Lucio Colletti

Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International

    T E L E O L O G Y  A N D  C A U S A T I O N

    However, the experience of the Great Depression and the consequent 'turn' in capitalist development were not the only factors underlying the 'breakdown' controversy. It is also essential, even for a summary reconstruction of the historical moment when Bernstein's book was published, to include another crucial component: the character of the Marxism of the Second International; the way it received and interpreted Marx's work; the influence exercised by Engels's writings;[32] the contamination and subordination of this Marxism vis-à-vis the dominant cultural developments of the period.

        Bernstein's view on this question was that the theory of 'breakdown' descended directly from the 'fatalism' and 'determinism' of the materialist conception of history. The expectation of an imminent and inevitable catastrophe of bourgeois society, brought about by 'purely economic ' causes, reproduced, according to Bernstein, the inherent limits of any materialist explanation, in which matter and the movements of matter were the cause of everything. 'To be a materialist means, first and foremost, to reduce every event to the necessary movements of matter.' Secondly, 'the movement of matter takes place, according to the materialist doctrine, in a necessary sequence like a mechanical process'. Since this movement is also that which must determine 'the formation of ideas and the orientation of the will', it follows that the historical and human world is represented as a chain of predetermined and inevitable events; in this sense the materialist, Bernstein concluded, is 'a Calvinist without God'.

        It is, of course, true that the Marxists of the period sharply denied the accusation of 'fatalism'. Kautsky replied that historical materialism had, on the contrary, never dreamed of forgetting the essential importance of human intervention in history. The overthrow of capitalist society was never entrusted by Marx solely to the effect of 'purely economic' causes. In the very paragraph on 'the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation', besides the aggravation of economic contradictions, Marx had also underlined another factor: the 'maturity' and education of the working class, the high level of consciousness attained, its capacity for organization and discipline.[33] Plekhanov's response, as we shall see, did not greatly differ from Kautsky's, though it was philosophically more systematic, and notably more virulent in its polemic; besides, Plekhanov had himself published, in 1898, The Role of the Individual in History. However, the anti-Bernstein positions of that period (as, indeed, much of present-day Marxism, which would blush even to imagine itself 'determinist') were characterized by a presupposition they shared with Bernstein himself: a vulgar[34] and naïve conception of the 'economy'.

        Here, too, Bernstein's argument rests upon yet another famous 'self-criticism' by Engels, dating from 1890: According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.[35]

        Engels continued:

    Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction.[36]

        These self-critical observations of Engels were regarded by Bernstein as a substantial innovation compared to the original 'determinism' of the materialist conception of history, as formulated by Marx in the 'Preface' to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859. It is notable that a similar judgement (though without the critical reference to the 1859 text) has for some time been prevalent in contemporary Marxism. There is the same emphasis on the value of Engels's solution to the problem -- for example in his letter to Starkenburg of 1894:

    Political, religious, juridical, philosophical, literary, artistic, etc. development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else is only passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.[37]

        Bernstein's comment on this passage by Engels emphasized that it did more harm than good to historical materialism arrogantly to reject as eclecticism the decisive accentuation of 'other factors' which are not

    'purely economic', and to restrict the field to production techniques (Produktionstechnik ). Eclecticism, he added in polemic against Plekhanov's Monism, is often precisely a natural reaction against the doctrinaire impulse to deduce everything from one sole principle.

        Nonetheless, despite their differences, what Bernstein shared with Plekhanov, and what Engels's 'self-criticism' could not correct but only confirm, was the profound adulteration of the concept of the 'economy' or, better still, of 'social relations of production', precisely the core and foundation of Marx's entire work. The so-called 'economic sphere' which in Marx had embraced both the production of things and the production (objectification) of ideas ; production and intersubjective communication; material production and the production of social relations (for Marx, the relation between man and nature was also a relationship between man and man, and vice versa) -- was now seen as one isolated factor, separated from the other 'moments' and thereby emptied of any effective socio-historical content, representing, on the contrary, an antecedent sphere, prior to any human mediation.[38] Social production is thus transformed into 'production techniques '; the object of political economy becomes the object of technology. Since this 'technique', which is 'material production' in the strict sense of the term, is separated from that other simultaneous production achieved by men, the production of their relations (without which, for Marx, the former would not exist), the materialist conception of history tends to become a technological conception of history. If so those critics of Marxism, like Professor Robbins, for whom historical materialism signifies the idea that 'the material technique of production conditions the form of all social institutions and that all changes in social institutions are the result of changes in productive techniques' -- the idea, in short, that 'History is the epiphenomenon of technical change' -- are right.[39]

        The main consequence of this 'factorial' approach, which runs more or less openly through all the Marxism of the period as the common basis for arguments as diverse as those of Bernstein and Plekhanov, is the divorce of 'production' and 'society', of materialism and history, the separation of man's relation with nature from the simultaneous relations between men. In short, the result is an incapacity to see that without human or social mediation, the very existence of labour and productive activity is inconceivable. Marx had written:

        In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operation in a certain way and by mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite relations with one another and only within these relations does their action on nature, does production, take place.[40]

        The intertwining of these two processes is the key to historical materialism. Traditional materialism, which sees men as products of their environment, forgets, according to Marx,[41] that men in turn change their circumstances and that 'it is essential to educate the educator himself'. It forgets that it is not enough to consider practical-material circumstances as the cause and man as their effect -- the inverse must also be taken into account. Just as man, the effect, is also the cause of his cause, so the latter is also the effect of its own effect.

        In other words, as a product of objective material causation, man is also and simultaneously the beginning of a new causal process, opposite to the first, in which the point of departure is no longer the natural environment but the concept, the idea of man, his mental project. This second process -- whose prius is the idea and in which therefore the cause is not an object but a concept, the object being the goal or point of arrival -- is the so-called final causality, the finalism or teleological process as opposed to the efficient causality or material causality in the case of the first process. 'An end,' according to Kant, 'is the object of a concept so far as this concept is regarded as the cause of the object (the real ground of its possibility); and the causality of a concept in respect of its object is finality (forma finalis ).[42] Finalism, therefore, inverts the sequence of efficient causality. In the latter case, the cause precedes and determines the effect; in the former, the effect is an end, an intentional goal, and therefore it determines the efficient cause, which in turn becomes simply a means to accomplish it.

        Now the simultaneity of these two processes, each of which is the inversion of the other, but which together form the umwälzende or revolutionäre Praxis referred to in the Theses on Feuerbach, is the secret of and key to historical materialism in its double aspect, of causation (materialism) and finality (history). But it also permits an explanation of that sensitive point in Marx's work: his concept of 'production' or 'labour' as at once production of things and production (objectification) of ideas, as production and intersubjective communication, as material production and production of social relations.

        In a celebrated passage in Capital Marx writes:

    A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.[43]

        The product of labour, then, is the objectification or externalization of the idea of the labourer: it is the external, real becoming of the concept or programme with which the labourer sets about his task. This means that labour is a finalistic activity; that production is not only a relation between man and nature but also a relation between men, that is a language [44] or manifestation of man to man. On the other hand, insofar as it is necessary for the realization of the idea or labour project that it takes into account the specific nature of the materials employed, the labour process reveals as well as finalism, efficient causation. Indeed, to objectify the idea, 'the ideal motive which is the inherent stimulus and precondition of production', in the product, and thereby to transform nature according to our plans and designs, it is necessary that the idea both determines the object and is determined by it. According to Bacon's celebrated aphorism, to command nature we must also obey her; to make the object conform to us, it is indispensable that we conform ourselves to it. 'Production,' says Marx, 'accordingly produces not only an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object.' The 'ideal impulse' which acts as 'an internal image, a need, a motive, a purpose' is not only cause but effect; for indeed, 'It is itself as an impulse mediated by the object. The need felt for the object is induced by the perception of the object.'[45]

        This is not the place to examine how this relation finality/causation is the same as the relation deduction/induction and how the Marxist concept of the 'social relations of production' therefore implicitly contains a logic of scientific enquiry. It is more appropriate here, returning to Bernstein and the controversy he raised over the 'determinism' of the materialist conception of history, to show instead how all the Marxist tendencies within the Second International came up against the difficulty of grasping the reciprocal interrelation of finality and causation outlined above.

        'Man's activity,' Plekhanov wrote in one of his articles against Bernstein and his critique of materialism, 'can be considered from two different standpoints.' Firstly, 'it appears as the cause of a given social phenomenon, insofar as man himself knows he is such a cause, 'insofar as he supposes that it depends on him to provoke such social phenomena.' Secondly, 'the man who appears to be the cause of a given social phenomenon can and must in turn be considered a consequence of those social phenomena which have contributed to the formation of his character and the direction of his will. Considered as a consequence, social man can no longer be considered a free agent; the circumstances which have determined his actions do not depend upon his will. Hence his activity now appears as an activity subordinated to the law of necessity.'[45]

        The argument could not be clearer: man, who in his own consciousness imagines himself to be the cause, is in reality the effect and nothing but the effect. Plekhanov, in other words, fails to link together finalism and causation. The concept of umwälzende Praxis, that is of productive activity which subverts and subordinates to itself the conditions from which it stems, or that of the 'educator who must himself be educated', remain undecipherable formulae for Plekhanov. Hence the only way he can combine the two elements is by recognizing only necessity or material causation as real, and assigning to freedom or finalism only the role of registering necessary and inevitable order. Freedom, for Plekhanov, repeating Engels and through Engels Hegel, is the 'recognition of necessity'.[47] Freedom, in other words, is the consciousness of being determined.

        We have not the space here to show how this reference to Hegel concerning the relation between necessity and freedom, like all the other Hegelian propositions shared by the 'dialectical materialism' of Engels and Plekhanov, is based on a somewhat arbitrary 'reading' of the texts of the great German philosopher.[48] The identity of freedom and necessity or, which is the same thing, the identity of thought and being,[49] are recurring motifs only in Engels's later philosophical works; they are absolutely foreign to the thought of Marx. Moreover, the real paternity of this identification is made all too transparent, somewhat ingenuously, by Plekhanov himself, when he appeals in support of the identity of freedom and necessity not only to Hegel, but to the end of the fourth section of Schelling's System of Transcendental Idealism.[50] However, it is more relevant to underline here the gulf of principle that separated the 'orthodox' Marxism of the Second International from Marx's original problematic.

        Man is considered as a mere link in the material, objective chain, a being whose action is 'determined' by a superior, transcendent force -- Plekhanov called it 'Matter' but he could also have called it the 'Absolute' or the 'ruse of Reason' -- which acts through human action itself, insofar as the intentions men might consciously (and hence deludedly) pursue give rise to different results. The novelty and specificity of the historico-human world -- contained in the complex Marxist concept of 'production' as both production of human relations and production of things, as production of the self and reproduction of the 'other' -- is, therefore, totally lost and forgotten. As a result, the conception obtained can only be a rather ingenuous metaphysics and evolutionary-historical cosmology, a philosophy of providence, which can quite justly be accused of fatalism.

        Plekhanov wrote:

    Several writers, Stammler for instance, claim that if the triumph of Socialism is a historical necessity, then the practical activity of the Social Democrats is completely superfluous. After all, why work for a phenomenon to occur which must take place in any case? But this is nothing but a ridiculous, shabby sophism. Social Democracy considers historical development from the standpoint of necessity, and its own activity as a necessary link in the chain of those necessary conditions which, combined, make the triumph of socialism inevitable. A necessary link cannot be superfluous. If it were suppressed, it would shatter the whole chain of events.[51]

        The primary result of this outlook is precisely to submerge, or better surpass, the specific level of historical-materialist analysis, Marx's socio-economic problematic, in a cosmology and cosmogony which is called 'materialist' but is nothing but a philosophical fiction. Everything becomes the dialectical evolution of Matter. And this evolution is realized, at every level, by generic, omnipresent 'laws' which govern not only mechanical movement and natural development, but also human society and thought.[52] Marx's 'economic base' thus becomes Matter. This matter is not specified or determinate; it is simultaneously everything and nothing, a mere metaphysical hypostasis and hence anti-materialist by its very nature. It reveals its theological credentials when, in Plekhanov's ingenuous prose, it emerges as the latest version of the deus absconditus : In the life of peoples there exists a something, an X, an unknown quantity, to which the peoples' "energy", and that of the different social classes existing within them, owes its origin, direction and transformations.

    In other words, something clearly underlies this "energy" itself; it is our task to determine the nature of this unknown factor.'[53]

        Attention is resolutely directed away from history, from the analysis of socio-economic formations, to be concentrated instead upon the study of its chosen object, namely, the primeval Matter from which everything is descended, the great fictio of this popular religiosity. 'It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves . . . wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes.' And, since everything changes and nothing dies, 'we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and, therefore, also that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.'[54]

        The identity of thought and being is thus transferred into the heart of Matter itself. There is no longer a theory of thought as the thought of the natural being 'man' -- of his social character -- and hence, no longer a theory of thought in its unity-distinction with language and that practical-experimental activity, production and labour. The theory of thought by-passes man altogether; the treatment of thought is once again the treatment of the Absolute as the primitive identity of thought and being. Epistemology and gnoseology are annulled by a simplistic recourse to 'evolution': 'the products of the human mind', Engels writes, 'are themselves products of nature in the last analysis; they do not constitute a break in the preceding natural chain, but correspond to it.' A Hegel in 'popular format' takes Marx's place. And behind Hegel appears Schelling; and behind Schelling, Spinoza. Plekhanov, who encouraged the most vulgar forms of materialism, repeating in all tranquillity that thought is a secretion of the brain;[55] Plekhanov, who thought that materialist gnoseology was already fully present in Helvetius and Holbach; Plekhanov was one of those who regarded Marx as a mere extension and explication of Spinoza:

    I am fully convinced that Marx and Engels, after the materialist turn in their development, never abandoned the standpoint of Spinoza. This conviction of mine is based in part on the personal testimony of Engels. In 1889, while I was in Paris for the International Exhibition, I took the opportunity of going to

    London to meet Engels in person. I had the pleasure of spending almost a week in long discussions with him on various practical and theoretical subjects. At one point our discussion turned to philosophy. Engels strongly criticized what Stern rather imprecisely calls the 'materialism in the philosophy of nature'. 'So for you,' I asked him, 'old Spinoza was right when he said that thought and extension were nothing but two attributes of one and the same substance?' 'Of course,' Engels replied, 'old Spinoza was absolutely right.'[56]

     J U D G E M E N T S O F F A C T A N D J U D G E M E N T S O F V A L U E


        32 As far as I know, an exhaustive investigation of the influence of Engels's writings on the formation of the principal exponents of Marxism in the Second International still remains to be carried out. It will suffice here to note that the complete identification of Marx's thought with that of Engels (in the uncritical form in which they are still received) begins to take shape precisely in this period (it was later made peremptory and absolute by Lenin and Russian Marxism). Engels's influence, as confirmed by all direct testimony, seems to have been due to several factors. Firstly, most of Engels's theoretical texts (written either in the last years of Marx's life or after his death) coincided with the formation of Kautsky's and Plekhanov's generation with whom Engels had common cultural interests (Darwinism, ethnological discoveries -- in short, the whole cultural atmosphere of the period). Secondly, this influence (which was reinforced by close personal relations), quite apart from the wider diffusion and greater simplicity and expository clarity of Engels's writings -- often emphasized by Kautsky, Plekhanov and all the others, cf. K. Kautsky, F. Engels: Sein Leben, Sein Werken, seine Schriften, Berlin, 1908, p. 27 -- seems to be linked to the place given in Engels's work to philosophical-cosmological developments, 'the philosophy of nature', in other words, the 'extension' of historical materialism into 'dialectical materialism': as is well known, the latter term owes its origin to Engels himself. This aspect of Engels's work had a determinant weight also for the succeeding generation: Max Adler, for example, claimed (Engels als Denker, Berlin, 1925, pp. 65 ff.) that Engels's merit lay precisely in having liberated Marxism from the 'special economic-social form' it assumes in Marx's own detailed work, broadening its scope to the dimensions of eine Weltauffussung.
        33 Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische programm, op. cit., p. 46.
        34 For documentary evidence of this 'vulgarity' see the initial chapters of 0. Lange, Political Economy, Warsaw, 1963, which refer, moreover, to Marxist authors and texts of the Second International.

        39 L. Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, London, 1948, p. 43.
    Wage Labour and Capital, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, op. cit., p. 81.
        41 Third Thesis on Feuerbach.

        35 Letter from Engels to J. Bloch, 21 September 1890, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, l963, p. 498.
        36 ibid., p. 500. It should be pointed out that these 'self-critical' statements by Engels (which, incidentally, seriously perplexed writers as diverse as Plekhanov and Max Adler) are not easy to interpret. Taken literally, they would seem to signify that there is, in Marx's work, an over-emphasis on the 'economic factor'. But Engels himself, later in the letter, excludes this interpretation ('But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was possible'). The fault to which he refers would seem then to apply to general pronouncements on historical materialism. Yet it is notable how rare such pronouncements are in Marx's work and how they (in Theses on Feuerbach, Part One of The German Ideology, etc.), except perhaps in one case (cf. note 38), are unscathed by this type of criticism.
        37 ibid., p. 549.

        38 This, in my view, is the danger that arises from the theory of 'factors', suggested by Engels in his letters. Precisely to the extent that he emphasizes the decisive role, not only of the 'economic base' but also of the 'superstructure', his account encourages the interpretation of the 'economic base' as a 'purely material' or 'technical-economic' domain, not including social relations and hence inter-subjective communication. Even though one should be cautious on this point, it is notable in this connection that Woltmann, for example, believes he has located a difference between the social concept of the 'economy' characteristic of Marx and the naturalistic concept of Engels, Kautsky and Cunow (cf. Kautsky, Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm, op. cit., p. 47). The distinction between 'structure' and 'superstructure' rarely occurs in Marx and is little more than a metaphor for him; in later Marxism it has acquired an inordinate importance. On the other hand, it is also true that at least part of the blame for these later developments must fall to Marx's famous 'Preface' to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), in which formulations like: 'The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general' would suggest, if taken literally, a 'material production' which is not at the same time a 'social process'.

        42 I. Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith, Oxford, 1952, Part 1, p. 61.
        43 Marx, Capital, Vol. I p. 178.
        44 In The German Ideology (London, 1965, p. 37), production is defined as 'The language of real life'.

        45 Marx, '1857 Introduction' to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, op. cit., p. 197
        46 G. Plekhanov, Works (Russian edition), Vol. XI, p. 77. 'Cant against Kant, or Mr. Bernstein's spiritual testament'.

        47 G. Plekhanov, Essais sur l'histoire du matérialisme, Paris, 1957, p. 123.
        48 For this relation to Hegel, see especially Plekhanov's article 'Zu Hegel's sechzigstem Todestag' in Die Neue Zeit, 1891-2, Vol. I, pp. 198 ff., 236 ff, 273 ff.     49 Plekhanov, The Fundamental Problems of Marxism, op. cit., p. 95.
        50 F. W. J. Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealismus, Tübingen, 1800. This reference to Schelling recurs in almost all of Plekhanov's philosophical works. The passages on which Plekhanov modelled his own thought on the subject are particularly the following: 'The intelligence is only free as an internal appearance, and we therefore are and always believe inwardly, that we are free, although the appearance of our freedom, or our freedom, insofar as it is transferred to the objective world, is subject to the laws of nature, like anything else' (p. 438). 'Every action, whether it is the action of an individual, or the action of the whole species, as action must be thought of as free, but as objective achievement it must be thought of as subject to the laws of nature. Hence subjectively, to internal appearances, we act, but objectively we never act, another acts as if through us' (p. 442).

        51 Plekhanov, Works, op. cit., VoL XI, p. 88 n.
        52 Engels,
    Anti-Dühring, op. cit., pp. 166-67, and Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., p. 67.
        53 Plekhanov, Essais sur I'histoire du matérialisme, op. cit., p. 138.
        54 Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., p. 39.
        54 Plekhanov, Works, op. cit., Vol. XVIII, p. 310.