MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Lucio Colletti
 

Lucio Colletti

Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International

    E N G E L S ' S  ' P O L I T I C A L  T E S T A M E N T '

    In the introduction he wrote for the first reprinting of The Class Struggles in France, in March 1895 -- only a few months before his death -- Engels observes that the chief error made by Marx and himself at the time of the 1848 revolution was that they had treated the European situation as ripe for socialist transformation:

    History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a long way ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution, which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent . . . and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank.[1]

        According to Engels, this error of judgement concerning the real level of capitalist development in 1848 was to a considerable extent matched by a mistaken political conception that he and Marx had derived from preceding revolutionary experience, and particularly that of France: the idea of revolution as the action of a minority. 'It was . . . natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and course of the "social" revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly coloured by memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830.' While 'all revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another', 'all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people'; hence, 'the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so -- whether wittingly or not -- only in the service of the minority; but


        1 Marx and Engels, Selected Works in one volume, London, 1968, p. 656. All the following quotations are from Engels's introduction (pp. 651-68), dated London, 6 March 1895.

    because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.'

        The undue extension of this character of preceding revolutions to 'the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation' had now been sharply contradicted by history. History 'has done even more: it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.'

        The conclusion Engels drew from this analysis was that, given the scale of modern standing armies (besides, of course, the character of socialist transformation itself), 'the time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of the unconscious masses', is irrevocably past. 'Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long persistent work is required and it is just this work which we are now pursuing and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.'

        The necessity for this long, patient work, -- 'slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity' -- is recognized as 'the immediate task of the party' not only in Germany but also in France and other 'Latin countries', where, 'it is realized more and more that the old tactics must be revised'. But, 'whatever may happen in other countries', this was the path that German Social Democracy, as the vanguard of the international movement, must continue to pursue.

    The two million voters whom it sends to the ballot box, together with the young men and women who stand behind them as non-voters, form the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive 'shock force' of the international proletarian army. This mass already supplies over a fourth of the votes cast; and as by-elections to the Reichstag, the Diet elections in individual states, the municipal council and trades court elections demonstrate, it increases incessantly. Its growth proceeds as spontaneously, as steadily, as irresistibly, and at the same time as tranquilly as a natural process. All government intervention has proved powerless against it. We can count even today on two and a quarter million voters. If it continues in this fashion, by the end of the century we shall conquer the greater part of the middle strata of society, petty bourgeois and small peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the land, before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not. To keep this growth going without interruption until it of itself gets beyond the control of the prevailing governmental system, that is our main task.

        This confident vision of the direction of events and the rapidity with which the goal could be attained ('by the end of the century' or within five years if the process were not interrupted by tactical errors), enabled Engels to re-emphasize the central theme of his text: namely, the necessity and timeliness of the 'turn' which German Social Democracy had made and which was now on the agenda in other countries as well. This 'revision' of the old tactics was now essential, since today 'there is only one means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces in Germany could be temporarily halted, and even thrown back for some time: a clash on a big scale with the military, a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris'. This too would be overcome in the long run, but, it could not but 'impede' the 'normal development'.

        On the other hand, the new tactics alone could further and ensure the progressive and irresistible development towards socialism which capitalist development itself, now at the peak of its maturity, demanded: the tactics of the 'intelligent utilization' the German workers had been able to make of universal suffrage, and to which they owed the astonishing growth of the party, documented by the statistics of its electoral support, which Engels quoted:

    Thanks to the intelligent use which the German workers made of the universal suffrage . . . the astonishing growth of the party is made plain to all the world by incontestable figures: 1871, 102,000; 1874, 352,000; 1877, 493,000 Social Democratic votes. Then came recognition of this advance by high authority in the shape of the Anti-Socialist Law; the party was temporarily broken up, the number of votes dropped to 312,000 in 1881. But that was quickly overcome, and then . . . rapid expansion really began: 1884, 550,000; 1887, 763,000; 1890, 1,427,000 votes. Thereupon the hand of the State was paralysed. The Anti-Socialist Law disappeared; socialist votes rose to 1,787,000, over a quarter of all the votes cast. The government and the ruling classes had exhausted all their expedients -- uselessly, purposelessly, unsuccessfully. . . . The state was at the end of its tether, the workers only at the beginning of theirs.

        By this use of the franchise, the German workers had not only built 'the strongest, most disciplined and rapidly growing Socialist Party'. They had also supplied 'their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, and one of the sharpest' in showing them how to use universal suffrage. The franchise had been 'in the words of the French Marxist programme, transformé, de moyen de duperie qu'il a été jusqu'ici, en instrument d'émancipation -- transformed by them from a means of deception, which it was before, into an instrument of emancipation'. It was precisely this 'successful utilization of universal suffrage' that constituted the 'new method of struggle' already adopted, which the proletariat should seek to use also in the future. It was already crystal-clear that the 'bourgeoisie and the Government' had come to be 'much more afraid of the legal than the illegal action of the workers' party, of the results of elections than those of rebellions'.

        Engels concluded:

    The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We the 'revolutionists', the 'overthrowers', we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves. They cry despairingly with Odilon Barrot: la légalité nous tue, legality is the death of us; whereas we, under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like life eternal.

     
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