Lucio Colletti

Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International

C A P I T A L I S M  A N D  T H E  C O N S T I T U T I O N

When Bernstein's book is considered as a whole, it can be seen that the point to which his argument constantly returns and from which all his theses stem is, on the one hand, the 'contradiction' between political equality and social inequality; and, on the other, the capacity of the parliamentary government or modern representative state progressively to iron out the tensions and conflicts arising from class differences, to the point where their very source is removed.

    The appeal to the inalienable 'rights of man' proclaimed by the French Revolution; the emphasis on natural law underlying Bernstein's 'ethical' socialism; his exaltation of 'liberalism', which he sees as the soul of modern democracy, to the extent of reducing the latter to the 'political form' of liberalism (die Demokratie ist nur die politische Form des Liberalismus ) -- all this does not require comment, given the eloquent clarity with which it is expressed. If time and space allowed, it would be obligatory to compare it with that remarkable document of ethico-political reflection, Marx's early text on The Jewish Question.

    But to bring back our argument to the initial point, I shall rather emphasize that the development of this interclassist conception of the state in German Social Democracy was a gradual one, almost a slow historical accretion, interlinked with the practical political vicissitudes of the party. In 1890, with the fall of Bismarck, the anti-socialist law came to an end. The introduction of this law, which forced on German Social Democracy a quasi-illegal existence for twelve years, was not unconnected with difficulties consequent on the economic depression discussed above. According to Mehring, 'with the anti-socialist law, big industry, under the impact of the crash, made common cause with the reactionary classes. It obtained its industrial tariffs, while the bankrupt Junkers were artificially kept alive by agrarian tariffs and subsidies. These tariffs freed military absolutism from parliamentary control, still inconvenient in spite of the feebleness of the bourgeois parties in the Reichstag .'[132]

    From this difficult period, however, which it had confronted with courage and determination, German Social Democracy emerged enormously strengthened. When the anti-socialist laws were passed, the party had 437,000 votes and the trade unions had 50,000 members; by the

    132 F. Mehring, Geschichte der deutschen Sozialdemokratie, 8th and 9th editions, Stuttgart, 1919, Part II, Vol. 4, p. 338.


time they came to an end, the party could boast 1,427,000 votes and the unions 200,000 members. 'In twelve years of struggle the Party had not only become larger and more powerful, but was also considerably enriched in its innermost essence. It had not only resisted and hit back, but also worked, learned; it had given proof not only of its strength but also of its spirit.'[133]

    This quantitative growth and the return to legality, even in the limited terms allowed by German conditions, created a series of qualitatively new problems. Having reached the point of its fullest development, the party now had to confront the difficult and complex transition from a phase of simple propaganda to one of concrete political choices and constant co-ordinated and practical action. So long as the party was proscribed, it had no choice but to use parliament as a propaganda tribune for socialism. But now that Bismarck had been dismissed and there was a prospect of rapid and steady electoral growth, with a general climate which seemed favourable to social reforms, should this purely negative attitude be abandoned? Should the parliamentary delegates of the party become spokesmen for the demands of the trade-union movement, favour the adoption of those measures that seemed feasible and in some way insert themselves positively in the Reichstag debates, passing from non-cooperation to a constructive policy?[134]

    This turn posed serious tactical and strategic problems. Was it right to seek collaboration or alliance with other political forces or was this not to run the risk that the party, still young and moreover swollen with recent recruits, would thereby lose its independence and identity ? Then there was the question of the Reich, founded in 1870: should it be regarded as an enemy to fight, or accepted as a fact within which it was possible to work to obtain in the meanwhile the bourgeois-democratic reforms from which the German state was still so far removed?

    At the Erfurt Congress (October 1891) the prevailing attitude seemed largely inspired by confidence and optimism. The party suffered, it is true, a minor rupture on the left, but this only underlined the firm determination of the majority to struggle forward in legality. The period which was now opening would see the party and the trade-union movement grow with gradual but irresistible force. In a reasonable period of time, the Social Democrats would conquer the majority of seats in the

    133 ibid, p. 326.
    134 For this section in general, see G. D. H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, Vol. III, The Second International, Part I, London, 1963, pp. 249 ff.


Reichstag -- a majority that no government soldiery could ever disperse. At that point, backed by the maturity and consciousness attained by the masses, the party would undertake the socialist transformation of society, using parliament itself to this end. The fact that the party did not yet have this decisive influence in the Reichstag should not induce it to condemn the system outright. 'Parliament', said old Wilhelm Liebknecht at the Congress, 'is nothing more than representative of the people. If we have not yet achieved results in parliament, this is not because of a defect in the system but simply because we have not yet got the necessary backing in the country and among the people.'[135] 'The other road' which some urged, the 'shorter' or 'violent' road, was merely that of anarchy.

    The passage from Engels cited at the beginning of this essay essentially reflects this strategic perspective. The right to vote is considered as a weapon which can, in a short space of time, carry the proletariat to power; the Paris Commune is regarded as a blood-letting not to be repeated. It must be made clear that this strategic vision is by no means yet 'revisionism'. But if it is not 'revisionism' it is nonetheless its unconscious preamble and preparation.

    German Social Democracy chose the 'parliamentary road' at Erfurt, not because it had already abandoned the class conception of the State, but because its 'fatalistic' and 'providential' faith in the automatic progress of economic evolution gave it the certainty that its eventual rise to power would come about 'in a spontaneous, constant, and irresistible way, quite tranquilly, like a natural process'. On the other hand, the naturalistic objectivism which is the counterpart to this concept of 'economic evolution' had its counterpart in the dissolution of the Marxist theory of the State.

    Let us examine this question more closely. The theory of the State in the Marxism of the Second International was the theory in Engels's Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). This text, like all the Marxist discussions of the State which followed, is characterized by a transposition of the specific features of the modern representative State to the State in general, whatever the historical epoch or economic social regime underlying it. Marx's well-known statement that in bourgeois society 'particular' or class interests take the illusory form of 'universal' or 'general' interests -- which is the very pivot of his entire analysis of the above-discussed modern relation between political equality and social inequality -- is represented by Engels as a characteristic of all

    135 Cited by Cole, op. cit., pp. 253 ff.


types of class domination. As a result, it is impossible to relate this process of objective 'abstraction' or 'sublimation' to specifically capitalist economic-social conditions, and hence to explain it as an organic product of this particular type of society; it is seen instead as a conscious 'disguise' or fraud by the ruling classes, in much the same way as Voltaire imagined that religion owed its origin to the cunning of priests.

    Two consequences flow from this inability really to relate the modern State to its specific economic foundation. Firstly, a voluntarist conception which sees the State, or at least the form it assumes, as an intentional product of the ruling class, an invention ad hoc. Secondly, insofar as the form of the State is seen as indifferent to the type of social relations over which it presides, a conception which tends both to frantic subjectivism and to interclassism (following a route which has recently been traversed again). In the first case, the rise to power of a particular political personnel, rather than a modification of the roots on which the power structure rests, is seen as decisive and essential for socialism (hence regimes of the Rakosi type). In the second case, since power is understood as an identical instrument that can serve different, opposed interests according to the context, it is automatically voided of any class content (as in recent theories of the so-called 'State of the whole people').

    As Lenin pointed out in The State and Revolution : 'Marx . . . taught that the proletariat cannot simply conquer State power in the sense that the old apparatus passes into new hands (our italics), but must smash, break this apparatus and replace it by a new one',[136] i.e. by a State which begins slowly to 'wither away', making room for ever more extensive forms of direct democracy. This is a debatable position, of course, but one which has deep roots in Marx's thought. It seems to me, however, that it is a position already coming into crisis in Engels's 'political testament'. For here, just as 'legality' seems to revolt against the social and political forces which originally gave rise to it, the old State apparatus seems destined to welcome its inheritors to its breast, provided they know how 'to keep this [electoral] growth going, until it of itself gets beyond the control of the governmental system'.

    136 Lenin, Selected Works, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 354. In this connection it should be noted that Bernstein cites several times a statement of Marx's from the 1872 Preface to the Manifesto, that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes This means that the working class cannot restrict itself to taking power but must transform that power, 'smash ' the old structure and replace it by a new type of power. But Bernstein interprets it as a warning to the working class against too much revolutionary emphasis on the seizure of power.

    It is impossible to show here how this conception -- which, remarkably enough, is susceptible to two opposed interpretations: one sectarian and primitive, which considers political equality a mere 'trap'; and one 'revisionist', which sees the modern representative State as expressing the 'general interest' -- has exhaustively nourished the two opposed traditions of the workers' movement. To show how much more realistic and complex Marx's analysis is, I shall restrict myself to one of his most successful and compressed formulations, discussing The Class Struggles in France :

The comprehensive contradiction of this constitution, however, consists in the following: the classes whose social slavery the constitution is to perpetuate, proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie, it puts in possession of political power through universal suffrage. And from the class whose old social power it sanctions, the bourgeoisie, it withdraws the political guarantees of this power. It forces the political rule of the bourgeoisie into democratic conditions, which at every moment help the hostile classes to victory and jeopardize the very foundations of bourgeois society. From the ones it demands that they should not go forward from political to social emancipation; from the others that they should not go back from social to political restoration.[137]

Unless I am mistaken, the first writer to 'rediscover' these lines and make them the central point of his own study of the relationship between liberal and socialist democracy was Otto Bauer, who, in a famous and in many respects important book published in 1936, Zwischen zwei Weltkriegen?,[138] gave an interpretation of them very similar to Bernstein's theses -- an interpretation later taken over lock, stock and barrel by John Strachey in his book Contemporary Capitalism.[139]

    According to this interpretation, Marx's test confirms the central thesis of at least one tendency in present-day Social Democracy: the idea that in the great 'Western Democracies' the 'basic tendencies in the political and economic fields', as Strachey puts it, 'move in diametrically opposed directions'. While 'the diffusion of universal suffrage and its use has become ever more effective, the growing strength of trades unionism' over the last half-century 'has diffused political power', placing it more and more in the hands of the working classes. In the very same period, by contrast, 'economic power has come to be concentrated in the hands of the largest oligopolies'.

    It follows from this interpretation that in the 'great Western democ-

    137 Marx and Engels, Selected Works in two volumes, Moscow, 1962, Vol. I, p. 172.
    138 O. Bauer, Zwischen zwei Weltkriegen?, Bratislava, 1936, pp. 97 ff.
    139 J. Strachey, Contemporary Capitalism, London, 1956.


racies', the situation is basically characterized by a 'contrast' between politics and economy, between the constitution or Rechtsstaat or parliamentary government (the political form more or less common to all these countries) and their economy which remains capitalist. There is no question, in other words, of seeking to establish a new democracy or new type of democracy; the existing one is the only one possible. The problem is rather to transfer democracy from the political plane, where it is already alive, to the economic plane (without, on the other hand, 'subverting' the system), In other words, to use the most common formula, to give 'content' to the existing 'liberties' which are only 'formal' (as if they had no content already).

    Turning to the passage from Marx, this interpretation seems to me to miss all its complexity. Marx certainly recognizes that through universal suffrage the modern constitution places the working classes in a certain sense 'in possession of political power'. But he also points out that it perpetuates their 'social slavery '. He recognizes that it withdraws from the bourgeoisie the 'political guarantees' of its power, but also states that it sanctions its 'old social power'. In short, for Social Democracy the contradiction is only between constitution and capitalism; for Marx it is within society, traversing the constitution as well. On the one hand, through universal suffrage, the constitution brings everybody into political life, thus recognizing for the first time the existence of a common or public interest, a 'general will' or sovereignty of the people. On the other hand, it can only turn this common interest into a formal one, real interests remaining 'particularistic' and opposed to one another by the class divisions of society. ('The constitutional State', Marx wrote, 'is a State in which the "State interest" as a real interest of the people exists only formally. The State interest formally has reality as an interest of the people but it can only express this reality in formal terms.') Hence in the modern State 'general affairs and occupying oneself with them are a monopoly, while by contrast monopolies are the real general affairs.'

    To conclude: the constitution of the bourgeois democratic republic is the résumé, the compendium of the contradictions between the classes in capitalist society. But since from one class 'it demands that they should not go forward from political to social emancipation', and 'from the others that they should not go back from social to political restoration', the republic is, for Marx, by no means the resolution or supersession of the basic antagonisms. On the contrary, it provides the best terrain for them to unfold and reach maturity.