Skip to main content Accessibility help

Democratic Politics and the League of Nations: The Labour and Socialist International as a Protagonist of Interwar Internationalism


The Labour and Socialist International (LSI) was a major vehicle for transnational socialist cooperation during the interwar years and thus seemed to continue the traditions of socialist internationalism. In the realm of international relations, however, it championed key tenets of liberal internationalism. The LSI supported the idea of a League of Nations and embraced the notion of a world order based upon democratic nation-states. While it criticised some aspects of the international system, its overall emphasis was on reform rather than revolution. The article sheds light on the wider phenomenon of interwar internationalism by tracing the LSI's relationship with the League of Nations, with the politics of peace more generally and with the competing internationalism of the communists.

Hide All

1 ‘Resolution of the Conference: The League of Nations’, in Resolutions of the Berne Conference, February 1919 (London: ILP Pamphlets, 1919), 3–4. For detailed accounts of the conference, see Nishikawa, Masoa, Socialists and International Actions for Peace 1914–1923 (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2010), 7385; Mayer, Arno, Politics and Democracy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counter-Revolution at Versailles (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967), 373409.

2 Friedemann, Peter and Hölscher, Lucian, ‘Internationale, International, Internationalismus’ in Brunner, Otto, ed., Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 3 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982), 367–97.

3 Geyer, Martin and Paulmann, Johannes, ‘Introduction: The Mechanics of Internationalism’, in idem, eds., The Mechanics of Internationalism: Culture, Society, and Politics from the 1840s to the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 125.

4 Osterhammel, Jürgen, Die Verwandlung der Welt: Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2009).

5 Hobsbawm, Eric, ‘Working-Class Internationalism’, in Holthoon, Frits van and der Linden, Marcel van, eds., Internationalism in the Labour Movement, 1830–1940 (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 810.

6 Mazower, Mark, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (London: Penguin, 2012), 60.

7 Pugh, Michael, Liberal Internationalism: The Interwar Movement for Peace in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), 2.

8 McCarthy, Helen, The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c. 1918–1945 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011); Guieu, Jean-Michel, Le Rameau et le glaive: les militants français pour la SDN (Paris: Presse de la fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 2008); Birebent, Christian, Militants de la paix et de la SDN: les mouvements de soutien à la Société des Nations en France et au Royaume-Uni, 1918–1925 (Paris: Harmattan, 2007).

9 Mulligan, William, The Great War for Peace (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 243.

10 Cole, G. D. H., Communism and Social Democracy, 1914–1931 (History of Socialist Thought 3) (London: Macmillan, 1958); Braunthal, Julius, History of the International 1914–1943 (London: Nelson, 1967); Kowalski, Werner (as coordinator of an authors’ collective), Geschichte der Sozialistischen Arbeiter-Internationale (1923–1940) (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1985); Dankelmann, Otfried, ‘Vor der deutschen Katastrophe: Zur Politik der Sozialistischen Arbeiter-Internationale vor dem 30. Januar 1933’, Jahrbuch für Geschichte, 32 (1985), 351417.

11 Pedersen, Susan, ‘Back to the League of Nations’, American Historical Review, 112, 4 (2007), 1091–117.

12 Steiner, Zara's landmark works on the period do not discuss the LSI: The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919–1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); The Triumph of the Dark: European International History, 1933–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Marks's shorter account mentions the LSI in passing: Marks, Sally, The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe, 1918–1933 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), 65.

13 See, for example, Gorman, Daniel, The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Iriye, Akira, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

14 Imlay, Talbot, ‘“The Policy of Social Democracy is Self-Consciously Internationalist”: The German Social Democratic Party's Internationalism after 1945’, The Journal of Modern History, 86, 1 (2014), 81123; idem, , ‘International Socialism and Decolonization during the 1950s: Competing Rights and the Postcolonial Order’, American Historical Review, 118, 4 (2013), 1105–32.

15 Iriye, Global Community, 29. For further examples, see Gorman, Emergence of International Society; Laqua, Daniel, ed., Internationalism Reconfigured: Transnational Ideas and Movements Between the World Wars (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011).

16 Haupt, Georges, Socialism and the Great War: The Collapse of the Second International (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); Joll, James, The Second International, 1889–1914, rev. edn. (London: Routledge, 1974), 161–86.

17 Emile Vandervelde and Louis de Brouckère to Arthur Henderson, 19 Aug. 1918, folder LSI 2.2, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, People's History Museum, Manchester.

18 Brügel, Johann Wolfgang, ed., Friedrich Adler vor dem Ausnahmegericht: 18. und 19. Mai 1917 (Vienna: Europa-Verlag, 1967), 195 and 104 respectively.

19 Goethem, Geert Van, The Amsterdam International: The World of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), 1913–1945 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 31–2 and 45.

20 Henderson, Arthur, The Peace Terms (London: National Labour Press, 1919), 45.

21 Kowalski, Geschichte der Sozialistischen Arbeiter-Internationalen, 41–2.

22 Records of the Inter-Allied Socialist Conference, London, 17 Sept. 1918, folder LSI 1, Labour History Archive and Study Centre.

23 Friedrich Adler to Emile Vandervelde, 8 Feb. 1930, folder EV/III/75, ‘correspondence entre Emile Vandervelde et Friedrich Adler (1929–1937)’, Institut Emile Vandervelde, Brussels.

24 William Gillies to Friedrich Adler, 4 Apr. 1930, ibid.

25 Collette, Christine, The International Faith: Labour's Attitudes to European Socialism, 1918–39 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 155–61. See also Second Congress of the Labour & Socialist International at Marseilles, 22nd to 27th August, 1925 (The Labour Party: London, 1925), 99.

26 Sluga, Glenda, The Nation, Psychology, and International Politics, 1870–1919 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006), 125.

27 Mayer, Arno, Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917–1918 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959); idem, Politics and Democracy of Peacemaking.

28 Tilly, Charles and Wood, Lesley, Social Movements, 1768–2008, 2nd edn (Boulder CO: Paradigm, 2009), 34; Eley, Geoff, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), xi.

29 The Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress, Memorandum on War Aims: Approved by the Special Conference of the Labour Movement held at the Central Hall, Westminster, London, on Friday, December 28th, 1917 (London: Labour Party, 1917), 3.

30 ‘Resolution of the Conference: The League of Nations’, 4.

31 Cole, Communism and Social Democracy, 296–7.

32 Leventhal, F. M., Arthur Henderson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 85.

33 Henderson, Arthur, The League of Nations and Labour (London: Oxford University Press, 1918), 10 and 12.

34 Joint Research Department of the TUC General Council and the Labour Party Executive Council, ‘Labour and the League of Nations: The Need for a League Foreign Policy’, file 3083/1, Archives of the Sozialistische Arbeiterinternationale / Labour and Socialist International (hereafter: LSI Archives), International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

35 ‘An die Mitglieder der Kommission für die Fragen der Demokratisierung des Völkerbundes’, 26 July 1928, file 850/1, LSI Archives.

36 The Draft Convention originated in a German proposal of 1928; in 1930, the League's Arbitration and Security Committee discussed the document but did not reach an agreement. See ‘Report of the Commission for the Problem of the League of Nations to the Executive of the L.S.I.’, 1 Sept. 1930, file 851/21, LSI Archives.

37 See e.g. the debates surrounding the Geneva Protocol on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes: Pugh, Liberal Internationalism, 34–41.

38 Steiner, Lights That Failed, 581.

39 Tosstorff, Reiner, ‘Albert Thomas, the ILO and the IFTU: A Case of Mutual Benefit?’, in Daele, Jasmien Van, García, Magaly Rodríguez, Goethem, Geert Van and der Linden, Marcel van, eds., Writing ILO Histories: Essays on the International Labour Organization and its Impact on the World During the Twentieth Century (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), 94. For recent research on the ILO, see also Kott, Sandrine and Droux, Joëlle, eds., Globalizing Social Rights: The International Labour Organization and Beyond (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013).

40 Konni Zilliacus to Adolf Sturmthal, 19 Dec. 1929, file 3001, LSI Archives.

41 Konni Zilliacus, ‘The Briand Memorandum: Advantages and Difficulties’ (received 11 June 1930), in ibid. See also Zilliacus to Sturmthal, 16 June 1930.

42 Pasture, Patrick, ‘The Interwar Origins of International Labour's European Commitment (1919–1934), Contemporary European History, 10, 2 (2001), 230.

43 Callahan, Kevin, Demonstration Culture: European Socialism and the Second International, 1889–1914 (Kibworth Beauchamp: Troubadour, 2010), 252–91.

44 Mazower, Mark, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

45 Cooper, Sandi, Patriotic Pacifism: Waging War on War in Europe, 1815–1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 8.

46 ‘Sozialistische Teilnehmer an den Konferenzen der interparlamentarischen Union’, file 3066, LSI Archives. An exception is Jean Jaurès's participation in the first Inter-Parliamentary Conference of 1889. The document also lists the French activist Ferdinand Buisson, but he was associated with the Radical Party and not a socialist.

47 Brock, Peter and Young, Nigel, Pacifism in the Twentieth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 113.

48 See files 3065–3070 (‘Interparlamentarische Union’), LSI Archives.

49 Friedrich Adler and Dr Leo Winter, ‘An die Sekretariate der der S.A.I. angeschlossenen Parteien’, 14 Aug. 1931, in ibid.

50 ‘Labour and the League of Nations: The Need for a League Foreign Policy’, file 3083/1, LSI Archives.

51 Albers, Martin, ‘Between the Crisis of Democracy and World Parliament: The Development of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in the 1920s’, Journal of Global History, 7, 2 (2012), 189209.

52 Zilliacus, ‘The Briand Memorandum’, 13.

53 ‘Resolution re. War and Militarism. Adopted at the Congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions held at Rome, April 1922’, docs. 46–8, papers of the London Bureau of the LSI, International Institute of Social History.

54 Van Goethem, Amsterdam International, 33.

55 Ibid., 49.

56 ‘Les Trois Internationales réclament l’évacuation de la Ruhr. Elles réclament en même temps les Réparations’, Journal de Charleroi, 30 Jan. 1923.

57 ‘The Situation in the Ruhr’, Interparliamentary Conference in the French Chamber of Deputies, 20 Mar. 1923, doc. 59, papers of the London Bureau of the LSI.

58 WILPF, ‘Possible Courses which might be taken through the Instrumentality of the League of Nations’ (January 1923), doc. 55, papers of the London Bureau of the LSI. On pacifist responses in 1923, see also Daniel Laqua, ‘Reconciliation and the Post-War Order: The Place of the Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte in Interwar Pacifism’, in idem, Internationalism Reconfigured, 213–14.

59 Lynch, Cecila, Beyond Appeasement: Interpreting Interwar Peace Movements in World Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 99.

60 Davies, Thomas, The Possibilities of Transnational Activism: The Campaign for Disarmament Between the Two World Wars (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

61 Rupp, Leila, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 218.

62 Webster, Andrew, ‘The Transnational Dream: Politicians, Diplomats and Soldiers in the League of Nations’ Pursuit of International Disarmament, 1920–1938’, Contemporary European History, 14, 4 (2005), 498–9.

63 Ibid., 506.

64 Friedrich Adler, ‘To the Secretariat of the Parties affiliated to the L.S.I. and to the Members of the Executive of the L.S.I.’, 22 Nov. 1927, file 763/4, LSI Archives.

65 Friedrich Adler, ‘To the National Centres affiliated to the I.F.T.U. and to the Parties affiliated to the L.S.I.’, 17 May 1931, file 777/13, LSI Archives.

66 Brockway, Fenner, Inside the Left: Thirty Years of Platform, Press, Prison and Parliament (London: Allen & Unwin, 1942), 170.

67 Friedrich Adler to Emile Vandervelde, 2 June 1931 in Henri La Fontaine Archives, folder HLF 031, Mundaneum, Mons.

68 Collette, The International Faith, 164.

69 Resolution of the Joint Disarmament Commission of the L.S.I. and the I.F.T.U., Paris, 24 August 1933 – for the International Socialist Conference of the LSI, Paris, 21–25 August 1933 (C 108/33) in files 758–78 (‘Abrüstungskommission’), LSI Archives.

70 Van Goethem, Amsterdam International, 50.

71 Leventhal, Henderson, 202–3.

72 de Brouckère, Louis et al., La Belgique pour la sécurité collective. Rassemblement universel pour la paix (Brussels: Comité national belge du R.U.P., 1936).

73 International Peace Campaign, World Peace Congress. Brussels, 3, 4, 5, 6 September 1936 (Brussels: R.U.P., 1936), 56.

74 Louis de Brouckère to Friedrich Adler, 9 Feb. 1936, Records of the Rassemblement Universel pour la Paix, folder 19 (‘Plan d’un rassemblement, octobre 1935 – janvier 1936’), International Institute of Social History.

75 Cole, Communism and Social Democracy, 36. See also Nation, R. Craig, War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989).

76 McDermott, Kevin and Agnew, Jeremy, The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1996); Rees, Tim and Thorpe, Andrew, eds., International Communism and the Communist International 1919–1943 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); Morgan, Kevin, Laporte, Norman and Worley, Matthew, eds., Bolshevism, Stalinism and the Comintern: Perspectives on Stalinization, 1917–1953 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008).

77 Majander, Mikko, ‘The Soviet View on Social Democracy: From Lenin to the End of the Stalin Era’, in Saarela, Tauno and Rentola, Kimmo, eds., Communism: National and International (Helsinki: Societas Historica Finlandiae, 1998), 74. For the nuances and diversity of communist policies and experiences in this period, see Worley, Matthew, ed., In Search of Revolution: International Communist Parties in the Third Period (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

78 Majander, ‘The Soviet View’, 79.

79 Mazower, No Enchanted Palace, 13. On the compatibility of notions of an imperial mission and support for the League of Nations, see Morefield, Jeanne, Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

80 ‘The Resolutions of the Congress of the Labour and Socialist International, 5th – 11th August 1925’, Bulletin of the Labour and Socialist International (Sept. 1928).

81 Cole, Communism and Social Democracy, 314.

82 League against Imperialism: British Section: Press Information Bulletin, 15 Sept. 1928.

83 Friedrich Adler to William Gillies, file 3050/65, LSI Archives.

84 Natoli, Claudia, ‘Pour une histoire comparée des organisations communistes de solidarité: le Secours ouvrier international et le Secours rouge international’, in Gotovich, José and Morelli, Anne, eds., Les Solidarités Internationales. Histoire et perspectives (Brussels: Labor, 2003), 1742; McMekeen, Sean, The Red Millionnaire: A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

85 ‘For the Meeting of the Executive of the L.S.I., September 1927’, file 3050, LSI Archives.

86 Fenner Brockway to Friedrich Adler, 8 Apr. 1927, folder 3050, LSI Archives.

87 Fenner Brockway, ‘The Coloured Peoples’ International’, The New Leader, 26 Aug. 1927.

88 Brockway, Inside the Left, 168.

89 Maxton's tenure ended in 1929. The official reason was his refusal to condemn the Labour government's Middle Eastern policy: ‘Mr Maxton Expelled: The Anti-Imperialist League's Action’, Glasgow Herald, 20 September 1929. However, Brockway's memoirs (s.a.) describe Maxton's removal as part of a communist takeover.

90 Brockway, Inside the Left, 165.

91 Perry, Mattt, ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson: Her Ideas, Movement and World (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 161–5.

92 Friedrich Adler to Emile Vandervelde, 8 July 1932, folder EV/III/75, ‘correspondance entre Emile Vandervelde et Friedrich Adler (1929–1937)’, Institut Emile Vandervelde, Brussels.

93 Van Goethem, Amsterdam International, 103. On the IFTU's communist rival, see Tosstorff, Reiner, Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920–1937 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2004).

94 Cecil's role in the International Peace Campaign is, for instance, discussed in Overy, Richard, The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 256–61.

95 See the list of patrons on the committee's circular letter of 20 Aug. 1935, file 15 (‘Comité international pour la defence du people éthopien [et de la paix], Paris 1935–1936’), records of the Rassemblement Universel pour la Paix, records of the Rassemblement Universel pour la Paix, International Institute of Social History.

96 Adami, [Romano Cocchi], ‘Die Aktion des Weltkomitees Amsterdam-Pleyel gegen den Krieg des italienischen Faschismus in Afrika’, Rundschau über Politik, Wirtschaft und Arbeiterbewegung, no. 43 (29 Aug. 1935) 1953.

97 Horn, Gerd-Rainer, European Socialists Respond to Fascism: Ideology, Activism and Contingency in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 27 and 3752.

98 Eley, Forging Democracy, 266. The term ‘Zimmerwaldism’ refers to revolutionary position that was articulated at the Zimmerwald Conference. Led by Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left attacked ‘[t]he perceived betrayal of the social democratic right’ and engaged in a ‘determined struggle against all odds for an uncompromised internationalism’: Nation, War on War, xii.

99 Kowalski, Geschichte der Sozialistischen Arbeiter-Internationalen, 208–12; Horn, European Socialists, 47.

100 Letter by Johan Willem Albarda, Het Volk, 16 June 1937.

101 Louis de Brouckère to Friedrich Adler, 19 June 1937, folder 2763, LSI Archives.

102 Friedrich Adler to Louis de Brouckère, 20 June 1937, ibid.

103 Horn, European Socialists, 117.

104 Sluga, Glenda, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 4.

The author wishes to thank Charlotte Alston, Matt Perry, Nicole Robertson and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed