MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events

Congresses of Social Democracy


Second International Congress of Brussels, August 16th to 22nd 1891

Representatives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Belgian Worker’s Party, the Social Democratic Federation, the Legal Eight Hours League, along with many other delegates from sixteen countries convened at Brussels.

The main issues up for discussion were resolutions and clarifications on the conditions of membership to the International, international labour legislation and its future, the resolution of the ‘Jewish question’, the rights of women and the International’s position towards militarism and strikes. It also, rather more iconically, officially declared May 1st to be International Worker’s Day. May Day had previously been merely an unofficial worker’s holiday; the congress made it concrete. The importance of the need for an eight hour day was also stressed; this went on to become one of the International’s most significant policies.

The most important resolution made by this congress was arguably the perhaps anti-Semitic resolution made on the position of Jews within the proletarian movement. It was said by two representatives from France (Regnard and Argyriades) that many Jewish bankers were “great oppressors of labour” and this, to the Justice newspaper, betrayed some anti-Semitism in the congress:

There appears to be a strong feeling against the Jews in the Congress” (22.8.1891).”

This is a slight change from the International’s previous resolution on the position of Jews in society, as before they were just ‘against anti-Semitism’, and now adopted a position ‘against philo-semitic tyranny’ as well. This phrase needs to be clarified; it does appear that the International was taking a somewhat dim view of the Jews, as it believed that there were a disproportionate number of Jews who were high up within the capitalist system. Although there is nothing to suggest that the representatives were neglecting the Jewish proletariat entirely, it does seem that they were placing less emphasis on supporting its struggle because of the religion’s supposed links with capitalism.

The fact that some of the most famous and influential communists of the time were Jewish, does seem to suggest that digging for anti-Semitism in this particular resolution of the Congress is a little tenuous. However, it does show that there was still some anti-Jewish prejudice even in the top ranks of the Second International in 1891.

See Archive of the Second International.


Second International Congress of Zurich, August 6th to 13th 1893

Delegates from twenty countries made up this congress, with a more worldwide feel. Representatives from Brazil, Australia and Bohemia were invited, though the Brazilians could not attend and were therefore represented by Liebknecht (from Germany) and Siedel (from Switzerland). Overall, the total number of delegates present was 410.

The most important decision taken was the dismissal of anarchists from the International under the ‘Zurich Resolution’ (which clearly set out who could attend). Other motions raised were the drive for an eight hour working day, the agrarian question and the situation of the peasantry across Europe and the formation of Trade Unions. One of the other main resolutions passed by the congress was the establishment of the International Metalworkers Federation, which to this day still unites metalworkers across the globe.

There was still further unrest and discussion on the political tactics of social democracy, which was of course seeing its figurehead emerge in the form of Eduard Bernstein, the German evolutionary socialist. The congress, in appointing Engels as its honorary president, was perhaps trying to show that it was still the foremost international body for the organisation of revolution.

Other issues that were discussed included how workers should be internationally organised and the position of the international on the general strike, but time ran out and no concrete decisions were made. Motions were passed, however, on the importance of universal suffrage for women, the struggle of Siam against colonial pressure and its absolute monarchy and the International’s desire to support the struggle of striking English miners. Engels closed the conference with his only ever address to the Second International; he died two years later.

See Archive of the Second International.


Second International Congress in London, July 21st to August 1st 1896

There was an even larger number of different countries and delegates present at this conference, but the only country from outside Europe this time was the United States. Again Britain, France and Germany were by far the most represented, but some of the smaller countries such as Switzerland and Belgium had a good showing, with 12 and 19 delegates respectively. The total number of delegates was this time 782, although host nation Britain made up more than half of these. The Fabian society were well represented, possibly indicating the beginning of the more liberal leaning that the International would gain in its later years.

There were widespread discussions on colonialism and self-determination, and the International tended to adhere to the traditional Marxist position of supporting any progressive revolution, even if it was a bourgeois one. The issue of Poland was raised often, and Rosa Luxemburg reported on it:

Rosa Luxemburg on the Polish Question

In this article, she does still maintain that the growing industrial proletariat could lead a revolution; Poland, although still possessing a significant agrarian population, could contain a socialist revolution because of the Tsar’s economic crushing of the bourgeoisie. Motions were also passed on the International’s support of the independence of Cuba, Macedonia and Armenia. It seems that they were still optimistic of imminent socialist revolutions in these countries, despite the fact that monarchism here was only beginning to be questioned as a political system.

Other issues that were discussed were the position of the working class regarding militarism and the further organisation of social democracy. Further resolutions were passed on the importance of both industrial programs and agrarian programs for the International. The importance of education and the raising of class consciousness for the proletariat was also brought to the fore.

This congress has been called “the most agitated, the most tumultuous, and the most chaotic of all the congresses of the Second International,” as the rifts that would grow wider in the coming years were beginning to emerge, mainly between those desiring the pursuit of socialism through democratic means and those wishing revolution. Number factions began to form within the International, often based along national lines.

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Second International Congress in Paris, 23rd to 27th September 1900

Again, around twenty countries attended, with a notable element being the increased number of delegates from Eastern European nations such as Poland and Russia. Poland had 20 representatives and Russia 24, perhaps reflecting the growing revolutionary activity less developed countries. Marx and Engels themselves claimed in their introduction to the introduction to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that these two nations were the most likely places for world revolution to begin. It would then spread throughout developed Western Europe. Lenin and Trotsky often claimed that this was vital to the eventual successful of the Russian Revolution. Lenin himself was a member of the International by this time, casting his vote for the Russian delegate in favour of Plekhanov as opposed to Krichevsky, the editor of a newspaper.

One of the most notable achievements of this congress was the establishment of a permanent International Socialist Bureau, a standing committee composed of representatives of the socialist parties of all countries. Their headquarters was delegated to be Brussels; Belgium had long been well represented in the Second International.

The delegates also passed resolutions on the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ (the bourgeoisie, the militarism of the working class and the socialisation of the means of production. The feeling was generally in favour of international peace, but still supported the struggles of anti-colonial forces fighting for independence. The congress also focussed on the problem of the growth of trusts within business; they were of course going to become such an important part of the growth of American capitalism in the 1920s.

One of the events which this congress will most be remembered for is the splitting of the Russian delegation, showing the divisions over the policy of violent revolution which were to divide the Russian socialist movement in the coming years. The RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party) was soon to split into many different factions, with the Bolsheviks breaking from it under Lenin in 1903.

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Second International Congress in Amsterdam, August 14th to 20th 1904

This congress included representatives from 25 nations and 4 continents, making it arguably the most ‘international’ representation of the movement yet. The heightened interest may have been fuelled by the success of the German Social-Democratic party in the recent general elections. They obtained 3 million votes and took 81 seats in the Reichstag. There was a symbolic gesture of international solidarity between the Japanese representative Katayama and Plekhanov, who was still speaking for the Russians, when they exchanged a long handshake on the congress platform – this showed unity despite the fact that their respective countries were at war.

All other items on the agenda were eclipsed by arguments over socialist tactics – a debate that had possibly flared up again because of the recent success of the German SDP in the democratic general elections. Kautsky’s concessions to the more revisionist elements of the International in the last congress (“the entrance of a socialist into a bourgeois government cannot be expected to produce good results unless the socialist party, in a large majority, approves such an act, and unless the socialist minister remains the authorized representative of his party”) had meant that the International effectively endorsed democratic participation in bourgeois societies; this reflected a victory for the revisionists. The German representatives at this congress led the fight against the likes of Jaures (who was one of the leading evolutionary socialists) and attempted a reversion back to orthodox Marxism.

Jaures did make an intriguing speech, urging the International to form alliances with all parties that might ‘help’ the proletariat, such as those representing peasants, artisans and small shop-keepers, i.e. the petty-bourgeoisie. However, the German socialists prevailed, and revolution was held to be (for now) the policy of the International, not evolution and “contentment to reform bourgeois society.”

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Second International Congress in Stuttgart, 18th to 24th August 1907

This congress was the most ‘international’ yet, with the 886 delegates present hailing from 5 continents. Notable attendees were Rosa Luxemburg, Bebel, Jaurès, Liebknecht, Hervé, Ramsey Macdonald, Bernstein and Lenin.

Five main issues were considered, one of the most important of which was the congress’ stance on militarism. Gustave Hervé of France, a future national socialist, gave a semi-anarchist speech suggesting that the International should announced a strike whenever a war breaks out; although this seems somewhat naïve, it had the advantage of confirming that the International needed to support more revolutionary action as well as parliamentary participation.

Representatives also debated and passed resolutions on the relations between socialist parties and the trade unions. Effectively, the need was expressed for closer collaboration between parties and unions, with Voinov (a Bolshevik) defending the decision of the earlier London congress to integrate parties with unions almost completely. Others at the congress, such as Plekhanov, adapted an attitude of ‘neutrality’ towards the unions; the latter motion failed and the International resolved to help the unions to educate the workers.

The colonial question was hotly debated. Although previous congresses had been firmly against colonialism, a view had begun to creep in that imperialism and domination over ‘savage’ countries could be beneficial as the natives could be ‘educated’ and ‘civilised.’ This attitude was headed by Van Kol, a delegate from Holland – thankfully, the motion to adopt a ‘socialist colonial policy’ was defeated by 128 votes to 108, with 10 abstentions from Switzerland. Lenin later said that the ‘opportunists’ at this congress had been supporting the bourgeoisie’s acts of “civilising” the colonies by the spread of liquor and syphilis.’

The congress also rejected a motion to ban the immigration of workers from backward countries, like China, into Europe. Finally, universal suffrage was discussed by both this congress and the first International Socialist Women’s Congress, which was held concurrently in the same building. There was little change in policy – it was decided that the demands of the women’s movement in Britain was not radical enough as it ‘did not include working women,’ and that universal suffrage was still a primary aim of the International. This was despite an attempt by the Austrian Social Democrats to get the congress to focus on only male suffrage and downplay the role of women; Clara Zetkin of the German SDP prevailed against this motion, claiming that it would harm the mass movement. The concluding words of the congress’ resolution on this were “the demand for universal suffrage should be put forward simultaneously for both men and women.”

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Second International Congress in Copenhagen, 28th August to 3rd September 1910

The 8th International congress, held in the socialist-governed Copenhagen, was opened by a magnificent opening ceremony and treated to a cantata written especially for the congress by the delegate A.C. Meyer. 33 countries send a total of 896 delegates were in attendance, with a number of German Social Democrats and R.S.D.L.P. members, including Lenin, Plekhanov and Lunacharsky.

Five committees were set up for discussion and drafting of resolutions on the required action of the working class, the struggle against war, labour legislation and capitalist punishment. There was also much discussion on the socialist struggles in Finland, Argentina and Persia. Argentina was about to put in place universal male suffrage; radicals would win the first elections in 1912, whilst Finland was a keen area of debate because of the growing demands from many liberals and socialists there for independence from Russia. Persia warranted attention because of the political activity created by the new constitutional assembly and the relegation of the role of the monarch to a constitutional one.

A resolution was made on the International’s position on war and struggle, firming up the proposals made by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg at the congress in Stuttgart. These were focussed on the need to take advantage of the economic and political turmoil created by war to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The congress also passed a resolution to encourage workers to stage protests against the growing threat of war in Europe, and to lobby their respective governments to reduce armaments and settle conflicts through arbitration.

The Second International Conference of Socialist Women was held prior to the opening of the main congress – its main contribution was to set International Women’s Day for March 8th, an annual day for the recognition of the struggle for women’s economic, social and political rights. This congress had around 100 delegates, and was chaired by the prominent German socialist Clara Zetkin.

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Second International Congress in Basel, November 24th to 25th 1912

This was an ‘extraordinary’ congress called mainly because of the rapidly worsening situation in the Balkans between the Austrians and the Serbs, the desire for Bosnian independence and the resurgence of old enmities in the area with Turkey. No women’s congress was held on this occasion. Notable delegates from a wide range of countries included Jean Jaures, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Kautsky and Karl Liebknecht. Liebknecht had recently been elected to the German Reichstag as a left wing member of the German SDP.

The discussion mainly centred on the threat of world war which was hanging over Europe; not only did the congress urge the Balkan states to band together in resistance to Austro-Hungarian imperialism, it also identified that “the greatest danger to the peace of Europe is the artificially cultivated hostility between Great Britain and the German Empire,” which was a reference to the arms race and growth of petty nationalism in these two countries. The congress also urged the Socialists of Austria-Hungary and Italy, whose countries had both been flexing their muscles in the Balkans, to oppose any attempts by these two countries to annex or invade the Balkan states.

Essentially, the congress was called at Basel to reinforce the International’s firm stance of “war on war” which had been declared in Stuttgart and Copenhagen, and a call to Socialists to “exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective.” If war should break out, the congress resolved that it was vital for socialists everywhere to continue to oppose it (many did, and were arrested for it like Liebknecht) and to try and utilise the conditions created by the war to hasten the demise of capitalism.

Lenin referred to the Manifesto of Basel in a number of articles when attacking Karl Kautsky, who was the leading theoretician of the International after the death of Engels in 1895. It can be argued that this was the last time when the International was united in its opposition to the war – after this, various members (like Kautsky – “the International’s attitude to the war has not yet been defined”) began to take a less militant attitude, with some even supporting the war. The split between those who supported the war and those who wanted to stick with the original anti-war stance coupled with the assassination of Jaures in 1914 led to this being the final congress of the original Second International. The Zimmerwald Left and the Spartacists became the prominent leading groups of anti-militarist socialists – the members who supported the war neglected these movements and mostly dedicated their efforts to supporting the war movements of their own countries.

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Second International Conference in Zimmerwald, September 5th to 8th, 1915

This conference, held in Zimmerwald near Berne in neutral Switzerland, was the final breaking point between the Zimmerwald Left (led by Lenin) and the Centrist majority (led by Robert Grimm). 38 delegates attended from most European nations – notable attendees were Lenin and the virulently anti-war Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. Trotsky, who was not yet a supporter of Lenin, helped to draft the manifesto as ‘the Nashe-Slovo representative.’

Although the aim of this conference was to find a jointly held position on the war between all socialists and social-democrats, it ultimately failed, as both the Left led by Lenin and the centrist majority left the International. The ground was laid for the creation of a new Third International which supported the actions of the Russian Bolsheviks and Lenin’s more political interpretation of Marxist theory.

The main question was obviously the war, and the final manifesto was written up by Trotsky and Grimm. Essentially, it condemned the imperialist aims and characteristics of the war, the fierce patriotism which had been whipped up by the bourgeoisie and calls on workers of all countries to turn to civil war against the capitalist class rather than continue to take part in the ‘Imperialist slaughter.’

This manifesto was rejected by both sides – Lenin insisted on the importance of a firmer committal to civil war and the need to define how the civil war was to be carried out. The centrist parts of the International disagreed on the revolutionary elements of the Manifesto, and most left the Second International afterwards with Grimm to join the short-lived 21/2 International. The Manifesto ended up dividing opinion, and only the pacifist parts were accepted by the supporters of Grimm. Essentially, neither side was satisfied.

Lenin and his supporters drew up their own declarations on the conference, which go further than the original Manifesto in explicitly calling on workers to instantly rise up against their officers in the trenches and to call economic and possibly political strikes at home. The slogan was declared to be ‘Civil war, not civil peace!’ The Third International was created in 1919 and declared itself in line with Lenin’s Bolsheviks. The Zimmerwald Conference was a success in the end for Lenin’s revolutionary left, as it allowed them to finally break with the reformist elements of the International and lay the grounds for one more in line with Lenin’s own political philosophy.

See Archive of the Second International.


Second International Congress in Kienthal, April 24th to 30th, 1916

The final congress of the International to actually meet convened in the small town of Kienthal in neutral Switzerland. 43 delegates from 10 countries attended – they were all supporters of an end to the war and the use of the war as a vehicle for proletarian revolution.

The main issue was the attitude of the proletariat towards the war, which led to the congress being essentially a firming up of the ideas presented at the Zimmerwald Conference. There was a detailed exposition of the hypocrisy of former leading figures of the International, such as Kautsky and Plekhanov, in their support for the war. Lenin had declared the theories of Kautsky to be “the inevitable fruit of the ideology of the petty bourgeoisie.” Although the Congress failed to adopt the strictly Bolshevik slogans of transforming WWI from an ‘imperialist war’ into a civil or class war, it did lean towards a general acceptance of internationalism. This meant a rejection of the various parliamentary systems of Europe – after all, could one really rely on institutions which were pitting proletarians against proletarians? There was a rallying call to all workers internationally; as such, Lenin saw the Kienthal Congress as a ‘step forward.’

This conference came together to secure all the decisions made by the Zimmerwald Conference. Whilst there was still a significant centrist presence at the 1915 meeting, we can see here a dominance of the Bolsheviks (who had fashioned themselves as ‘the Zimmerwald Left’ when attending the Second International meetings) brought about by the furtive efforts of Lenin and his supporters. Support for their strict anti-war attitude may have been helped by the bloody nature of the recent battles in the war.

Without the intervention of the Russian Revolution, this could have been a renewal of the true socialist spirit prevalent in the time of Engels in the 1890s. However, the success of the Bolsheviks gave ground for Lenin to create a new International based mainly around his ideas. Even at this stage, it was easy to see how Lenin was dominating the ideas of socialists around the world, mainly by his clever use of the anti-war stance. Even if the February and October Revolutions had never taken place in Russia, Lenin would undoubtedly have become the leading theoretician of socialism after the war ended.

See Archive of the Second International.


Second International Congress in Stockholm, May to July, 1917

This congress must be briefly noted, even it was never formally held. War weariness had firmly set in by 1917, and the events of the February Revolution in Russia had sparked many of the centrist socialists in France, Germany and Britain back into action. Thus, international interest and a ‘desire to restart the Second International’ spread.

The Bolsheviks put forward a simple claim taken from their contributions to the Zimmerwald Manifesto – a peace with no annexations. Whether this would have been accepted as a policy by the Allied socialists is an academic question, as these delegates were prevented from attending by their respective governments.

Thus, the Stockholm Congress was product of heady revolutionary zeal in the summer months – little changed, except the fact that those who were the original representatives of the International were now not even allowed to attend. The Bolsheviks had gained complete control, but at the same time realised that the International was useless without representation from Britain, France and the rest of the Allies. Lenin, for one, was glad at the restraints placed on the Allied socialists:

“You would-be internationalists (the centrist socialists) cannot urge the masses to take part in the Stockholm Conference without uttering a pile of lies, without sowing illusions, without whitewashing the social-chauvinists, without rousing hopes among the masses that the Staunings and Brantings, the Skobelevs and Avksentyevs are capable of renouncing ‘national unity’ in earnest.”

Lenin had lost patience with the International. The failure of this conference to even convene perhaps was a contributory factor to his return to Russia and his leading of an immediate socialist revolution in October. His ideals of internationalism, which he and the Bolsheviks had campaigned hard for, had to be put aside for now.

See Archive of the Second International.