Second International

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Second International

France 1889


On 14 July 1889 over 1,000 representatives of the socialist movement met in Paris to establish the Second International. It had been 17 years since the First International had dissolved at the Hague Congress in 1872. In that time, scattered groups of socialists had developed into organized parties in many countries. In Germany, despite persecution by the government, socialism had evolved into a mass working-class political movement. The time was right to demonstrate again international solidarity against the capitalist system that exploited workers everywhere. At the very moment of its foundation, however, the fractured nature of the socialist movement, which had caused the demise of the First International, returned to cause confusion and acrimony in the Second. In particular, the divisions between reformist and revolutionary socialism and between anarchists and Marxists created complications. The founding congress also demonstrated the organization and strength of the German socialists and indicated the extent to which they would dominate the Second International for the next 25 years.


  • 1869: Black Friday panic ensues when James Fisk and Jay Gould attempt to control the gold market.
  • 1874: Norwegian physician Arrnauer Gerhard Henrik Hansen discovers the bacillus that causes leprosy. This marks the major turning point in the history of an ailment (now known properly as Hansen's disease) that afflicted humans for thousands of years and was often regarded as evidence of divine judgment.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1885: Belgium's King Leopold II becomes sovereign of the so-called Congo Free State, which he will rule for a quarter-century virtually as his own private property. The region in Africa, given the name of Zaire in the 1970s (and Congo in 1997), becomes the site of staggering atrocities, including forced labor and genocide, at the hands of Leopold's minions.
  • 1887: John Emerich Edward Dalbert-Acton, a leader of the opposition to the papal dogma of infallibility, observes, in a letter to Cambridge University professor Mandell Creighton, that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
  • 1889: Indian Territory in Oklahoma opened to settlement.
  • 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
  • 1889: The 986-foot (300.5-m) Eiffel Tower, part of the Paris exposition, becomes the tallest structure in the world. It will remain so until the Chrysler Building surpasses it in 1930.
  • 1889: Discontented southern farmers merge their farm organizations to form the Southern Alliance.
  • 1891: Construction of Trans-Siberian Railway begins. Meanwhile, crop failures across Russia lead to widespread starvation.
  • 1895: Guglielmo Marconi pioneers wireless telegraphy, which in the next three decades will make possible the use of radio waves for commercial broadcasts and other applications.
  • 1899: Polish-born German socialist Rosa Luxemburg rejects the argument that working conditions in Europe have improved and that change must come by reforming the existing system. Rather, she calls for an overthrow of the existing power structure by means of violent international revolution.

Event and Its Context

Between the First and Second International

Socialism had been transformed in the years since the end of the First International. The early 1870s were a time of severe reaction against socialism in the wake of the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1870. French socialism, which had been the mainstay of the International, was in disarray, with most of its leaders killed or in exile. The hopes for a socialist revolution, which had seemed imminent at the end of the 1860s, were receding. In response, the socialist movement entered a new stage of development. The experience of the Paris Commune had convinced many socialists of the need for the creation of organized and disciplined mass proletarian parties, if the capitalist system was to be overthrown. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also felt that the time was not right to maintain an international organization, partly because they feared that the anarchists would dominate it. Instead, they believed that development and consolidation of socialist organizations in each country would prove the key to the progress of their cause.

Therefore, the 1870s and 1880s was a period of refocus for the workers' movement, especially in the face of an international economic depression. Unemployment, wages, and working conditions became major concerns as employers tried to squeeze more productivity out of workers. In response, trade unions organized to protect their workers and attempt to improve wages and working conditions. Despite the depression, industrialization continued at a ferocious pace and the numbers of the urban proletariat increased as a result. This growing population provided fertile soil for the growth of socialist ideals. By the end of the 1880s, socialism was no longer a theory restricted to a few isolated adherents but the basis of a mass political movement in some countries.

The German Example

The rise of socialism was most apparent in Germany, which provided the blueprint for the organization of socialist political parties worldwide. In 1875 the Gotha agreement unified the two main groups of German socialism and created the Socialist Workers Party, which later became the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel headed the SPD. They had been involved in the First International, had strong ties to Marx and Engels, and were widely respected in the socialist movement. Under their leadership, an organized and disciplined working-class political movement developed in Germany. In 1890 the Social Democrats won 19.7 percent of the vote in the German general elections, an unprecedented achievement in attracting mass working-class support. What makes this even more remarkable is that it occurred after a decade of persecution by the German government. In 1878 the German parliament passed the repressive Anti-Socialist Laws, which made almost any kind of socialist activity illegal. Rather than stamping out socialism, however, the Anti-Socialist Laws contributed to its strength by creating among the German workers a sense of alienation and hostility toward the state. As a result of the persecution, which led to thousands of arrests, the German SPD was characterized by a sense of discipline and unity that was contrasted sharply with the fragmentary nature of the movement in other countries. This cohesion gave the SPD enormous influence in the Second International.

Moves Toward International Socialism

The focus of socialist action in the 1870s and 1880s was firmly on the national level. Yet the dream of international socialism did not fade completely in these years. Remnants of the First International continued to hold congresses until 1881. These, however, were not genuinely representative of international socialism. In 1877 the organization held a congress in Ghent, Belgium, to attempt to reignite the international socialist movement. This included representatives from most countries, but it was scuttled by conflicts between the anarchists and other socialists. In 1881 another Socialist Congress held in Chur, Switzerland, failed to attract enough support. Those who desired an international socialist movement were forced to admit that the time was not right.

However, the desire for an international organization to represent the concerns of the worker also came from other directions. The labor union movement was interested in developing contact between unions in different countries. Coordinated international action on issues of protective labor legislation was of particular concern. The unions wanted to put pressure on governments to pass laws to regulate hours and conditions. The French and British labor movements held meetings during the 1880s to discuss the establishment of an international organization. It was eventually agreed that there would be a congress in Paris on 14 July 1889, timed to coincide with the centenary of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. The initial impetus for the meeting, therefore, came from the leaders of the union movement, rather than from the socialist political parties. The nature of the French socialist movement, however, meant that the circumstances of the proposed congress were to change.

French Socialism

The situation in French socialism contrasted sharply with the unity of the Germans. After the Paris Commune, socialism in France was shattered. It revived, however, starting in the late 1870s. In 1879 the Marxist Parti Ouvrier Française, led by Jules Guesde, formed in an attempt to create an organization based on the German model. Conditions, however, were very different in France. The majority of urban workers were employed in small workshops rather than in large-scale industrial factories. Therefore, Marxism, with its emphasis on a mass urban proletariat of factory workers, did not have the same appeal to French workers. France had its own tradition of socialist theorists whose followers competed with the Marxists for the support of the French worker. There was also more opportunity in the French Republic for coordination with bourgeois radical parties to gain reforms that would benefit workers. This was at odds with the Marxist principles of Guesde, who rejected any compromise with the bourgeoisie, the class enemy of the workers.

Because of these differences, a group led by Paul Brousse split from the French Marxists and founded a new party, which came to be known as the Possibilists. They stressed the possibility of immediate reforms through alliances with other parties and resented the attempt to impose German socialist theory upon the French situation. The Possibilist links to the French labor movement made them the logical choice to lead the organization of the 1889 congress. Although the Possibilists invited all the socialist parties of Europe, the French Marxists boycotted the event and organized their own congress to coincide with that of the Possibilists. Attempts to reach a compromise failed, and both conferences proceeded in an atmosphere of great confusion. Numerically, the Possibilist conference was stronger, with about 600 delegates to the Marxist 400. The Marxists triumphed, however, because the delegates at their conference included the most prestigious names in world socialism. More important, they had the support of the Marxist German SPD, which represented the strongest working class movement in the world. In the power struggle over the leadership of the international workers' movement, it became apparent that momentum lay with the leaders of the Marxist socialist parties. The Second International was established.

The Founding Congress

Despite the confusion, the spirit at the Marxist Congress was one of optimism. William Liebknecht and the Frenchman Edouard Vaillant, a veteran of the Paris Commune, were elected joint presidents of the Congress, a move that represented the solidarity between German and French socialism. Delegates gave reports on the history and present state of the socialist movement in their respective countries. It was apparent that enormous progress had been made since the collapse of the First International. Socialist workers' parties were developing in almost every country in Europe, despite opposition and persecution. The education and organization of the workers was taking place all over the world, and the delegates looked forward with confidence to the eventual downfall of capitalism. There was little discussion in 1889, however, of the nature and form of organization of the Second International. This was in sharp contrast to the First International, which had laid out rules and set up the general council as the executive body of the International at its outset. Instead, for its first 11 years, the Second International had no executive council to represent it between congresses. Unlike the tightly centralized First International, this structure emphasized the autonomy of the national parties.

The Anarchist Problem

During the course of the founding congress, conflict with the anarchists again became a concern. Although the term anarchist covered a wide variety of positions and beliefs, adherents were generally revolutionaries who pressed for social transformation through direct violent action against the state. The Marxist parties were also based in revolutionary ideology, but they focused upon organized political action to achieve power for the working class and eliminate the capitalist system. Therefore, one of the resolutions of the 1889 congress committed socialist parties to work toward achieving manhood suffrage. In those countries in which the working man had the vote, socialists were to continue participating in elections with the aim of acquiring political power. The anarchists ridiculed this approach and rejected the leadership of the socialist political parties as sham revolutionaries, an accusation that was not entirely without substance. The anarchists therefore disrupted proceedings at both the Marxist and Possibilist congresses in 1889 by shouting over the other delegates with revolutionary slogans and insults until the anarchists eventually had to be ejected. This was only a temporary measure, and anarchist antics again disturbed the proceedings at the next congress in 1891. Participants at the 1893 Zurich congress eventually voted that membership should be limited to those parties that acknowledged the necessity of political action. This motion effectively excluded anarchists from the Second International.

May Day

Another key concern at the founding congress was the question of international action on labor legislation. Most of the delegates were particularly interested in this issue because it directly affected the lives of the workers whom they claimed to represent. As a result, the Congress passed a resolution in favor of campaigning in support of the eight-hour workday and improved working conditions. This led to the most significant decision reached by the Congress, in terms of the impact it had on workers worldwide. In 1888 the American Federation of Labor decided to nominate 1 May as an annual day of mass demonstrations and strikes in support of the eight-hour day. The resolution passed by the Second International to support worldwide participation in the May Day protests took the American campaign and transformed it into an international phenomenon. This call for internationally coordinated action was significant because for the first time it made international socialism a reality in the minds of workers.

The impact of the first international May Day protests in 1890 was muted, however, because the instructions from the Second International had not been explicit about how the day should be marked. The resolution stated that the actions taken by the workers in support of the eight-hour day should be "by means and along the lines appropriate to their respective countries." This meant that it was up to the socialist parties in each country to decide what to do, an indication that the influence of the Second International was subordinate to national leadership. The resolution had been drafted with the concerns of the Germans in mind, as they were wary of any actions that might adversely affect their chances for the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws. Therefore, despite the commitment to international solidarity on this issue, May Day was marked in different ways in each country. Nationwide strikes and violent protests occurred in France on 1 May, whereas in most of Germany, action was restricted to meetings held on the first Sunday in May. Some socialists in other countries were disappointed at the German attitude, because they felt that an important opportunity to demonstrate international solidarity and strike a blow at the capitalist system had been lost. May Day remained a topic for debate in the Second International throughout the 1890s.


The other major resolution passed by the Second International at the founding congress concerned war between the imperial powers. In 1889 this was not of immediate concern, but it was to become the most pressing issue over the next 25 years, and it eventually brought about the disintegration of the Second International. The congress passed a resolution condemning the national armies and calling for them to be replaced with peoples' militias. The socialists believed that the aggressive war mongering of the imperial governments was against the interests of the working class all over the world. The party stance was that it was necessary to disband the national armies to ensure that the working class would not be used as cannon fodder for imperial expansion. Leaving national defense up to workers' militias would ensure that wars would be fought in self-defense rather than for capitalist imperial gain. The basic assumption of the socialists was that as socialism was an international movement, the spread of socialist thought would prevent the outbreak of war between nations. However, the optimistic belief that international workers' solidarity was stronger than nationalist militarism was to be dashed in the events surrounding the beginning of World War I.

The most immediate achievement of the founding of the Second International was that it broke the isolation of the national socialist parties. The meeting provided support and encouragement for the smaller socialist parties, who could look to the strength and success of larger national parties, such as the SPD, for inspiration. The discussions at the Congress had revealed common problems and concerns across the socialist movement, and it had provided a forum for the international resolution of those issues. With the agreement on May Day, the Second International laid the basis for international socialist action, encouraging workers to see beyond their narrow local or national concerns and to engage directly with workers worldwide, which fostered an increased sense of class consciousness. However, the Second International also indicated that internationalism did have limits, and that in many cases, national concerns were to take precedence. In the long term, the founding of the Second International was significant because it heralded the domination of the socialist movement by Marxist ideology, as opposed to the reformist position of the Possibilists or the anarchist approach. In particular, the ideology and methods of the SPD dominated the first congress and most of those that followed.

Key Players

Bebel, August (1840-1913): Leader of the German Social Democratic Party, with Wilhelm Liebknecht. Bebel was well respected in international socialism and was enormously popular among the German workers. His support for the Second International helped to ensure its success, and he became one of its most dominant figures.

Brousse, Paul (1854-1912): French socialist and leader of the Possibilists, who split from the French Marxists. The Possibilists were open to achieving reform by working with bourgeois radicals. Their links with the union movement meant they were originally in charge of organising an international workers congress in Paris in 1889. This was eventually overshadowed by the congress that was organized by the French Marxists.

Guesde, Jules (1845-1922): Leader of the French Marxist Party. Guesde was a doctrinaire Marxist with close ties to the German leaders. His opposition to reform through cooperation with other political parties caused a split in the French socialist movement. Under his leadership, the Marxists boycotted the Possibilist Congress in 1889 and organized their own.

Liebknecht, Wilhelm (1826-1900): Leader of German Social Democratic Party, with August Bebel. Liebknecht had been involved in attempts to reestablish international socialism in the early1880s and was committed to the success of the Second International. He was elected the joint president of the first congress in Paris in 1889.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Eight-hour Day Movement; First International; Paris Commune; Red International of Labor Unions.



Braunthal, Julian. History of the International, 1864-1914.London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1966.

Cole, G. D. H. A History of Socialist Thought. Vol. III, Part1, The Second International, 1889-1914. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1953-1960.

Foster, William Z. History of the Three Internationals.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1968.

Joll, James. The Second International, 1889-1914. London:Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955.

Lindemann, Albert S. A History of European Socialism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

Additional Resources


Cole, G. D. H. A History of Socialist Thought. Vol. II,Marxism and Anarchism, 1850-1890. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1953-1960.

Miller, Susanne and Heinrich Potthoff. A History of German Social Democracy: From 1848 to the Present.Leamington Spa, UK; Hamburg, Germany; and New York: Berg Publishers, 1986.

—Katrina Ford