The 2nd International and Classical Leftism

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The long counter-revolution from the 1810s to the 1870s led to the transformation of old ‘corporate entities’ (essentially special interest groups constituted under the conditions of feudalism) into modern political organizations aimed at resolving the political and economic inequalities of the state they existed in.  In Europe this came in the form of a repression of liberties once enjoyed during the Revolutionary Wars. Over Restoration the reinstitution of censorship and a variety of laws against free speech brought radical intellectuals back to the forefront. The destruction of localized welfare through the narrowing of religious charities and the weakening of local social programs led to a necessity for help which led to the creation of thousands of mutual aid organizations, groups which aimed to disperse social goods under an ideology of solidarity1.  Lastly, the attempts to undo the power of the guilds in order to establish a laissez-faire economic regime led to labor conflicts across all of Europe, but especially in Great Britain and France, where attempts by the proletariat to sabotage the machines which were  replacing them, and the riots that followed, led to hundreds of arrests and millions in property damage2.  The existence of multiple organizations acting on a multitude of different vectors seemed to be building a momentum which, for a time, seemed like it could not be stopped.

This was important because organizations are the medium through which abstract goals such as the end of capitalism, the creation of a truly democratic society, or equality between the sexes and races are transformed into concrete programs.  A party which seeks to gain control over the government in order to institute socialism will see its struggle and the steps to that struggle as substantively different from a mutual aid organization which seeks to build socialism itself, an activist group which seeks to expand this or that action into a full fledge insurrection, and so on.  The 19th century was not just a time of rapidly expanding parties or the golden age of anarchism, it was a time when different groups were creating their own forms of socialism and radicalism, creating substantively different leftisms. Such a variety would not have been feasible in radical field dominated by but a few organizations.

Although the general momentum of 19th century leftism was towards massive organizations, the period from the 1840s to the 1880s saw a major degree of splintering as interpersonal rivalries, state coercion, and differences over tactics and politics led to numerous splits and confrontations.  In France, for instance, unions were broken up into four different political groupings, and numerous cases occurred where smaller unions would break up because out of 15 members, seven would be aligned with the left wing of the right tendency, and the other eight would be aligned with the right wing of the left tendency3. This issue prevailed for decades, and would likely have continued had the unions not combined with other groups, most notably the mutual aid organization.

Mutual aid organizations, while generally more stable internally, were  often co-opted and moderated in order to expand and reach a wealthier audience.  This was often the case in the United States, where thousands of mutual aid organizations existed with the aim of alleviating poverty and providing necessary  social services. This constant confrontation with the great poverty which existed directly alongside great wealth led to number of mutual aid organizations adopting radical politics4.  However, the search for rich patrons and the expansion their support could create led to any older groups becoming co-opted, as was the case with the Salvation Army, who moved from a radical Christian organization opposed to other major charities such as the Charity Organization Society  to a mainstream actor, focused more on managing the poor instead of serving them while attempting to abolish their poverty5.

Looking at the longer history of the Left, this trend towards co-optation seems to be the trend in intra-organizational matters.  Assimilation, defined as the moderation or giving up of one’s original goals in favor of co-operating within the system created by capitalism and the state, has happened to nearly every major leftist institution which has lasted long enough to count its history on a generational scale.  There are numerous theories as to why this occurs: theoretical mistakes leading to mistaken actions, a corrupt leadership selling out its rank and file, the desire to retain control against threatening forces, the feeling that more good could be done if one jettisoned one’s radical politics.  Numerous groups have attempted to sideline cooptation, through use of internal democratic measures, by remaining nonhierarchical, by remaining small, or through some new model of decisionmaking. Regardless of this, the historical record seems to suggest that the destiny of any leftist group at its inception is either to die out in obscurity or to accept the very system the group was created to destroy, or, as is generally  the case, both.

What is unique about the 2nd International was that during its existence not a single one of these groups could achieve dominance, and that, when the socialist parties appeared, they did so in an environment which had already seen two to three generations of organizational shifts. In many countries the rise of syndicalism–which one could view, especially in Europe, as an organic ideology created through an alliance between the unions and mutual aid organizations– concurred with the rise of parliamentary socialism.  Only in Germany was the Social Democratic Party able to wrest some kind of power/influence over its peers, although even then one can see numerous conflicts between the trade unions and the party.

With the inability of the Socialist parties to bring their competing organizations to heel, the fifty years from the 1870s to the 1920s saw a mass of groups acting on different vectors and holding completely different kinds of organizational politics.  This variety led to a robust and constant discussion of strategy during this period. Indeed, much of what Perry Anderson approvingly calls ‘classical Marxism’ was produced by the need to justify social democracy to a broad array of differing factions. Unfortunately, due to the following period leading to the consolidation of many of these organizations under one aegis, the theoretical history of radical labor unions and mutual aid organizations remains desperately underexamined, despite the existence of a tradition of nuanced strategic analysis within the radical unions6.  France–where the unions and mutual aid organizations were joined at the hip–saw one of the fullest expressions of a theory which combined the struggles of union militants with the optimism and longer-term perspectives of mutual aid organizations. These perspectives led to a natural distrust of the state, and the belief that welfare could be provided at an equitable basis outside of state programs, leading to further suspicion of attempts by the state to take over the roles of mutual aid groups7.

Thus, while these organizations rarely posed a direct threat to their sister groups–a growth in union leadership or in providing mutual aid had no direct interaction with whether one would vote–these groups often acted as rivals, which leads to the most important aspect of the 2nd International: that this consistent conflict between organizations acting along completely different organizational lines meant that while co-optations and failures of any one organization was still inevitable, the people as a whole still had a wide range of alternatives.   For instance, in France after the Millerand disaster8, when the first socialist to participate in a bourgeois government immediately supported the suppression of a strike by force.  There is evidence that this was followed shortly thereafter with a major growth in the CGT. This move from one kind of organization to another was far from universal, however: in other countries where a full range of leftist organizations were not present or where differing conditions predominated, socialist or labor parties were formed to meet the inability of bourgeois parties to deliver reform (as with the Labor party or the variety of American socialist parties), or alternatively, radical unions would be created due to frustrations with the direction their unions were being taken in (as was the case with the IWW).

This mix of groups maintained a seemingly overwhelming momentum through the early 20th century, with radical unions gaining hundreds of thousands of members in a short period of time and revolutionary socialist parties coming closer and closer towards winning elections outright.  This period would have continued if it were not for the calamity of the First World War, which came alongside the greatest betrayal in the history of the Left.

Next section: The Era of the Mass Party →

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  1. French History & Civilization “Mutual Aid Societies in Eighteenth Century Paris” 2001
  2. Horn 2006 124-125
  3. Levine 2014 “The Labor Movement in France to the Commune 1789-1871”
  4. Hussyen 2015 “The Limits of Private Philanthropy”
  5. Ibid
  6. Levine 2014 “The General Confederation of Labor from 1895-1902”
  7. Ibid
  8. Alexandre Millerand was the first socialist to ever enter government, who then shortly afterwards ordered the breaking of a strike with military force.