Second International

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

International, Second


an international association of workers’ parties founded in 1889. Preconditions for the creation of the Second International included the growth of the workers’ movement during the period of the transition from premonopoly capitalism to imperialism, which began in the 1870’s, the process of the formation of working-class political parties in Europe and America on ground prepared by the First International, and the widespread dissemination of Marxist ideas. By the end of the 1880’s, alongside already existing socialist parties, the strongest of which were in France and Germany, workers’ parties had formed in the majority of European countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Norway, and a Marxist group, Liberation of Labor, and Marxist circles had arisen in Russia. The efforts to strengthen international ties intensified.

F. Engels played an exceptional role in the creation of the new socialist association. He made a great effort to ensure that the initiative for calling the internationalist congress would be in the hands of Marxist forces, to counterbalance the reformist tendencies (the French Possibilists, the opportunist wing of the English Social Democratic Federation) and the anarchists, who aspired to be the founders of the association. Struggling for the hegemony of Marxism in the workers’ movement, Engels actively participated in the preparations for the First (1889) and Second (1891) Congresses of the Second International and was present at the Third Congress (1893).

The First Congress of the Second International, which was actually the founding congress, was convoked by Marxists in Paris, July 14–21, 1889. There were 393 delegates at the congress, representing almost all of the existing national workers’ and socialist organizations of Europe and the USA. There were supporters of Marxist revolutionary tendencies, as well as anarchist and opportunist currents there. The congress devoted particular attention to the question of combining the economic struggle and the political struggle of the working class. Under the influence of the Marxists, the congress adopted a resolution that emphasized the need to create socialist parties, in addition to trade unions and other organizations, in order to achieve the conquest of power by the proletariat. On the question of labor legislation, the congress adopted a proposal by the Marxists on the need for both parliamentary and extraparliamentary struggle for reforms in the conditions of a bourgeois state, if these reforms would improve the living conditions of the working class (over the opposition of the anarchists, who rejected any parliamentary activity by socialists). Observing that the struggle for socialism is the ultimate aim of the proletarian movement, the congress also put forward in the resolution the working class’s immediate tasks, such as the introduction of the eight-hour day. The congress adopted a resolution on the celebration of May 1 as a day of international proletarian solidarity. The great achievement of the new international organization lay in the fact that, “from the outset, and almost without a struggle, it adopted the Marxist standpoint in all essentials” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5 th ed., vol. 17, p. 18). A parallel congress convoked in Paris by the French Possibilists and their supporters at the same time as the founding congress of the Second International was not really successful. From that time on, reformist elements had to renounce attempts to found their own international association.

The Second Congress of the Second International was held in Brussels, Aug. 16–22, 1891. The congress adopted W. Lieb-knecht’s resolution on the attitude of the working class to militarism, which pointed out that wars are an unavoidable result of the capitalist system and that only a socialist society can bring peace and an end to militarism to the peoples of the world. The resolution called for a protest against all attempts to prepare for war, although it did not indicate concrete measures for the struggle against militarism. The congress again confirmed the need to combine the economic struggle and the political struggle of the working class and condemned the anarchist tactic of repudiating struggles for partial demands.

The Third Congress took place in Zürich, Aug. 6–12, 1893. The congress decisively condemned the anarchist tactics and adopted a resolution stating that only the workers’ parties that recognized the political struggle could remain in the ranks of the Second International. On the central question of the political tactics of social democracy, the congress adopted a resolution that called on the workers of all countries to obtain political rights and to use them “for the purpose of conquering political power and transforming it from an instrument of the rule of capital into an instrument of the emancipation of the working class.” The resolution also pointed out that political activity must not serve as the cause for compromises that jeopardize the principles and aims of socialist parties. Acting upon G. V. Ple-khanov’s report on the tactics of the proletariat in the event of war, the congress adopted a resolution confirming the decisions of the Brussels congress. The congress committed socialist parties to vote against war credits in parliaments.

The entire activity of the Second International was under Engels’ influence until the last days of his life in August 1895. Engels was essentially the organizer and ideological leader of the Second International, and he developed the program and tactics of the struggle for unity of the working class. He subjected the opportunists and “left” semianarchist elements in the workers’ movement to lashing criticism. While leading the struggle against opportunism in its various forms, Engels also spoke out against the vulgarization and dogmatic interpretation of Marxism. He persistently argued that socialist parties, in defending the general theoretical principles of Marxism, must constantly take into account the economic and political conditions of the country in question and the changing international situation.

The Fourth Congress was held in London from July 27 to Aug. 1, 1896. The congress expelled the anarchists from the Second International, confirmed the decisions of preceding congresses on the political struggle of the workers, and recommended the use of “all forms of organized struggle of the working class” for the conquest of political power by the proletariat. However, a defect of the resolution was the absence in it of provisions for the overthrow of bourgeois power, for the need to demolish the bourgeois state apparatus, and for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The congress spoke out against colonialist policy and for the right of nations to self-determination. On the question of war the congress adopted resolutions that on the whole confirmed principles of the Second International that had already been proclaimed. The congress discussed the agrarian question but did not adopt any recommendations. This indicated that, despite the instructions of Engels in his work The Peasant Question in France and Germany (1894), the agrarian question was being underestimated by the leading socialist parties of the West.

The work of the London congress completed the first period of activity of the Second International, the period of its existence in conditions of premonopoly capitalism. The confirmation of the hegemony of Marxism in the workers’ movement was the principal result of the activity of the Second International in this period. The Second International promoted the process of the formation of new socialist and workers’ parties and organizations in Italy, Great Britain, Bulgaria, Rumania, the various lands of Austria-Hungary, the Polish kingdom, Ireland, Chile, Argentina, and other countries. The International aided the growth of existing parties and promoted the development of their programmatic and tactical foundations in a Marxist spirit—for example, by the adoption of the Marxist Erfurt Program of 1891 instead of the semi-Lassallean Gotha Program of 1875 of the German Social Democrats. The founding of the League of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class by V. I. Lenin in St. Petersburg in 1895 was a very important event in the development of the workers’ movement. The socialists were very successful in the elections, thus demonstrating the growth of their influence among the masses. They had increased their role in the organization of strikes and demonstrations (especially May Day demonstrations) and in trade unions and workers’ cooperatives. Steps were undertaken to develop the women’s and youth proletarian movement. However, opportunists occupied important, and in some places predominant, positions in a number of the parties of the Second International, including the Labor Party of Belgium and the Independent Labor Party of Great Britain. Sectarian and anarchist tendencies in the workers’ movement were not overcome, and beginning in the 1890’s they were increasingly manifested in the form of anarcho-syndicalism.

Revisionism, whose main ideologist was E. Bernstein, occupied the predominant place among the opportunist tendencies. The development of revisionism was connected with the onset of the monopoly stage of capitalism, one of the results of which was the formation of a labor aristocracy. It reflected the process of the opportunist degeneration of some of the leading figures of the Western European parties of the Second International. Although A. Bebel opposed Bernstein’s views, he did not raise the question of the incompatibility of these views with membership in a socialist party. The struggle against revisionism was led by G. V. Plekhanov, F. Mehring, P. Lafargue, and R. Luxemburg. However, only Lenin really carried the exposure of Bernsteinism through.

After the death of Engels, the subsequent development of the revolutionary Marxist tendency in the international labor movement was connected with the activity of Lenin. He defended Marxism against distortion by opportunists and at the same time developed it further. A new, Leninist phase began in the history of Marxism. The transfer of the center of the world revolutionary movement to Russia, the formation of the RSDLP in 1898, and the rise in 1903 of Bolshevism as the most consistent Marxist tendency and a revolutionary party of the new type was a turning point in the history of the liberation struggle of the proletariat. Lenin and the Bolsheviks promoted the unity of the true revolutionary forces of the international workers’ movement and the development of the struggle against revisionism and against a conciliatory attitude toward revisionism.

The Fifth Congress, which was held in Paris, Sept. 23–27, 1900, reflected the growth of the struggle between the revolutionary and opportunist trends in the international workers’ movement. The entry of the French socialist A. Millerand into the reactionary bourgeois government in 1899 was an example of the practical implementation of a revisionist orientation to class collaboration and was the center of discussion at the congress on the question of the conquest of political power by the working class and on alliances with bourgeois parties. Heated debates developed in the discussion of two draft resolutions, that of K. Kautsky and that of J. Guesde, the latter decisively condemning Millerand. Kautsky’s “rubbery” resolution opened the possibility for the opportunists not only to excuse Millerand but even to carry out a policy of “ministerialism.” The adoption of this resolution by the majority of the congress was evidence of the increased influence of opportunism in the Second International and in its individual parties. The congress formed the International Socialist Bureau.

The Sixth Congress took place Aug. 14–20, 1904, in Amsterdam. Delegates from socialist parties from all the continents of the world were there, including the RSDLP. The congress adopted a resolution condemning the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 as an aggressive war on both sides. The congress participants greeted the fraternal handshake between the representative of the Japanese socialists, Sen Katayama, and G. V. Plekhanov as an expression of the international solidarity of the working people of Japan and Russia. The congress discussed the questions of the international principles of socialist tactics, party unity, the general strike, and colonial policy. After a prolonged, sharp discussion, the resolution proposed by J. Guesde, which sharply condemned revisionism and ministerialism, was adopted. An important resolution on the need for unity among socialists in every country did not contain, however, the demand for the recognition of revolutionary Marxist principles as the basis of unification and as the necessary condition for preventing the subordination of revolutionary tendencies to opportunist ones. The resolution on the colonial question (the Dutch socialist van Kol gave the report) paid tribute to great-power colonialist sentiments. It did not even speak of the struggle for “national self-determination,” but rather advised socialists to secure freedom and independence for the populations of the colonies in accordance with their degree of development. The upsurge in the labor movement impelled left-wing socialists at the congress to raise the question of new methods of struggle. The draft resolution proposed by Roland-Hoist of the Netherlands advised the use of the mass strike. However, recognition of the mass strike, and not armed struggle, as the “extreme means” made possible an opportunist interpretation of the role and significance of mass strikes. The adoption by the congress of a resolution hailing the international importance of the working-class struggle in Russia was evidence of the growth of the influence of revolutionary tendencies in the workers’ movement.

One-half year after the Amsterdam congress, the growing revolutionary movement in Russia led to the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1905–07, which served as a powerful impetus for a new upsurge in the labor movement in other countries of the world and in the national-liberation struggle in the colonies and semicolonies, as seen in the Iranian, Turkish, and Chinese revolutions. In the course of the first Russian revolution problems that became vital to the class struggle of the international proletariat came to the fore. These problems included the role of the proletarian party in the leadership of the revolution, the moving forces of the revolution and the hegemony of the proletariat in the popular revolutions of the 20th century, the development of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the socialist revolution, the allies of the proletariat in the revolution (that is, the question of the peasantry and the urban petite bourgeoisie), the liberation movement of the oppressed peoples, and the use of the general political strike as a new tactical weapon of the class struggle of the proletariat and the development of the general strike into an armed uprising. A further demarcation of forces within the ranks of the Second International took place around these questions. Three sharply defined tendencies appeared in the parties of the Second International: the right wing, representing open opportunism, led by E. Bernstein, H. M. Hyndman, and L. Bissolati-Bergamaschi; the centrists, or opportunists, disguised with Marxist phraseology, led by K. Kautsky, J. R. MacDonald, A. Thomas, E. Vandervelde, and O. Bauer; and the left wing, the Bolsheviks, led by V. I. Lenin and left-wing figures of Western European Social Democratic parties such as F. Mehr-ing, R. Luxemburg, K. Liebknecht, D. Blagoev, V. Kolarov, and A. Pannekoek. In his struggle against opportunism, Lenin showed that it was a manifestation of the bourgeois influence on the proletariat. He revealed the social roots of opportunism and brought out the role it and conciliationism toward it played in developing the preconditions for the collapse of the Second International.

The Seventh Congress took place in Stuttgart, Aug. 18–24, 1907. Among the delegates, who numbered more than 850, there was a compact group of left-wing socialists and Social Democrats. Lenin, leading the Bolshevik delegation, was present for the first time at a congress of the Second International. The question of militarism and international conflicts led to a sharp discussion, in the course of which the congress rejected a semi-anarchist draft by the French socialist G. Hervé calling for strikes, desertion, and riots in response to any war. The congress instead adopted Bebel’s resolution with amendments by a group of left-wing delegates led by Lenin. The chief points of the resolution were a vote against war credits, a demand to replace the standing army with a popular militia, and antimilitarist propaganda. The most important amendment of the leftists stated that in case of the outbreak of war, socialists were obliged to use the economic and political crisis provoked by the war in order to hasten the overthrow of capitalist rule. In the discussions on the colonial question the chauvinist arguments of the speaker van Kol on the “progressive” nature of the forcible “civilizing of the native populations” aroused the indignation of the majority of the delegates. The left won the adoption of amendments to van Kol’s draft resolution, changing its general character and decisively condemning the colonial policy of the capitalist powers. The influence of the left-wing socialists was also evident in the character of the resolution on the relationship between the party and the trade unions. At the insistence of the Bolsheviks the resolution condemned the revisionist theory of the “harmony between labor and capital” and emphasized the need for trade unions to accept socialist principles and the need to coordinate the activities of trade unions with those of the party. This was a blow to the opportunist theory of the “neutrality” of trade unions, although the resolution did not mention the idea of socialist parties leading the trade unions. As a whole, the Stuttgart congress, “besides providing an impressive demonstration of international unity in the proletarian struggle … played an outstanding role in defining the tactics of the socialist parties” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 16, p. 67).

Continuing the resolute struggle against opportunist tendencies in the international labor movement, Lenin and the Bolsheviks exposed every incident of the opportunists’ violation of decisions of the international congresses of the Second International. Left-wing socialists in the Western European workers’ parties, including K. Liebknecht and R. Luxemburg, and other leftists in the German Social Democracy, the Bulgarian Narrow Socialists, and the Dutch Tribunists all actively opposed the opportunists and centrists. They were always supported by Lenin, who at the same time criticized individual errors committed by the leftists, particularly by R. Luxemburg, in the area of theory and tactics. These errors included an underestimation of the role of the party, a lack of understanding of the need for an organizational break with the opportunists, and a denial of the possibility of wars of national liberation in the era of imperialism.

The Eighth Congress was held in Copenhagen from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3, 1910. The congress saluted the national-liberation struggle of the peoples of Asia and confirmed resolutions of previous congresses on the struggle against militarism and the unity of trade unions, resolutions that were essentially, but not entirely consistently, Marxist. The majority of the delegates to the congress adopted a centrist resolution on the question of the unity of socialist parties. The resolution demanded the unification of all tendencies of socialists on a national scale, reflecting the striving of the opportunists to dilute revolutionary tendencies and groups within united social-reformist parties. A clash between revolutionary and opportunist conceptions also occurred in the discussion of the question of cooperatives. Lenin’s draft resolution dealt a blow to the theory of the “neutrality” of cooperatives and to the reformist interpretation of them as “socialist cells” in bourgeois society, pointing out at the same time the importance of the cooperative movement as one of the forms of organization of the proletarian forces. The opportunists did not succeed in getting their proposals passed as a result of the opposition of the left-wing delegates.

The years following this congress were characterized by a further intensification of imperialist contradictions and a growing danger of war. A military crisis broke out in the Balkans in 1912, threatening to exceed its local limits. The Ninth Congress of the Second International took place in this atmosphere in Basel, Nov. 24–25, 1912. In the unanimously adopted Basel manifesto, the participants of the congress demanded that all socialist parties wage a resolute struggle and conduct solidarity actions against imperialism. The resolution of the Basel congress was interpreted by rank and file socialists and by all working people as a militant appeal for an active struggle against the threat of the approaching imperialist war. The Second International, representing a strong force, could play an important role in this struggle. By the end of 1912, the Second International united within its ranks 27 socialist parties from 23 countries, with a total of 3, 787,000 members. There were approximately 11 million members of trade unions affiliated with socialist parties belonging to the Second International and 7 million members of cooperatives similarly affiliated.

However, the opportunist leaders of the socialist parties of the Second International did not do anything to put into practice the antiwar resolutions of the congresses. With the beginning of World War I (1914–18) they betrayed the cause of socialism and proletarian internationalism and crossed to the camp of the imperialist bourgeoisie. This signified the bankruptcy of the Second International. The representatives of the German Social Democratic Party, the most influential party in the Second International, voted in the Reichstag for war credits on Aug. 4, 1914. The socialist leaders of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and other countries took the same position in the parliaments of their countries. Soon after the beginning of the war a number of the leading figures of the Second International, including the leader of the Belgian Socialist Party, E. Vandervelde, the leaders of the French Socialist Party, J. Guesde, M. Sembat, and A. Thomas, and one of the leaders of the English Labor Party, A. Henderson, joined the bourgeois governments of their countries. The opportunist leaders came out in support of the bourgeois slogan “defense of the fatherland” and proclaimed a “civil peace.” Opportunism developed into social chauvinism. Taking refuge in pacifist phrases, the centrists also, in fact, supported the imperialist defenders of the war.

With the beginning of World War I, the activity of the International Socialist Bureau of the Second International ceased, and ties between Social Democratic and socialist parties were severed. The Second International virtually ceased to exist. The conference of socialists of the countries of the Entente, meeting in London in February 1915, and the conference of the socialists of the German-Austrian bloc, which was held in Vienna in April 1915, both came out for “war until victory.” Of all the parties of the Second International, only one party—the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin—took a consistent position on the questions of the war and the revolutionary struggle of the working class. As early as the autumn of 1914, Lenin, basing his position on the imperialist character of the war, proposed the following as the principal tasks in the revolutionary activity of Social Democrats: (1) the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war; (2) the defeat of one’s “own” government in the imperialist war; and (3) a complete break with the bankrupt Second International and the creation of a new Communist International, free of opportunism.

The revolutionary activity of the Bolsheviks was an example for internationalists of belligerent and neutral countries. K. Liebknecht, in spite of the position of the Social Democratic faction, resolutely spoke against war credits in the Reichstag on Dec. 2, 1914. Lenin’s idea of forming a new Communist International began to find support among the internationalists. The Zimmerwald Conference of 1915 and the Kiental Conference of 1916 were part of an attempt by Lenin and other socialist internationalists to begin the formation of the Third International. Lenin’s development, during the war years, of the theory of imperialism and of Marxist teachings on the questions of war, peace, and revolution, as well as his defining of the strategy and tactics of the international proletariat in new conditions and his exposure of social chauvinism and social pacificism, was of great international importance.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 in Russia confirmed the strategy and tactics of Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and other internationalists who had broken with the opportunists. The socialist internationalists welcomed the formation of the first socialist state in the world and came out to support it. Communist parties began to develop in 1918, based on internationalist groups in a number of countries. This phenomenon prepared the way for the creation of the Communist International in March 1919.

During the period between the two world wars, socialist parties made a number of attempts to create an international socialist association. They organized the Bern International, which functioned from 1919 to 1923, and the Second-and-a-Half International (1921–23). These were followed by the Labor and Socialist International, which existed from 1923 to World War II (1939–45). They were all regarded by Social Democratic parties as the successor of the Second International. After World War II, the Socialist International was created in 1951 to replace the Labor and Socialist International.


Engels, F. “Possibilistskie mandaty.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Engels, F. “Natsional’nomu sovetu Sotsialisticheskoi rabochei partii Ispanii.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Engels, F. “Recti’ pri zakrytii Mezhdunarodnogo sotsialisticheskogo kongressa v Tsiurikhe 12 avgusta 1893 goda.” Ibid.
Engels, F. Pis’ma V. Libknekhtu, P. Lafargu, F. A. Zorge, K. Kautskomu. (Letter.)Ibid., vols. 37–38.
Lenin, V. I. “Mezhdunarodnyi sotsialisticheskii kongress v Shtutgarte.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. “Marksizm i revizionizm.” Ibid., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “Zasedanie Mezhdunarodnogo sotsialisticheskogo biuro.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Odinnadtsataia sessiia Mezhdunarodnogo sotsialisticheskogo biuro.” Ibid., vol. 19.
Lenin, V. I. “Vopros o kooperativakh na Mezhdunarodnom sotsialist-icheskom kongresse v Kopengagene.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Raznoglasiia v evropeiskom rabochem dvizhenii.” Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Istoricheskie sud’by ucheniia Karla Marksa.” Ibid., vol. 23.
Lenin, V. I. “Mertvyi shovinizm i zhivoi sotsializm (Kak vosstanovliat’ International?).” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh II Internationala.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Opportunizm i krakh II Internationala.” Ibid., vol. 27.
Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm i raskol sotsializma.” Ibid., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. “O zadachakh III Internationala (Ramsei Makdonal’d o III Internationale).” Ibid., vol. 39.
Istoriia Vtorogo Internationala, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1965–66.
F. Engel’s: Biografiia. Moscow, 1970.
V. I. Lenin: Biografiia, 4th ed. Moscow, 1970.
Krivoguz, I. M. Vtoroi International, 1889–1914. Moscow, 1964.
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Temkin, Ia. G. Lenin i mezhdutarodnaia sotsial-demokratiia 1914–1917. Moscow, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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