Polytechnic of Central London, Harrow College
Marxism Specialist Group
Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom Annual Conference,
University of Lancaster, Lancaster, 15-17 April 1991
The controversial articles by Eduard Bernstein published in 1896-8 sparked
off the first revisionist conflict in Marxism. The paper examines the
conflict itself for the essential issues at stake. It also investigates
the implications of the controversy for the political practice of the
German Social Democratic Party. The effects of Party intellectuals' failure
to address the issues raised by Bernstein are considered, and the crucial
connection between "theory" and practice which Bernstein insisted
upon is evaluated.
Eduard Bernstein from a Post-Revisionist Perspective
Eduard Bernstein's "apostasy" from Marxism caused an emotional
and scarring controversy inside German social democracy and precipitated
polemical warfare amongst Marxist intellectuals. The incident merits re-examination
in the light of recent developments in East Central Europe and the Soviet
Union. The layers of myth and slogan which have inevitably adhered to
the controversy over a century have buried the actual points at issue.
Bernstein's main warning to social democrats: that socialism could not
emerge full-blown from a catastrophe or be imposed by some force majeure
has relevance in assessing the tasks which Marxist parties set themselves
in East Central Europe and the USSR.
The controversy did not centre around the current practice of German social
democracy. Bernstein was concerned to alter the "theory", in
fact the ideology and political culture of the Social Democratic Party.
He believed that unless "theory" was adjusted, the party would
sooner or later lose its ability to respond to events, and find itself
caught in a seamless, but misleading web from which there was no escape.
His observation about the relevance of a party's political culture to
its practice continues to be timely for socialist parties. It is fruitful
to investigate the collapse of Marxist parties in the USSR and East Central
Europe in terms of the constraints imposed upon their freedom of movement
by the actual substance of their ideologies. 1 am not here referring to
physical or intellectual constraints imposed by state censorship, but
to the inner logic and coherence of the ideology per se.
Bernstein's revisionism also raises the practical problem of how the coherence
and credibility of a political party can be maintained amidst a lively
and often acrimonious ideological conflict. This problem becomes acute
whenever a strongly and dearly held element in a party's make-up comes
under scrutiny. How should intellectuals react, as theorists or practitioners?
Does the practitioners' desire to present an untarnished united front
to the world not need to be checked by intellectuals? Because "Bernsteinism"
was the first intellectual challenge to the fabric of socialism and Marxism,
these issues can be seen with particular clarity if the historical residue
of countless tellings and re-tellings is peeled away.
The Chronicle of Bernsteinism
I n November 1896, a series on "Problems of Socialism" by Eduard
Bernstein began in Die Neue Zeit, the German socialist theoretical weekly.
There were eight articles, the last appearing in the summer of 1898. (Steenson,
1978, p.116) As editor of Die Neue Zeit, Karl Kautsky published his friend
Bernstein's articles in good faith, believing that they were part of a
process of the social democratic movement's growth and maturation. Others,
however, were outraged. They claimed to see an incubus within them which
aimed at undermining the scientific truths of Marxism.
Bernstein's first article appeared barely a year after Engels' death.
To many social democrats, including August Bebel, the charismatic leader
of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), it seemed that Bernstein
had only waited for the body to go cold before he attacked the foundations
of Marxism. (Bebel and Bernstein were actually Engels' joint literary
executors.) In 1880, Marx and Engels had enthusiastically approved Babel's
plan to give Eduard Bernstein aid Karl Kautsky editorial responsibility
for SPD propaganda. The imprimatur of the "old ones" bestowed
immense prestige on the two younger men throughout the socialist movement.
The relationship between Engels and Kautsky and Bernstein had deepened
after Marx's death.
By 1898, a surprisingly heterogeneous and international collection of
social democrats ranging from Bebel, Ernest Belfort Bax, Parvus, Victor
Adler, Georgi Plekhanov, and Rosa Luxemburg had made common cause against
Bernstein's "revisionism". His articles were debated at the
SPD's Stuttgart congress in 1898, and again at the Hannover congress in
1899. Revisionism" was roundly condemned and pronounced unacceptable
by the vast majority of delegates. In mounting their ideological battle,
the anti-Bernsteinians tried to enforce a rigorous boundary: a man of
Bernstein's convictions did not belong inside the pure Marxist SPD which
remained true to the Erfurt Programme which Bernstein himself had jointly
authored with Kautsky.
Though Bebel was at the forefront of these intellectual/emotional salvoes,
he refrained from expelling Bernstein from the party. He hoped that Bernstein
himself would feel obliged to resign, because of the lack of support for
him at the congresses.(footnote1) (Gay, p.79-81.)
Bebel exhorted Kautsky to mount a theoretical offensive against Bernstein
to silence the controversy once and for all. Kautsky took pride in performing
such political services for Bebel to order, and even in this case did
not shirk from his task.
Bernstein refused to retract or even feel guilty. He remained inside the
Party, and returned to Germany from his English exile in 1901 specifically
in order to superintend his intellectual battle inside the Party. (Gay,pp.78-9.
) However, he was apparently not minded to become Marxism's Martin Luther.
He had no intention of causing a divisive rift within the Party to which
he had devotee;) his life. Even when his return was heralded by erstwhile
epigones, he made no attempt to organise a faction or plan a takeover
of the Party under the revisionist banner.
There were indeed substantial numbers of activists in the SPD who had
no desire to ostracise Bernstein. Soon after his arrival in Germany, he
gave a lecture to his supporters at the University of Berlin which provoked
righteous alarm and renewed indignation from many of the Party faithful.(See
fn.4) At the Lubeck congress in 1901, Bernsteinism was debated yet again-
Bebel held the heresy-hunters at bay; after a heated debate, his resolution
was passed which merely criticised the "'one-sided manner with which
comrade Bernstein has conducted self-criticism in recent years'".(Gay,
pp.255-6.) Bernstein's high standing with some sections of the Party was
confirmed in December 1901 when the Breslau SPD
The SPD was visited by another outbreak of heresy-hunting against Bernstein
in 1903. It was precipitated by an article in which he argued that the
Party should claim the legitimate privilege after its impressive election
victory of providing one of the Reichstag vice-presidents. He argued that
the post would give the party "a fairer share in the management of
parliamentary business". (Gay, p.231.) His unabashed proposal for
breaching one of the Party's ideological cannons- to remain pure and untainted
by contact with the state--produced a fresh debate on Bersteinism at the
Dresden congress. Though there were no new arguments from either side,
the occasion "dwarfed all the earlier Bernstein debates". (Gay,
p.232) The left wing of the Party clearly wanted blood to expiate the
offence committed against Marxism, the more monstrous because Marx and
Engels had placed unconditional trust in its perpetrator.
Their expulsion demands were forestalled by a resolution sponsored by
Bebel, Kautsky and Isaac Singer which merely rhetorically rejected revisionism.
It was passed by 288 to 11. The 'ayes' included most of the reformists
and pragmatic union leaders whom the left so despised. (Gay, pp.269-70)
This result is usually interpreted as being a decisive rejection of Bernstein's
ideas by those who agreed with him. In fact, it merely showed that the
whole of the Party, including reformists and pragmatists, was tired of
discussing "Bernsteinism"; and it was also clear that no one
intended to surrender their entrenched positions. Emotions and energies
generated on both sides in the dispute had finally spent themselves, and
the vote reflected this general exhaustion. Bernstein remained unbowed.
He continued to be active in the party, providing intellectual underpinning
for the "reformists", a section of the party often derided for
its "theoretical" paucity. (Steenson, 1981, p.211. )
The prolonged total war which emerged in the winter of 1914 produced an
unprecedented and unexpected situation for most intellectuals and political
practitioners in Europe. The coherence of political parties with developed
ideological dispositions collapsed under this pressure, including the
British Liberals, the German SPD, and French Socialists. In the realignment
which took place within German socialism, Bernstein and Kautsky found
themselves occupying the same political position once again. Bernstein
played an important part in splitting the SPD Reichstag Fraktion on the
question of support for the the war. Others of Bernstein's "reformist"
allies joined him in opposing the war; some of Kaustky's former left wing
associates went over to the pro-war majority. The revisionist controversy
was finally subsumed by the new and vital division between pro- and anti-war
Is Bernstein the first Marx reviser?
There is no academic consensus about the significance of Bernstein's revisionism.
Peter Gay's judgement is typical of postwar received wisdom: "The
significance of Revisionist Socialism, a theory for which Bernstein was
almost solely responsible, is unquestioned. It is the only important challenge
to Marxism that developed within German Social Democracy, and it takes
its place beside Fabianism as one of the major modern philosophies of
peaceful change towards socialism" (footnote 2)(Gay,
p.21.) Beginning in the early 1970s, there was "a will [in West Germany]
to take Bernstein's thought seriously, particularly among Social Democratic
moderates... Significantly, Bernstein [also foundJ...an honored place
in more detained scholarship..."(Morgan, p.529.)
However, recent academic works in English have played down the importance
of the "revisionist" controversy and criticised the received
wisdom for according Bernstein too much weight. Their authors have detected
an unscholarly tendency to apotheosise Bernstein in order to find spiritual
antecedents for modern social democracy. Roger Fletcher observes that:
Bernstein is still used as a synonym for revisionism when, in reality,
he was never more than a symbol, and certainly not at any stage the 'leader'
of the revisionist or reformist faction." (Fletcher, p.2.)
Bernstein had no influence on the prewar SPD....As a theorist and a practising
politician, Bernstein fell on deaf ears, his failure being due, in the
main, to his eclecticism, his naivete and his propensity to generalise
from the inappropriate British models.", (Fletcher, pp.184-5.)
Gary Steenson concurs: "its [revisionism's] importance has usually
been misinterpreted and the depth and substance of its theoretical content
exaggerated by American and English scholars."(Steenson, 1978, p.117)
He adds: "...there is very little evidence that the SPD ever had
more than one revisionist—Bernstein himself—in the years prior
to World War I." (Steenson, 1981, p.211.)
The tendency to dismiss Bernstein's stand and the Party's reaction as
a mere storm in a teacup is accurate enough as far as it goes. Bernstein
did not even try to split the Party. He certainly lacked the character
to become either a contemporary or posthumous hero. He was neither fiery,
nor charismatic. He was by all accounts a miserable orator—a serious
drawback for any ambitious practitioner in 19th century politics.(footnote
Some academics conclude that what Bernstein should have done to win his
fight was to embark on the more ambitious project of revising Marx in
a comprehensive, systematic way. "From an intellectual perspective,
the major problem of revisionism was its shallowness. Bernstein was primarily
an autodidact who was ill-equipped to conduct a rigorous analysis of Marxism."
He dabbled with fashionable neo-Kantianism, instead of grasping and utilising
this alternative system to "provide a philosophically satisfying
alternative to the dialectic and historical determinism". (Steenson,
Whilst it is undoubtedly interesting to speculate about the potential
which neo-Kantianism had to slay the Marxist orthodox dragon, Bernstein
had no intention of becoming the Saint Eduard to do the deed. He was,
and remained, an unashamed political practitioner, who had strayed into
thinking hard about "theory" because of his enforced exile.
The trouble for Bernstein was that once he had started thinking from this
different perspective, he was unable to dismiss what he found as being
unimportant. He wrote to Bebel after the Stuttgart congress:
"You are in the political struggle; I was outside and remote from
Kautsky may be right in saying that I would think as you do if I were
Germany. But whether I would be objectively more in the right is a different
The not inconsiderable number of serious neo-Kantians in and around the
SPD at the time did not feel that this philosophical approach could be
profitably used to explode Marxist orthodoxy. Fletcher observes that the
"foremost representative of the neo-Kantian position", Kurt
Eisner, "saw himself, in 1918 as in 1904, as being in substantial
agreement with Kautsky on all questions of political theory and practice....his
conviction [was] that there was no logical inconsistency in holding that
socialism was both scientifically determined and ethically desirable,
that it was possible to marry Marx with Kant without doing violence to
either." (Fletcher, p.113)
Hulse reckons that Bernstein was provoked to bring Kant into the revisionist
debate by Plekhanov's accusation that he was really a Kantian and not
a Marxist at all. (Hulse, pp.151-2) He also suggests that Plekhanov was
aiming this rebuke obliquely at Jaures, whose academic thesis on the origins
of German socialism had been translated from Latin into French and published
in 1892. "In an un-Marxian manner, he [Jaures] offered an impressive
demonstartion that the sense of justice and collective spirit that modern
German socialism embodied could be traced to the teaching of Luther, and
he attributed great importance to the idealism of Kant and Hege (Hulse,
p151 )(footnote 4)
What Bernstein Saw
Bernstein identified two habits of thought in the SPD which had become
reflexive and which he predicted would ultimately prevent the SPD functioning
as a pragmatic party capable of pursuing desirable intermediate objectives.
They were 1) the belief that the collapse of capitalism was imminent;
and therefore 2) that the attainment of socialism was just the round the
corner. He ruefully observed that these two "shibboleths" were
essentially and inextricably entwined in socialists' thoughts.
Russell had drawn attention to this millenarian, chiliastic aspect of
socialism in 1896, and explained its prevalence by the miserable conditions
of the German working class and their need for ideological succour. (Russell,
pp.155-62 ) Certainly, if socialists1 belief in capitalism's imminent
demise had not been linked to their faith in the immediate arrival of
of full-blown socialism, Bernstein might have made more headway against
the prevalence of catastrophism. Kautsky never disavowed this kernel of
Bernstein's argument. When Bebel exhorted him to demolish revisionism,
the differences between himself and Bernstein which Kautsky chose to find
were either distortions of Bernstein's position or mere "casuistry".(Gay's
phrase, p.264, fn.19. )
In his series, "Problems of Socialism", Bernstein repudiated
the distortion of his views, which both Bax and Parvus had transmitted.
He denied ever saying or believing that the German working class would
not confront a political crisis precipitated by the German ruling class.
He readily agreed that this was all too possible. His actual point was
that fully developed socialism could not and should not be expected to
arise out of this "political catastrophe".(footnote
"It never occurred to me to take a dogmatic line and deny the possibility
of political catastrophes. Anyone who did that would be a very peculiar
politician indeed. Even less would it occur to me to discourage the fullest
possible exploitation of such catastrophes in order to achieve
"specific goals....! was opposing one specific theory of catastrophe,
namely the view that the breakdown of bourgeois society and a consequent
general catastrophe of major proportions are imminent. I believe this
view to be misleading and therefore pernicious.
"Other catastrophes are certainly not impossible, and it is indeed
a good thing to bear them in mind. There are categorical imperatives binding
on political parties. Parties are the champions of specific interests
which it is their duty to foster in every possible way. To neglect an
opportunity to further this task is always a gross dereliction of duty,
for, as often as not, opportunity only knocks once." (Tudors, pp.306-7)
Bax and Parvus selectively quoted Bernstein to expose his indifference
to socialism. They said he had said that the movement was everything and
the final goal nothing to him. Ever since, this most inspired of Bernstein
distortions has been securely lodged in Marx scholars' mental armory.
Bernstein replied in 1898:
"A movement without a goal would drift chaotically, for it would
be a movement without direction. No goal, no direction. If the socialist
movement is not to drift aimlessly without a compass, it must obviously
have a goal towards which it consciously strives. However, this goal is
not the realisation of a social plan but the implementation of a social
principle. To the extent that the tasks of Social Democracy are not dictated
by the current exigencies of the workers' struggle for political and economic
emancipation, we can in fact (if we are to avoid a lapse into utopianism)
formulate the goal of the socialist movement only as a principle, such
as, 'the implementation of co-operation across the
board.'.....But although it [this phrase] identifies our goal, it tells
us nothing about the ways and means. These can be determined only by reference
to present circumstances and must be related to the current state of the
movement. It is for this reason that, given the general goal, our main
concern is the movement itself and its progress towards this goal, whereas
the various ways of envisaging the goal of this development are of no
significance whatsoever. Indeed, history has a habit of drawing a thick
line through all such speculations."(Tudors, p.212. )
Bernstein, in contradistinction to Bax and Parvus, did not believe that
"socialism" was likely to arise out of the ashes of any political
revolution/economic catastrophe. He reflected that in the aftermath of
such a cataclysmic event, it would be virtually impossible for a government
to fulfil his stated "socialist" goal of "'co-operation
across the board1".
"At any time it can become necessary for the working classes to resort
to extreme measures in the struggle for their rights. If the blindness
of the ruling authorities in Germany were to drive them to this point,
then the German workers would....do whatever self-respect and self-affirmation
required of them....But this is not the question that exercises me. My
topic was, and is, that of the socialist transformation of the basis of
social existence, the socialisation of production and exchange. And I
maintain that nowadays Social Democracy can do more in this field as an
opposition party than it could if it suddenly gained control through some
catastrophe."(Tudors, p.221. )
"There has never yet in history been a radical change of such widespread
significance as that which Social Democracy strives to achieve. All the
more unlikely that it could be accomplished by a catastrophe. Such a
change demands long and thorough work. And let it not be thought that,
because everyday work is concerned with little things, it is of less value
than large-scale campaigns. It is precisely the little things which are
often of the greatest significance. In the modern working-class movement,
what matters is not the sensational battles but the ground gained piecemeal
by hard, unremitting struggle." (Tudors, p.222)
Bernstein cited a most orthodox Marx gobbit on the desirability of proceeding
towards socialism through peaceful means without the catastrophist rite
of passage. He agreed with Marx:
"Now I am—and in this I believe I have the great mass of Social
Democrats behind me—of the opinion that since we are concerned to
make recourse to catastrophe unnecessary, it is our duty to take effective
action to this end. The party's whole approach to legislative issues is
governed by this idea. With regard to reforms, we ask, not whether they
will hasten this catastrophe which could bring us to power, but whether
they further the development of the working class, whether they contribute,
to general progress." (Tudors, p.307.)
The intemperate reaction of Parvus and then Luxemburg against Bernstein
was due to his rejection of catastrophism as the path to instant socialism.
They were furious that the positive, creative power of mass action to
destroy capitalism was being dismissed as Blanquisim and Jacobinism; Bernstein
had betrayed Marx and was brazenly indifferent about the "final goal"
of the movement. Bernstein riposted by citing the later Marx and Engels
against their earlier selves. They too had become alert to the dangers
of unrealistic expectations from political crises; They also recognised
the gradual modification, indeed transformation of Capitalism within capitalism,
through working class political action, as in the struggle to win the
legal limitation of the working day, but also in the development of capitalism
itself, e.g. in the emergence of the joint stock company and even co-operative
forms of ownership.
Bernstein's "revisionism" vs. Kautsky's "orthodoxy"
Kautsky and Victor Adler initially wanted Bernstein to proceed with his
articles because they recognised these "unthinking" shortcomings
of the Party faithful. Adler wrote to Kautsky that Kautsky and Bernstein
were both engaged in "slogan-shooting" which was "very,
very useful....it is a good thing that the vogue for catastrophe tactics
should be displaced by an opposite trend; we're already seeing changes
to something shrewder than before. Look, it's like this: this year I've
given ten lectures on the party programme, and one sharp comrade said
to me: 'Why you're talking against the party programme, not about it.'
There were intelligent people there, you see, and as I talked I got obsessed
with showing them that some of our slogans were generalisations and that
things aren't actually as simple as pie. They looked rather surprised,
but it did me and them a power of good, and none of us are worse Social
Democrats as a result." (Tudors, p.224. )
On their own, the Parvus/Luxemburg grouping inside the SPD were insufficiently
powerful to mount an attack on Bernstein. Parvus et al did no more than
provide the spark. It required Bebel, Kautsky and other Party luminaries,
like Clara Zetkin and Wilhelm Liebknecht, to produce
the full-scale conflict which pre-occupied the Party for seven years.
. In 1896, Kautsky had been unconcerned about publishing Bernstein's articles
on "Problems of Socialism". He did not consider them either
exceptional or threatening for the Party. Indeed, he felt that they would
strengthen the Party's theoretical side. In 1898, he was still circumspect
in his criticisms and unwilling to engage in histrionics. He told the
Stuttgart congress that he had not replied to the articles, even though
he disagreed with them, because he felt that others would, and certainly
should. He welcomed intellectual disputation about the more intricate
parts of Marxism. (Tudors pp.293-8 and Geary, pp.41-3)
Kautsky's "objections" to Bernstein focused on a very narrow
part of the articles' concern. Moreover, he emphasised that the problem
was one of "ambiguities to be removed" rather than fundamental
points of division. Bernstein's point about the absence of serious crises
of capitalism was merely "a question of the speed of development
[which] is certainly a matter of instinct, of temperament". He then
emphasised his own surprise that "Bernstein should feel it necessary
to emphasise a number of points as being especially crucial when, in fact,
there is no disagreement about them." He waxed indignant that Bernstein
"sees us as Blanquists, speculating on a clash with the armed forces,
etc. I do not believe that there is a single member of the party who entertains
this idea." (Tudors, pp.296-7. )
After 1898, Kautsky became increasingly antagonistic towards Bernstein:
he was eager to demolish revisionism and proceed with helpful, hopeful
socialist theorising. Nevertheless, it has been difficult for conscientious
academics to detect substantial differences between the first heretic
and the first pope of Marxism. (See, for example, Hulse, -p.154) Gay remarks
that Kautsky's critique of Bernstein is much less convincing than Luxemburg's
(Gay, p.262; p.264, fn.19. ), doubtless because Luxemburg and Bernstein
did actually profoundly disagree. Fletcher concludes: "Kautsky and
Bernstein both envisaged Social Democracy as a surrogate bourgeoisie whose
task was to complete the bourgeois revolution as the necessary prerequisite
to socialism in Germany." (Fletcher, p.115) Geary notes somewhat
incredulously that Kautsky failed to mark out any "specific tactic"
as being revisionist, and there was therefore no critical line of division
between Bernstein and the rest of the Party which could have "serve!d
] to root out the heresy". (Geary, p.39.)
Bernstein's challenge to the Social Democratic glue
Because of the amount of emotional time and energy consumed inside the
SPD by the revisionism controversy, scholars have understandably felt
called upon to find some significant divisions between Bernstein and Kautsky.
They usually discern a serious difference between the two men over how
socialism would arrive in Germany. Bernstein is supposed to have argued
that socialism would evolve without violent class confrontation, whilst
Kautsky is said to have argued that it could not possibly do so in Germany
with her state machine and standing army. (For example, Geary, pp.6-7
and Steenson, 1981, p.211.) Bebel and then Kautsky certainly decided that
they disagreed with Bernstein on this point at the time. They concluded
that he had consciously or unconsciously assimilated English culture and
English ways. Thus, his deracination explained his uncharacteristically
dogmatic insistence that socialist development would occur everywhere
in "the English fashion". 9
Having found no significant intellectual point of difference between Bernstein
and his previous close colleagues, we are also confronted by the same
question: why were so much time, energy and emotion spent by all sides
in the controversy? If Bernstein was in fact still within the orthodoxy
of Marxism, why were the centre so determined to ostracise him and declare
Bernstein was not trying to alter the SPD's quotidien conduct in 1896-8.
He readily acknowledged that this was not catastrophist. He specifically
set out to change habits of thought and long-term orientations, not short-term
tactics or programme.
"In fact the German party has often enough, or rather always, practised
opportunism. At all events, its policy has always been more correct than
its rhetoric. For this reason I have no intention of reforming the actual
policy of the party (apart from subordinate points...). My aim—
an aim I must have as a theoretician...—is to create unity of theory
and reality, of formulation and action. In the normal run of things, dualism
can be bridged by fudging. (I use the word without malice; I've fudged
often enough myself, and at times fudging is the only possible solution.)
But when things come to a head it becomes fatal." (Tudors, pp.323-324)
Bernstein was not even opposed to the Party having ideologically partial
and politically orientated assumptions which were neither
"scientifically" nor "theoretically" exact. "Socialism
as a science has tasks different from those of Social Democracy as a militant
party. The latter, as defender of specific interests, may, within certain
limits, be dogmatic and even intolerant. Its decisions on matters concerning
action are binding until the party itself cancels or changes them. The
same goes for the statements in its programme which define its character
and aims." (Tudors, p.245.)
He objected to the specific dogma which had the socialist Minerva springing
fully formed out of the head of the capitalist Catastrophe. He believed
in political catastrophes, but disputed the assumption that they were
so integral to capitalist life that one was always round the corner. He
showed that Marx and Engels believed that when a catastrophe did occur,
it would not automatically bring socialism in its wake. He also pointed
to SPD practice to prove that Social Democrats took great care to see
that the party should not precipitate such a catastrophe by their actions.
His aim was to bring party dogma in line with this practice.
"...as a party, German Social Democracy has never allowed itself
to be Led very far astray by errors in its theory. It has been preserved
from this fate partly by the common sense of its leaders and partly by
force of circumstance. In any case, such mistakes are not very dangerous
when the party is still young. But the party's responsibilities increase
with its power, and so does the need to be completely clear about where
one stands." (Tudors, p.327)
"The danger inherent in the notion of an imminent and total collapse
of bourgeois society is that it may cause us to neglect some of those
intermediate steps which, whatever else happens, lie on the road to our
goal••••The thought of a great and comprehensive
objective is certainly uplifting, but a more limited and therefore more
accessible objective can inspire the greatest enthusiasm, given the conviction
that it must and can be attained. No-one can foresee whether, in the struggle
political rights, a conjuncture of circumstances will bring the working'
class to power. We can, however, say that, unless its present rights are
extended, its political power is unlikely to increase." (Tudors,
The Party leadership could have applied its collective mind to the problem
which Bernstein raised in 1898 without undue risk. If they had decided
to grasp the nettle of catastrophism then, they might well have achieved
Bernstein's object without any long-term damage to the party's political
credibility. But the fate which Bernstein sorrowfully predicted for the
Party was not immediately on the horizon, as he readily admitted. It seemed
very far away, in both time and intellectual space. Those Party leaders
who recognised the accuracy of Bernstein's arguments responded in an all
too human way. They declined to deal with the "problem" which
he articulated, because in 1898 almost everyone felt fine doing one thing
and whilst saying that they were doing another.
Bebel and the Party faithful silenced Bernstein because they preferred
to not to have a guilty conscience. They knew perfectly well that their
behaviour waspersistently inconsistent with their professed beliefs. It
was precisely because catastrophism acted as a powerful adhesive, masking
their habitual contradictions, that they clung to it so obstinately. The
more unthinking pragmatists in the Party were content to allow the centre
their "catastrophism" because they were well aware that it was
this ideological sop which in turn permitted them to pursue opportunist
courses of action.
The phenomenon of German Social Democrats professing one thing and doing
another was understood well enough by contemporary observers. Russell
had lectured about it at the LSE in 1896. (Russell, pp.133-37) In the
years after Bernstein's defeat, the gulf between SPD "theory"
and "practice" became even greater and more notorious. Max Beer
recalled Bebel's rousing speech in the 1904 debate at the Second International
which attacked the French socialists who had "compromised" by
accepting cabinet posts in a "bourgeois" government. He had
then made the unsolicited admission to Beer in private that he saw nothing
wrong with such conduct.(Beer, pp.126-32 and pp.148-52.)
In 1898, the Party leadership would have had to be very determined and
perspicacious to acknowledge and deal with Bernstein's prophecy: there
were only negative disruptions and aggravations to be gained in the short-term
by so doing. Moreover, Bebel was alert to the dangers to Party unity from
his left flank. Because Parvus, Luxemburg, et al viewed inner party struggles
to maintain established orthodoxy as being an important part of their
mission, Bebel could appease them on this "theoretical" matter
without giving any serious ground in the real world.
How the social democratic intellectuals became stuck in the Party
Bernstein knew that his real task lay in convincing intellectuals who
dealt in the subtleties and nuances of Marx and Engels. He had, after
all, been one of them and understood the importance of providing theoretical
glosses to order in order to sustain the Party leadership's , positions.
He recognised that "theory" was the essential underpinning to
the shibboleths he was attacking. Only intellectuals could make the new
horizons and goals which he envisaged attractive and important for the
faithful. He told Bebel:
"It only takes a number of skilful writers in the main organs of
the party to carry on writing in this fashion for a climate of opinion
to be created for a while, a kind of intellectual terrorism, to which
everything else will submit willy-nilly or will, at least, be obliged
render account.....I have after all been 'one of them1 and am therefore
not deceived when you say that 99 per cent of the party is against me.
Most of them are against me because they don't understand me, because
they are on the wrong track; they find in my articles things which aren't
there because they've been made drunk on sonorous phrases and captivating
"The party has already gone through several metamorphoses. It grew
to greatness without the illusion of an imminent 'final goal'....Nor need
we fear that, in losing certain presuppositions, Social Democracy would
also lose its justification. Only certain illusions would be lost, and
new ideals would fire our hearts in place of the old. In this respect,
your faith is weaker than mine. My road is slower, but it leads upwards.
Yours leads to a precipice beyond which you see the Promised Land...."
But orthodox and reformist social democratic intellectuals chose not to
dwell on Bernstein's undistorted position precisely because they found
it profoundly depressing. They preferred to dismiss "Ede's foibles"
rather than come to terms with its implications. Kautsky was a sanguine
optimist by nature, and disliked anything which forced him to deal with
the "unpleasant side" of human affairs. His early social Darwinism
rendered him permanently inclined to believe that all things turned out
for the socialist best, and that he had chosen the triumphal side in the
human progress towards a better socialist life. ( Steenson,1978 )
Kautsky was driven by the force of events towards pessimism in the first
decade of the new century. He saw clearly enough that the Reich's political
system and intensifying contradictions within it were likely to lead to
political catastrophe. Despite this clear vision, he and his intellectual
colleagues did not develop any political means by which the Party could
respond to this worsening situation. No contingency plans were drawn up
by the Party's general staff to be utilised by the practitioners in the
field in contingencies.
There was no strategy in which the SPD had a public and feasible way out
of the all too visible and growing impasse which could have been adapted
according to circumstances, but would at the very least have aimed to
strengthen parliamentary prerogative inside the Reich. Open discussion
of these matters was routinely denounced for being Cassandra-like and
irresponsible by the sanguine theoreticians, and then suppressed by a
combination of their "intellectual terrorism" and pressure from
party managers. The intellectuals took their cue from Bebel and his successors;
they chose not to stray outside the permitted bounds of Party discourse.
Nevertheless, the SPD's collective energies were increasingly pre¬occupied
in internal sectarian battle. This investment of the Party's precious
human resources yielded few positive results compared to the
amount of time and effort invested by intellectuals, activists, and part
managers. These intensifying internal conflicts reflected the core inconsistency
to which Bernstein had pointed and offered his own solution in 1896-8.
The Party's position in the Reichstag had become even stronger and potentially
more powerful in the intervening years. Accordingly, there were greater
opportunities for the Party to actually influence the course of politics
and affect civil society. However, the ideological orientation of the
Party remained catastrophist and uncompromising. Not surprisingly, it
became increasingly tortuous and tortured in trying to make each, small
pragmatic move whilst saying it was actually doing the pure socialist
The "left" ensured that the centre could not abandon orthodoxy
without a damaging internal battle. They were not only able to cite "theory".
They also deployed the upsurges of working class militancy which were
occurring regularly in the first years of the new century to reinforce
their catastrophist case. They claimed that their revolutionary activism
was closer to the working class than either the Fraktion or the General
Commission (TUC ) "bureaucrats". In other countries, comparable
leaders found little difficulty in utilising the militant proletariat
of the new century for their own ends. (In Britain, parallel upsurges
of militancy were incited and directed by Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Vernon
Hartshorn and Noah Ablett towards extending and strengthening trade union
organisation and making it more responsive to the "rank and file".
At the centre, Kautsky and colleagues faced a dual if not treble task.
They firstly defended socialist orthodoxy against the South German "reformists"
and trade union pragmatists: democratic political goals were not worth
taking seriously because they were not socialist. They countered the left's
desire to incite civil unrest and proletarian militancy in order to catch
the ruling class off their guard by arguing that repression and withdrawal
of civil rights would be the only real results. The SPD would achieve
neither its actual political demands nor would there be an increase in
working class political power. Military repression and new legal disabilities
were the most likely outcomes. After all this shadow boxing, the intellectuals
then had to provide the theoretical justification for the Party's limited
pragmatic turn: not as much as the reformists and pragmatists wanted,
but more than the left had said they would stomach. It is little wonder
that they became exhaustedi and produced repetitive and unconvincing propaganda.
The intractable class prejudice of German bourgeois political parties
and the Kaiser's preponderant power are usually cited as reasons why the
SPD was hopelessly painted into a barren corner for many years prior to
August 1914. Whilst these factors certainly lessened the SPD's chances
of achieving greater democratic political rights before the war, this
vital political terrain could still have been claimed by the SPD as important
ground to occupy. By marking out the importance of these intermediate
political goals, the SPD would have laid claim to the real terrain of
immediate political struggle which would considerably facilitate its self-proclaimed
task of "developing a socialist society". By rejecting Bernstein's
"revisionism", the Party had condemned itself to slowly but
surely grinding to a halt. Advancing simply consumed more and more time,
emotion and energy.
The 1905-6 dispute in the SPD about the mass strike is often used by scholars
as evidence to prove that the Party was actually addressing the stasis
and impasse which Wilhelmine politics was producing in such great abundance.
The dispute was the unintended by-product of the growing tension between
a vigorous, self-confident German trade union movement, and a political
party which was not accustomed to being challenged in its claims to leadership
of the working class. The debates never involved any serious consideration
of how the mass strike might be practically deployed in the real world
of the Reich.
Rosa Luxemburg wanted the mass strike as a prelude to "socialist
revolution". Carl Legien, the head of the free trade unions, and
Bebel both agreed that neither the Party or the unions would indulge in
the folly of financing strike pay for an open-ended general strike. A
formidable number of centrists and reformists, including Bernstein, Kautsky
and Legien, agreed that there were actual "circumstances" which
might make the mass strike a weapon which Social Democrats would adopt
to defend democratic political rights. (Moses, pp.145-57.) No participant,
from Bernstein to Luxemburg, took the prospect of a mass strike as a practical
Bernstein's nemesis arrives all too soon....
When Bernstein failed to achieve the fundamental change in ideological
orientation which he had so earnestly desired, he settled down uncomplainingly
to make his political life inside the most pragmatic part of the SPD.
He participated in the Party's sclerosis, which intensified as its political
options became increasingly constricted by its "theory". He
shared in the bitter fruits from the SPD's refusal to pursue courses of
action because they embodied "only" intermediate demands which
fell short of "socialism" by which, nevertheless, socialists
could have extricated German civil society from its political stalemate.
He accepted the effects of the Party's imperfect and ultimately debilitating
orthodox "theory", and he did not wither in the isolation which
his former best friends imposed to show that they rejected his "English"
The objection which is made to Peter Gay's and recent German admiration
and praise for Bernstein is that firstly, he was marginal to the Party's
destiny and secondly that he was misleading in predicting a catastrophe-less
march to socialism. Whilst Bernstein's conduct as a person was ultimately
marginal to the SPD's destiny, he tried to alter the SPD's political course,
at a crucial point: before it had become fully set and ossified. It is
the fact that he saw clearly what the likely result would be if catastrophism
continued to hold sway that makes him notable, not that he succeeded.
The second point, that he failed to predict the catastrophes which befell
capitalism arising out of the 1914-18 war is simply meretricious.
We have already seen that Bernstein did not argue that political catastrophes
were unlikely. Whilst the war was certainly a political catastrophe for
bourgeois society, it was not the comprehensive and inevitable capitalist
crisis in which the SPD faithful had believed so devoutly. Moreover, as
the trade unionists who stayed at their posts on both sides of the English
Channel discovered, it proved to be the working class' unrivalled opportunity.
Roger Fletcher has recently reminded us that Bernstein saw only too well
the impending war between Britain and Germany. Moreover, unlike others
in the SPD who were also alive to this increasing probability, Bernstein
had his say publicly and did his best
to avert the conflagration. Because he had decided in 1896 that catastrophes
were not going to help socialism, he was able to work openly and in good
conscience to try to prevent the war.
The development of civil society in both Britain and Germany which occurred
in the crucible of this total war favoured the working class and trade
unions. Union leaders were determined to seize their opportunity. As John
Moses has shown for Germany, and as we have long known about the majority
of British union leaders, their primary concern was to advance the unions'
place in the production process and ensure that their members' exploitation
by employers was not intensified.
The General Commission in Germany were able to take much greater advantage
of the wartime circumstances than their British counterparts, because
they had spent much of the early years of the 20th century thinking about,
reflecting deeply upon and finally refining their intermediate goals and
their vision of how trade unions could assist an evolutionary socialism.
(Moses, pp.128-43; pp.189-215.) Their intellectual development of such
intermediate aims also stands in stark contrast to the SPD's continued
refusal to move into this terrain except in a piecemeal fashion, hedged
with caveats and ideological denials. The contrast is more poignant when
we recall that most of the free trade union leaders were prominent SPD
members; Legien was an SPD member of the Reichstag.
In Britain, the Labour Party in Parliament did not have to shoulder the
main responsibility for the war on the left. The 'bourgeois' Liberal Party
reaped the fruits of its dominance, and had to embark upon war on its
own. It was thus the Liberal Party in Britain which was broken by the
war, not Labour. By 1918, Arthur Henderson and Ramsay Macdonald were busily
engaged in laying the political ground for Labour to collect its reward
from the Liberals' demoralisation and collapse. In Germany, the fate for
the SPD which Bernstein had predicted finally materialised with a vengeance.
Because the SPD had the substance of the political power without its "legal"
side, the Party Fraktion faced the far less palatable options of committing
political suicide or acquiescing in the Reich's prosecution of the war.
Predictably, the Fraktion decided to support the war (as both Kautsky
and Bebel had privately recognised that it would have to do), without
gaining anything in return for its submission. It was outside the Fraktion's
and the Party's range of vision to consider the likelihood that they would
have to agree to war, and to have their list of minimum "intermediate"
demands in readiness with which to bargain in such an eventuality. Their
failure to do so had serious repercussions after August 1914, when there
was no way in which new political goals could have been superimposed in
this dramatic crisis situation. Had the Party agreed on "intermediate"
demands before 1914, a list of them would have been permanently lodged
in Philip Scheidemann's pocket, (and familiar to all SPD activists and
other politicians alike), ready and waiting to be produced without thought
in just such an emergency.
Practical goals, particularly of a structural nature, simply cannot emerge
suddenly or indeed credibly from an established, influential political
party. Agreement on their form and desirability are not automatic, and
it requires both time and dedicated enthusiasm from those proposing them
to ensure they are accepted throughout the institution. 15
It was the orthodox and reformist intellectuals who abjured from thought
about how the SPD should deal with a political catastrophe which they
knew could not bring socialism in its wake. On the trade union side, the
leadership argued for the advance of their members' immediate interests
through collective agreements and co-determination from the onset of the
war, because they had pursued these "intermediate" goals self-consciously
and determinedly since the 1890s. It took little effort to adapt their
case to suit the new wartime circumstances, in which the balance of power
had altered so dramatically in favour of the working class.
There has been general condemnation meted out to the new generation of
party leaders, notably Noske and Scheidemann, who "made" the
1918-19 revolution so clumsily and indeed thoughtlessly. It seems reasonable
to conclude that these practitioners1 initial bewilderment, pathetic confusion
and later blunders were caused at least partly by the centre, orthodox
social democratic intellectuals1 earlier refusal to address these forbidden
questions. At least, the left intellectuals knew what they wanted to see
emerge from a collapse of the Reich.
It is evidently difficult to construct an exciting portrait about Eduard
Bernstein capable of satisfying the somewhat jaded mental palates of late
20th century students whom one wishes to tempt to read about Marxism.
Nevertheless, Bernstein's conduct of his political life presents a very
human paradox. His predictions about the SPD were all too accurate. Moreover,
he was one of the few Party intellectuals who dared to utter in public
what they all discussed at their dinner tables. But he forbore to become
an iconoclast, an intellectually pure pariah/prophet of righteous doom.
He remained a political practitioner, who believed that the ideological
millieu within which he functioned was likely to prove ultimately debilitating
and probably fatal for the party which he could not leave and which his
efforts and commitment had been so important in building.
Beer, Max, Fifty Years of International Socialism, London, 1935. Bernstein,
Eduard, Evolutionary Socialism, Ann Arbor, 1961. Fletcher, Roger, Revisionism
and Empire, Allen & Unwin, 1984.
Gay, Peter, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, Eduard Bernstein's Challenge
to Marx, Octagon, New York, 1983.
Geary, Dick, Kautsky, Manchester, 1987.
Hulse, James W., Revolutionists in London, Clarendon, Oxford, 1970.
Morgan, David W., "The Father of Revisionism Revisited: Eduard Bernstein",
The Journal of Modern History, Vol.51, No.3, September 1979.
Moses, John A., Trade Unionism in Germany from Bismarck to Hitler, 1869-1933,
vol. I, 1869-1918, London, 1982.
Nettl, J.P., "The German Social Democratic Party, 1890-1914, as a
political model", Past and Present, No.30, Sept.1965.
Pachter, Henry, "The Ambiguous Legacy of Eduard Bernstein",
Dissent, Spring 1981.
Russell, Bertrand, Six Lectures on German Social Democracy, London, 1896
Steenson, Gary, Karl Kautsky, 1854-1938, Marxism in the Classical Years,
Steenson, Gary, "Not One Man! Not One Penny!" German Social
Democracy, 1863-1914, Pittsburgh, 1981.
Tudor, H., and Tudor, J.M., Marxism and Social Democracy, The Revisionism
Debate 1896-1898, Cambridge, 1988.
Articles by Eduard Bernstein translated by H. and J.M. Tudor
p.212, and pp.221-2: "Critical Interlude", Neue Zeit (NZ), 1.3.1898.
Bernstein explains the title: "I interrupt the series already begun,
"The Struggle of Social Democracy", in order to reply to certain
remarks occasioned by my article on the theory of collapse." (Tudors,
p. 245: Bernstein's note to "The Realistic and the Ideological Moments
in Socialism", ("Problems of Socialism", second series,
NZ no.34, 1898.)
pp.306-7: "The Conquest of Political Power, Vorwarts, 13.10.1898.
pp.323-4; pp.327-8: Bernstein's letter to Bebel, 20.10.1898. The letter
was written after the Stuttgart congress, and Bernstein asked Bebel to
read it to the SPD executive.
1. Gay concludes that Bebel had determined to expel Bernstein, but was
dissuaded by Victor Adler's championship, of Bernstein. Adler disagreed
with him, but wrote to Bebel that Bernstein "'was one of the best
of the party, a man who had brought into the open the doubts which all
Socialists often felt."1 (Gay, p.81, Adler to Bebel, 1.11.1898.)
asked him to stand in a by-election there for the Reichstag. He was elected
with Bebel's active support, and continued to play an important part in
the Party's parliamentary affairs up to 1914. (Gay, pp.25b-7. Steenson,
2. Peter Gay's book, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, Eduard Bernstein's
Challenge to Marx, was first published in 1952, and was reprinted without
revision in 1962, 1979 and 1983. Gay added a short postscript in 1961.
It remains the only substantial examination of Bernstein's life and writings
3. His speech at the University of Berlin was heard
by an excited student audience, who had been inspired by his articles
in Neue Zeit. The expectation was that he would declare an ideological
crusade inside and around the Party based upon his iconoclastic pronouncements.
However, his speech was flat and disappointing; nor Bernstein did exhort
the audience to missionary work on behalf of his ideas, (Gay, n.,48,p.156.
offered an impressive demonstration that the sense of justice and collective
spirit that modern German socialism embodied could be traced to the teachings
of Luther, and he attributed great importance to the idealism of Kant
and Hegel."(Hulse, p.151)
4.Bertrand Russell began his first lecture on German
Social Democracy with a quote from Engels about German socialists being-proud
of their descent from Kant, Fichte and Hegel. (Russell, p.l. )
5. Until the Tudors' translation appeared in 1988, there was no English
access to Bernstein's refutations. The English translation of Die Vorraussetzungen
des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, published in German
in 1899, which appeared in 1909 as Evolutionary Socialism, was reprinted
in 1961 and continues to be the main English source for assessing revisionism.
Bernstein wrote the book under pressure from Kautsky to provide a "full"
theoretical statement of his views. (Kautsky then tendentiously dismantled
the book and studiously evaded its main political thrust.) Moreover, the
English translation is both incomplete and flawed. The replies to Parvus
and Bax written in 1898 are Bernstein at his most lapidary and revealing.
Nevertheless, the Tudors1 translation has already been allowed to go out