Lucio Colletti

Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International

    T H E  S U B S T A N C E  O F  B E R N S T E I N ' S  C R I T I Q U E

    This text of Engels, which became, through his subsequent death, a political testament, dated from 1895. A year later, Bernstein began to publish the series of articles in Die Neue Zeit called Problems of Socialism. These were interrupted and begun afresh several times between 1896 and 1898 in response to the polemical reactions they raised; they finally appeared in March 1899, recast and amplified by the author, under the title: The Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy.[2] Bernstein's approach to his theme immediately recalls the questions Engels had raised in his 'Introduction': the erroneous judgement of Marx and himself concerning the temporality of social and political developments; the mistaken conception of revolution as a 'revolution of the minority', the need to 'revise' outdated insurrectionist tactics in favour of new tactics based on utilization of the franchise, already adopted by the German Social Democrats.

        Engels had written of a revision of tactics ; Bernstein objected that this tactical revision necessarily implied a revision of strategy, a revision of the premises of theoretical Marxism. The errors denounced by Engels were not merely a result of contingent factors; they derived from essential points of doctrine and until the latter were revised it would be impossible to avoid making these errors. Bernstein was not disputing the new tactics. The political practice of the party was correct. But in order to proceed unhesitatingly and without contradictions along the path indicated by the new tactics, it was, he claimed, essential to free the party from the utopian and insurrectionist phraseology cultivated by the old theory. 'The practice of the German party has frequently, indeed almost always, been opportunist in character.' Despite this, or precisely because of this, 'its policy has in every case proved more correct than its phraseology. Hence I have no wish to reform the actual policy of the party . . .; what I am striving for, and as a theoretician must strive for, is a unity between theory and reality, between phraseology and action.'[3] This statement is from a letter to Bebel, written in October 1898. In February 1899, Bernstein wrote to Victor Adler as follows: 'The doctrine [i.e. Marxism] is not sufficiently realistic for me; it has, so to speak, lagged behind the practical development of the movement. It may possibly still be all right for Russia . . . but in Germany we have outgrown its old form.'[4]

        There was then, according to Bernstein, a contradiction between the theoretical premises of socialism and the practice of Social Democracy -- hence the title of his book. The task he proposed was that of examining the theory, now outdated and utopian, and bringing it into line with the practical politics of the party. In short, the aim was to contest the necessary relation between Marxism and the workers' movement. Socialism must liberate itself from the encumbrance of the old theory. 'The defect of Marxism' lay in its 'excessive abstraction' and the 'theoretical phraseology' which resulted. 'Do not forget,' he wrote to Bebel, 'that Capital, with all its scientificity, was in the last analysis a tendentious work and remained incomplete; it did so, in my opinion, precisely because the conflict between scientificity and tendency made Marx's task more and  more difficult. Seen from this standpoint, the destiny of this great work is almost symbolic and constitutes, in any event, an eloquent warning.'[5]

        The errors denounced by Engels were not, therefore, accidental but sprang from the theory itself. The incorrect estimation of the temporality of capitalist development resulted from a dialectical apriorism of the Hegelian type, from the fatalism and determinism of the materialist conception of history. It was, in short, the error of the 'theory of breakdown' (Zusammenbruchstheorie ), the constant expectation of the inevitable and imminent 'catastrophe', to which, according to Marxism, the capitalist system was condemned by its very nature. The incorrect notion in 1848 of a seizure of power by 'revolution' or through a 'political catastrophe' and hence the overthrow of the state, also arose from an aprioristic and tendentious cast in Marx's argument, an argument shared in this case, in Bernstein's view, completely with Blanquism.

        In short, an apriorism deriving from the conception of historical development in terms of dialectical antithesis, and a tendentious spirit or, as one might put it today, an 'ideological' intention, induced Marx to do violence to the evidence of scientific analysis. To this basic error Bernstein ascribed the theory of the polarization of society into two classes: the idea of the growing immiseration and proletarianization of the middle strata; and finally, the concept of the progressive worsening of economic crises and the consequent growth of revolutionary tension.

        The proof of the apriori character of all these theses lay, according to Bernstein, in the fact that they had been invalidated by the course of history. Things had not proceeded in the way Marx had hoped and predicted. There was no concentration of production and no elimination of small- by large-scale enterprises; while this concentration had taken place extremely slowly in commerce and industry, in agriculture the elimination of small units had not merely failed to occur -- the opposite was the case. No worsening and intensification of crises; not only had these become more rare and less acute, but with the formation of cartels and trusts capitalism now had at its disposal more means of self-regulation. Finally, no polarization of society into two extreme classes; on the contrary, the absence of any proletarianization of the middle strata and the improvement of living conditions of the working classes had attenuated, rather than exacerbated, the class struggle. 'The aggravation of social relations,' Bernstein wrote, 'has not occurred in the manner described in the Manifesto. To attempt to conceal this fact is not only useless but mad. The number of property owners has grown, not diminished. The enormous growth in social wealth has not been accompanied by an ever-narrowing circle of great capitalist magnates, but by an ever-growing number of capitalists at every level. The character of the middle strata has changed, but they have not vanished from the social hierarchy.' Finally, he added: 'from a political point of view, in all the advanced countries, we observe the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie steadily giving way to democratic institutions. Under the influence of this, and driven by the ever more powerful pressure of the workers' movement, there has been a reaction of society against the exploitative tendencies of capital, which, even if it is still uncertain and hesitant, is there nonetheless, and invests wider and wider sectors of economic life.' In short, 'factory legislation', the 'democratization of communal administration', and 'universal suffrage' tend to erode the very basis of class struggle. This only confirms and proves once more that where parliamentary democracy is dominant, the state can no longer be seen as an organ of class rule. 'The more the political institutions of modern nations become democratized, the more the occasions and necessity for great political crises are removed.' Hence the working class should not strive to seize power by revolution, but should rather seek to reform the State, remodelling it in a more and more democratic mould. To conclude: there is a contradiction between political democracy and capitalist exploitation. The development of the former, that is of political equality, must necessarily gradually reduce and overcome economic in equalities and hence class differences.

        Obviously, in his last text, Engels had not intended to say anything like this. Besides, Bernstein himself, while underlining the importance of the 'political testament', recognized that Engels himself could scarcely have been expected to undertake this 'necessary revision of the theory'. Nevertheless, at the moment when he began his series of articles in Die Neue Zeit, Bernstein enjoyed considerable prestige within German Social Democracy, not only because of his direction of the Party organ at Zurich for several years during the period of the exceptional laws; and not only because of his collaboration with Kautsky in the preparation of the Erfurt programme;[6] but also and above all because he had lived for years in England close to Engels as both his disciple and friend. Kautsky recalled later: 'From 1883 Engels considered Bernstein and myself as the most trusted representatives of Marxist theory.'[7] When Engels died in August 1895 it seems that of the two Bernstein was especially favoured; it was to him as executor that Engels entrusted the 'literary legacy' of Marx and himself.

        Clearly, it would be futile to attempt to construe these elements as implying Engels and Bernstein had a common outlook. Though Bernstein insinuated on occasion that his 'internal struggle' and 'new viewpoint' were no secret to Engels, it cannot be doubted, as Kautsky wrote, that 'if Engels had suspected the change in Ede's [Bernstein's] outlook . . . he would certainly not have entrusted him with his literary legacy'.[8] However, even if we lay aside these secondary considerations, their close relationship at least serves, in my view, to underline two important facts: not only that 'revisionism' was born in the heart of the Marxism of the Second International, and advanced from there, but also that Bernstein's polemic is incomprehensible if we fail to grasp the particular character of that Marxism from which it originated and in relation to which it always remained, in a real sense, complementary.

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        2 E. Bernstein, Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, Stuttgart, 1899, published in English under the title Evolutionary Socialism. The major rejoinders to Bernstein's book were those of Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm, Stuttgart, 1899, and Rosa Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution?, Leipzig, 1899, published in English as Social Reform or Revolution? London, 1966. Cf. also the articles Plekhanov wrote in criticism of Problems of Socialism and in response to Conrad Schmidt's reply in defence of Bernstein, in the Russian edition of his Works, Vol. XI.

        3 V. Adler, Briefwechsel mit August Bebel und Karl Kautsky, Vienna, 1954, p. 259. Bernstein's letter to Bebel is dated 20 October 1898.
        4 ibid., p. 289.

        5 ibid., p. 261.

        6 K. Kautsky, Das Erfurter Programm, Stuttgart, 1892, p. viii.
        7 F. Engels, Briefwechsel mit Karl Kautsky, Vienna, 1955, p. 90.