While the Socialist International Congress in Brussels of 1891 was coming to a close, a small city nearby, famous for the development of its industries and socialist workers’ organisations, was preparing to welcome the delegates during their last days in Belgium. Proud as they were, the socialists from the city of Ghent did their best to promote their model of a socialist workers’ movement. A model that became an example for many abroad who thought the Liebknecht-Bebel model of social democracy in Germany was too revolutionary or would not last. These echoes of Belgium went as far as Russia.

An assembly in Ghent celibrating the 25th anniversary of the socialist co-op movement.

An assembly in Ghent celebrating the 25th anniversary of the socialist co-op movement.

“No one can be missed”, wrote Vooruit, Ghent’s socialist daily. For the next couple of days the paper would continuously appeal to the socialist artisans and artists to prepare for an excursion. Just 50 kilometres from Brussels, Belgium’s capital, nineteenth-century Ghent was a small industrial city dubbed “the Manchester on the continent” because it was the earliest industrialised city outside of Great-Britain. Because of that, it had a strong socialist workers’ movement. One that was about to show its strength to the international delegates who had gathered in Brussels for the first unified congress of what was to become the Second International.

On Tuesday, the second day of the international socialist congress, the Belgian social democratic leader Edward Anseele had announced the preparations for an excursion to Ghent. He reminded the congress of the Flemish Socialist Party, a forerunner of the Belgian Workers’ Party, a party modelled after the Germans which had its mainstay in Ghent. He told the delegates how this party had played an important role in the earliest attempts to refound the International after the collapse of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) in the 1870’s.

The German revolutionary Wilhelm Liebknecht remembered his visit to Ghent well. There he attended the international congress of 1877, an attempt of the Flemish socialists to salvage what was left of the social democratic (“Marxist”) and anarchist forces that had once made up the IWA. In his own words, Ghent was already in the 1870’s “the citadel of socialism”.

While all of the Ghent’s socialist gymnasts, musicians, propagandists, seamstresses and painters were preparing for the event, the representatives at the congress in Brussels are still debating the last issues of the day. The discussion on the First of May, international workers’ day, and on the adoption of a uniform name for the whole of the International, seemed to suggest that despite some disputes and differences of opinion, the Second International was one and indivisible.

Jean Volders, the Belgian who chairs the congress, announces that the congress has come to a conclusion. He reminds his guests that this is the first unified socialist congress in history and that “we leave this international assembly stronger, more united and with more solidarity than ever before”. Several speakers come to the front. In name of the Germans, August Bebel congratulates the congress with its greatness and dignity. Using that distinct cutting voice of his, he underlines the considerable significance of the assembly. He reminds his friends of the admirable spectacle given by the workers to the possessing classes and rulers, which forces them to recognize the power of the working class. This congress, he adds, is the most beautiful, the best he has ever seen.

After congratulating some of the individual attendees, Bebel shakes hands with Volders and hugs him amid  a loud and enthusiastic applausse from the floor. He really knew how to entertain his audience, it is true. Edward Anseele, standing among the Belgian representatives watches Bebel. This man, he must have thought, has to come and speak to the workers in Ghent. His city’s main socialist newspaper, Vooruit, wrote about Bebel one week later: “If only we could establish in the brains of every worker such a “Tower of Bebel” and build it further”. After everyone has spoken, Volders proposes to end the congress with the singing of the international revolutionary hymn: the Marseillaise.

“The Manchester on the continent, the capital of socialism”

By the end of the 19th century, the Belgian town of Ghent had build a whole socialist economy based on consumer co-operatives

By the end of the 19th century, the Belgian town of Ghent had build a whole socialist economy based on consumer co-operatives

On 23 Augusts 1891, at the start of a sultry Sunday morning in Ghent, a socialist tambourine and clarion band heads out to wake up the locals sometime before 9 a.m. Riders on white horses, former Internationalists who joined the IWA in the 1860’s, a brass band and so forth. At 9 a.m. all organisations and clubs of the socialist workers’ movement in Ghent gather near the market square in front of the building of their revered co-ops. From there a processions marches through the small industrial city towards the central station. In Brussels, meanwhile, a few hundred international and local guests from the congress prepare for their free trip to Ghent.

Of the 175 international guests at the congress, 160 responded to the invitation of the Ghent social democrats to visit their city. An enormous success because in their wake follow another 350 socialists from the city of Brussels. But when the train from Brussels arrives around noon, thunder-clouds gather over the city. Those responsible for the proceedings of the festival look up, they stroke their heavy moustaches and look at each other worried: there’s a cloudburst coming.

In order to not to lose time, the local leaders of the Belgian Workers’ Party squeeze in between huge crowds of people to greet their esteemed guests on the tune of the Marseillaise with red banners all around them. Vooruit welcomes the internationalists in “the old revolutionary city, the cradle of freedom in Flanders”. It emphasises how the workers “have erected great buildings institutions that compelled their enemies to show respect”.

When the procession goes back to the market square, it goes through the luxurious quarters that the bourgeoisie had built for itself only a few years before. Now the socialists show them who’s about to rule in this place. A long row of local party members leads the socialist internationalists towards the cooperative buildings near the market square. The socialist newspapers marvelled at the enthusiasm displayed by the crowds.

Edward Anseele, as the local leader of the BWP, who had once tried to copy the ideas and accomplishments of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, serves his guests port and bonbons and invites Bebel to speak. “Never will we forget”, Bebel exclaims, “what we have felt, heard and seen in socialist Ghent. A city of which we have heard so many speak and of which we’ve read so much! If Ghent is the Belgian Manchester in terms of its industry, then it is also the capital of socialism. Without a doubt it stands at the head of the socialist movement.”

The guests are invited to a banquet in the same hall were the international revolutionaries of 1877 had once dined. Representatives from almost all countries that were represented at the congress give small speeches to celebrate the congress and the impressiveness of the socialist oeuvre they had seen in Ghent so far. At 4 p.m. the most important part of the excursion starts: a guided tour along the buildings of the Vooruit “empire”, a cooperative network so big it had its own textile factories, industrial bakeries, coal warehouses and shops.

The visitors are reminded of the Maison du Peuple in Brussels and are told about the gigantic bread factories of Joliment in the south of Belgium, the biggest producer of bread in the country – so the Belgian socialists claimed. Back then, there were already vague plans to build two “workers’ palaces”, one for the trade unions and the mutual aid societies, the other for the workers’ clubs such as socialist libraries, gymnasts, musicians, etc. The message of the excursion is clear: this city is ours and the Belgian model works. The visitors take note. “They couldn’t get enough of it”, boasts Vooruit the next day.

As the tour ends, the brass band guides the internationalists back to the train station. Not a moment too early. All the guests rush into the station under the loud noise of heavy raindrops clattering on the glass roof above the black locomotives. In the meantime the typesetters of Vooruit are already busy producing the next issue of the paper. “All foreigners [foreign guests] agreed to call Ghent the socialist capital of Belgium. We have to remain worthy of such fame, and have to strengthen it. To make this beacon in poor Flanders, this socialist Ghent, what it once was during the Middle Ages: not only the [socialist] capital of Flanders and Belgium, but of the [socialist] world International.”

Meanwhile, in Brussels, crowds with red flags and a band are awaiting the visitors at the station so they can escort them. At nightfall torches are added to the procession. On the tunes of the Marseillaise they enter the Maison du Peuple. There the crème de la crème of the late 19th century socialist workers’ movement exchanges their last regards. And “this”, the official report of the BWP wrote, “was the end of the congress”.

“Like children, the masses are allured only by results”

Anseele speaks at a rally in Ghent for general suffrage

Anseele speaks at a rally in Ghent for general suffrage

Though August Bebel was impressed by the economic and cultural patrimony of Belgian socialism in the 1890’s, he struggled with the idea that this could be regarded as a model for international social democracy. By the mid 1870’s, after the Gotha congress that had unified the German social democratic party, Bebel had mainly focused on building the party institutions. The pillars of the party were a democratic press, its political programme for taking political power through the overthrow of the empire and its branches while trade unions and cooperatives functioned mainly as auxiliaries.

The pivot on which the whole Belgian experience hinged, the key to understanding what they meant by their “programme of practical reforms”, was precisely the consumer co-operative. The Belgian historian Hendrik Defoort describes how the German Marxists had always counterpoised the political party and the programme of highly political demands to this Belgian model. Karl Kautsky kept referring back to the political goals of the Erfurt programme of 1891 while Bebel focused on the defence of the tactics of the SPD. Luxemburg, who was still new to the SPD, used the debate around the millennium to popularise revolutionism and she dismissed the potential of workers’ co-operatives on the basis of some of the conclusions Bebel had already drawn in the 1860’s.

But it wasn’t the excursion to Ghent which had sparked the debate. On the contrary, the initial push came from inside German social democracy. “The question of the capabilities of [cooperative and cultural] associations has hitherto been treated very curiously in the Marxist literature”, wrote Edward Bernstein in his notorious 1899 work Evolutionary Socialism. “If one leaves out of the question the literature of the ’sixties, one will find in it, with the exception of very general, mostly negative, observations, very little about the co-operative movement. The reasons for this negligence are not far to seek.”

As part of his initial series on the gradual growing into socialism of capitalism, the cooperative movement was given a prominent place by the German Marxist turned reformist Eduard Bernstein. It was this series which sparked the so called revisionism debate in Germany and the rest of Europe as well. Having described the reasons for the dismissal of the co-operative movement by German Marxists, he reminds his readers of the recent but relative success of this movement outside Germany.

“We can consider it as proven”, he writes, “that the co-operative society has shown itself to be an economic factor of importance, and if other countries are behind England in this, it has taken firm root in Germany, France, Belgium, etc., and gains ground more and more.” Such interventions by well-known socialists made it almost impossible for the Marxist leadership around Bebel to further ignore the issue. But that wasn’t all of it. The debate was not a strictly German one but spread rapidly to other sections of the International as well.

Just like Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, who had re-interpreted the programme of the French Workers’ Party they had produced with the help of Marx and Engels in 1880, the Belgians had cherished a reformist re-interpretation of the German socialist programme. It was a vision of the programme which had also inspired the so called “economistic” tendencies within Russian social democratic circles. In Lenin Rediscovered, historian Lars T. Lih describes how in 1902 the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, in an article written for a German audience, had observed that “in the beginning of the movement the generally acknowledged model for Russian Social Democrats was German Social Democracy. In contrast, during the time of economism, the model that was set forth was that of the English trade unions and the Belgian party with its co-operatives”.

Another Russian, Prokopovich, saw in the Belgian party a genuine model. He quotes one [Louis] Bertrand who asks: “What is the reason for the success of the worker party up till now – the socialist ideal or our programme of practical reforms?” His answer is according to Prokopovich is reforms, since “the [socialist] ideal allures only the more enlightened and more intellectual part of the working class”. Lih found it most striking how Prokopovich summed up the general feeling of Belgian socialists: “The masses are like children: visual demonstration is what strikes them. Like children, the masses are allured only by immediate and current results – not by high, abstract ideals”.

Culminating in the so called revisionism debate around the millennium, Bebel considered this current within German social democracy defeated.  Yet the co-ops made quick headway, which urged some social democrats to rethink the strategic ideas behind their party programme. So in reality right wing leaders, notably those who came from the trade union movement, kept referring back to the British and Belgian experience. This reformist influence on social democratic strategy was also reflected on the international level by the attitude of the French leader Jean Jaurès towards government participation.


“It is impossible to begin to discuss this question because it has not yet matured.” At the closing of the 1891 international congress, Jean Volders had proposed to postpone the question of a uniform name for the whole of the Socialist International. Another congress, he said, would sometime in the future decide on it. The first ever unified congress of the Socialist International had ended in a mood of unity although still many issues had to be discussed. In the years after the congress, different sections, in so far as they represented competing ideas within the socialist workers’ movement, put forward or supported separate social democratic models.

This internal debate on the strategy and tactics of social democracy only ended during and after the First World War when the Marxist wing of most parties finally crumbled and many genuine revolutionaries left their respective parties to found the Third “Communist” International in the early twenties. Many of those who had witnessed the debates of the Brussels congress were then already dead or had lost their positions as social democratic leaders because of old age. Unity of politics was not a given in the International. Until his death in 1913, Bebel was preoccupied with the question of both taking political power independently and the class-unity of the workers’ movement. The SPD eventually ended up in 1918 with bourgeois strings attached to the party and a break-up with the radical wing.

The many debates waged within international social democracy indeed represented a Babylonial tower. Not only the languages that people spoke, but also the differences of opinion in terms of strategy and tactics have defined this feature of the socialism of the Second International. Back in 1891, the name Tower of Bebel was not just a conservative joke. It was indeed Bebel who, through his German delegation, influenced many of the debates on that congress. The Belgian reaction, to use his fame to put forward their own model against the ideas of the German Marxists does not contradict this. It is a genuine expression of the complexity of the socialist workers’ movement back in its heydays.


  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. Lenin Rediscovered. WITBD? in context, by Lars T. Lih.
  5. Werklieden, bemint uw profijt, by Hendrik Defoort.
  6. Evolutionary Socialism, by Eduard Bernstein