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Socialist Participation in Capitalist Governments

A Debate in the Second International, 1900–1904


Haymarket Books has just published Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International, 1889-1912. Edited by Mike Taber, this book is the first collection ever assembled in English of all the resolutions adopted by the Second International during its Marxist years. The book can be ordered from Haymarket Books, 206 pages, special offer, 40% price reduction, US$11.37.

New book edited by Mike Taber

The book is an outgrowth of many years of collaboration between its editor, Mike Taber, and John Riddell on a project documenting the record of the early years of the international socialist movement.

Riddell is the general editor, with Taber, of the Communist Publishing Project, a series of 12 volumes, launched in 1983, presenting newly translated documents and resolutions of the international revolutionary socialist movement from 1907 to 1923. Eight volumes have been published; four are in preparation. 

In his introduction to the first book in the series, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International — Documents 1907-1916, Riddell wrote: “In 1874, two years before the final dissolution of the First International, [Friederich] Engels expressed the firm opinion that ‘the next International—after Marx’s writings have exerted their influence for some years—will be directly communist and will candidly proclaim our principles’. This was not to be the case as quickly as Engels had hoped. An International that was ‘directly communist’ would not be founded until 1919.”

The founding of the Second International in 1889 did mark an advance toward winning the international workers movement to a consistently revolutionary perspective. However, the Second International shattered in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, the first worldwide inter-imperialist war. A majority of the parties belonging to the Second International abandoned the positions of proletarian internationalism previously adopted and backed their own individual capitalist classes in supporting the war.

Nevertheless, the resolutions the Second International debated and adopted prior to 1914 remain a resource for those studying the socialist movement’s history and objectives. Many of the topics dealt withwar and militarism, immigration, trade unions and labor legislation, women’s rights, colonialism, socialist strategy and tacticsremain just as relevant today.

The material below consists of four short resolutions that can be found in Under the Socialist Banner and an introductory note by Mike Taber. World-Outlook is publishing it to promote this important book. We believe the political ideas outlined below will be of interest to our readers.

The document that follows was first published July 19, 2021, on the website “John Riddell: Marxist Essays and Commentary” (johnriddell.com). It is republished by permission. The original can be found here.


Introductory Note by Mike Taber

Should socialists accept positions as ministers in capitalist governments? What stance should they take toward bourgeois parties?  These questions, which remain the subject of debate today, have aroused heated controversies in the socialist movement for over 120 years. The Second (or “Socialist”) International, formed in 1889, took up this question at its congresses in 1900 and 1904.

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938)

An examination of these debates is now possible through the lens of the resolutions adopted at Second International congresses. All of these resolutions are now available in the just-published book, Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International, 1889-1912, on sale for $11.37 from Haymarket books.

The debate on socialist participation in bourgeois governments was sparked by the so-called Millerand Affair in France. Alexandre Millerand was a member of the Independent Socialist group in the French parliament. In June 1899 he accepted a position in the capitalist government as minister of commerce. This move led to a wide-ranging exchange of views in the working-class movement, given that socialists had always rejected accepting posts in capitalist governments.

Karl Kautsky, the Second International’s generally acknowledged authority on Marxism, presented a resolution to the 1900 Paris Congress that condemned socialist participation in capitalist governments under “normal” circumstances, but left the door open to it under “exceptional” ones. “If in some special instance the political situation necessitates this dangerous expedient,” Kautsky’s resolution stated, “that is a question of tactics and not of principle.” Counterposed to the Kautsky resolution was one put forward by Jules Guesde and Enrico Ferri, opposing such participation under all circumstances.

A long debate on this question took place in a congress commission and on the floor of the congress itself. At the debate’s conclusion, the Kautsky resolution received 29 votes, against 9 for the Guesde-Ferri resolution. Nevertheless, the ambiguities of the Kautsky resolution, and the dissatisfaction these engendered, meant that the question would inevitably come up again. It did so at the next international congress in 1904, held in Amsterdam.

There were two main counterposed resolutions at the Amsterdam Congress. The first of these was based on a resolution adopted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany at its 1903 congress in Dresden. That resolution, drafted by August Bebel and Karl Kautsky, unambiguously condemned all socialist participation in capitalist governments. At the Amsterdam Congress, this same resolution was put forward by the Socialist Party of France, and came to be called the “Dresden-Amsterdam resolution.”

Counterposed to this was a resolution presented by Victor Adler and Émile Vandervelde. Endorsing the ambiguities of the Kautsky resolution adopted four years earlier, the Adler-Vandervelde resolution stated, “That the Social Democracy, in regard of the dangers and the inconveniences of the participation in the government in bourgeois society, brings to mind and confirms the Kautsky resolution, passed at the International Congress of Paris in 1900.”

Émile Vandervelde (1866-1938)

The debate over these counterposed resolutions dominated the Amsterdam Congress proceedings, highlighted by a verbal duel between August Bebel, on behalf of the Dresden-Amsterdam resolution, and Jean Jaurès, speaking for the Adler-Vandervelde resolution.

In the congress commission taking up the question, the Adler-Vandervelde resolution was rejected by a vote of 24 to 16. The Dresden-Amsterdam resolution was then adopted by 27 votes to 3, with 10 abstentions. But when the question reached the congress floor, the vote was considerably closer. The Adler-Vandervelde resolution failed—but only by a tie vote of 21 to 21. The Dresden-Amsterdam resolution was then adopted by a vote of 25 to 5, with 12 abstentions.

While the Dresden-Amsterdam resolution did not specifically criticize the 1900 resolution, it annulled a major piece of the earlier document by eliminating that resolution’s “exceptional circumstances” clause. But the closeness of the congress vote indicated the growing strength of the opportunist wing within the Second International.

All told, these debates shine a spotlight on the strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions of the Second International.


I. PARIS CONGRESS, 1900

Socialists in Public Office and Alliances with Bourgeois Parties

KAUTSKY RESOLUTION — Approved

I.

In a modern democratic state the conquest of political power by the proletariat cannot be effected by a coup de main, but must be the result of a long and toilsome work of proletarian organization, political and economic, of the physical and moral regeneration of the working class, and of the gradual conquest of municipal and legislative assemblies.

But in a country where governmental power is centralized, it cannot be conquered in a fragmentary manner.

The entry of an isolated socialist into a bourgeois government cannot be regarded as the normal commencement of the conquest of political power, but only as a compulsory expedient, transitory and exceptional.

If in some special instance the political situation necessitates this dangerous expedient, that is a question of tactics and not of principle; the International Congress is not called upon to pronounce on that point. But in any case, the entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government affords no hope of good results for the militant proletariat unless the great majority of the Socialist Party approves of this step and the socialist minister remains the delegate of his party.

In the contrary case, in which such a minister becomes independent of the party or represents only a section of it, his intervention in a bourgeois ministry threatens disorganization and confusion to the militant proletariat, threatens to weaken rather than to strengthen it, and hinders rather than advances the proletarian conquest of public powers.

In any case, the Congress is of the opinion that, even in the most exceptional circumstances, a socialist ought to quit the ministry whenever the latter gives any proof of partiality in the struggle between capital and labor. No minister delegated by the Socialist Party can continue to participate in the government if the party concludes that this government has not observed absolute impartiality in the relations between capital and labor.

II

The Congress reasserts that the class struggle forbids all alliances with any fraction whatever of the capitalist class.

Even admitting that exceptional circumstances may sometimes render coalitions necessary (without confusion of party or tactics), these coalitions, which the party should seek to reduce to the smallest possible number until they entirely disappear, must not be permitted except insofar as their necessity is recognized by the district or national organization to which the groups concerned belong.


GUESDE-FERRI RESOLUTION (1900) — Rejected

The Fifth International Congress, meeting in Paris, declares again that the conquest of public power refers to the political expropriation of the capitalist class, whether this expropriation takes place peacefully or violently.

As a result, under the capitalist system, it allows only for the occupation of elected positions that the [Socialist] Party can capture by means of its own forces, that is, workers organized in a class party. It thereby prohibits any socialist participation in bourgeois governments, against which socialists must remain in irreconcilable opposition.


II. AMSTERDAM CONGRESS, 1904

ON TACTICS (DRESDEN-AMSTERDAM RESOLUTION) — Approved

August Bebel (1890-1913)

The Congress condemns most energetically the revisionist attempts, in the direction of changing our tried and victorious tactics based on the class struggle, and of replacing the conquest of the public powers through the supreme struggle with the bourgeoisie by a policy of concession to the established order.

The consequence of such revisionist tactics would be to change us from a party seeking the swiftest possible transformation of bourgeois society into socialist society—from a party strictly revolutionary in the best sense of the word—into a party contenting itself with the reform of bourgeois society.

Therefore the Congress, convinced, contrary to the present revisionist tendencies, that class antagonisms, far from diminishing, are intensifying, declares:

1. That the party disclaims any responsibility whatever for the political and economic conditions based on capitalist production, and consequently could not approve any methods tending to maintain the ruling class in power.

2. That the Social Democracy could accept no share in the government within capitalist society, as was definitely declared by the Kautsky resolution adopted by the international congress of Paris in 1900.


ADLER-VANDERVELDE RESOLUTION (1904) — Rejected

The Congress affirms in the most strenuous way the necessity of maintaining unwaveringly our tried and glorious tactics based on the class war and shall never allow that the conquest of the political power in the teeth of the bourgeoisie shall be replaced by a policy of concession to the established order.

Jean Jaurès (1859-1914)

The result of this policy of concession would be to change a party that pursues the swiftest possible transformation of bourgeois society into a socialist society—consequently revolutionary in the best sense of the word—into a party that contents itself with reforming bourgeois society.

For this reason, the Congress, persuaded that class antagonisms, far from diminishing, increase continually, states:

1. That the party declines all responsibility whatsoever for the political and economic conditions based on capitalist production and consequently cannot approve of any means that tend to maintain in power the dominant class;

2. That the Social Democracy, in regard to the dangers and the inconveniences of the participation in the government in bourgeois society, brings to mind and confirms the Kautsky resolution, passed at the International Congress of Paris in 1900.

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