Reform and Revolution in the Epoch of Imperialism

By David North
5 January 1998

The following was delivered on January 5 to the International Summer School on Marxism and the Fundamental Problems of the 20th Century, organised by the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) in Sydney from January 3-10, 1998.

David North is the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party (US). He has lectured extensively in Europe, Asia, the US and the former Soviet Union on the history and principles of Marxism and the program and perspective of the Fourth International. He is the author of several authoritative works on the Fourth International and the Russian Revolution, including The Heritage We Defend, Perestroika versus Socialism, Trotskyism versus Stalinism and In Defense of the Russian Revolution.

Introduction

The 20th century presents us with a striking paradox: there is not another epoch in human history during which the basic forms and rhythms of everyday life have been so profoundly changed. The scale and pace of scientific advances demand of us, almost continually, a revolution in our conception of the universe and the place of our planet within it. Even now, we are struggling to catch our breath after viewing the astonishing transmissions from the module that our technology has placed on Mars. Mankind is compelled to revise and expand, in accordance with scientific discoveries, its conceptions of time, space, and existence. These scientific advances have been achieved against the backdrop of this century’s social catastrophes and cataclysms. The world map has been redrawn again and again; and the innumerable upheavals and their consequences have uprooted hundreds of millions of people and scattered them across the globe.

And yet, notwithstanding the upheavals and transformations in the conditions of life, in the domain of political concepts there has been nothing comparable to the advances in scientific thought. Man’s knowledge of the universe has, since 1900, expanded exponentially; but his comprehension of the laws governing his own socio-economic being is far lower than the level attained by the founders of modern socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

If we consider the state of present-day bourgeois politics, there is not a single figure to whom one could point as a significant thinker or strategist. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie has the advantage of possessing immense economic power and wealth. At least until the economic convulsions in Southeast Asia, the rising stock market and record profits did not make the need for a broad strategic vision appear all too urgent. Moreover, the long absence of any apparent political challenge to the domination of the capitalist class allowed it to concentrate its attention on the accumulation of wealth, rather than on the much more complex problem of defending it against the threat of social revolution.

The Crisis of the Labor Movement

As bad as the state of bourgeois politics, that of what is euphemistically called the "labor movement" is infinitely worse. The official labor movements are moribund, led by bureaucrats who are uninterested in, and hostile to, the interests of the workers they supposedly represent. The crisis of the labor movement is not, in the final analysis, the consequence of the dishonesty, corruption, ignorance and incompetence of the labor bureaucracy. Rather, these not very attractive qualities have their origins in social processes that have determined, over an entire historical period, the accommodationist and anti-socialist character of the labor movement. More than a half-century of opportunist policies—based on the systematic subordination of the working class to the post-war imperialist order—has shaped the social, political, intellectual and moral physiognomy of the labor movement.

For several decades, during the heyday of the post-war boom and the national welfare states that were based upon it, the long-term consequences of the theoretical stultification and political corruption of the workers’ movement were not apparent. As long as social relations between the classes, at least in the major capitalist countries, proceeded along the lines of compromise within the framework of the welfare state, there was no place for great strategists of class war. The historical period demanded nothing more than pygmies, and such people were as abundant as mushrooms in all the imperialist countries.

Only since the relations of compromise and accommodation have been disrupted—that is, once the international bourgeoisie was no longer willing or able to play by the old and familiar rules—has the extent of the internal putrefaction of the post-war labor movement been exposed.

It would seem almost self-evident that the crisis confronting the working class has conclusively demonstrated the failure of reformism. However, the situation has been complicated by the fact that the downfall of social-democratic reformism has been overshadowed by the spectacular collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The masses are not naturally inclined to investigate the origins of the political phenomena with which they are confronted. Following the labels applied to these regimes, both by their leaders as well as their capitalist opponents, the masses of workers considered them to be "communist" and "socialist."

Between 1989 and 1991, the fall of the Stalinist regimes was presented by the propagandists of the bourgeoisie (and by a substantial segment of the Stalinists) as the failure of Marxism and socialism. To the extent that workers have accepted this explanation, they see no alternative to the capitalist market and its imperatives.

Back to Bernstein

Of course, it is impossible to ignore the contradiction between the imperatives of the capitalist market and the needs of the working class. The unease of the masses finds an anticipatory reflection in segments of the professional middle classes who are themselves disquieted by the signs of increasing social polarization.

In the most recent period, a series of books has been published subjecting to criticism the unfettered operation of the capitalist market. Attention has been drawn to the impact of globalization on the conditions of the working class. Warnings have been made about increasing social polarization.

In this climate of mounting anxiety, a renewed interest has emerged in one of the most important figures in the early history of European Social Democracy—the "father" of anti-Marxist revisionism, Eduard Bernstein. Within the last decade, Cambridge University Press has published a new edition of Bernstein’s principal opus, The Pre-Conditions of Socialism, an anthology of documents relating to the theoretical struggle over Bernstein’s views, and, most recently, in 1997, a new biography of Eduard Bernstein, entitled The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy, by the historian Manfred Steger. A companion volume of writings by Bernstein, translated and edited by Steger, has also been recently published by Humanities Press, which has been associated with the political endeavors of sections of the petty-bourgeois left.

Steger’s biography is important, not for the level of its scholarship—which is nothing more than pedestrian—but for the political vision that inspires it. Bernstein’s assault on Marxism, his attempt to disassociate socialism from working class revolution, and his proposal to redefine socialism as nothing more than well-intentioned and ethically-motivated liberalism—all this is seen by Steger as a beacon for our time. The relevance of Bernstein, according to Steger, is based, above all, on his recognition of the impossibility of a revolutionary alternative to capitalism.

"As the first prominent Marxist theorist of reform, Bernstein assumed that the increasing complexity of modern society made the large-scale revolutions of the old days obsolete ...

"At the end of the supposed ‘end of socialism,’ Bernstein’s embryonic model of ‘liberal socialism’ represents the logical point of departure for the sole viable progressive project remaining in our post-Soviet and (perhaps) post-Keynesian era: a new focus on the role of civil society and a conception of democracy that favors an extension of personal rights over property rights." [1]

While proclaiming Bernstein as a hero for our times, Steger writes—with a combination of caution and cynicism—that he declines "to evaluate Bernstein’s political thought solely by applying philosophical standards. What makes his intellectual quest a worthwhile subject of academic inquiry is neither its degree of philosophical sophistication nor its lack of methodological purity. Rather, it is Bernstein’s highly original attempt to formulate a coherent synthesis of two great traditions that stand for individual self-realization and distributive justice." [2]

Bernstein, it must be recalled, claimed to have delivered a staggering theoretical blow to the revolutionary conceptions of Marxism. Steger’s admission that he would prefer to avoid "philosophical standards" in evaluating the writings of Bernstein amounts to tacit acknowledgement that in the sphere of science and theory a direct confrontation between Bernstein and Marx would be something of an intellectual mismatch.

But the theoretical shortcomings of Bernstein do not prevent Steger from embracing him as a prophet to whom we must turn. Today, no less than 100 years ago, the appeal of Bernstein is not derived from the intellectual force of his arguments, but from the yearnings of particular segments of the middle class, who find in his program, regardless of its underlying theoretical weakness, both an expression of their social interests and a response to their political moods. As an earlier and more intelligent biographer, Peter Gay, wrote some 45 years ago, "If there had been no Bernstein, it would have been necessary to invent him. Political and economic conditions in Germany demanded a reformist doctrine around the turn of the century." [3] 

Of course, a resurrection of Bernsteinism, at least in its original form, is hardly possible today. Indeed, it was, though this was not obvious at the time, "dated" from the moment of its birth. However, the renewed interest in Bernstein’s life, and the controversies surrounding his work, does illustrate one very important point: Even after the passage of 100 years, the political issues fought out at the very end of the 19th century remain extraordinarily relevant as we approach the end of the 20th century.

It was, I believe, Mark Twain who said that although history does not repeat itself, it seems to rhyme. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the immense and obvious differences, one cannot help but be struck by the extent to which the political conditions and intellectual environment in which Bernsteinism emerged "rhymes" with the conditions that we confront today.

It is hard to fully appreciate now the extent to which Bernstein’s proclamation of the "Death of Marxism" resonated with middle-class intellectuals in the closing years of the 19th century. In the midst of unprecedented capitalist prosperity and a vast expansion of its world-wide resources and influence, the Marxian conception of a capitalist system being driven to destruction through the development of its internal contradictions seemed to so many quite intelligent people to be completely at variance with the observable reality.

But there is one striking difference between the situation in 1898 and that which exists in 1998: Bernstein presented his critique of Marxism in a period in which the conditions of the working class were visibly improving. Reformism, however weak it appeared when it attempted to justify itself theoretically, seemed quite vigorous in practice. This fact must be understood to appreciate the appeal of Bernstein’s message.

Confidence in the possibility of the gradual and progressive reform of capitalism was the essential psychological ingredient of Bernsteinism at the end of the 19th century. Quite significantly, no such optimism animates the perspective of those who suggest that today, a return to Bernsteinism is required. Rather, the milieu of the contemporary middle-class left is dominated by morbid pessimism. It has no confidence whatsoever in the role of the working class as an agent of social change. Its "reformism" amounts to little more than a vague and cowardly appeal to the financial elite to refrain from destroying what little is left of the welfare state. Bernstein, on the other hand, for all his weaknesses, was at least sincere in his illusion that capitalism, under the pressure and influence of socialists, would evolve peacefully into a just and humane society.

But despite this fundamental difference, there is one essential conceptual element that links the perspectives of today’s demoralized reformists with that elaborated by Bernstein in the late 1890s: a haughty disdain for the materialist dialectic that constitutes the methodological foundation of Marxism. The inability to think and analyze phenomena dialectically—that is, as a unity of opposed determinations—rendered the reformists of the early 20th century incapable of recognizing the internal contradictions that were, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, to blow their entire world, and their complacent conceptions along with it, to smithereens.

The Party of the Masses

In the course of nearly a quarter of a century—from the end of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1890 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914—the SPD grew to become the largest political party in Germany. But a mere tally of the votes cannot by itself convey the extent and depth of the influence of the Social Democracy within the working class.

The SPD was, in its time, a unique historical phenomenon: it was the first truly mass party of the working class. Bernstein scandalized the leaders of the SPD when he declared, in 1898, that the movement embodied in the SPD was more important than its final goal. But the elemental force of his argument, notwithstanding the political apostasy that it implied, cannot be appreciated without having some sense of the scale of the movement led by the SPD.

The SPD presided over a massive publishing empire that produced books, newspapers, and periodicals that related to virtually every aspect of working class life. By 1895, the year of Engels’ death, the SPD published 75 newspapers, of which 39 appeared six times a week. By 1906, there were 58 socialist daily newspapers.

In 1909, the circulation of Social-Democratic newspapers reached one million, and stood at one and a half million on the eve of the war. The official circulation was less than the actual number of people who followed the socialist press, because many copies were circulated from worker to worker in factories, taverns, schools and neighborhoods. One very popular magazine, Der Wahre Jakob, reached a paid circulation of 380,000, but its actual readership approached one and a half million. It has been estimated that the total number of Social Democratic readers was about six million by 1914.

The circulation of Vorwärts, the principal political newspaper of the SPD, reached 165,000. The famous Neue Zeit, the theoretical journal edited by Karl Kautsky, had a circulation of 10,500. Die Gleichheit, a newspaper produced by the party for women workers, and which, under the editorship of Clara Zetkin, pursued an aggressively anti-militarist line, attained by 1914 a circulation of 125,000. The range of interests addressed by auxiliary newspapers published by the party can be gauged by their titles: The Worker-Cyclist (circulation 168,000), The Singing German Workers Newspaper (circulation 112,000), The Workers Exercise Newspaper (circulation 119,000), The Free Innkeeper (circulation 11,000), The Abstinent Worker (circulation 5,100), and The Worker Stenographer (circulation 3,000).

In addition to these regular publications, the SPD produced a mass of political literature, which assumed gigantic proportions during election campaigns: handbills, posters, special newspaper editions, and pamphlets were printed in the millions. The Party also ran several large printing houses that produced books dealing with history, politics and culture in editions which ran into the tens and even hundreds of thousands.

The SPD organized and coordinated a massive network of social activities that involved every section and age-group of the working class. So profound was the identification of the SPD with the working class that the very word arbeiter (German for worker) carried with it a political connotation.

By the turn of the century, the SPD was involved in at least 20 specific kinds of social activities, encompassing broad social and educational areas. It ran innumerable gymnastic clubs and singing societies. In just one city, Chemnitz, the SPD organized no less than 142 workers’ singing societies, which gave a total of 123 concerts. In the region of Thuringia, the SPD sponsored 191 different gymnastic clubs.

For hundreds of thousands of German workers, the SPD was not simply a political organization: it was the axis around which they planned much of their lives. Whatever the particular interest of a worker—swimming, weight lifting, boxing, hiking, rowing and sailing, football, chess, bird watching, dramatics, health and conservation, temperance—the SPD had an organization in which he or she could enroll.

The SPD also devoted substantial resources to formal political education. From the 1890s on, it gave courses in history, law, political economy, natural sciences and oratory. Among those who lectured on these topics were Bebel, Liebknecht, Zetkin and Luxemburg. Three month courses were offered three times a year. Enrollment grew from 540 in 1898 to 1,700 in 1907. An official Party school was established in 1906.

The role of the Party in the promotion of the cultural development of the working class is indicated by the growth of workers’ libraries. Between 1900 and 1914, the party and the SPD-controlled trade unions helped to establish 1,100 libraries in 750 different localities. These libraries held over 800,000 volumes, and by 1914 there were over 365 librarians on the payroll of the SPD.

One final statistic deserves special mention. The SPD, in the first years of the century, undertook an aggressive campaign to recruit women workers into the party, and its efforts met with a powerful response. The number of female party members grew from 30,000 in 1905 to 175,000 in 1914. It should be noted that among the most popular of party publications was August Bebel’s The Women’s Question.

Capitalist Economic Development and the Growth of the Trade Unions

Before proceeding to an examination of Bernstein’s position, it is essential that consideration be given to the international and national economic environment within which his conceptions developed. Bernstein denied the validity of the historical materialist dialectic, but his own intellectual and political evolution proceeded in accordance with its laws.

World economy between 1873 and 1893 presented a complex and highly contradictory picture. Both prices and profits were mired in a protracted depression. During those 20 years, the level of prices in Britain dropped by 40 percent. The price of iron fell by 50 percent. But this period of price and profit deflation was also one of booming industrial output and technological innovation. Indeed, these two essential aspects of world economic conditions were dialectically related. The pressure on the rate of profit provided the impulse for the development of new production and management techniques that led to a vast expansion of industrial output. Thus, even while the world economy was mired in a price and profit depression, industrial development, particularly in Germany and the United States, underwent an explosive growth.

Capital expanded into entirely new areas, such as Latin America, and the search for profitable investments led to the emergence of imperialist-style colonialism. The protracted price-profit recession came to a sudden conclusion toward the end of 1894, and capitalism entered into a period which was, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, so glorious that it received the name by which it is remembered to this day, La Belle Epoch!

Germany was one of the most dynamic centers of this economic development, and this had profound and contradictory implications for the Marxist movement. A necessary condition for the expansion of the SPD was, quite obviously, the rapid growth of the working class. But this was itself conditioned by the extraordinary tempo of German industrial development. The unification of Germany, notwithstanding the reactionary political forms through which it had been achieved under Bismarck, laid the basis for the rapid growth of large-scale industry. Iron production increased from 2.7 million tons in 1880 to 8.5 million tons in 1900. Steel output grew during the same period from 625,000 to 6.6 million tons. Between 1873 and 1900, the number of ships arriving in German ports doubled. A central feature of German economic development was the concentration and cartelization of industry. Between 1882 and 1907, the number of small-scale enterprises rose by 8 percent while the number of large enterprises rose by 231 percent. By 1907, 548 industrial concerns employed nearly 1.3 million workers.

The official doctrine of the SPD was that of class war, but its own growth, if only indirectly, was bound up with the expansion of German national industry. The link between national industry and the development of the trade unions was even more direct. Until the mid-1890s, their growth lagged behind the party, upon which they were dependent for both political guidance and direct material-financial support. But the great economic boom which began in 1895, and lasted almost until the outbreak of the world war, fueled a vast expansion of the trade unions and radically changed the relations between the trade unions—whose leaders were generally individuals with only the most minimal interest in questions of Marxist theory and socialist principles—and the SPD. The more the size and economic resources of the trade unions expanded, the less willing were their leaders to accept the subordination of their practical concerns to broader problems of socialist policy and principles.

Bernstein’s Attack on Marxism

Now to Bernstein: Born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family, the seventh of 15 children, Bernstein became politically active in the socialist movement in 1872. He was attracted by Bebel’s courageous defense of socialist and internationalist principles during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1875 he was a delegate to the unity congress of the Eisenachers and Lassalleans at Gotha.

Early in his political career, Bernstein had evinced an inclination toward various forms of petty-bourgeois democratic politics. For a time he came under the influence of Eugen Dühring, and somewhat later, while working as the secretary of Karl Hochberg, a left democrat who contributed financially to the SPD, Bernstein played a role in the drafting of a document that urged the party to abandon its exclusive orientation to the working class and to adopt a more conciliatory attitude toward the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels were outraged by this document, and Bernstein was restored to their good graces only by traveling to London, in the company of Bebel himself, to apologize personally to the old revolutionaries for his violation of political principles.

Bernstein was compelled by the Anti-Socialist laws to leave Germany in 1878, and his exile lasted for 23 years. He lived in Switzerland for several years, and then moved to England in the late 1880s. It was during his extended sojourn in England that he came into contact with the reformist Fabian society, and formed close friendships with its leading lights. He dined frequently with such people as Beatrice and Sydney Webb and George Bernard Shaw.

According to Steger, Bernstein was highly impressed by "the social achievements made possible by the English workers’ practical, utilitarian point of view. He spoke in glowing terms of the good relationship between British labor leaders and representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie, arguing that ‘such a marriage of convenience’ had contributed to the success of English piecemeal reformism. For Bernstein, the evolving British model proved the possibility of mutually agreeable pacts between capital and labor, inspiring him to communicate his observations to his German party comrades." [4]

The Fabians were only one element of the broader intellectual and political environment that was working upon Bernstein. The rapid growth of socialism in Germany and throughout Western Europe had made it clear to the bourgeoisie that its influence could not be contained simply through the use of state repression. It was necessary to respond to the immense intellectual challenge posed by Marxism. Thus, in the 1890s, the universities assumed a new and vital role—which they have not surrendered to this day—as ideological bulwarks against Marxism. The writings of Marx were now to be combed for inconsistencies and weaknesses that could be cited to disprove the claims of the socialist movement. The new academic "Slayers of Marxism" became figures of immense influence and authority, whose writings were widely praised and publicized. Figures such as Böhm-Bawaerk, Tugan-Baranovsky, Benedetto Croce, Werner Sombert and Max Weber, not to mention dozens of lesser-known and far less gifted writers, maintained a steady barrage against virtually every aspect of Marxist theory.

In their own way, the works of these thinkers confirmed Marx’s essential observation that "The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life" and that objectively-existing social conflicts are reflected by and fought out in definite ideological forms. [5] The writings of these petty-bourgeois academic critics of Marx were reflected in the writings of Bernstein. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that Bernstein added little, except his own political prestige, to the anti-Marxist arguments that were circulating in the universities of the day.

Engels began to sense a change in Bernstein’s outlook, and complained that he was sounding more and more like a smug English shopkeeper. As long as Engels remained alive, he held Bernstein back. But after his death in August 1895, Bernstein’s movement away from Marxism proceeded quite rapidly.

In 1898 Bernstein wrote a series of articles in which he repudiated the theoretical heritage and revolutionary program of the SPD. He elaborated these views at greater length in his book, The Preconditions of Socialism. The time had come, he insisted, to recognize that Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a system torn by internal contradictions was a product of his Hegelian training and bore no relation to the empirically observable reality. It was dangerously wrong for socialists to base their tactics upon the prospect of a major crisis of the capitalist system. All the available evidence suggested, rather, that capitalism possessed a virtually unlimited potential for progressive development; and that this would lead quite naturally, democratically and peacefully toward socialism. Those unfortunate Marxists who continued to argue that socialism would arise out of a major crisis generated by the internal contradictions of capitalism suffered from "catastrophitis," a disease that made them incapable of facing up to the facts of contemporary life.

Flowing from their mistaken fixation on non-existent economic contradictions, Marx and Engels were wrong in the belief that capitalism led to the impoverishment of the working class. The trade unions, Bernstein argued, had proven themselves capable of steadily raising the workers’ share of the national income. As for Marx’s emphasis on the labor theory of value and its supposedly scientific demonstration of the exploitation of the working class, this was another piece of the old theoretical baggage that needed to be junked. What need was there, Bernstein asked, to demonstrate the inherently exploitative character of the production of surplus value in the capitalist mode of production? This obsession with the problem of value formation had led the socialist movement to concentrate its fire against the capitalist mode of production, rather than formulating achievable demands, realizable through a combination of trade union activity and national legislation, for a more equitable distribution of the national income.

Bernstein maintained that the long-term interests of the working class would be secured not through revolution, but through the steady and incremental gains achieved by the trade unions. He castigated "some socialists" for whom "the trade unions are nothing more than an object-lesson demonstrating in a practical way the uselessness of any action other than revolutionary politics." For Bernstein, trade unions were the means through which the unjust elements of capitalism were overcome: "By virtue of their socio-economic position, the trade unions are the democratic element in industry. Their tendency is to erode the absolute power of capital and to give the worker a direct influence in the management of industry." To the extent that Bernstein had misgivings about the role of trade unions, it was that they should not seek too much power. Their aim should be partnership with capital, not control over industry.

Another error of Marx and Engels, according to Bernstein, was their conception of the state as an instrument of class rule. The example of England, he argued, proved that in a democratic setup the state could function as the representative of the entire citizenry, working steadily for the general welfare. The aim of the working class must not be to replace the existing state, let alone smash it, but to make it an ever-more effective instrument of a supra-class democracy. Indeed, the working class had no need for, and should not pursue, the establishment of its own class rule. The "dictatorship of the proletariat" was a phrase that had no place in civilized political discourse:

"...class dictatorship belongs to a lower civilization and, apart from the question of the expediency and practicability of the matter, it can only be regarded as a retrograde step, as political atavism, if it encourages the idea that the transition from capitalist to socialist society must necessarily be accomplished in the manner of an age which had no idea—or only a very imperfect idea—of the present methods of propagating and implementing legislation and which lacked organizations fit for the purpose."

Democracy was a political form that guaranteed the rights of all citizens, and he spoke with boundless admiration for the civility that it had introduced into the affairs of mankind:

"...in our times there is an almost unconditional guarantee that the majority in a democratic community will make no law that does lasting injury to personal freedom ... Indeed, experience has shown that the longer the democratic arrangements persist in a modern state the more respect and consideration for minority rights increases and the more party conflicts lose their animosity. Those who cannot imagine the achievement of socialism without an act of violence will see this as an argument against democracy. ...

"...In a democracy, the parties and the class supporting them soon learn to recognize the limits of their power and, on each occasion, to undertake only as much as they can reasonably hope to achieve under the circumstances. Even if they make their demands rather higher than they seriously intend in order to have room for concessions in the inevitable compromise—and democracy is the school of compromise—it is done with moderation."

Bernstein did not believe that England was an exceptional case; democracy was no less likely to work its magic in Germany. The SPD, he claimed, was wrong to insist upon the unalterably reactionary character of the German bourgeoisie. "This might be true for the moment, although there is much evidence to the contrary. But even so, it cannot last long." The German capitalist class would prove far more susceptible to appeals for democratic reform, if only the SPD stopped threatening it with social revolution. The task of the party was to reassure the bourgeoisie that "it has no enthusiasm for a violent revolution against the entire non-proletarian world." Once this were done, the bourgeoisie’s fear of the SPD would be "dissipated," and it would be prepared to make "common cause" with the working class against the more reactionary elements in the Prussian absolutist regime.

Thus, Bernstein urged the SPD to put aside its revolutionary fantasies and understand that socialism, liberated from the Hegelian determinism that had disoriented Marx and Engels, was really nothing more than consistent liberalism. "In fact," he wrote, "there is no liberal thought that is not also part of the intellectual equipment of socialism. Even the principle of the economic responsibility of the individual for himself, which appears to be completely Manchesterish, cannot, in my judgment, be denied in theory by socialism, nor are there any conceivable circumstances in which it could be suspended. There is no freedom without responsibility."

Bernstein went on to dismiss with contempt socialist agitation against bourgeois militarism. He was not opposed, in principle, to colonialism. Under European rule, he wrote, "savages are without exception better off than they were before ..." This rule applied even to the American Indians: "Whatever wrongs were previously perpetrated on the Indians, nowadays their rights are protected, and it is a known fact that their numbers are no longer declining but are, once again, on the increase."

As for the persistent socialist agitation against the rapacity of German imperialism, Bernstein argued it should not be to Social Democracy "a matter of indifference whether the German nation—which has indeed borne, and is still bearing, its fair share in the civilizing work of nations—be eclipsed in the council of nations." Nor was the SPD correct to urge the replacement of the Kaiser’s standing army with a people’s militia, for its warnings that the military represented a perpetual threat of violence against the working class were really out of date: "Fortunately," wrote Bernstein, "we are increasingly becoming accustomed to settle political differences in ways other than by the use of firearms."

Nothing is more damaging to the reputation of Bernstein as a political theorist and strategist than the publication of his writings. Even the very careful selections from his writings offered by Steger do not enhance Bernstein’s intellectual stature (and the passages that I have quoted do not appear in Steger’s biography). If anything comes as a surprise to the contemporary Marxist, it is the abysmally low level of Bernstein’s arguments. "This thin gruel" one asks oneself, "actually presented itself as a refutation of Marxism?" One cannot help but be amazed by the philistine obtuseness of this late-Victorian snob who seemed totally indifferent, if not oblivious, to the more serious and disturbing currents of his day. I do not know whether Bernstein was fond of music, but he could have profited from listening to the symphonies of one of his contemporaries, Gustav Mahler. Bernstein might have discovered in the work of Mahler something that was entirely lacking in his own compositions: a presentiment of the tragedy that was overtaking bourgeois civilization. But then again, this Bernstein was Eduard, not Leonard, and I doubt that he would have drawn very much from the work of the anxious Austrian composer.

When the passages from which I have quoted were written, only fifteen years remained before the outbreak of the very catastrophe that Eduard Bernstein considered to be inconceivable—a catastrophe that was to inaugurate an era of barbarism whose horrors are without equal in history. The tendency of capitalist development led not in the direction of ever-greater democracy and the amelioration of class antagonisms, but toward mass repression and civil war. Looking into the future, the myopic Eduard Bernstein saw only the rainbows of democracy and missed entirely the barbed wire of the trenches and concentration camps.

Bernstein’s Philosophical Conceptions

Opportunism found its richest and most advanced expression in the writings of Bernstein and his contemporaries. In the decades that followed, successive waves of opportunism added nothing of real theoretical importance to what had already been said by the Bernsteinians. In our own age, which possesses a far lower level of theoretical self-consciousness, the arguments against Marxism merely reproduce, though with much diminished quality, those advanced by Bernstein. Thus, in examining Bernstein’s theoretical conceptions, even after the passage of a century, one is also dealing with the whole gamut of contemporary anti-Marxism.

The style is the man, and the essential content of style is method. When a person starts to talk about politics, he reveals not merely his opinions on the events of the day, but the theoretical conceptions that underlie those opinions and the intellectual process through which he arrives at them. What is true of individuals holds as well for political tendencies.

Political opportunism has certain methodological and epistemological underpinnings. I do not wish to encourage the simplistic conception that all manifestations of opportunism are reducible to a false epistemology, or that an examination of the epistemological underpinnings of revisionism does away with the need to undertake a careful political analysis of disputed issues. But the issue of philosophical method is of immense and, one might even say, essential significance. Bernstein did not base his argument simply on the claim that one or another element of Marxism had been refuted—though he certainly did believe that contemporary developments had shown Marx and Engels to be wrong in many of their judgments. That, however, was of secondary importance. According to Bernstein, the very concept of a "scientific socialism" was a contradiction in terms. Socialism, he maintained, could not attain the level of science because it was "an engaged movement [that] cannot face science neutrally." [6]  "No ‘ism’ is ever a science," Bernstein stated. "‘Isms’ are merely perspectives, tendencies, thought systems or demands, but never science." [7]  Notwithstanding its scientific pretensions, the socialist mass movement "is nonetheless as little a scientific movement as, for example, the German Peasant Wars, the French Revolution, or any other historical struggle. Socialism as a science depends on cognition, socialism as movement is guided by interest as its "noble motivation." [8] 

There are many things in these statements that need to be answered. Let us begin by examining the claim that to the extent that it, too, is an expression of specific social interests, modern socialism is no more scientific than earlier mass movements. As with so many of Bernstein’s arguments, this one was more clever than profound. It is undeniably true that all social movements are motivated by class interests. But the essential difference between the modern socialist and earlier revolutionary mass movements finds expression in the fact that only with the development of Marxism does this motivating element—class interest—become the subject of theoretico-historical analysis.

To be precise, Marx and Engels were not the first to recognize the class struggle and attribute great significance to it. Traces of this insight were already to be found in the historians of Antiquity, the Renaissance, and, more recently, among the French historians of the post-Napoleonic restoration in the early 19th century—especially Guizot. But it was only with Marx and Engels that the underlying foundation of the class struggle was identified and explained. Marx and Engels stressed not only the class struggle and its relation to material, i.e., property, interests, but demonstrated that those interests - and the social struggles to which they give rise - are formed on the basis of the productive forces created by man and the production relations which they necessitate and through which they operate.

On the basis of this more profound insight into the origins of class society and the very basis of human civilization, it became possible to elaborate, for the first time, a consistently materialist understanding of history—that is, one which explained not only the formation of economic interests, but also the evolution of social thought.

It was only with the development of Marxism that man succeeded in formulating the laws governing his own social and intellectual development. It was especially this second aspect - the derivation of social consciousness from social being - that made it possible for the socialist movement to understand and explain its own origins, existence, development and aspirations in a wholly demystified form—that is, without resort to ideal motivations. Herein lies the profound difference between the Marxian socialist movement and the revolutionary movements that preceded it.

We may safely presume that all social movements—whether of the past, present or future—are somehow the expression of social interests. But the Marxian movement can legitimately assert its scientific foundations to the extent that its principles, program and actions are guided by knowledge of the laws of historical development. Bernstein’s distinction between "socialism as science" and "socialism as movement" was, to be blunt, rather silly. To allow that socialism, as a science, cognizes the laws governing the development of social consciousness, and then claim that socialism as a movement is based on "noble motivation" was a crass absurdity. After all, a science which asserts that social consciousness is the product of historical conditions formed on the basis of a given level of productive forces and their corresponding production relations cannot then claim, when it dons the robes of a mass movement, that it is guided by "noble motivation." It would be immediately compelled to explain, if it were to be true to its science, the origins and social basis of the "noble motivation."

Let us now examine Bernstein’s claim that "no ‘ism’ is ever a science." This dictum would seem to place Darwinism in a precarious position. But let us assume that Bernstein merely expressed himself badly—that he intended to argue that the commitment implied by "ism" is incompatible with science. This was an argument to which Bernstein returned again and again: Science is incompatible with any form of partisanship. "If socialism were interested in becoming pure science," he declared, "it would have to forego being a class doctrine representing the class-based aspirations of workers. At this point, socialism and science must necessarily part.

"Let me express my opinion unambiguously: socialist theory is only a science insofar as its propositions are acceptable to any objective, disinterested nonsocialist." [9] 

Were this last statement true, it would mean that the only person qualified to render judgment on the scientific credentials of Marxism would be one to whom the fate of humanity was a matter of utter indifference. Invoking the demands of what he called "pure science," Bernstein insisted that it was incompatible with the presence of "subjective volitional elements." [10]  The practice of science could not, he stated, be reconciled with any specific human goal.

But it does not take too much reflection to see that this is hardly true. Science is by no means negated by either partisanship or volition. The biologist who is studying the HIV virus is not, we may assume, disinterested in the consequences of AIDS. The surgeon, let us hope, desires to save the life of the patient under his scalpel. Both are driven by specific "subjective" motivations: the former wishes to annihilate the HIV virus; the latter seeks to save his patient’s life. This does not mean that they are incapable of adopting a scientific attitude toward their work.

In his own time, Bernstein was confronted with this very objection. At a lecture delivered in May 1901, in which he argued that socialism could not be scientific because it sought to achieve a special goal, Bernstein was asked if he would deny that medicine was a science because it had a specific aim, i.e., healing. Bernstein answered by reaching deep down into his bag of sophisms. "I replied," he wrote, "that I consider healing to be the ‘art of medicine,’ which is based upon the thorough mastery of the science of medicine. As such the latter is not directed at healing but at the knowledge of the conditions and means that will lead to a cure. If we accept this conceptual distinction as a typical example, then it will not be too difficult, even in more complex cases, to find out where science ends and ‘art’ or ‘doctrine’ begins." [11]  To which Plekhanov replied: "Socialism as a science studies the means and conditions of the socialist revolution, while socialism as a ‘doctrine’ or as a political art, tries to bring about this revolution with the help of acquired knowledge." [12] 

Bernstein conceived of science as the mere cataloguing of facts, with scientists little more than learned clerks who collect, weigh, assort and then place them in the proper cubby holes. Such a conception not only deprived science of its creative impulse and function; it was also ahistorical. The development of science has proceeded over the last 2,500 years through the struggle of tendencies—in which the divisions have been related not only to abstract conceptions but quite directly to material interests. It seems almost platitudinous to point out that science, as exemplified by the fate of Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, not infrequently encountered the resistance of social classes who perceived in its development a threat to their social position. When Bernstein spoke of "scientific impartiality," he had in mind a very definite conception of the cognitive process—one in which the reflection of the material world in men’s minds and the accumulation of knowledge were conceived as an essentially contemplative and passive process. That is, his materialism was of a mechanical, non-dialectical character, in which there existed an abyss between the object of cognition and the thinking subject.

It was not only the scientific legitimacy of Marxism that was called into question by Bernstein. His conception of "pure science" placed in doubt the very possibility of a scientific study of society. In essence, he maintained that the domain of scientific thought is limited to those areas in which the human knowing subject and the object of cognition confront each other as completely alien and separate entities—that is, presumably—in the natural and theoretical sciences. "Pure science," he asserted, demands that its practice not be in any way contaminated by the interpenetration of subject and object in the cognitive process. Each must remain firmly in its place. Science becomes ‘impure" and thus loses its scientific validity the moment the absolute boundary that must exist between the knowing subject and the object of cognition is violated.

Thus, virtually by definition, the scientific study of human society, whether by Marxists or anyone else, was technically impossible. For, if Bernstein was right, how could there be any genuine science of society when the human observers and researchers are themselves a part of the organism that they seek to study. As Kautsky noted when he replied to Bernstein on this very point, "[E]veryone occupies within this organism a specific place, a place from which he conducts his observations, has his definite functions, his dependence upon other parts of the same organism; and that the specific parts of this organism stand in contradiction to each other. These are certainly serious obstacles, but if they were really so great that they precluded science, then they would rule out not only scientific socialism but also every other type of social science." [13] 

All of Bernstein’s arguments revolve around the same metaphysical, simplistic and vulgar formulae: "Objective" processes are those which operate completely independently of human action and volition. Nothing that is either desired or achieved through activity in which a conscious impulse is to be found is truly objective. The "objective" is only that which is entirely outside of mankind and its consciousness and accomplishes itself spontaneously. Thus, all human behavior, to the extent that it passes through consciousness, is essentially subjective. Therefore, according to Bernstein, the term "objective necessity" could not be properly ascribed to any human social behavior in which more than an instinctual consciousness was present.

From this standpoint, the class struggle itself was not an expression of objective historical necessity, but merely the manifestation of subjective human will imposing itself on the objective course of events. "The desire for improved conditions for a specific social group," stated Bernstein, "can never be ‘objective.’ One could even say that the explanation of economic transformations never warrant the word ‘objective’ because these never occur without the mediation of human activity." Attempting to clarify the boundary, within the realm of human behavior, between the objective and subjective, between that which can or cannot be discussed in terms of science and necessity, Bernstein offered the following example: "The universal need for food is an objective power, but the wish for a varied diet is a subjective factor. Anything that supersedes ongoing life necessities for the realization of an idea or a deliberate goal is not based on objective necessity." [14] 

Bernstein’s argument does not withstand even a cursory consideration. He tells us that the need for food is objective, but that "the wish for a varied diet" is merely subjective. It did not seem to occur to him that a particular "wish" may be the subjective expression of an objectively-grounded need; or, to put it somewhat differently, that the subjective wish may develop on the basis of a conscious insight into objective necessity. The need for food is, of course, an objective necessity. But how man responds to hunger pangs is not merely a raw subjective impulse. The science of nutrition and the concept of a "balanced diet" low in saturated fats represent the refinement, adaptation and direction of the subjective impulse in accordance with a scientific understanding of the needs of the human organism. Indeed, the presence of consciousness is the essential prerequisite for the progressive harmonization of subjective desire and objective need.

Moving from cuisine to politics, without any improvement in his mode of argument, Bernstein insisted that socialism definitively forfeited any claim to science because it aspired to something—in this case, a form of socio-economic organization—that did not exist. "But how," asked Bernstein with exasperation, "can something for which we strive ever be pure science?" [15]  Science can do no more than observe and comment on what exists. "Because collectivism as an economic system assumes the form of an ideal," Bernstein declared, "it cannot simultaneously be viewed as a science." [16] 

Though Bernstein may have thought that he was puncturing only the scientific pretensions of Marxian socialism, when he asserted that man’s aspirations fall outside the domain of science, he was actually denying the very possibility of science. For scientific inquiry is, itself, a social practice whose creative impulse is to be found in man’s subjective response to the objective conditions with which he is confronted. Science arises as the expression of man’s conscious appropriation from nature of that which he requires to live and reproduce. Far from assuming the absolute separation of subject and object, the essential premise of scientific thought is the dialectical relationship of man and nature.

Here it is useful to consult Marx: "Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. ... A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement." [17] 

Science does not limit itself, in the manner of a clerk taking inventory, to a description of the material world as it exists outside human consciousness and practice. It does, indeed, concern itself with what does not exist. Science seeks to discover within objective nature the possibility of translating man’s dreams into reality. The myth of Icarus is more than 2,000 years old. The dream of flying eventually translated itself into the drawings of Leonardo, the biplane of the Wright brothers, and, more recently, the space shuttle. "Man’s consciousness not only reflects the world; it also ‘creates’ it."

Just as man’s insight into the laws of nature enables him to utilize and even alter in his own interests its spontaneously given conditions, the scientific insight achieved by Marxism into the laws regulating man’s historical development provides the possibility of organizing socio-economic life on the basis of consciously-understood human needs. Bernstein, while denying in general the possibility of such an insight, misrepresented the essential distinction between Marxism and the various forms of utopian socialist thought that preceded it. He claimed that the ‘innermost core" of Marxism was "a theory of a future social order." This was false in two fundamental respects:

First, the "innermost core" of Marxism is not a theory of the future or even a theory of history, but a materialist world-outlook, proceeding from the primacy of being over consciousness, grounded upon a dialectical method.

Second, Marx and Engels did not offer a theory of a future social order. Rather, they provided a consistently materialist explanation of the general laws of historical development and, upon that basis, the nature of the capitalist mode of production. In contrast to utopian socialism, which built up its conception of the society of the future upon abstract principles, Marxism revealed the historical necessity and possibility of socialism through the analysis of the contradictions of the existing society. Marx did not set out to devise a new social system. He did not "invent" socialism.

As is well known, Marx made no attempt to draw a blueprint of a future social order. Nothing comparable to the Phalansteries of Fourier will be found in the writings of Marx. Rather, Marx demonstrated that the economic development of bourgeois society, independently of the will of socialists, lays the foundations for the socialization of the means of production; and that the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, which is based objectively on the exploitation of the working class, tend toward crisis, breakdown and social revolution. Socialism is, therefore, a necessary (though not, in a formal sense, inevitable) outcome of the socio-economic structure of the existing society, and, in a still more profound sense, the entire historical evolution of man.

Bernstein’s Empiricism

Even after recognizing the hollowness of Bernstein’s theoretical conceptions, one still feels compelled to ask: how was it possible for Bernstein to have been so utterly blind to the social contradictions that were accumulating and driving European civilization toward a catastrophe? At least part of the answer might be found by posing the question to our contemporaries. Why are so many supposedly intelligent people so completely blind to the contradictions that are driving our own civilization toward the abyss? Why has the collapse of the "Five Tigers of Asia" taken so many supposedly well-informed people by surprise? The life of Eduard Bernstein should be studied not as a model, but, at the least, as a cautionary tale. Especially in our own age of almost universal historical ignorance and political blindness, there is something to be learned from the errors of an Eduard Bernstein who, for all his limitations, would hardly come out badly in comparison to the political figures currently active on the world stage. Moreover, in Bernstein’s defense, let us acknowledge that it was not so easy to see, in 1898, amidst the wealth and power of late 19th century European capitalism, the signs of impending disaster. What was required was not merely a keen eye, but what Marx had once referred to as "the force of abstraction."

It was precisely this intellectual capacity that Bernstein lacked. An empiricist, his political horizons were determined by the "facts" as he derived them from either casual observation or from his reading of the newspapers and his study of economic statistics. Bernstein sincerely believed himself to be a man of science, and his chief reproach against Marx was that his Hegelian methodology and revolutionary aims made it impossible for him to adopt an objective approach to the "facts" of socio-economic life.

Bernstein was laboring under the common illusion of the empiricist: that "facts" are the elementary, "pure," "value-free" and intellectually uncontaminated particles of absolutely objective data that constitute the organic structure of truth. The accumulation of a sufficient number of these particles of politically-neutral data will provide the social scientist with a truly objective picture of social reality upon which a reasonable course of action can be decided.

What the empiricist denies, or fails to recognize, is that the "facts" of social reality are themselves the products of history, and that the manner in which facts are isolated and placed within a conceptual framework is socially conditioned. Every social fact is the child of historical conditions and exists as part of a complex network of socio-economic relations. Moreover, these "facts" are cognized—indeed, they only come to be recognized as "facts"—through the operation of cognitive concepts and categories that are also the product and reflection of an historical process.

The empiricist who insists that his selection and study of social facts is entirely neutral is unaware of the historically conditioned character of the concepts with which he is working; that he is, in other words, adopting an essentially unconscious and uncritical attitude toward the forms of his own thinking.

The uncritical attitude of Bernstein toward his own theoretical conceptions emerged most clearly in his famous statement that the final goal was nothing; that he was concerned only with the here and now. What were the implications of this outlook? Like the facts themselves, the practice of the socialist movement was thus torn out of its historical context. On this basis, political activity was to be formulated without any sense that it was part of a historical process to which it was accountable.

It followed from Bernstein’s empiricism that he proclaimed his rejection of the revolutionary perspective at precisely the point at which the contradictions, whose existence he denied, were about to break through to the surface of observable political life. It is not always a very knowledgeable owl that takes flight at dusk. The appearance of stability is often greatest at the very moment when the sun is just about to set on a given social order. The empirical data testifying to the strength of the existing system has attained, in terms of quantity, its apogee. It seems pointless, to the empiricist, to persist in questioning a social order whose viability is substantiated by such an impressive array of data. But those pieces of data have already been superceded and are, at any rate, no more than contradictory indices of a situation that is, by its very nature, not only inconclusive, but in the process of changing direction. The political empiricist, seizing on the given data to justify capitulation to the existing order, makes the mistake of imposing upon an on-going process an arbitrary conclusion. Thus, he mistakes a moment of historical transition for the final outcome. That is why Bernstein could not see, in 1898, the approaching shadow of 1914, let alone that of 1933.

Notes

1. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy,
Manfred Steger, (Cambridge University Press), pp.14-15 [back]

2. Ibid p.15 [back]

3. The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism (New York, 1970), p. 110 [back]

4. Steger, op cit., p. 69 [back]

5. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 203 [back]

6. Selected Writings of Eduard Bernstein 1920-21, ed. Manfred Steger
(New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1996), p. 97 [back]

7. Ibid., p. 99 [back]

8. Ibid., p. 95 [back]

9. Ibid., p.116 [back]

10. Ibid., p. 118 [back]

11. Ibid., p. 104 [back]

12. Selected Philosophical Works, Volume III (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 34 [back]

13. Neue Zeit, 1901 (translation by D. North) [back]

14. Bernstein, op. cit., p. 36 [back]

15. Ibid., 106 [back]

16. Ibid., p. 108 [back]

17. Capital, Volume I, p. 174 [back]