Lucio Colletti

Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International

    T H E  ' B R E A K D O W N  T H E O R Y '

    The pivot upon which the whole of Bernstein's argument turns is his critique of the 'theory of breakdown'. In his book, Bernstein and the Social-Democratic Programme, which appeared in the same year, 1899, Kautsky correctly pointed out that 'Marx and Engels never produced a special "theory of breakdown" and that this term originates from Bernstein himself, just as the term "theory of immiseration" owes its existence to the adversaries of Marxism'.[9] But what Bernstein understood by this theory was in substance nothing other than the content of the famous paragraph in Capital on the 'historical tendency of capitalist accumulation'.

        In Marx's account, the imperative laws of competition determine the progressive expropriation of smaller capitalists by larger and hence an ever more accentuated 'centralization of capital'. This process, periodically accelerated by economic crisis, reveals the inherent limit of the capitalist regime: the contradiction between the social character of production and the private form of appropriation. On the one hand, these 'develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process . . . the transformation of the instruments of labour into instru- ments of labour only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labour'. On the other hand, 'along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grow the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself'.

        Marx concludes:

    The monopoly of eapital itself becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.[10]

        It is true that Bernstein did not accept this account of the 'historical tendency of capitalist accumulation', which he regarded as a 'purely speculative anticipation'. Not by chance is the major thrust of his book directed at denying or strictly circumscribing what is today regarded, even by non-Marxist economists, as the most verified of all Marx's predictions; the capitalist concentration and centralization he forecast. Here we need refer only to the judgement of the eminent American economist, V. Leontiev, who rejects many aspects of Marx's theory. Discussing Marx's 'brilliant analysis of the long-run tendencies of the capitalist system', he observes:

    The record is indeed impressive: increasing concentration of wealth, rapid elimination of small and medium-sized enterprises, progressive limitation of competition, incessant technological progress accompanied by the ever-growing importance of fixed capital, and, last but not least, the undiminishing amplitude of recurrent business cycles -- an unsurpassed series of prognostications fulfilled, against which modern economic theory with all its refinements has little to show indeed.[11]

    In this sense, Rosa Luxemburg was right to point out that 'what Bernstein questions is not the rapidity of the development of capitalist society, but

        10 Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 763.
        11 Proceedings of the Fiftieth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association, 1937 (American Economic Review Supplement, March 1938, pp. 5, 9).

    the march of this development itself and consequently, the very possibility of a change to socialism'. He 'not merely rejects a certain form of the collapse. He rejects the very possibility of collapse'.[12] Or, better still, he denied not only the 'breakdown' (which we shall see, is not one of Marx's ideas), but also -- quite apart from any notion of automatic 'breakdown', such as Luxemburg's own thesis that the system 'moves towards a point where it will be unbalanced when it will simply become impossible"[13] the vital nucleus of Marxism itself: namely, the idea that the capitalist order is a historical phenomenon, a transitory and non-natural order, which, through its own internal and objective contradictions inevitably nurtures within itself the forces that impel it towards a different organization of society.

        There is no doubt that Bernstein expressly rejected all this. The best proof, if proof were needed, is his concern to demonstrate the possibility of the 'self-regulation' of capitalism. Cartels, credit, the improved system of communications, the rise of the working class, insofar as they act to eliminate or at least mitigate the internal contradictions of the capitalist economy, hindering their development and aggravation, ensure for the system the possibility of unlimited survival. In other words, for Marx's basic conception according to which the advent of socialism has its preconditions and objective roots within the process of capitalist production itself, Bernstein substituted a socialism based upon an ethical ideal, the goal of a civilized humanity free to choose its own future in conformity with the highest principles of morality and justice. As Rosa Luxemburg acidly commented: 'What we are offered here is an exposition of the socialist programme based upon "pure reason". We have here, in simpler language, an idealist exposition of socialism. The objective necessity of socialism, as the result of the material development of society, falls to the ground.'[14]

        However, granted this, it is also necessary to point out that the way in which Marx's own theory was expounded by the Marxism of that period transformed what Marx himself had declared a historical tendency into an 'inevitable law of nature '. A violent crisis would sooner or later produce conditions of acute poverty which would turn people's minds against the system, convincing them of the impossibility of continuing under the existing order. This extreme and fateful economic crisis would then expand into a generalized crisis of society, only concluded by the advent to power of the proletariat. Such, according to Bernstein, was the dominant conception within Social Democracy. The conviction had become deeply rooted, he wrote, that 'this path of development was an inevitable natural law and that a generalized economic crisis was the necessary crucible for the emergence of a socialist society'.

        The attribution to German Social Democracy of this thesis of an imminent and inevitable 'breakdown' (Zusammenbruch ) of bourgeois society under the fatal impact of 'purely economic causes' was energetically attacked by Kautsky in his thorough reply to The Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy. He wrote: 'In the official declarations of German Social Democracy, Bernstein will seek in vain any affirmation that could be construed in the sense of the "theory of breakdown" he imputes to it. In the passage of the Erfurt Programme dealing with crises, there is no mention of "breakdown".'[15] Yet Bernstein's accusation was not altogether wide of the mark: this can be shown not only by some of the reactions it aroused in Marxist circles (Cunow for example), reaffirming that Marx and Engels did indeed believe in a catastrophic breakdown of capitalism,[16] but also by the Erfurt Programme itself, drawn up by Kautsky in 1891-2. In the Erfurt Programme, the conversion or transformation of the 'historical tendency' Marx had discussed into the terms of a naturalistic and fatal necessity is quite evident.

        Kautsky wrote in his commentary to the programme:

    We consider the breakdown (Zusammenbruch ) of existing society as inevitable, since we know that economic development creates with a natural necessity conditions which force the exploited to strive against private property; that it increases the number and power of the exploited while it reduces the number and power of the exploiters, whose interest is to maintain the existing order; that it leads, finally, to unbearable conditions for the mass of the population, which leave it only a choice between passive degeneration and the active overthrow of the existing system of ownership.

        And he added:

    Capitalist society has failed; its dissolution is only a question of time; irresistible economic development leads with natural necessity to the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production. The erection of a new form of society in place of the existing one is no longer something merely desirable; it has become something inevitable.[17]

        This theme of the approaching breakdown of capitalism and the imminent passage to socialism constitutes an essential guide-line in the Bernstein-Debatte. This was not only for the theoretical or doctrinaire reasons already mentioned, to which we shall have occasion to return; but also because, in the various forms this theme assumed around the turn of the century, we can trace the reverberation of a real historical process, which must at least be mentioned at this point.

     T H E ' G R E A T D E P R E S S I O N '

        8 Letter from Kautsky to V. Adler, 21 March 1899, in Adler, op. cit., p. 303.
        9 Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm, op. cit., p. 42.

        12 Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution?, op. cit., pp. 10-11.
        13 ibid., p. 10. This thesis was later developed by Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital.
        14 ibid., p. 12.

        15 Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm, op. cit., p. 43.
        16 For a reconstruction of the 'breakdown controversy' see P. M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, New York, 1968, pp. 190 ff.