Congress of the Second International in Basel

24 Nov 1912 to 25 Nov 1912
  • Basel
Postcard for the Congress of the Second International, Basel, 1912
Postcard for the Congress of the Second International, Basel, 1912

An Extraordinary Congress of the Second (Socialist)  International (at the time, usually called simply the International or the New International) was held in Basel, Switzerland, on 24 and 25 November 1912 in response to the Balkan War.

The Congress was attended by 518 delegates representing socialist parties affiliated to the International. Almost every country in Europe was represented. Delegates included Edward (Edouard) Anseele (Belgium), Emile Vandervelde (Belgium), Jean Jaurès (France), Victor Adler (Austria), Keir Hardie (Britain), Hugo Haase (Germany), Karl Kautsky (Germany), Hermann Greulich (Switzerland)  and Alexandra Kollontai (Russia).

The afternoon of the first day of the Congress was marked by a march through the streets of Basel culminating in a public meeting in the cathedral, where the congress delegates were joined by the city government, the synod and various other dignataries [1].

People from Baden and Alsace, across the German border, came to Basel to join the march and extra trains were laid on from Berne and Zurich. The demonstration was led by a workers' cyclist association followed by children dressed in white and carrying palm leaves. 6000 people packed into the cathedral and 20-30,000 gathered outside.

Speaking in the cathedral, Jean Jaurès said:

"Capitalism is reflecting on the question: is war or peace more in its interests. The balance of destiny shifts in their trembling hands. And that is why the proleteriat throws its force into the balance on the side of peace.

...I recall the motto which Schiller inscribed as an epigram to his 'Song of the Bell': Vivos Voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango! Vivos voco: I call the living to resist the monster who would ravage the land. Mortuos plango: I weep for the countless dead, now buried in the east, whose rotting stench fills us with remorse. Fulgura frango: I will harness the thunderbolts of war now breaking across the skies."

The Basel Congress was intended as an emergency meeting ('ordinary' congresses of the International had been held every 2-3 years since 1889 ). It had been called on the authority of the International Socialist Bureau (ISB) - the permanent organising body of the International - at a meeting held in Brussels on 28-29 October, and then promoted through the demonstrations and mass meetings held across Europe on 17 November.

Congress of the Second International, Basel 1912
Congress of the Second International, Basel 1912

The task facing the Congress was to agree a unified reponse to the war, acceptable to all the diverse socialist parties that made up the International. Congresses in Stuttgart in 1907 and Copenhagen in 1910 had agreed on opposition to war, but had not been able to resolve the differences between those who wanted the International to call for a strike in the event of war, and those who believed that such a commitment was unrealistic and should not be made.

Opposition to a strike against war was particularly championed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), though a minority of SPD members, notably Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with this position. It seems from a letter that Lenin wrote to Georgi Plekhanov (a Russian represetative at the ISB) that he feared that the SPD intended to propose a statement that positively excluded strike action. Lenin regarded this as "inadmissible."

The strategy of a strike against war was favoured by the French Section of the Worker's International (SFIO) and by Britain's Independent Labour Party (ILP).  French socialists had already, at an extraordinary congress on 21 November, included "a general strike and insurrection" amongst the action that should be taken on the outbreak of war, but they also asked their delegates to the Basel Congress to "see to it that mutual and joint actions of the national sections prevails" - a hint to delegates that they should be prepared to compromise in the interest of unity.

The ILP's position on strikes was a little complicated. Many leading ILP figures disapproved  strongly of the wave of strikes that had been taking place in Britain for the last year or so. However, ILP MP Keir Hardie - a long-standing proponent of the strike against war -  had in May expressed support for syndicalism and appears to have been respected by miners for the support he gave them in industrial disputes.

These difficulties were worked out quietly by a special commission, who drafted a manifesto that was put before the Congress on its second day. The manifesto did not include a call for a strike in the event of war, but it did urge "the working classes and their parliamentary representatives" to "utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule." In its final paragraph, it appealed to "proletarians and Socialists" to "use every means that the organization and the strength of the proletariat place at your disposal."

De Kerstklokkenluider van Bazel
De Kerstklokkenluider van Bazel

The manifesto recalled that "the Franco-German War was followed by the revolutionary outbreak of the Commune, that the Russo-Japanese War set into motion the revolutionary energies of the peoples of the Russian Empire." Many readers would have taken this as a very strong hint that insurrection was being encouraged, even if it was not explicitly called for.

Socialists in different countries were assigned different tasks in the manifesto. It called on socialists in the Balkan countries already at war to "resist not only the renewal of the old enmities between Serbs, Bulgars, Rumanians, and Greeks, but also every violation of the Balkan peoples now in the opposite camp, the Turks and the Albanians" and to "fight against every violation of the rights of these people and to proclaim the fraternity of all Balkans peoples including the Albanians, the Turks, and the Rumanians, against the unleashed national chauvinism."

This was by no means a light burden in the prevailing circumstances. When war eventually overtook the people of the great powers in 1914, some of the most prominent socialist leaders in those countries failed utterly to show a comparable spirit of solidarity.

The manifesto insisted that "the most important task within the action of the International devolves upon the working class of Germany, France, and England." It called on "the workers of these countries to demand of their governments that they refuse any support either to Austria-Hungary or Russia, that they abstain from any intervention in the Balkan troubles and maintain absolute neutrality."

Jean Jaurès - well-known as an advocate of the strike against war - read the manifesto out to the plenary session of the Congress and gave it his backing. When Keir Hardie and Edouard Vaillant addressed the Congress, they each took care to point out that the manifesto did not exclude strike action - perhaps an indication that some effort had been needed to secure this position.

The manifesto was agreed unanimously.

Lenin (who was not present at the Congress) seems to have been cautiously satisfied with it. According to Zinoviev, he said after reading the manifesto:

"They have given us a large promissory note: let us see how they will meet it."

The congress must have been deeply impressive to those who took part in it. Anyone who participated in the demonstrations against the Iraq war 90 years later would probably have felt perfectly at home in the hope and pageantry and fear of the march through the streets of Basel on 24 November 1912.

Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian delegate to the 1912 congress, told a friend afterwards [2]:

"One felt the need to frighten Europe, to threaten it with the 'red specter,' revolution, in case the governments should risk a war. And standing on the table which served as a platform I did threaten Europe.

...It was temendous, you know, the protest of the peoples against war, and Jaurès' marvelous voice, and the wonderful and hoary head of my beloved Keir Hardie, and the great organ, and the revolutionary songs, the meetings... I am still dizzy with all I have lived through."