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

Part 3

By David North
5 September 2005


This is the third and final 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 revisionism of Eduard Bernstein

When did Bernstein’s revisionism first emerge? There were many symptoms. Indeed, early in his socialist career, Bernstein had evinced a susceptibility toward diluting revolutionary Marxism with petty-bourgeois humanistic jargon. In the late 1870s Bernstein had aligned himself with Karl Höchberg, a wealthy patron of the young social-democratic movement who believed that socialism would have better prospects as a popular multi-class movement, appealing especially to the middle class on an ethical basis. Under pressure from Bebel and Engels, Bernstein retreated from this position; but, as is so often the case in politics, what first appear as youthful mistakes turn out to be early symptoms of a political tendency.

Later, Bernstein moved to England, where he developed very friendly relations with the representatives of the reformist Fabian movement. It seems very likely that his experiences in Britain, where labor reformism had spread like weeds in the aftermath of the collapse of revolutionary Chartism, made a profound impression on Bernstein. In wealthy Britain, with its stable middle class and deeply rooted parliamentary system, the prospects for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism seemed to Bernstein highly remote.

In early 1895, Engels was deeply distressed when he discovered that his introduction to a new edition of The Class Struggles in France, written by Marx in 1850, had been edited by Bernstein and Kautsky in a manner which left the impression that the old revolutionary had become a disciple of a peaceful road to socialism. On April 1, 1895, just four months before his death, Engels wrote angrily to Kautsky:

“I was amazed to see today in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my ‘Introduction’ that had been printed without my knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent of legality quand même (at all costs). Which is all the more reason why I should like it to appear in its entirety in the Neue Zeit in order that this disgraceful impression may be erased. I shall leave Liebknecht in no doubt as to what I think about it and the same applies to those who, irrespective of who they may be, gave him this opportunity of perverting my views and, what’s more, without so much as a word to me about it.” [7]

In October 1896, a little more than a year after the death of Engels, Bernstein contributed an article on the subject of “Problems of Socialism” which marked the formal beginning of his open repudiation of the revolutionary program of Marxism. His article began by noting the rapid advance and growing influence of the socialist movement in Europe. Even the bourgeois parties had to pay attention to the demands advanced by the socialists. Though, Bernstein argued, these successes did not mean that socialism was on the verge of total victory, it had certainly become necessary to abandon the largely negative attitude taken by the socialist movement toward existing reality. In its place, the socialists had to “come forward with positive suggestions of reform.” [8]

Over the next two years, culminating in the publication of The Preconditions of Socialism, Bernstein was to elaborate his critique of orthodox Marxism. These writings made clear that there was virtually no element of Marxism with which Bernstein was in agreement. He rejected its philosophical debt to Hegel and its espousal of the dialectical method. Bernstein argued that the actual development of capitalism had refuted the economic analysis of Marx. In particular, Bernstein repudiated what he called “socialist catastrophitis,” the belief that capitalism was moving as a result of internal contradictions toward extreme crisis. While acknowledging the possibility of periodic crises, Bernstein insisted that capitalism had developed, and would continue to develop, “means of adaptation”—such as the use of credit—through which such crises could be either indefinitely postponed or ameliorated.

In any event, the future of socialism, Bernstein insisted, should not be linked to the inevitability of a major crisis of the capitalist system. As Bernstein wrote to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social Democratic Party in 1898:

“I have opposed the view that we stand on the threshold of an imminent collapse of bourgeois society, and that Social Democracy should allow its tactics to be determined by, or made dependent upon, the prospect of any such forthcoming major catastrophe. I stand by this view in every particular.”[9]

This was a central point: the essential issue was not a matter of predicting in precise and graphic terms the form that a “catastrophe” would take. No prediction, valid for all times and conditions, could be made. Rather, the critical question was whether or not there existed any objective and necessary connection between the development of socialism and actually existing internal contradictions of the capitalist system. If no such connection existed, then it was impossible to speak of socialism as a historic necessity.

What then, in the absence of necessity, provided the rationale for socialism? For Bernstein, socialism could and should be justified on a ethical and humanist basis—that is, as the application in the sphere of politics of Kant’s categorical imperative, which includes the following injunction: “Act so as to treat man, in your own person as well as in that of anyone else, always as an end, not merely as a means.”

Bernstein’s efforts to establish an ethical basis for socialism were not original. Indeed, during the 1890s there existed a significant group of neo-Kantian academicians who believed that Kant’s categorical imperative led logically to socialism. Some, like the prominent neo-Kantian philosopher Morris Cohen, argued that Kant must be considered, on the basis of his ethics, “the true and actual founder of German socialism.”[10]

This was both wrong and naïve. The categorical imperative occupies in the sphere of ethical conduct the same place that common sense, in general, occupies in the day-to-day activities of the average person. Just as the application of common sense may produce quite satisfactory results in all sorts of undemanding situations, the categorical imperative may serve as a guide to acceptable behavior within a limited social framework. In the conduct of purely private and personal relations, it would be highly praiseworthy to treat one’s fellow human as an end, rather than as a means. But in the public sphere, any sort of strict adherence to this imperative is highly problematic.

The universal application of this maxim in a society divided into classes is, in any serious political sense, impossible. Kant, who lived well before industrial capitalism had developed extensively in Germany, could not have understood that his central ethical postulate was objectively irreconcilable with the relations of production in a capitalist society. What else is the wage worker to the capitalist other than the means by which surplus value and profit are produced?

Within the German Social Democratic Party, there was originally great reluctance to publicly challenge Bernstein. It was the Russian Marxists, first Parvus and then Plekhanov, who insisted upon an open and all-out fight against Bernstein’s revisions. Plekhanov, employing his well-known “take no prisoners” approach to theoretical polemics, wrote a series of devastating essays which exposed the bankruptcy of Bernstein’s philosophical conceptions. These essays are among the finest expositions of the dialectical method and the theoretical foundations of Marxism. Far better known is the brilliant polemical work by the 27-year-old Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? In the first chapter, she concisely summed up the basic issue posed by Bernstein’s attack on Marxism:

“Revisionist theory thus places itself in a dilemma. Either the socialist transformation is, as was admitted up to now, the consequence of the internal contradictions of capitalism, and with the growth of capitalism will develop its internal contradictions, resulting inevitably, at some point, in its collapse (in that case the ‘means of adaptation’ are ineffective and the theory of collapse is correct); or the ‘means of adaptation’ will really stop the collapse of the capitalist system and thereby enable capitalism to maintain itself by suppressing its own contradictions. In that case socialism ceases to be a historic necessity. It then becomes anything you want to call it, but is no longer the result of the material development of society.

“The dilemma leads to another. Either revisionism is correct in its position on the course of capitalist development, and therefore the socialist transformation of society is only a utopia, or socialism is not a utopia, and the theory of ‘means of adaptation’ is false. There is the question in a nutshell.”[11]

Upon reading The Preconditions of Socialism, one cannot help but be amazed at the extent to which Bernstein seemed utterly oblivious to the ominous rumblings beneath the surface of fin-de-siécle capitalist society. He assumed with staggering complacency that the indices of economic development would proceed upward indefinitely, steadily raising the living standards of the masses. The idea of a major crisis appeared to Bernstein to be utter lunacy. Even the warnings that the new phenomena of colonialism and militarism would lead to a violent clash between massively armed capitalist states—one of the possible forms that the impending catastrophe might assume—was dismissed by Bernstein as panic-mongering. “Fortunately,” Bernstein smugly noted, “we are increasingly becoming accustomed to settle political differences in ways other than by use of firearms.”[12] This, on the eve of the twentieth century!

Despite the reluctance of the leaders of German Social Democracy, an open struggle against Bernstein’s views could not be avoided. Though he delayed taking up his pen as long as possible, Kautsky—the ultimate arbiter of all theoretical issues inside the German and European socialist movement—finally entered the lists against Bernstein, and soberly refuted his major points. At the Party congress of 1898 and at others in the years that followed, Bernstein’s heresies were officially condemned. At a theoretical level, Marxism reigned supreme. But at another level, that of party practice and organization, the struggle against theoretical revisionism had no impact whatsoever.

When Plekhanov called upon the SPD to expel Bernstein, the proposal was rejected by the party leaders out of hand. There existed no great desire among party leaders to explore and expose the very real connection between revisionist theory and the SPD’s practice and organization. To have done so would inevitably have called into question the relationship between the SPD and the trade unions which were, at least nominally, under the party’s control.

There were many reasons why the SPD leaders did not relish the prospects of an open struggle against the practical forms of opportunism, especially those associated with the day-to-day practice of the trade unions. They feared that such a struggle could split the party, produce a rupture in the ranks of the working class, undermine decades of organizational progress, and even facilitate state repression against the SPD. These were weighty concerns. And yet, the consequences of the SPD’s evasion of the struggle against political opportunism were profound and tragic.

Moreover, revisionism was not simply a German problem. It manifested itself in various forms throughout the Second International. In 1899, the French Socialist Party was shaken when one of its leaders, Alexander Millerand, accepted an invitation from the French President, Waldeck-Rousseau, to join his cabinet as the minister of commerce. This event made all too clear that the logic of Bernsteinism led to class collaboration, political capitulation to the bourgeoisie, and the defense of its state.

Only in one section of the Second International, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, was the struggle against revisionism developed systematically and worked through to its most far-reaching political conclusions.


[7] Collected Works, Volume 50 (New York: International Publishers, 2004), p. 86.
[8] Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate 1896-1898, ed. H. Tudor and J.M. Tudor (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 74.
[9] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 1.
[10] Quoted in Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism (New York: Collier, 1970), p. 152.
[11] London: Bookmarks, 1989, p. 29.
[12] Preconditions, p. 162.

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