The late-19th to early-20th century period of “imperialism” resulted in the First World War, which was, of course, the crisis of Marxism: the collapse of the Second International. The question is how Marxism was bound up with the imperialist phase of capitalism, and how the crisis of Marxism in WWI was connected to the other results of this period of history. In other words, how did the crisis of Marxism itself share in the historical moment of the emergence and crisis of state capitalism, understood by Marxists at the time as “imperialism”? For the Marxists of this time, WWI was the crisis of capitalism in its period of “revolution,” which was signaled, in an inaugural sense, by the Russian Revolution of 1905. Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky regarded this period as one confronted by the choice of “socialism or barbarism,” or, more specifically, the “civil war” of the workers against the capitalists or a “world war” between imperialist states.
Critical Marxism faces two ways: it is a tool of ideological struggle within Marxism itself, at first most especially directed against the determinism and wooden evolutionism of the Second International, as well as a distinct critique of capitalist society. But if Critical Marxism is a later dimension, if it is responding to the prior failures of Scientific Marxism, there is, also, in Scientific Marxism itself, an earlier and prior rejection of objective philosophical idealism and of utopian socialism. This is exhibited by the work of Marx and Engels themselves, whose polemic against idealism moved their theoretical structure into the orbit of modern science—at first, most especially, Darwinism—and under its influence. Marxism crystallized into a political movement, under the tutelage of Engels and Kautsky after Marx's death.
Critical Marxism emerged following World War I, the October Revolution's success, and the German revolution's failure. Its character is partly an effect of a prior dominance of Scientific Marxism in the Second International. Critical Marxism is thus in part a reaction against that prior Scientific Marxism and a polemical critique of it. In our view, then, Critical Marxism is not to be understood as the ideology generated by (however serviceable it is in), the industrially backward areas of the world; it is, rather, the newer Marxism of a younger generation of Marxists, whose cohort developed in opposition to the Marxist establishment-in-being around the turn of the century.
While on the level of social theory [Rosa] Luxemburg came closer to Marx's intentions than anyone before her, on the level of philosophy she shared the worst aspects of the determinism of social democracy. Hence, she could not even see beyond the rigid juxtaposition of freedom and necessity, subject and object, in her social theory. The question of the dialectic implicitly arises from this problem.
The history of the Marxism of the Second International is not over and done with. Theirs is the classical version of the theory: no politically significant Marxism, such as Bolshevism, Trotskyism or Maoism, departed from them on the most general questions of philosophy and social theory. Only an investigation that is both social and intellectual history could fully show how and why a version of the theory that hardly exhausts, and in part falsifies, the theoretical project of Karl Marx managed to express the immediate interests of the industrial working class—the social stratum to which all political Marxisms have been inevitably drawn—and why the philosophy of praxis that projected a link between the objective possibilities of the present and a liberated future almost always has been politically irrelevant. Only a new social theory, signs of which are already present, could show under what conditions the philosophy of praxis could contribute to its own political relevance.
It is because of calls by the Second International that we celebrate International Workers Day on May Day, and International Women’s Day on 8 March. May Day was launched as part of an international campaign for an eight-hour working day. Workers across Europe stopped work and demonstrated on 1 May 1890. Governments were forced to recognise the day as a national holiday. As capitalism underwent a period of stability at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the parties of the Second International were able to gain legal recognition and win some major reforms. As a result, many began to draw the conclusion that capitalism could be reformed to benefit the working class.
The Socialist International, known as the Second International, was established in 1889. It brought together socialist groups from across the world, the most successful being the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). These organisations were generally well rooted in the working class. They spoke of the need for revolution, and were involved in organising unions and contesting elections. The SPD participated in every aspect of workers’ lives, even organising socialist choirs and socialist gyms.
The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 and the national and revolutionary crises which the War engendered however, threw the [Second] International into crisis. A group of Social-Democrats, minorities within their own parties, met at Zimmerwald in 1915 to try to work out a joint platform of opposition to the slaughter taking place around them. The Zimmerwald Conference failed to unite all the Social Democrats or end the War, but did bring together a Left wing which supported the Russian Revolution and laid the basis for the Third (Communist) International.
In 1880, the German Social Democratic Party supported the call of its Belgian comrades, to call an international socialist congress in 1881. The little town of Chur was chosen and the Belgian socialists, the French Parti Ouvrier, the German social democracy, and the Swiss social democracy, participated in the preparations for the congress which would lead to the founding of the Socialist International.
Unlike the First, the Socialist International was made up of political parties with properly elected leaderships, political programs and membership bases in each country. The national sections of the International built trade unions, contested elections, and were deeply involved in the life of the working class in each country.
The first attempt to overcome the division in workers’ ranks took place, quite unexpectedly, in Hungary, only two weeks after the Comintern’s formation. In a country shaken by war, economic collapse and revolution, the head of state (a pro-capitalist aristocrat) asked the Socialists, a non-revolutionary party aligned with the Second International, to form a government. Fearing Communist influence among workers in the capital, the Socialists asked the newly formed Communist Party (CP) to join in a coalition government—and, moreover, to seal the pact through an organic fusion of the two parties.
The Comintern’s united front policy sought to address a profound, intractable split in the world socialist movement. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the majority leaderships of the main socialist parties—in Britain, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary—supported the war efforts of their respective capitalist ruling classes, thus bringing about the collapse of the Socialist or Second International. An anti-war current soon took shape in the working class, and its influence was reflected in mass demonstrations, strikes, mutinies and insurrections.