state crumbles under the weight of crises, wars and revolutions – the reliance on a labour bureaucracy directly tied to the bourgeois state and big industry would turn workers’ union into mere service organisations. Unions become therefore disciplinary instruments in the hands of the petty bourgeois leadership. At least if it wasn’t for those workers who regularly join those trade unions to fight for better conditions.

Unlike in the days of Karl Marx and the creation of the IWA, trade unions were starting to play an ever increasing role within the workers’ movement. When Marx first wrote about the role of trade unions, his tone was fairly critical. Trade unions were by large temporary organisations: they would fade in times of crisis and flourish in times of economic growth.

Reflecting this situation, the Lassalleans in Germany for example favoured co-ops over trade unions because the former were not prohibited. Their attitude and their programme based on the so called iron law of wages, which stated that capitalism would always drive down wage conditions and which served as the theoretical basis on which trade unions were largely dismissed, made it difficult for the Lassalleans to accept and work with the trade unions.

“Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together. Hence it is a long time before these individuals can unite (…). Hence every organised power standing over against these isolated individuals, who live in relationships, daily reproducing this isolation, can only be overcome after long struggles. To demand the opposite would be tantamount to demanding that competition should not exist in this definite epoch of history, or that the individuals should banish from their minds relationships over which in their isolation they have no control.”
Karl Marx, The German Ideology

The Marxists from the IWA at the time, however, were more inclusive and eventually succeeded at defeating trends such as the Lassalleans or possibilists that underestimated the potential of national trade unions. Yet, only in the 1890’s did social democracy really shift its focus from co-ops to trade unions, which were gradually becoming the mainstay of working class organisation worldwide. This gradual development explains the stress on trade union organisation at the Brussels congress. It also explains the apparent “inter-nationalism” of the early Socialist International, i.e. the combination of efforts from separate nations, instead of transnationalism.

Organizing the trade unions

If the International was transnational, it would have established organisations that are not national but operate across borders. Yet, as the debate on the minoritarian view of the Germans shows, social democracy was still far from building such institutions. Hence, it was an International. How difficult it was to create even genuine international organisations was shown by the Belgian who, although they were fervent supporters of the congress resolution, only succeeded at building their own trade union commission (the “syndical commission”) in 1898. As Marx had once written in the German Ideology, it takes long struggles (both labour struggles and educational polemic and propaganda) before the working class can unite and build national or even international organisations.

The Germans did not rely on the trade unions for numbers nor information about the working conditions of the class they wanted to represent. Already before the advent of powerful trade unions, the German party had grown on the basis of co-ops and general suffrage (for men). Many statistical inquiries were largely done by the party, which is another partial explanation for the German attitude during the Brussels congress.

Already in the winter of 1879-1880, for example, German party leader August Bebel organised an inquiry into the living conditions of Saxon cotton weavers. As a social democratic MP from Saxony, he had represented their interests in parliament between 1867 and 1877. The result of this inquiry and his analysis of it were written down in a brochure named “The way our weavers live”. Many other brochures were written as well, all of which formed the basis for attempts to popularise social democratic propaganda by means of stories.

Bebel’s early work as an MP, in times when most socialist parties were still struggling to unite and get representatives elected, served as an international example. His regular inquiry into the conditions and class interests of the workers came on the one hand from the need to ameliorate both the objective requirements and the subjective preconditions for the class struggle of the workers. At the German Erfurt congress of 1891 he explained that “every concession wrest away from our opponents, every newly won inch, enables us more to arrange the battle ground on which we’re standing”. The struggle against work on Sundays for example made it visible that only “a physically and mentally strong and energetic working class can take up the struggle for its emancipation”. On the other hand, Bebel wanted to show society the true nature of capitalist exploitation and to point out the wounds it has left behind within society (see part one).

Though it was the purpose of the congress to set up national trade union commissions, not explicitly socialist trade union commissions, most delegates never stood for the development of a neutral, depolitised trade union leadership. On the contrary, it was generally believed that genuine, national trade unions could only be socialist and that the socialists would dominate the workers’ movement by their inclusive, political attitude. With the advent of powerful trade unions and successive attempts by church and bourgeoisie to control them, the socialists nevertheless had to reinterpret their resolutions on trade unions.

In German social democracy for example, Bebel, who was an fervent atheist, struggled with other tendencies in his party that wanted to ignore the existence and growth of christian trade unionism. Bebel always struggled for the broadest unity of the trade unions as a precondition for genuine class struggle. In his eyes it was harmful to make a distinction between nationality, sex or religion when it came to trade unions. Though christian trade unions have always criticized the socialism of the social democratic trade unions and the party, Bebel always urged the socialist trade unions to cooperate with the christian workers and to show how them, through unity in action, how their methods could only lead to their downfall.

Liebknecht versus Nieuwenhuis. The congress debates general-strikism

Domela Nieuwenhuis, rising star of the Dutch workers' movement, had a heavy influence on the Dutch social democratic left but became disappointed and turned towards anarchism.

Domela Nieuwenhuis was a rising star in the Dutch workers’ movement. He had a leading influence on the Dutch social democratic left but became disappointed and turned towards anarchism instead.

The closure of the debate on the international organisation of the proletariat, did not mean that the social democrats could rest on their laurels. The next session, on the attitude of socialists towards militarism and war, proved to be an even more contentious one. During the debate two clearly distinct trends emerged. Trends that would remain at loggerheads until the advent of the First World War.

Liebknecht advocates patience

Before the plenary session of Friday 21 August, the section on militarism appointed two speakers to present its resolution. In accordance with the typical Belgian sense of symbolism, a French and a German speaker came to the fore. They had chosen Edouard Valliant, who was once a French representative of the International Workingmen’s Association and was elected to the Paris Commune as a revolutionary socialist candidate in 1870. And also Wilhelm Liebknecht, who back then had been the main German representative of the First International, had opposed the Franco-Prussian war and had committed “high treason” by publically declaring his sympathy for the Paris Commune.

When the session starts somewhere at the beginning of noon, it’s mainly Liebknecht who succeeds at explaining the spirit of the theses of the draft resolution. Valliant, who was not such a brilliant speaker, limits himself to a few words in support his German colleague. The resolution confirms that militarism, which puts such a crushing weight on Europe, is the final result of a permanent state of war, i.e. the regime of capitalist exploitation and the subsequent class struggle. Consequently militarism can only be combated by transforming the economic base of society.

“Only the creation of the socialist order, which would put an end to the exploitation of one man by the other, can put an end to militarism”, so the resolution states. With this in mind, the resolution asks everyone in whose interest it is to end all wars to join the party. And it asks the workers to agitate and organise for an international socialist organisation and against all inclinations to war. These are the only means, concludes the resolution, by which the workers can ward off a catastrophe.

Having pointed to the content of the resolution, Liebknecht starts his explanation with saying this: the sections on militarism was almost unanimous and there’s definitely no dispute between the French and the German delegates. Though he must admit that there have been propositions to declare strike action, even an insurrection among soldiers, in case a new war might break out. But these propositions were defeated within the section.

A mainstay of Liebknecht’s reasoning against “provoking” strike-action or insurrection in case of war, he insists, is the fact that those propositions “are made by delegates whose countries don’t undergo the crushing weight of militarism from countries having an absolutist regime”. While looking at the delegates from The Netherlands, Liebknecht makes it clear to the congress that such propositions have therefore been discarded.

A (new) war, warns Liebknecht, “after which the one of 1870 would only look like child’s play, threatens to, and could, throw back civilisation by more than a century. The proletariat must prevent it through ceaseless propaganda, in order to save the world from such a mighty catastrophe and to assure itself of the triumph of socialism. The only guarantee against such disasters is the socialist organisation (of the workers).”

In order to confirm Liebknecht’s discourse, Valliant reminds the delegates of the conclusions from the Paris congress of 1889, where it was decided to demand the arming of the people, “the nation”, as a transitional measure and to condemn militarism as a way for the capitalist state to maintain a permanent state of class warfare. “By combating militarism”, he says, “we combat capitalism, which puts proletarians in barracks to keep servitude in the factory.”

Vaillant explains that the resolution on militarism is a condemnation of it that allows each to choose the means by which they would combat it. “Not only now do we struggle against it with all agitational and propagandistic means available, but also on the day of the declaration of war will the socialists do everything they can” (applause).

After reading the resolution, affirming how a large majority was in favour of its considerations and conclusions, the president proposes to close the session. However, upon hearing this proposal the proponents of the general-strike tactic, notably the Dutch, make themselves heard. Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, a former Dutch preacher and soon to be anarchist, a prominent leader of the workers’ movement in the Netherlands, makes himself the center of attention. To open some space for debate, he reads aloud what seems to be a Dutch counter-resolution.

Domela Nieuwehuis’ defence of the general strike

“Considering that all modern wars…”, Nieuwenhuis states, “are means in the hands of the capitalists to break the revolutionary movement by force and to consolidate bourgeois supremacy… considering that no government can claim to be provoked, as war is the result of the international will of capitalism… the international congress declares it will appeal to the people to proclaim the general strike”.

Upon hearing this, the majority of the assembly urges the chairman to keep the debate open. Nieuwenhuis then formulates a critique of the majority resolution. “It’s easy to obtain unanimity in an assembly” he says, “all you need is to present a proposition containing vague terms and with little significance… even the Pope might accept this resolution if we would change just one word, that of socialism, into that of Christianity”.

“Considering: that national distinctions are never in the interest of the proletariat (…), that all modern wars (…) are the means in it hands to break by force the revolutionary movement (…), that no government can invoke the excuse that it was provoked (…), the international socialist and workers’ congress of Brussels declares that the socialists of all countries will answer the declaration of war with an appeal to the people to proclaim the general strike.”
From the Dutch resolution on militarism

Nieuwenhuis utters to complaint that, while only the bourgeoisie can be made responsible for war, the resolution puts part of the responsibility on the shoulders of the labourers. And he attacks the Germans by saying that there is no real sense of socialist internationalism among his German brothers. By pointing out the chauvinism that stems from an article written by the Southern socialist German Georg von Vollmar, he provokes a lot of protest from the German delegates.

Passive resistance among the soldiers is according to Nieuwenhuis most efficient. While “socialist cannot kill each other in the advantage of the bourgeois governments”, he continues. “One must frankly say, that one must prefer civil war, a war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, over a war between nations.” Invoking the spirit of the Prussian king Frederic the Great, he concludes that “the moment when bayonets become intelligent, the bourgeois order is lost”.

Concluding his arousing speech, he points out that “governments, by declaring war, commit a revolutionary act, and that the people have the right to answer it by means of revolution”. Nieuwenhuis’ speech was met with a strong and long applause. The chairman decides to take a break and to commence again in the afternoon. When the congress takes up the discussion on militarism, the unanimity that was deemed to exist at noon seems to have disappeared.

Liebknecht and Nieuwenhuis having become the antagonists of the debate, each represent an opposing trend within the revolutionary left. Valliant attempts to explain why the delegates, although they have to work under different conditions, have to vote for a common resolution. And that the Dutch should note that every country has the right to decide for itself which are the means they should use in case of a declaration of war. Liebknecht meanwhile underpins the foundations of the resolution and confronts Nieuwenhuis with his mistakes.

It’s not true that even the Pope could support the resolution, Liebknecht replies. There are no “phrases” in the text. “Phrase-making”, he says, “is to pronounce big words without realisable proposals. The (declaration of a) general strike as opposed to the declaration of war… that is phraseology.” He further explains how one cannot announce a revolution, something which makes this phenomenon so unpredictable. “Those who make such appeals would not have the time to execute their project, because they would be arrested and shot before they could act.”

Recalling his position during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870; Liebknecht defends the German party from the claim that it would harbour national chauvinists. Just like August Bebel did during the debate on labour legislation, he reaffirms the unity of the party around its programme. The Germans, he says, have made a huge sacrifice for the cause of socialism when they opposed the war. And he hurls back at the Dutch, telling the assembly how a Dutch journal, edited by Nieuwenhuis, had once attacked the German social democrats in 1870.

One of Liebknecht’s arguments against the generalisation of the general-strike tactic, is the fact that, when the war breaks out, not every socialist will be in the same situation. According to him the Dutch, and this argument will be used later in the case of the Russians as well, are not in the position to even declare their opposition against the war like the Germans did in 1870. “So instead of talking about the revolution”, he says, “it would be better (for them) to improve and fortify the organisations of the working class”.

While the delegates applaud Liebknecht’s speech, Nieuwenhuis, who must have been impressed, asks the president if he has the right to speak. He explains that he did not consider all the German socialists to be chauvinists. There are, however, some chauvinists within their ranks. The Belgian delegate Jean Volders, chairman of the congress, interrupts him by saying that there are Vollmars in every country. Continuing his speech, Nieuwenhuis concludes that nevertheless he doesn’t want to repudiate what the German socialists have done in the days of the Paris Commune.

At the end of the debate, several amendments are read aloud. One, from the British delegation, receives the support from the Dutch delegation. It proposes a vote on the majority resolution on this condition: that it would include a statement in which the congress pledges to threaten the declaration of war with the general strike. This strike is not an insurrection of soldiers, the British speaker explains, but one of workers that would force the establishment of some form of international arbitration.

The French delegate Prudent-Dervillers, like his colleague Rouanet, proposes to add the word republic to the resolution. The majority resolution must confirm that monarchies are also causes of wars and that the establishment of republics is the most favourable development for socialists. A Swedish delegate proposes that socialists should try to reduce the military budget in their respective states.

Right before the vote Jean Volders argues not to include these amendments. They do not add something substantial to the majority resolution. The republic for instance, is already included in the socialist programme and in countries where a bourgeois republic is in place, militarism still takes its toll. Eventually, the majority of only the English, French and Dutch sections vote in favour of the Dutch resolution. While the Dutch abstain from voting on the majority resolution while 13 out of 15 other delegations vote unanimously in its favour.

The struggle against the general-strikists in Germany after Liebknecht

"In wars, too, and through common the common struggle in it, does a people become a people." Liebknecht posing underneath a phrase from the German philosopher Fichte.

“In wars, too, and through the common struggle within them, does a people become a people.” Liebknecht posing in the German Reichstag underneath a phrase from the German philosopher Fichte.

Less than a decade after the Brussels congress, old Wilhelm Liebknecht dies. After his death, and with the acknowledgement that a period of wars and revolution had come with the outbreak of the first Russian Revolution in 1905, August Bebel became the main protagonist of the Liebknecht-resolution on militarism. “Not one man, not one penny”, his slogan, became the leading principle of the German party in their attitude towards the Prussian state and militarism.

Bebel had a profound influence on the formulation and content of many international resolutions on militarism and war. From it’s creation in the 1860’s until the war of 1914-1918, the SPD remained the leading party within the Second International and so its leader, August Bebel, was one of the most prominent leaders of international social democracy.

Revolutionary Marxism versus opportunism

From this new era of wars and revolution that began to develop in the late 1890’s, a new generation of Marxists sprung that would take up again the tactic of the general strike, but without the anarchist views that had influenced their predecessors like Domela Nieuwenhuis.

In Germany, around the so called Marxist center, which was formed by the top leaders of the SPD, a left trend emerged. A trend of which Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most prominent figures. It was against such “leftism” that Bebel aimed his speeches and resolutions throughout the last years of his life. Something which the left couldn’t appreciate, claiming that, in the words of Luxemburg, Bebel heard more with his right than his left ear. 2

The debate on the socialist attitude to war has always been a contentious one. Not in the least because of the so called social democratic betrayal of 1914. An important feature in current debates on this question is so called centrism, a current within the socialist workers movement that oscillates between reformism and revolutionism and consequently repackages reformist ideas in radical or revolutionary language.

Centrism was, supposedly, the core of the policies of the leadership of the SPD up to 1914. This leadership borrowed heavily from the writings of Karl Kautsky. In 1914, however, the right wing leaders took over and guided the party to an undisputed reformist course that would end in the bloody suppression of the German revolution by the SPD-led German government in 1919 and the repudiation of Marxism altogether in the late 1940’s. Such centrism is also considered the leading thought of the post-war USPD, to which Karl Kautsky belonged, and the so called Second-and-a-half International, which sought to unite the “social democratic” Second International with the “Leninist” Third International in the early 1920’s.

Though issues such as the somewhat troubled attitude of Karl Kautsky towards the bourgeois state are real, and though a distinct “left” trend emerged in response, I would rather argue for dropping the popular distinction between the (Luxemburgist) left, the (Kautskyan) center and the right.  There was no noteworthy distinct left current in the SPD, neither did it really want to break from the so called center. The “center” too did not see itself unambiguously as the center of the party.

There was however a distinct reformist trend that disputed the Marxist leadership at the time. So I would argue that within the pre-war SPD one needs to distinguish between revolutionary Marxism on the one hand and reformism or opportunism on the other. The problem with the SPD in this analogy is not the failure of the left to organise against both the right and the so called center. Not at all. It was the failure of the Marxists in general to withstand the rise of the right wing. Within Russian social democracy for example, the policies of the Bolsheviks did defeat the right wing several times over and succeeded at curbing and disciplining the influence of leftism within the party.

Having witnessed the Russian Revolution and the Belgian strikes for general suffrage, Rosa Luxemburg tried to bring the vital lessons of both experiences home. While criticizing the failures of anarchism, she tried to revamp the general strike as a valid means to organize and act against war and for revolution. With the growing militarism of Prussian Germany, however, and with the failure of both the Russian and Belgian example to get clear results, August Bebel thought her attitude and proposals were a serious problem.

“(The Roman) Fabius Cunctator’s victorious “strategy of attrition” (…) is in fact, a legend preached at high school students in our schools to drill them in conservative spirits, and warn them against, “rashness” and “revolutionisers” – to drum into them, as the spirit of world history, the motto to which the Home Guard marches: “Forward, ever slowly.” That this legend should be served up to the revolutionary proletariat today, in this situation – that is one of the unforeseen decrees of fate.”
Rosa Luxemburg, on attrition versus collision

The unceasing polemic between Luxemburg and Kautsky in the period between 1905 and 1911 put the offensive ideas of Luxemburg and her followers against those of Karl Kautsky, who stood for the so called tactic of attrition. Witnessing the never-ending polemic in his party, August Bebel thought this polemic would weaken the Marxist influence over the trade unions. He came soon to realise the growing influence of trade union leaders within the party. With the crushing weight of the Prussian military apparatus in mind, he feared that no really major offensive action liable to lead to revolution could be taken in the absence of union support. But such support wasn’t forthcoming.

The dangers of strikism.. exhorted again

August Bebel countered Luxemburg’s insatiable insistence on, among other, the advancement through economic action of the demand for the democratic republic, a demand which was not part of the Erfurt programme of 1891 but was acknowledged within the party. Bebel explained in Jena in 1905 that the political campaigns for universal suffrage were not to provoke the Prussian Military with strike action.

Against the use of the general strike internationally, some German social democrats feared the military apparatus of the Tsarist empire, which would, because of the suppression of the organised workers’ movement in Russia, eventually crush Germany if the country were paralysed by strikes. Some right wing leaders used this fear to explain away social democratic support for the German war effort in 1914. Arguably, Bebel also feared Russian reaction, but never said he would support the war nor that he would crush the revolution.

We know however, thanks to J.P. Nettl’s magnificent book on Rosa Luxemburg, that a heated discussion took place between Rosa Luxemburg and August Bebel somewhere in October 1905. During the discussion on the general strike, Bebel would have said that, when the revolution in Germany breaks out, he would “undoubtedly” be on the right while Luxemburg would be on the left, adding to it that “we will hang her”. On which Luxemburg replied that it is to early to know who will hang whom.

Arguably, this is an example of August Bebel’s typical wit. From what I could gather, he could have meant that Luxemburg’s revolution, or the announcement of a general strike to be more precise, would result in her arrest and death in the hands of the Prussian military. The workers would not immediately come to her aid, he feared, crushed as they are by the military apparatus, the upsurge of nationalism and the state of emergency. It’s hard to believe that Bebel would have predicted or even supported the death of Luxemburg by the SPD-government of Friedrich Ebert in January 1919.

In general, this article shows that the discussion on the general strike has always been a feature of the Marxist current within social democracy. After the exclusion of the anarchists from the Second International, and Nieuwenhuis had left the organisation, a “left” trend in the International took up the General strike tactic. This was partially a response to the growing influence of right wing leaders in the organisation.

However, it was also an attempt to generalise the experience of such strikes in countries such as Russia. Not many really believed that such a strike could prevent a war from breaking out. However, confronted with the growth of reformist ideas in the trade unions, some Marxists searched for the means to curb this influence. While the “left” thought the general strike was an appropriate instrument to oust or circumvent the right wing leaders, the “center” though it could not.

Whether this dispute led directly to the defeat of the Marxist trend in the SPD is debatable. With the experience of the Russian underground, the Bolsheviks succeeded at leading a revolutionary party through wartime and other reactionary conditions. The German right wing leaders, however, were not planning on going back underground and chose to keep the party and their trade unions legal at almost any cost.

The extermination of the radical opposition, the banning of Marxist publications, etc. were all part of it. Without further ado, it is the inability of the Marxist wing rather than the “left” to curb the growing influence of the right wing which needs further in-depth discussion. A small contribution to this discussion will be part 3 of this series, which will be about conflicting social democratic models.


  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)
  4. August Bebel. Ein Biographischer Essay, by Dieter Fricke.
  5. Socialism and the general strike in Germany, by August Bebel.
  6. The German Ideology, by Karl Marx
  7. Theory and practice, by Rosa Luxemburg
  8. Rosa Luxemburg, by J.P. Nettl.

  1. I’ve used three sources for the proceedings of the Brussels congress of 1891. (They are listed below.) One source is made up of articles from the Times. Though this source omits certain parts of the debates and is focused on British speakers and British affairs, it is a fairly honest report. The other two are Belgian sources and it occurred to me that one is more cautious than the other when it comes to describing what was meant or even said. The official Belgian report  from 1893, it seems to me, is more conservative than the report from the Flemish (Ghent) socialist paper Vooruit. When it comes to quoting, Vooruit seems to be more precise. According to the official report for example, the resolution on strike action advised the workers not to go on strike without any assurance of success. However, the Ghent report writes about local strikes being insufficient because “the workers’ question is one and international, and can only be solved through international means”. Comparison was needed, hence the use of three sources.
  2. For explanatory reasons, I reduce the conflict in the Marxist leadership of the SPD to the Luxemburg-Bebel relationship. This relationship was amicable but also volatile and full of all kinds of polemic. One such polemic involved the use of the general strike in case of war and was waged after the Revolution of 1905.