E Belfort Bax 1902

Bernstein and the German Party

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. 6. No. 6., June 1902, pp. 168-170;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I am not surprised that our friend Askew should “suspect” that I should not think it worth while to answer his somewhat long-winded whitewashing of Bernstein in the March number of the “ Social Democrat.” I have no wish to “speak disrespectfully” of “the equator,” much less of comrade Askew, but this terribly laboured piece of special pleading certainly does not show our esteemed comrade at his strongest. Nevertheless, it has been suggested to me that there are one or two points which it might be advisable to comment upon, more especially as the Bernstein affair, occupying somewhat the position of a test case, and the matter of integrity in questions of doctrine and ideal in the Socialist Party which it opens up, is not to my thinking, one of secondary importance.

I confess that the mysterious tu quoque with which Askew concludes his article is beyond me. Askew asks me to answer the question, how I could avoid being turned out myself if Bernstein were? Now, this strikes me as very much like the poser put to the unfortunate witness (a mild teetotal husband and father), by the counsel: “Now, sir, I want a plain, straightforward answer. Have you given up getting drunk and murderously assaulting your wife and children?” I know a great many reasons why Bernstein should be turned out, but, as I know none whatever why I should be, I am afraid I cannot enlighten friend Askew on that particular point of his challenge. If he is referring to my refusal to bow the knee to the Feminism cult, as is the fashion with some Socialists, I can only say that Feminism, as such, is not, and never has been, an integral part of Socialism. Bebel, with perfect candour, recognised this in his “Frau,” when he said expressly that numbers of “Genossen” repudiate Feminism, and intimated that his views on the subject did not commit any one else. In the old Communist manifesto there is no trace of Feminism. Even as regards the suffrage for women there never has been unanimity of opinion,, although the actual majority of Socialists may be in favour of it. In Belgium there is a strong party against it, and this is still more the case in Italy, while in all countries many of those who nominally adhere to it thank God, or whoever else they regard as the boss of mundane affairs, that there is no immediate danger of it being realised.

Askew’s attempt at whitewashing Mr. Bernstein may pass muster with those who have not read him, but those who have read his articles in the “Neue Zeit,” in the “Vorwaerts,” the “Sozialistische Monatshefte,” or his book, will only smile at it, for they will recognise the absolute truth of my statement that Bernstein has (at different times within the last five years) championed “every form, and well-nigh every abuse of capitalism.” My amiable critic tries to be funny over the “well-nigh.” He likes it, he says. I am glad he does, since it shows he likes accuracy. If I had said “every abuse” he might have accused me of inaccuracy, because I am not aware that Mr. Bernstein, any more than many Liberals and Tories, has ever championed insanitary factories, or unprotected machinery endangering life, which certainly are abuses of capitalism; but these, so far as I remember, are about the only ones he has not championed. Therefore, with friend Askew’s permission, I will let the qualification stand, and will not commit myself to the statement that Bernstein justifies “every abuse.”

I can only caution comrades who do not read German against taking Comrade Askew’s version of Bernstein as correct. Askew innocently asks what principles are “of faith” in Social Democracy. If this naivete is not a joke, I should recommend him to go to school again, and when he has been through a course of elementary Socialist literature, he may be in a position to answer it for himself. Askew further asks “if the Social Democratic party is a body with fixed doctrines or dogmas?” I answer, it is a party, at all events, possessing certain principles, political, economical, and ethical, based on the known facts of historic evolution. Any one who sets himself by sophistry, or otherwise, to upset these principles, though he may be an excellent man, has no right within a party whose raison d’etre is the realisation of an ideal based on the assumed truth of these principles. The cackle of toleration, of “self-criticism,” and whatnot, is the veriest balderdash. We want no “self-criticism” within the party in the matter of fundamentals. We have the right to assume that a man has done his “criticism” of principles before joining the party, for no party can afford to have persons within its ranks who call in question its very bases. And hence I say the moment a member begins publicly to whittle away doctrines at the foundation of the very existence of the party, he should be expelled. But, says Askew, Bernstein denies that he has done this, and who is to decide? The. answer is simple. The facts decide in the first place. It is of no use Bernstein denying things which can be proved by his written and spoken utterances. For the rest, the decision as to whether these utterances are sufficient ground for expulsion, must rest with the body of the party. While not questioning the technical right of the German party through their ultimate Court of Appeal, the annual Congress, to retain Bernstein, I have merely criticised the consistency of their action, and its effect, as a precedent, on the welfare of the party.

With regard to Bernstein’s action in the matter of the South African business, I confess it is very difficult for me, personally, to believe in the bona-fides of a man who could represent to German readers the “Daily News,” under the proprietorship of Mr. Oppenheim, as an impartial organ in the matter of the war, as did Mr. Bernstein in the “Vorwaerts,” or who could allege that the whole British nation believed the preposterously transparent Jingo lie of the Dutch conspiracy, as did. Mr. Bernstein in reply to Kautsky in the “Neue Zeit.” It is, I say, difficult to believe that Mr. Bernstein’s guileless simplicity was such that he did not know that at the time he wrote, the “Daily News” was “running” the war for all it was worth, or that he was unaware of the fact that no Englishman, not even the Imperialists, really believed this preposterous conspiracy fakement, clumsily concocted by a subsidised press. However, I suppose we must in charity accept the theory of Bernstein’s imbecility, rather than of his mendacity.

To compare Bernstein’s “views” on the war to the opinions of Hyndman is an insult to, the latter. Hyndman, in spite of his well-known pro-British prejudices, has spoken out, manfully on the subject, denouncing the war and all its ways, at the very beginning, and for some time afterwards. Although I regret to say that, in my humble judgment, he too soon wearied in well-doing, and began to think it necessary to try and make out that the British were no worse than anybody else.[1] Yet his services at one time must not be forgotten.

When Askew asks me whether I think it advisable, to allow members the right of free criticism of the party programme, I say yes. But if by party programme he means the ultimate foundation on which the party rests, the basal object for which the party is constituted, say no. No member, no person from within the party, has the right to call in question the raison d’etre of the party. The talk about intolerance in this connection, as Kautsky has admirably pointed out in his article, “Der Ruckzug der zehn tausend,” in a recent number of the “Neue Zeit,” rests upon a confusion between a party organisation and the State. It is the right and duty of a party, as such, to guard its principles from disintegrating influences. No man has the right to expect to be allowed to remain a member of a party whose principles, whether rightly or wrongly, he has publicly called in question. On the other hand, no party has a right to use the State, the secular arm, to crush opposition to its views. It has never been proposed to immolate Bernstein in a Socialistic auto da fe, even if that were possible. The utmost that has been suggested is that he should be politely, but firmly, told to clear out of the German Social Democratic organisation, and take his criticism with him. There is nothing to prevent him from demolishing Marx or anybody else outside the organisation. What more than this can a man want? If he has ulterior and private reasons for wishing to remain inside a party whose doctrines he has held up to ridicule, that is his affair; but he can hardly expect these reasons to weigh with the party as such. As a matter of fact, for my own part, and I believe I represent the opinion of the bulk of Socialists that have followed his career, I consider the expressed political aims of Bernstein as similar to, and as every whit as objectionable as, the aims of any one of those parties which we are accustomed to regard as our enemies. In fact, I fail to find any serious difference between Bernstein’s views and those of any ordinary Liberal or Conservative reactionary. But I suppose Comrade Askew thinks it not of the least consequence what a member of the party is aiming to realise, provided he, with his tongue in his cheek, calls himself a Socialist, and refuses to leave the party of his own accord. “Toleration” requires that we should endure him, and wink at any mischief he may do in the meantime!


1. One would like to know of any other nation that has refused to allow the enemy doctors and medicine, that has burned down homesteads wholesale as a matter of policy, that has destroyed thousands of children systematically, that has violated laws of war accepted by itself two years previously.