Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The collapse of the Second International

17. Although Bernstein’s theses were regularly rejected at party congresses, in practice they won increasing support. After the turn of the century, instances in which the SPD leadership, or sections of it, adopted right-wing positions on important political questions or avoided putting a clear position, increased. A profound gulf opened up in the party between the two extremes, represented on the left by Rosa Luxemburg and on the right by the leaders of the trade unions. The latter regarded the party’s revolutionary theory as a hindrance to their organisational successes and painstakingly acquired social concessions. The writings of Rosa Luxemburg, who vehemently fought against the growth of opportunism, read like a chronology of the gradual right-wing development of the SPD.

18. When the Russian revolution of 1905 threw up the question of a political mass strike, the trade unions rejected such a tactic with the words: “A general strike is general nonsense” and agitated against Luxemburg, who argued in favour of the mass strike. The trade union congress held in Cologne in 1905 took place under the slogan “The trade unions need peace and quiet above all” and condemned even discussion over the mass strike as playing with fire. The trade union leaders “were fearful of losing their tactical independence from the party, they feared that their well-filled coffers would be plundered, and they even feared the destruction of their organisations by the government as a result of such a confrontation. In addition they were completely opposed to ‘experiments’ which could disturb their very ingenious system of daily skirmishing with employers.”[1] Further conflicts flared up over the support for the state budget by social democratic deputies in southern Germany and the SPD’s adaptation to German imperialism, as expressed in the party’s stance towards German colonial policy and its passive reaction to Germany’s massive build-up of arms.

19. As the First World War approached, the party leadership of August Bebel and Karl Kautsky increasingly distanced themselves from Luxemburg and sought to avoid any conflict with the trade union leaders. When the war finally broke out the opportunists had control over the party. They had failed to anticipate what Trotsky described as “the most colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its own inherent contradictions”[2] and capitulated to German imperialism. Whereas before, at international congresses, the SPD had promised opposition to war and sworn its loyalty to international solidarity, it now called for the defence of the fatherland and regarded socialism as an issue for the distant future. In the Reichstag (national parliament), the SPD voted for war credits and placed its entire apparatus in the service of imperialist war propaganda.

20. All the other social democratic parties—apart from the Serbian party and the Russian Bolsheviks—also called for a defence of the fatherland. This sealed the fate of the Second International. Its transition to the camp of the ruling class was complete and irrevocable. At the end of the war, as revolutionary struggles flared up, the social democratic parties defended the bourgeois order with all available means. In Germany, the SPD had rebellious workers shot. It allied itself with the high command of the army in order to suppress the revolution and to murder its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The social democrats main organ Vorwärts promoted the Freikorps, the murderous paramilitary gangs from which Hitler was later to recruit his Sturmabteilung (SA). At a later date, when the Weimar Republic was gripped by crisis, the SPD supported Brüning’s emergency decrees, elected Hindenburg as Reich president and so helped to clear the way for Hitler to come to power.

21. This historical betrayal, whose consequences would determine the future development of the 20th century, had objective roots in the historical conditions of the preceding epoch. The ascent of the SPD had occurred against the background of a long drawn out phase of capitalist expansion. While the party marched under the banner of Marxism theoretically, its practice was completely bound up with workers’ daily needs and the development of its own forces—the recruitment of new members, the filling of the party coffers and the development of its press. Although revisionism had lost out in the theoretical struggle, it lived on in the party and was nourished by its practice and psychology. “The critical refutation of Revisionism as a theory by no means signified its defeat tactically and psychologically,” Trotsky wrote, and continued: “The parliamentarians, the unionists, the members of cooperatives continued to live and to work in the atmosphere of general opportunism, of practical specializing and of nationalistic narrowness.”[3]

22. The catastrophe of 1914 was not, however, inevitable. The objective situation prior to the outbreak of war not only gave rise to opportunism, but also encouraged the emergence of revolutionary tendencies in the Second International and the working class as a whole. Revolutionary Marxists such as Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg had a much deeper understanding of the contradictions of imperialism than opportunists such as Bernstein, who were blinded by their superficial impressions of the economic upturn and trade union successes. The Marxists prepared the working class for the coming upheavals by undertaking a systematic struggle against opportunism. Nobody understood this better than Lenin, who unyieldingly fought opportunism on a theoretical, political and organizational level, and who had already broken with the Russian opportunists, the Mensheviks, in 1903. Lenin developed Marxism in a constant struggle against the political and ideological pressure of bourgeois and petty bourgeois tendencies. He regarded the conflict between rival currents not as a subjectively motivated struggle for influence, but as an objective manifestation of real shifts in class relations—both between the working class and the bourgeoisie, and also between different strata within the working class itself. This prepared the Bolsheviks for the war and the revolutionary developments that followed.

23. The Bolsheviks not only opposed the defenders of the fatherland, but also the pacifists, who limited their slogans to calls for peace. Lenin called for the imperialist war to be transformed into a civil war, i.e., he linked the fight against the war with preparation for the socialist revolution. In 1917 this perspective was confirmed in Russia. The February revolution brought the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to power. They continued the war in the interests of the Russian bourgeoisie and its imperialist allies and came into sharp conflict with the desire for peace on the part of the workers, peasants and soldiers, who turned to the Bolsheviks. In October, the Bolsheviks organized an uprising, which brought down the provisional government and placed power in the hands of the Soviets. The Soviet government immediately ended the war and published the secret treaties detailing the imperialists’ war aims.

24. The victory of the October revolution marked a historical turning point. In Russia, for the first time in history, the working class, under Marxist leadership, took power and preserved it. Notwithstanding its later degeneration, the October revolution testified to the capacity of the working class to overthrow the capitalist order and to lay the foundations for a higher, more progressive society. It became the stimulus for revolutionary uprisings throughout the world. The barbarian character of the war, indignation with the betrayal of the social democracy and the consequences of the economic crisis radicalised broad sections of workers. They oriented towards the revolutionary Marxists, who had placed themselves, from the very outset, against the war. In March 1919 in Moscow, the founding congress of the Communist International took place. The Comintern insisted that there was no place for centrist and opportunist elements in its ranks, and developed the programme, the strategy and the tactics of the world socialist revolution as a practical task of the international working class.

25. The First World War and the October revolution marked the beginning of a new historical epoch, the epoch of the death agony of capitalism and the world socialist revolution. The following three decades were marked by a continuous series of bitter class struggles and military conflicts. This called for a different kind of party than had been developed by the Second International. It was no longer possible to proclaim theoretical support for a maximum programme, for internationalism and for the revolution, while the party’s daily practice remained limited to organizational routine and to a minimum programme of reforms within the national framework. The new parties had to be able to react rapidly to social changes, to subordinate their tactics to revolutionary strategy, to act in a disciplined way and to conduct an irreconcilable struggle against opportunism.

26. Trotsky later summarized the difference between the parties of the Second and the Third internationals with the words: “In a period of growing capitalism even the best party leadership could do no more than only accelerate the formation of a workers’ party. Inversely, mistakes of the leadership could retard this process. The objective prerequisites of a proletarian revolution matured but slowly, and the work of the party retained a preparatory character. Today, on the contrary, every new sharp change in the political situation to the left places the decision in the hands of the revolutionary party. Should it miss the critical situation, the latter veers around to its opposite. Under these circumstances the role of the party leadership acquires exceptional importance.… The role of the subjective factor in a period of slow, organic development can remain quite a subordinate one. Then diverse proverbs of gradualism arise, as: ‘slow but sure’, and ‘one must not kick against the pricks’, and so forth, which epitomize all the tactical wisdom of an organic epoch that abhorred ‘leaping over stages.’ But as soon as the objective prerequisites have matured, the key to the whole historical process passes into the hands of the subjective factor, that is, the party. Opportunism, which consciously or unconsciously thrives upon the inspiration of the past epoch, always tends to underestimate the role of the subjective factor, that is, the importance of the party and of revolutionary leadership.… Such an attitude, which is false in general, operates with positively fatal effect in the imperialist epoch.”[4]


Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, Pluto Press, p.130.