Through a glass darkly – 36

Socialists and Anarchists

James Joll

This year  I was going to read James Joll’s book on The Anarchists. But I found an earlier book by him on the shelves, and thought I ought to read that first. James Joll, born in 1918, was a Wykehamist, who read history at New College, Oxford. During the Second War he was involved with European Resistance movements. After the war he returned to Oxford to teach, and was a fellow of New College and then of St Antony’s from its inception in 1950. His books include The Second International [1955], Intellectuals in Politics [1960], and The Anarchists [1964]. I never met him, but I gather that long ago he assessed something I wrote [on Anti-Fascism in the English Public Schools, 1933-39] for a Trevelyan Scholarship, for which I am belatedly grateful.

The Founding of the Second International

The First International, which had been founded by Marx in 1864, was formally dissolved in Philadelphia in 1876. One reason for its failure was the a fundamental divide between Marxists and Anarchists. Anarchists stood for loose structure, decentralisation, and `le propaganda par le fait. They were formally expelled from various congresses, but not finally purged until 1896.

Joll: The Second International

As the demand to re-establish international links grew, the SPD, the German Socialist party, decided in 1887 to plan for an International Socialist congress. There was similar pressure from the British trade unionists. Would it work ? Could differences be overcome ? Would it inevitably be dominated by the German SPD ?

1889 was a natural year for an international revolutionary congress, and Paris was the obvious place. There were predictable differences of opinion about who to invite. So – two conferences opened on the same day: the Marxists met in the rue Petrelle, while the Possibilists and the trade unionists met in the rue de Lancry. The situation was chaotic with many personal feuds. The Congress in the Salle Petrelle was the founding congress of the new International. The Germans had the largest delegation, and Liebknecht was the moving spirit of the Congress.

The practical achievements of the Congress did not match its symbolic value. There was confusion about who had the right to attend and to vote. Three days were taken up with reports from the various countries present. After which there was little time to discuss the topics proposed. 

There were resolutions in favour of an eight-hour working day, and in favour of improved conditions of labour. It was assumed that the interests of the proletariat everywhere were the same. And it was assumed that disbanding of standing armies n favour of national militia would prevent war. The French proposed that May 1st should be celebrated everywhere as a Workers’ Holiday. In France this meant a stoppage of work. But the Germans wanted to protect workers’ job and pay, and saw May Day simply as an occasion for evening meetings and placing articles in the press. 

The Second International had come into being; ending the isolation of the 1870s. But important questions remained. What were the right tactics for a mass party ? Should it aim at revolution or at reform by parliamentary means ? How could Socialists prevent war ?  Who was a true Socialist ?

Struggles with the Anarchists

When ordinary people thought about international Socialists, they thought of an Anarchist with a smoking bomb in his pocket. Outrages were common in the 1880s and the 1890s. The Czar of Russia was murdered in 1881; the President of the French Republic in 1894; the Empress of Austria in 1898; the King of Italy in 1900; the President of the United States in 1901. Such acts provided the governments with opportunities to attack the whole working class movement. 

Assassination of Czar Alexander II, 1881

French Socialists were split between parliamentarians and those who believed in direct action. From the early 1890s the French Marxists were fighting on two fronts: against Socialists on the right wanting to abandon dogmatic Marxism; and against revolutionary Syndicalists on the left who advocated direct action. The German SPD was not seriously bothered by Anarchists. 

The subsequent Congresses grappled with this question. The Brussels Congress of 1891 tried to heal the breach between the two congresses of 1889. The Belgian Anarchists were excluded from the start, and the Spanish Anarchists were ejected on the second day. But disagreements about ehe nature of May Day were unresolved. The Anarchists returned to the attack at the 1893 Congress in Zurich. But there was a growing consensus; that, while waiting for the collapse of the capitalist system, much could be achieved by political means within the existing state. At the 1896 Congress in London the British delegation tried to raise such questions as universal suffrage, the emancipation of women, and education. Which highlighted the differences between British and continental socialists.  Joll notes, approvingly, that “the international Congresses of the 1890s showed that the leading European Socialists had accepted the necessity of political action inside existing bourgeois society.”

Reformism and Revisionism

Jean Jaurès

One of the other great problems was that as socialist parties grew in numbers, they were forced, for the moment at least, to function within a political system which they were seeking to destroy. Jean Jaurès, a teacher of philosophy from a middle-class family in Castres, was elected a Deputy in 1885, and his intelligence and rhetorical gifts made him leader of the Socialists. Under Jaurès the French Socialists collaborated with other parties to defend human rights, and joined forces in support of Dreyfus. But the situation in Germany was different.  The SPD was growing in strength. ‘Reformism’ advocated temporary alliance with other patties, but this was condemned by the SPD leadership. Eduard Bernstein became the spokesman for ‘Reformism’, which criticised some of Marx’s general theories. Revisionism and Reformism were trends which resulted from the success of social democracy in Europe. And the struggle around these ideas  dominated the next two Congresses of the International. 

Socialism and Nationalism

After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, there was renewed pressure on the International Socialist movement to guard against a war. Socialists had to decide what attitude to adopt towards their country’s military arrangements. The cherished aim of the Socialists was to abolish standing armies, and to create a series of popular militia, not unlike Switzerland. 

It is notoriously difficult to interest members of the public in international affairs. The German working class resented the cheap labour of the Poles. The Austrian Social Democrats were anxious about growing German influence. The Czechs wanted to be independent of the Austrians. The British Labour Party remained outside the European mainstream. England and Holland were both reluctant to abandon their colonies. And some German Socialists thought that only by entering the colonial struggle would the German working class maintain its standard of living.

Copenhagen Congress, 1910

Jaurès published L’Armée Nouvelle in 1910, calling for a complete remodelling of the French Army. But it was a patriotic book, making it clear that French Socialists would be right to defend the country against aggression. On the German side Bebel took a similar line.

International Socialist solidarity effectively meant solidarity between the two parties in Germany and France; no other powers had parties of such importance. An emergency Congress met in Basle in November 2013. The mood was confident and optimistic. The Congress was in the Cathedral. Jaurès made a celebrated speech.  “The Basle Conference marks the high point of the International’s optimistic self-confidence, and it reveals how far socialism had become almost a religious movement … and how much blind faith was placed in there actual existence of the International”.

Summer 1914

The crisis of July 1914 came with suddenness on a Europe oddly unprepared. Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia showed that they were determined on war. Alarmed Socialist leaders began to return from their holidays. The Bureau of the International convened a meeting in Brussels on July 29th. Victor Adler declared that the Austrian Socialists were impotent to act. Jaurès declared unequivocal support of French Socialists for the French Government. But within days he was shot in a Paris cafe by a hysterical young right-winger; leaving the French Socialists without a leader. And the International movement without its most buoyant leader when the crisis was at its height.

French trade unionists obeyed their call-up papers, for fear of their homes being overrun by the Germans. German Socialists were swayed by their fear of the barbarous Slav. There was a long and inconclusive debate among the SPD leaders. Finally the 92 German deputies voted in favour of the war credits; they felt it was their duty to resists what was represented as a Russian attack. It is ironic that, when the moment of crisis came, they were the first to disobey their own rules. One member of the SPD wrote: “How is it possible that I, anti-patriot and anti-militarist, who acknowledged only the International, come to be attacking my companions in misery and perhaps shall die for my enemies against my own cause and my own interests ?”

As soon as the French, German, and Austrian Socialists had voted in favour of the war credits, the Second International ceased to exist. The life had gone out of the Second International.


Joyeux Noël

I watched Joyeux Noël a week or so ago. It is a fictional reconstruction of the unofficial Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when front-line troops clambered out of their trenches to share greetings and drinks with their enemies; to play football and celebrate Christmas together.  It is a story about human dignity and kindness against a background of savage trench warfare. For me it raises a nagging question: Why did troops on both sides allow themselves to fight and be killed in a war of which they understood almost nothing ? Bertrand Russell made some pungent comments on that in Education and the Social Order. And James Joll’s book about the failure of the working class movements provides part of the answer. Which is that ugly nationalism was allowed to take precedence over international socialism. A tragedy.

January 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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