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Between Academia and Activism: Revisiting the History of Social Democracy at the Time of the Second International

In: Journal of Labor and Society
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Lucas PoyInternational Institute of Social History, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Cruquiusweg 31, 1019 AT Amsterdam, The Netherlands, lucas.poy@iisg.nl

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Abstract

The last fifteen years witnessed a remarkable revitalization in the field of Second International historiography. This renewed literature put forward different approaches and perspectives, as the interest for the history of social democracy draws on academic as well as political considerations. Whereas an important trend of this revitalization came from studies that focused on social and cultural aspects, this review explores two recent volumes published by North American authors that propose a different, and explicitly political, approach towards the history of social democracy in the years of the Second International.

Abstract

The last fifteen years witnessed a remarkable revitalization in the field of Second International historiography. This renewed literature put forward different approaches and perspectives, as the interest for the history of social democracy draws on academic as well as political considerations. Whereas an important trend of this revitalization came from studies that focused on social and cultural aspects, this review explores two recent volumes published by North American authors that propose a different, and explicitly political, approach towards the history of social democracy in the years of the Second International.

Taber, M. Under the Socialist Banner. Resolutions of the Second International, 1889–1912 (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2021).Blanc, E. Revolutionary Social Democracy. Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917) (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

If the 1960s and 1970s were a ‘golden age’ for studies of socialism in general and the Second International (1889–1914) in particular, the picture became bleak from the 1980s onwards, at least in the Global North. The situation has changed since then, and for the better, with a significant and very much welcomed revitalization in the field. An important feature of some of this new research is a change in perspective. Indeed, a common characteristic of both activist and academic historiographies in the 20th century was to assume the internationalism of pre-war social democracy as a matter of fact, therefore looking for ways of interpreting the ‘betrayal’ or ‘failure’ of the summer of 1914. As Kevin J. Callahan has pointed out in an exhaustive review article, recent studies have proposed a shift of focus: rather than stressing the tensions and ultimate ‘failure’ of socialist internationalism, researchers seem now more interested in highlighting its achievements and accomplishments—in other words, they focus on what the Second International was able to do during its quarter century of existence. In so doing, they also move away from the traditional focus on intellectual and ideological discussions among the leadership to explore the social and cultural history of the socialist movement with a broader perspective (Callahan, 2020).

In an influential book published in 2010, Callahan laid some of the building blocks of this perspective, when he argued that the International ‘created a mass-based political culture of demonstration that effectively displayed a united image of socialist solidarity in the public sphere while promoting a sense of common purpose and fraternity amid great ideological, national and cultural diversity within its sections’ (Callahan, 2010: p. 299; see also Callahan, 2000). According to Callahan, such a perspective—that he calls ‘revisionist’—not only allows for a better understanding of what the Second International managed to do, rather than focusing on its ‘failures,’ but also provides a better understanding of what happened in 1914, as this ‘performative’ capacity of the International had never been incompatible with the intention of the different parties to ‘defend their own conceptions of the nation.’ Moreover, for Callahan ‘this defense was conceived as compatible with the conviction of internationalism, that is, their own versions of inter-nationalism’ (Callahan, 2010: p. 299). Seen from this light, the vote for the war credits was no longer seen as a betrayal, nor the struggle to avoid war as a failure. According to Callahan, researchers who focused on both ideas drew on false premises: on the one hand, they understood internationalism only as revolutionary action to avoid war; on the other, they incorrectly thought that the International actually had the capacity to avoid war.

In recent years, other scholars have contributed to this perspective. Pierre Alayrac, for instance, offered a case study of the London congress of 1896 which did not focus, as usual, on its resolutions nor the content of the debates, but on its political culture, its networks of sociability, and the biographies of its participants (Alayrac, 2018). In line with Callahan, he emphasized several ‘liturgical’ and ceremonial aspects of the congress, the street demonstrations that preceded and followed it, the songs, the use of the color red, the images. Focusing on the initiatives of German, French, and Italian socialists to voice their opposition to militarism, Elisa Marcobelli enriched Callahan’s thesis about the ‘demonstration culture’, showing that to a large extent the latter developed in terms of anti-war activities and initiatives (Marcobelli, 2019, 2021). Seeking to avoid what she called a ‘teleological history,’ which reads the development of the Second International only in the light of what happened in 1914, her book also rejected the notion of ‘failure,’ and argued that the International developed a ‘learning curve’ that allowed for quicker and more efficient reactions to diplomatic tensions. Talbot Imlay’s monograph about the relationships between German, French, and British socialists in both post-war periods argued that socialist internationalism continued to exist in social democratic ranks after 1914, therefore showing that these perspectives are not limited to the study of the Second International (Imlay, 2018).

This ‘revisionism’, however, is not the only source of revitalization in the field: in recent years, a number of contributions focused on the history of Marxist ideas and with outspoken political conclusions have also revisited the history of social democracy from a different viewpoint. Under the Socialist Banner. Resolutions of the Second International, 1889–1912, edited in 2021 by Mike Taber, and Revolutionary Social Democracy. Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917), published by Eric Blanc in the same year, are excellent cases in point.

Both volumes fit into an important body of literature in English that, in the last twenty years, has paid attention to the political and intellectual history of Marxism. While one can recognize a diverse array of origins, a key factor in this process has been the journal Historical Materialism, its book series published by Brill, and its periodic conferences in different regions of the world. Works such as those of Lars Lih (2006), who argued about the necessity to put in context Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be done?, the compilations of sources edited and translated by Richard Day and Daniel Gaido on the theories of imperialism and permanent revolution, the two volumes by Mark Blum and William Smaldone on Austro-Marxism, or the works of John Riddell on the congresses of the Comintern, just to mention a few, made significant contributions to revive interest in the intellectual history of Marxism in the years of the Second and Third Internationals, with a clear focus on the political debates that shaped the history of the left in the 20th century (Day and Gaido, 2009, 2012; Riddell, 2012, 2015; Blum and Smaldone, 2016, 2017).

Taber’s volume is not a monograph but a very valuable set of sources: the resolutions of all congresses of the Second International, from 1889 to 1912, compiled for the first time in English. The volume has a brief and openly political introduction, in which the author claims that the ‘great achievement’ of the Second International ‘was to unify the international working-class movement under the banner of Marxism,’ as well as ‘to disseminate and popularize the movement’s strategic aim: the revolutionary overturn of the capitalist ruling class and its replacement by the rule of the proletariat.’ Although he admits that it was marked by ‘weaknesses and contradictions,’ Taber asserts that the Second International ‘of these years’ was, ‘in its adopted resolutions, an irreconcilable revolutionary opponent of the capitalist system’ (Taber, 2021: p. 4).

Taber affirms that, after the Bolshevik revolution, no political tradition was interested in vindicating the Second International. He says however that ‘downplaying the legacy of the Second International’s Marxist period means cutting oneself off from an important part of the revolutionary movement’s history.’ Furthermore, he claims that activists of the American Left are currently looking back at the Second International as a source of inspiration and that his book attempts to address this interest. According to Taber, the International’s resolutions are marked by an ‘uneven’ character: ‘some are clear and direct; others are ambiguous, vague or contradictory.’ But he maintains that ‘despite this unevenness, the resolutions as a whole-with a few significant exceptions-were guided by the spirit of revolutionary Marxism’ (Taber, 2021: pp. 7, 11).

This 200-page paperback volume will become a very helpful source for any scholar or activist interested in the study of the International through its primary sources, as it brings together a total of 110 resolutions approved between 1889 and 1912, with a few explanatory notes and a useful glossary of names. Just under 80% of the resolutions are reproduced from versions published in English at the time, while the remainder were translated especially for this book: 15 from French, 7 from German, and 1 from Yiddish. The sources used by Taber to collect these materials are diverse: in the case of the translations, he draws on the proceedings published in German and French for almost every congress. In the case of the texts originally published in English, Taber uses archival material from the International Institute of Social History, bulletins of the International Socialist Bureau, socialist and commercial newspapers, and proceedings published in English for the London (1896) and Copenhagen (1910) congresses.

Whereas Taber’s book is a collection of primary sources, Eric Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy is a much larger monograph that explores the interconnected history of socialist parties within the Russian Empire throughout a period of almost 40 years, between the early 1880s through the revolutionary wave of 1917–1919. While at first sight the book could look like a ‘local’ study of socialism in one single polity, it is actually another excellent example of a transnational study of socialism in the time of the Second International, as it shows that central Russia and the borderland regions of the empire had a lot of things in common but also many differences that deserve to be explored in detail. Drawing on impressive language skills—he works with primary sources in Finnish, Latvian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French—, Blanc studies ‘all 11 of the regions and nationalities that had their own Marxist parties under Tsarism: Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Lithuania, Jews, Ukraine, central Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia’ and convincingly argues that ‘reducing the socialist movement under Tsarism to a bilateral Menshevik-Bolshevik conflict has obscured a far more dynamic picture’ in which more than a dozen Marxist parties ‘debated, collaborated, split, and united throughout the empire’ (Blanc, 2021a: pp. 4, 18).

After a first chapter that provides an overview of the social, economic, and political context of the Russian empire, the remainder of the book is structured in a thematic way, with chapters that focus on the response of Marxists in the Tsarist empire to several critical political questions such as the relationship between intellectuals and workers and between mass action and electoral work, the debate over working-class hegemony, and the question of party unity. A critical concept that structures Blanc’s book is that of ‘revolutionary social democracy,’ the term he uses to describe what he understands as the politics of ‘orthodox Second International Marxism,’ whose main architect was Karl Kautsky. ‘Nowhere in the world,’ claims Blanc, ‘including in Germany, were Kautsky’s writings more popular and influential than in the lands ruled by Russian Tsarism’. Since the German party was slowly taken over by a bureaucracy and therefore did not follow the precepts of Kautsky, Blanc argues that there is no better place than the Russian empire to appreciate the ‘implementation and development of orthodox Second International Marxism’ (Blanc, 2021a: pp. 11, 36).

One of Blanc’s main arguments is that the repressive conditions of the Tsarist regime played a key role in giving Marxists within the Russian empire a radical perspective, making clear that ‘revolutionary social democrats’ had to pursue different tactics than their counterparts in Western Europe. In this context, argues Blanc, ‘both socialist perspectives and practices in imperial Russia were necessarily more stridently oppositional to the existing state’ (Blanc, 2021a: p. 57). Throughout the book, he argues that while social and economic conditions are an important element to understand working-class politics, what becomes crucial is the political context in which these groups act, and the contingent decisions and political turns made by them. Pointing out that ‘Marxist historiography, unfortunately, has often assumed that socialist practice was always a direct result of theory,’ Blanc claims that ‘concrete assessments of immediate circumstances and wagers on the likely course of events often counted just as much as ideological considerations’ (Blanc, 2021a: p. 16). These important aspects contribute to differentiate his work from other examples of intellectual history of Marxism and bring it closer to research grounded in the tradition of social history: indeed, Blanc claims that his book is about ‘the politics of Russia’s workers’ movements, not high Marxist theory’ and stresses the importance of studying oral agitation and popular leaflets rather than only theoretical newspapers and journals circulating among the ‘emigrés.’

Blanc is, however, far from disinterested in Marxist theory and its impact in political practice. He argues that studying the Tsarist borderlands is necessary not only to properly understand the dynamics of Marxism within the empire and therefore the development of the revolution, but also that exploring the experiences of these parties complicates the main political lessons that both friends and foes of the Bolsheviks have taken from the past. Indeed, throughout his book the author makes clear that his historical research has a political agenda: ‘arriving at a more accurate assessment of this experience’, he claims at the very beginning, ‘is not simply an academic affair.’ According to Blanc, ‘with capitalism’s ongoing crisis and a renewed interest in democratic socialism across the globe, it is an opportune moment to return to old questions with fresh eyes’ (Blanc, 2021a: p. 1).

The connection between the insights from his research and his political conclusions becomes apparent to the reader when, insisting on the importance of the repressive context of the Tsarist empire, Blanc goes on to argue that, ‘contrary to Leninist assumptions that the Russian Revolution constituted an internationally replicable model, experiences across imperial Russia show that the transformation of the proletariat into a class for itself could take many different forms and sequences in different political contexts’ (Blanc, 2021a: p. 146). What completes Blanc’s argument is the attention he pays to Finland. In his view, the rise to power of Finnish Social Democracy in 1918 ‘lends credence to the democratic socialist case that anti-capitalist rupture under parliamentary conditions likely requires the prior election of a workers’ party to the state’s democratic institutions’ (Blanc, 2021a: p. 7). The peculiarity of Finnish social democracy resides, according to Blanc, in that it operated in a political context more similar to Western European democracies.

These are crucial conclusions that very much shape Blanc’s political stances and his prominence in a recent debate unfolded in the pages of Jacobin, an influential political journal linked to the Democratic Socialists of America and supporters of Bernie Sanders, about the political legacy of Karl Kautsky and the Second International. In an article undoubtedly titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Blanc claimed that contemporary socialists should reclaim Kautsky and his conception of a ‘revolutionary social democracy,’ presented as opposed to Leninist ideas. According to the author, ‘revolutionary social democrats argued that electoral work was important principally because it helped build up class consciousness and workers’ organization outside the state—a dynamic that has been amply demonstrated in the US revival of socialism since Bernie’s insurgent run in 2015’ (Blanc, 2019a). Blanc’s interventions fostered a strong debate, with participation of other scholars of the Second International and the intellectual history of Marxism (Lih, 2019; Muldoon, 2019; Post, 2019; Blanc, 2021b, among others). It is worth noting that Mike Taber was one of the main critics of Blanc’s political conclusions, defending the classical Leninist perspective on the revolution and vindicating Kautsky’s ‘early record’ only: ‘his defense and popularization of Marxism; his opposition to Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism; his internationalism; his opposition to imperialism and colonialism; his enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution of 1905’ (Taber, 2019; see also Blanc’s reply: Blanc, 2019b).

The revitalization of studies on the history of the Second International can only be welcomed by social and labor historians, as there is still so much to understand about one of the most important attempts to coordinate the activities of mass socialist parties in the struggle against capitalism. Other important books—about or covering aspects of international socialism in the years of the Second International—published in recent years include Schickl (2012), Meriggi (2014), Lademacher (2018), Ducange (2018, 2021), Delalande (2019) and Bataller (2019). Different trends and perspectives are contributing to this historiographic revitalization. On the one hand, moving away from ‘classical’ historiographies of the 20th century, some of the new scholarship has developed a ‘revisionist’ approach, more interested in the cultural and social aspects of the movement than on its ideology, and certainly avoiding to draw political ‘lessons’ from the history of the Second International. On the other hand, recent studies have brought new life to politically loaded debates about the heritage of the International, focusing on the role of Karl Kautsky and his ‘orthodoxy’ in relation to Leninism.

Whereas to a certain extent this second trend could be considered a sort of revival of more classic perspectives that the ‘revisionist’ historiography set out to criticize, it must be pointed out that it also shows some novelties, both in terms of sources, transnational perspectives, and political conclusions. To be sure, the study of the Second International—and of socialism in general—has always been a politically loaded endeavor and the political background and perspectives of researchers and authors have often shaped their interpretations. What is quite a novelty is the open discussion about the legacy of Kautsky among scholars and activists of the radical Left. Further dialogue between these different trends, that share a common interest in reviving the history of international socialism, will enrich our knowledge on the topic. The Second International itself being a network with an overwhelming presence of European organizations and leaders, it is understandable that most of this new scholarship remains focused on Europe. It is to be hoped, however, that further research can engage more fruitfully with studies of socialism in other, more peripheral regions, to develop a truly transnational history of social democracy in this period.

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