The First International



The main legacy of the International Workers' Association was the irreducible defense of internationalism

“The fall of the Paris Commune had sealed the first phase of the European labor movement and the end of the First International. From then on, a new phase began. The spontaneous revolutions (…) the fighting on the barricades, after which the proletariat increasingly fell back into its passive state, were then replaced by the systematic daily struggle, by the use of bourgeois parliamentarism, organization of the masses, union between the economic struggle and the political struggle, union of the socialist ideal with the persistent defense of immediate daily interests. (…) The German social democratic party became the representative, the champion and the guardian of this new method (Rosa Luxemburg, The crisis of social democracy).

The anniversary of the founding of the First International, on September 28, 1864, is a good opportunity to remember a theoretical lesson. The main legacy of the International Workers' Association was the irreducible defense of internationalism.

A theoretical lesson may seem like an abstract topic. But it is only a matter of time before errors in theory manifest serious political consequences. The vote on war credits by the French and German parties of the Second International in 1914 was the first great betrayal of internationalist principles, in the name of Marxism. But is it appropriate to classify the renunciation of internationalism as a betrayal?

As is well known, the German leaders who defended national unity to win the war won a majority in the International and, however absurd this may seem today, they tried to base their tactics on the authority of Marx and the positions he defended in the First International. about the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71.[I]

Internationalists were a tiny minority. They met at the Zimmerwald conference in Switzerland. The epigraph with the quote from Rosa Luxemburg explains that, with the world war, the gradualist strategy that went down in history as “the German method” collapsed. Internationalists courageously stood against the current. His courage remains an inspiration to Marxists in the XNUMXst century.

The dominant thesis in left-wing common sense argues, even today, that parties are, to a greater or lesser extent, the expression of the disposition of the classes they represent. This type of determinism argues that each nation has the government it deserves, and that each class has the party it deserves. For those who defend this perspective, minority currents that do not adapt to the pressure of the transitional moods of the working class and the people would be condemned, indefinitely, to isolation.

Next, a representative fragment of this type of “fatalism” prepared by Jacob Gorender, who had, among other good habits, intellectual integrity, that is, the criterion of going all the way in his conclusions: “The falsity of explanations is also evident. of revolutionary failures through the theory of betrayal. Marxist-inspired literature very often attributes the frustration of mass movements and political struggles to “traitors”, individual or collective. There is a repetitive scheme, which Trotskyist publicists make extensive use of, which overvalues ​​the impulse of the masses, in any case, and tries to convince that the paralysis of the movement was due to the betrayal of social-democratic, communist, Stalinist leaders or parties, etc. . The oldest and one of the most famous uses of such a scheme is to attribute the failure of the Socialist International, at the outbreak of the First World War, to the “betrayal” of European social democratic parties, mainly those of Germany and Austria. What never arises, in this case, is that the working class of these countries must be responsible in the first place for the alleged betrayal. In its great mass, the European working class preferred to defend its national State in the war, renouncing the revolutionary project that would force it to clash with it. In fact, it was the workers' enthusiastic support for their governments' policies that pushed the social democratic parties to exchange defense of peace for participation in imperialist war. Stating that the working class was deceived, as is so often done, leads to the conclusion that it is nothing more than a collection of idiots devoid of their own reflection and decision-making autonomy. With this I do not intend to dispute the influence, positive or negative, of the leaders, whatever they may have been. I only strive to avoid its current absolutization and replace it with the appropriate relativization.[ii]

Firstly, the analysis that denounces the betrayal of the German SPD was not only by Trotsky, but by Lenin. This ultra-objectivist interpretation raises questions of two distinct natures: historical and theoretical. The first concerns the assessment of the behavior of the popular masses in the face of the First World War.

It is an unquestionable fact that the majority of the European proletariat supported the belligerent policy of their governments at the beginning of the war, and this mood exerted enormous pressure on their parties. But it is also true that not all the working classes in Europe followed the path of the Germans and French: the Swiss and Italians did not, for example.

More importantly, in a short time, that is, in four years, the atrocities demanded by trench warfare shifted the opinion of the majority of the working class from enthusiastic support to hesitation. And then to open hostility towards war. It is vital to understand what the dynamics of the facts were, in their causal articulation, as a whole: the same German working class that succumbed to the nationalist appeal at the beginning of the War, carried out in 1918 a devastating democratic political revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and, proclaiming the Republic , removed the USSR from isolation. She did not remain prostrate, indefinitely, before the State.

As always, in an evaluation of a historical process, it is necessary to avoid losing sight of the entire process. As if it were not common for the exploited and oppressed classes to act against their interests. Not only do they do so, within certain limits, and for a certain period of time, but this is a pattern. But only until events demonstrate, through the living force of the impact of their consequences, who is benefiting and who is being harmed. It's nothing exceptional. This is one of the most frequent historical regularities and that is why history has such a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Wage workers have to go through the cruel school of political-practical learning to build an awareness of where their class interests are located.

The second question is more complex, and concerns the relations of the proletariat with its leadership: that the SPD, German social democracy, adapted to the pressures of its social base is an incontrovertible fact. The SPD did nothing but what the majority of workers who supported it expected it to do. Is it then reasonable to conclude that Jacob Gorender suggests that the theory of “betrayals” would be, historically, of little relevance?

The theoretical theme is crucial, and Jacob Gorender had the merit of provoking the discussion. The theoretical question, as he formulates it, remains only stated, but not resolved. Why? The responsibilities of social subjects cannot absolve the responsibilities of political subjects. These are two different political and moral dimensions.

Political parties are instruments of struggle for power. The struggle between classes is also expressed in the form of the struggle between parties. But parties, including left-wing parties, can develop their own interests, different from the interests of the class they intend to represent. The German social democracy of 1914 created an apparatus of tens of thousands of union officials and parliamentarians who had material privileges far superior to the working class way of life. When the SPD voted for war credits, it was taking its adaptation to the Kaiser's regime to the extreme, which maintained the Reichtag open and functioning, while ten million human beings walked to their deaths.

The social bureaucratization and political degeneration of socialist left parties had its pioneering expression in the German SPD, but later became an international and historical pattern. It refers to the difficulty for workers to control their organizations. Trotskyists characterize this process as a leadership crisis.

Crisis of leadership means that the working class has immense difficulties in building organizations that are up to the challenges that the defense of their interests requires. Most of the leadership that the class produces in its struggles are neutralized by repression, corrupted by co-option, or demoralized by defeats. The betrayal of the interests of the bourgeoisie by one of its leaders is an anomaly, something unthinkable. But the betrayal of the interests of those who make a living from wage labor is something trivial and even routine. Succumb to hostile social pressures

Especially in defensive situations, a transitory mismatch appears, but it can consume years of experience depending on the seriousness of the defeats, between the objective needs of the working class, and the degree of consciousness, that is, the state of mind, the mood , the spirit, the disposition that the class has to defend its interests. This lag can be very accentuated for the well-known reason that the proletariat always has to overcome an enormous number of material, cultural, political and ideological obstacles to assert itself as an independent class.

Liberal democracy is not a political regime of struggle between equals: the propertied classes fight to exercise and preserve dominance and control over material life, and also over the cultural and political life of workers, in conditions of superiority that are incomparable. The bourgeoisie fights for hegemony over the whole of society under the banner of its values ​​and interests, which are always presented as the interests of everyone: it does not just aspire to dominate, it wants to direct.

Managing means having such hegemony that even the leaders that workers trust most position themselves accepting the limits of order. The role of Marxists in workers' organizations must always be to defend the interests of workers. Even when the vast majority of workers do not understand it, or do not find the strength to act in defense of themselves.

Therefore, the simple determinist formula that proposes resolving the issue of political representation with the acquittal of the leaders – the leaders did what their voters wanted – is sterile. The problem is immensely more complex, because workers expect their management to see beyond what they themselves were able to perceive.

But the balance of errors is only imposed in the face of terrible events that demand enormous sacrifices, that subvert the circumstances of daily life to such an extent that they make the great masses, under normal conditions, politically, disinterested, enter the stage of history as main characters . These circumstances are revolutionary situations.

The currents of the socialist left do not act outside the social pressures of politics: they are inserted in an unequal economic-social order and, therefore, express a greater or lesser capacity to resist the pressures of the ruling classes of society. They will be more resistant to the extent that they are closer to grassroots work, more present in struggles, more educated in Marxism, and more internationalist.

There is thus a non-transferable moral and political responsibility, in a sphere different from the masses, which is typical of political organizations and their leadership. In the case of parties that claim the cause of socialism, this responsibility must be considered, historically, even greater, given the enormous difficulty of a class that is simultaneously exploited, materially, oppressed, culturally, and dominated, politically, to build its independence.

In this sense, when the SPD supported war credits, and defended to its social base that the interests of the proletariat were inseparable from the interests of Germany, the SPD betrayed the workers. Its leaders cannot be excused for the transitory circumstances that led the majority of the class to have the same opinion. A few years later, the majority of the class realized that their interests were not the same as those of their government. But they had to do it almost alone, through experience, because they did not find a warning in their powerful party.

While the SPD leaders remained in the Reichtag, the parliament, Rosa Luxemburg went to prison. But she made history. She defended alone, with her Spartakist comrades, the banner of internationalism.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). []


[I] This position of Marx was recalled by the majority of the SPD parliamentary group to vote on war credits in 1914, as if Marx had ever accepted that the interests of Germany were inseparably confused with the interests of the German working class. As will be confirmed in the following fragments, Marx's recitals are much more complex: “If the German working class allows the current war to lose its strictly defensive character and degenerate into a war against the French people, triumph or defeat it will always be a disaster.”MARX, Karl. “First Manifesto of the General Council of the International Workers' Association on the Franco-Prussian War” In: Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, volume 2, p. 54. Even clearer, in this other fragment, the criterion of strict unity in the military field, preserving political independence, that is, delimiting itself from Bismarck's camp, and a simply visionary analysis of the danger of a policy of annexations that would be the seed of a new war, but with a much higher historical cost. Unfortunately, Marx was right. The Verdun cemetery and its half a million graves are in Alsace, annexed by Bismarck in 1871: “Whatever the development of Louis Bonaparte's war with Prussia, the bells were already tolling in Paris for the Second Empire. It will end as it began: as a parody. But let us not forget that it was the ruling classes of Europe that allowed Louis Bonaparte to represent for eighteen years the cruel farce of the restored Empire. On Germany's part, the war is a defensive war, but who put Germany in the trance of having to defend itself? Who allowed Luis Bonaparte to wage war against her? Prussia! It was Bismarck who conspired with Louis Bonaparte himself, with the aim of crushing popular opposition within his country and annexing Germany to the Hohenzollern dynasty (…) The Tsar's preponderant influence in Europe has its roots in his traditional influence over Germany ( …) Do Teuton patriots really believe that the best way to guarantee freedom and peace in Germany is to force France to throw itself into the arms of Russia? If the luck of arms, the arrogance of victory and dynastic intrigues lead Germany to plunder French territory, only two paths will open before it: either to convert itself at all costs into an open instrument of Russian expansion, or, after brief truce, prepare for another “defensive” war, not one of those new-style “localized” wars, but a war of races, a war against the combined Latin and Slavic races.” MARX, Karl, Second Manifesto of the General Council of the International Workers' Association on the Franco-Prussian War, in: Selected Works, São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, volume 2, p.60/1.

[ii] GORENDER, Jacob. Marxism without utopia. São Paulo, Ática, 1999. p.41.

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