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

Imperialist War and the Collapse of the Second International

The tensions building up in world capitalism erupted in the First World War, which, with all its horrors, announced the opening of the epoch of the “death agony of capitalism” and of the world socialist revolution. As early as the 1880s, Engels had warned of the consequences of capitalist militarism and the danger of war. Prior to 1914, at a series of Congresses, the Second International had issued manifestos calling on the working class to resist the outbreak of war, and, if a war broke out, to utilize the crisis to “rouse the people and hasten the downfall of capitalism.” However, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914—the spark that set off long-standing conflicts within the bourgeoisie of Europe—revealed overnight the implications of the growth of opportunism within the socialist movement. On August 4, 1914, the representatives of the SPD voted to financially support the war, and almost all the major parties of the International fell in line behind the war policies of their bourgeois governments.

In opposition to the capitulation of the Second International, the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin, came out against the war. Within weeks of its outbreak, Lenin authored a resolution that defined the conflict as “a bourgeois, imperialist and dynastic war.” The resolution declared:

“The conduct of the leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party, the strongest and most influential in the Second International (1889-1914), a party which has voted for war credits and repeated the bourgeois-chauvinist phrases of the Prussian Junkers and the bourgeoisie, is sheer betrayal of socialism. Under no circumstances can the conduct of the leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party be condoned, even if we assume that the party was absolutely weak and had temporarily to bow to the will of the bourgeois majority of the nation. This party has in fact adopted a national-liberal policy.”[1]

The resolution condemned the actions of the French and Belgian socialist parties as “just as reprehensible.”[2] It proceeded to place the tragic events of August 1914 in the necessary political and historical context:

The betrayal of socialism by most leaders of the Second International (1889-1914) signifies the ideological and political bankruptcy of the International. This collapse has been mainly caused by the actual prevalence in it of petty-bourgeois opportunism, the bourgeois nature and danger of which have long been indicated by the finest representatives of the revolutionary proletariat of all countries. The opportunists had long been preparing to wreck the Second International by denying the socialist revolution and substituting bourgeois reformism in its stead, by rejecting the class struggle with its inevitable conversion at certain moments into civil war, and by preaching class collaboration; by preaching bourgeois chauvinism under the guise of patriotism and the defense of the fatherland, and ignoring or rejecting the fundamental truth of socialism, long ago set forth in the Communist Manifesto, that the workingmen have no country; by confining themselves, in the struggle against militarism, to a sentimental philistine point of view, instead of recognizing the need for a revolutionary war by the proletarians of all countries, against the bourgeoisie of all countries; by making a fetish of the necessary utilization of parliamentarianism and bourgeois legality, and forgetting that illegal forms of organization and agitation are imperative at times of crises.[3]

Lenin insisted that the capitulation of the Second International meant the political death of that organization as an instrument of revolutionary struggle. It was, therefore, necessary to proceed with the construction of a new, Third International. This new International had to be based on an uncompromising struggle against opportunism, which had revealed itself in August 1914 as an agency of imperialism within the international workers’ movement. Lenin rejected any explanation of the collapse of the Second International that trivialized the event by treating it as if it were the product of individual mistakes and weaknesses. “At all events,” Lenin wrote, “it is absurd to substitute the question of the role of individuals for the question of the struggle between trends and of the new period in the working class movement.”[4] As Lenin anticipated, the division between Marxism and opportunism precipitated a fundamental realignment of the workers movement, reflected in every country, between national chauvinist and international tendencies. It was out of this division that the new Communist Parties would later emerge.

World War I had deep roots in the development of capitalism, and in particular the contradiction between an increasingly global economy and the capitalist nation-state system. Trotsky wrote in 1915, “The present war is at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state. It means the collapse of the national state as an independent economic unit...The War of 1914 is the most colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its own inherent contradictions.”[5] This meant at the same time that the old Social-Democratic Parties, which had developed in a period of stupendous growth of national economies, were shaken to their core by the breakdown of the familiar conditions that had shaped their political routines over several decades. The formal theoretical and rhetorical defense of the revolutionary perspective had been balanced with a practice that was of a predominantly reformist character. But the change of conditions made the continuation of political and theoretical double bookkeeping impossible. “In their historic crash the national states have pulled down with them the national Socialist parties also...As the national states have become a hindrance to the development of the forces of production, so the old Socialist parties have become the main hindrance to the revolutionary movement of the working class.”[6]

Seeking the source of opportunism within the Second International, Lenin analyzed the economic and social-political changes in the structure of world capitalism associated with the emergence of imperialism. Criticizing the formulations of Karl Kautsky, the theoretical leader of German Social Democracy who had capitulated to the opportunists in August 1914, Lenin rejected the latter’s claim that imperialism was merely a “preferred” policy. Rather, Lenin explained:

...Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: Imperialism is (1) monopoly capitalism; (2) parasitic, or decaying capitalism; (3) moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism.[7]

Lenin also rejected Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism,” which hypothesized the possibility of the peaceful, non-violent, non-imperialist regulation of world economy and the relations between the major capitalist powers:

...The essence of the matter [Lenin wrote] is that Kautsky detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, speaks of annexations as being a policy “preferred” by finance capital, and opposes to it another bourgeois policy which, he alleges, is possible on this very same basis of finance capital. It follows, then, that monopolies in the economy are compatible with non-monopolistic, non-violent, non-annexationist methods in politics. It follows, then, that the territorial division of the world, which was completed during this very epoch of finance capital, and which constitutes the basis of the present peculiar forms of rivalry between the biggest capitalist states, is compatible with a non-imperialist policy. The result is a slurring-over and a blunting of the most profound contradictions of the latest stage of capitalism, instead of an exposure of their depth; the result is bourgeois reformism instead of Marxism.[8]


“The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War,” in: V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), p. 16.


13. Ibid., p. 16.


Ibid., pp. 16-17.


“The Collapse of the Second International,” Ibid., p. 250.


Leon Trotsky, War and the International (Young Socialist Publications, 1971), pp. vii-viii.


Ibid., pp. xii-xiii.


“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” in: V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 23, p. 105.


“Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” in: V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 22, p. 270.