Lecture two: Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century

Part 2

By David North
3 September 2005


This is the second part of the lecture “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the second lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century,” also by David North, was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1.

The growth of socialist influence and the bourgeois counteroffensive

Though at first slowly, the influence of the theoretical work of Marx and Engels made itself felt. The First International, founded in 1864, provided, despite the bitter conflict with the Bakuninites, an important forum for the spread of Marxist ideas. In August 1869 the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei was founded at a conference in Eisenach. This party was not based on a theoretically consistent Marxist program. Lassallean conceptions exerted—and would continue to exert for many years—substantial political influence upon the German working class.

But during the decade that followed, Marxism achieved a dominant position among the socialist-minded workers of Germany. The efforts of the Bismarckian regime to suppress the Social Democratic Party proved counterproductive. In elections held in 1890, after 11 years during which the state had enforced its so-called “Anti-Socialist” laws, the SPD gathered 19.7 percent of the vote. The emergence of the working class as a mass political force, led by a party whose program proclaimed the death-knell of the bourgeois order, could not but have a far-reaching impact on the general intellectual as well as political outlook of the ruling class.

By the 1880s, the bourgeoisie could not ignore the growing and increasingly powerful influence of Marxism in European political and intellectual life. It recognized that so mighty a challenge to the existing social order could not be left to Bismarck and his political police. Nor were simple denunciations of socialism sufficient. The struggle against socialism inevitably assumed a more sophisticated ideological form. In various and diverse fields—economics, sociology and philosophy—intellectual representatives of the bourgeoisie began to grapple with Marxism, seeking to find weaknesses in its theoretical foundations. One persistent element of the new criticism, associated with the revival of Kantian philosophy, was that Marxism falsely presented itself as a science.

The new opponents argued that Marxism could not be a science because its undeniable association with a political movement deprived it of the objectivity and detachment that is the prerequisite of scientific research. The sociologist Emil Durkheim wrote that Marx’s research “was undertaken to establish a doctrine... far from the doctrine resulting from research... It was passion that inspired all these systems; what gave birth to them and constitutes their strength is the thirst for more perfect justice... Socialism is not a science, a sociology in miniature: it is a cry of pain.”[5] The liberal Italian historian Benedetto Croce argued along similar lines that Marxism could not be a science because its conclusions were the product of revolutionary political passions. [6]

For more than a century, the bourgeois-liberal attack on the validity of Marxism has been centered on the denial of its scientific character. This criticism involves invariably a falsification of what Marx and Engels meant when they claimed to have placed socialism on a scientific foundation. At no time did they claim that they had discovered laws which govern socio-economic processes with the same exactness as the manner in which the laws discovered by physicists determine the movement and trajectory of planetary and interstellar phenomena. No such laws exist.

However, this in no way detracts from the scientific character of Marxism, which must be understood in the following sense. The socialism of Marx and Engels distinguished itself from the schemes and ideas of an earlier generation of utopian thinkers, who could not establish a necessary and objective relation of causality between the existing conditions of society and their own plans for its reform and regeneration. This limitation was overcome by Marx and Engels—first, with the elaboration of the materialist conception of history, and, second, with the discovery of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. That these laws manifest themselves as tendencies, rather than in fully predictable and recurring sequences, expresses not a limitation in Marxism, but rather the essentially heterogeneous and internally contradictory character of objective social reality.

Broadly speaking, the discovery and demonstration of the decisive role of economic processes and relationships in human society made possible the demystification and conscious understanding of history. The categories developed, enriched and employed by Marx in the course of his investigation of capitalism—such as labor power, value, profit—were abstract theoretical expressions of real objectively existing socio-economic relationships.

The claim that political partisanship is incompatible with scientific objectivity is a sophistry. The validity of research is neither excluded by partisanship nor guaranteed by indifference. Partisanship is not an argument against the scientific and objective character of Marxism; it would have to be shown that partisanship compromised the integrity of the research and led to demonstrably false conclusions.

By the mid-1890s, the impact of the persistent bourgeois critique of Marxism made itself felt within the socialist movement. Eduard Bernstein, one of the most important figures in the German Social Democratic Party, began—at first cautiously and then with the sort of unrestrained enthusiasm that is usually exhibited by political renegades—to voice his objections to the revolutionary program of Marxism. Given the prominent position that Bernstein held in the German and international socialist movement—he was the literary executor of Friedrich Engels—it was unavoidable that his critique of Marxism became a political cause celébre, provoking internal struggles within socialist parties throughout Europe. The scale of the conflict over Bernstein’s “revisions” of Marxism, which Bernstein himself had not expected or even desired, signified that the dispute had deep social, rather than purely personal roots.

As I have already noted, bourgeois theoreticians—as a sort of ideological defense mechanism—had begun by the 1890s to respond aggressively to the growth of the socialist movement. But the impact of this counteroffensive was conditioned by significant changes in the world economic climate. The protracted economic depression that had begun in the mid-1870s had finally given way to a recovery of profit levels and a robust expansion in industry and finance. Though not without setbacks, the economic expansion which began in the mid-1890s persisted until the very eve of World War I. From a crudely empirical and positivist standpoint, the visible strengthening of the basic economic indices of capitalist production and trade, along with their positive and broadly-felt impact on the living standards of broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie and certain working class strata, called into question the Marxian analysis of the capitalist system—and, in particular, of the imminence of its revolutionary breakdown.

The massive industrialization of Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the formal establishment of the Empire in 1871 (which marked the completion under Bismarck of German unification) underlay the contradictions of the German workers’ movement which made possible its extraordinarily rapid growth, its formal adoption of Marxism as the theoretical revolutionary basis of its program, and, also, the growth of revisionism. First, Germany’s new industries developed on the basis of the most modern technologies within which a well-educated and highly skilled working class emerged. It was among this important stratum that Marxian conceptions found a receptive audience. Moreover, the thoroughly reactionary character of the Hohenzollern-Bismarckian state structure, which concentrated political power in the hands of a landowning elite steeped in the traditions of Prussian militarism and pathologically hostile to all forms of popular democracy, encountered no significant opposition from a timid liberal bourgeoisie.

The socialist movement was the real focal point of mass opposition to the state. The Social Democracy created a massive organizational network which embraced virtually every aspect of working class life. The SPD, under the leadership of August Bebel, represented what was known as a “state within a state.” Indeed, while Wilhelm II was the Kaiser of the German Empire, Bebel—whose entire adult life, since the early 1860s, had been devoted to the building of the socialist movement, and for which he had spent nearly five years in prison—was popularly viewed as the “Kaiser” of the working class.

The practice of the socialist movement, dating back to the difficult struggle against the anti-Socialist laws of the 1880s, had been concentrated on the systematic development and strengthening of its organization. The legendary talents of the German people in this particular sphere were enhanced by the theoretical insights provided by Marxism. Further, the growth of German working class organization was linked organically with the development of German industry. The tragic political implications of the profound internal connection between the German industrial-economic development and the growth of the German national labor movement was to become all too clear in the crisis of 1914.

However shocking the events of August 1914, they were prepared over a rather lengthy period. I will speak about this in greater detail somewhat later. But let me point out that certain characteristics of the Social Democratic movement, both in terms of organization and political practice, that were to lead to the tragedy of 1914 were already apparent by the mid-1890s.

While the acceptance of the Erfurt Program in 1893 had formally committed the SPD to a revolutionary transformation of society, the practice of the German socialist movement—determined to a great degree by the prevailing objective conditions in a period of rapid economic expansion—was of a predominantly reformist character. Trotsky would later say that in Hohenzollern Germany Marxism found itself in the peculiar position of reconciling a revolutionary perspective with a reformist practice. Within this framework, two spheres of activity were of exceptional importance: first, electoral activity, aimed at increasing social democratic representation in the German Reichstag and the various state parliaments; second, trade union activity—that is, the organization and representation of workers within capitalist industry.

In both spheres, the SPD achieved significant practical results. However, this came with what were, from a revolutionary-strategic standpoint, significant costs. The work of the parliamentary factions raised in innumerable forms the problem of the relationship between the maintenance of the political independence of the working class from the bourgeois state and the pressure to produce practical results. While the SPD was the largest political party in Germany, it was outnumbered in the Reichstag by the combination of its aristocratic and bourgeois opponents. On its own, it could do no more than vote as a parliamentary minority against government measures.

This frustrating situation suggested no simple, let alone principled solution. But there were elements within the Social Democracy, particularly in South Germany, who did see a solution—in some sort of parliamentary alliance with the bourgeois liberals. This was opposed by the national leadership and Bebel refused to sanction this form of class collaboration in the national Reichstag, where he led the party’s faction. But the pressure for practical collaboration with sections of the German bourgeoisie existed.

The other sphere of work, the trade unions, posed even greater problems. The SPD had during the 1870s and 1880s functioned as the midwife of German trade unionism. It provided the leadership and financing for the early development of the trade unions. But by the early 1890s, the relation of forces between the trade unions and the party began to change. The trade unions grew more rapidly than the party, and the latter became over time increasingly dependent upon the organizational and financial support provided by the former. The major trade unions in Germany were led by Social Democrats who retained formal adherence to the political line laid down by the Bebel faction in the SPD leadership. But the day-to-day work of the trade union leaders was, unavoidably, of a generally reformist character.

While the theoretical formulae employed by Bernstein were directly influenced by popular prevailing tendencies in bourgeois anti-Marxist philosophy, the material impulse for Bernstein’s revisionism was provided by the objective socio-economic conditions within Europe and Germany. Within this objective context, Bernstein’s revisionism arose as a theoretical expression of the generally reformist practice of the German socialist movement. To the extent that these objective conditions and forms of practical activity existed, to a lesser or greater degree, in other countries, Bernstein’s revisionism found an international response.

To be continued

[5] Quoted in H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 77.
[6] Ibid, p. 88.

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