E Belfort Bax August 1902

Last Words on the Bernstein Question

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. 6, No. 8, August 1902, pp. 229-233;
Transcriber: Ted Crawford.

In an article dealing with the present tendency in political parties to place a mere formal party-unity above the principles for which the party avowedly exists, in the course of which I called attention to the Radical Party in England, I further pointed out how this grovelling fear of party-disintegration led, as one of its symptoms, to the toleration of individual members of the party openly advocating views in contradiction with party-principles or even denouncing or holding up to ridicule those principles themselves. As an illustration of this latter point I referred, in passing, to the action of the German Party in the Bernstein affair. This innocent allusion, which those who know my views might have regarded, one would think, as natural and obvious, so incensed comrade Askew, who seems to deem it his chief mission in life to champion Bernstein, that he forthwith thought it necessary to devote several pages of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT, not to traversing my main contention, but to descanting on Bernstein as a shining party-light, and denouncing the wicked folly of criticising the action of the German Party in pressing him to its bosom. In my reply in the June number of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT I gave some reasons for dissenting from Askew’s statements. Askew complains that I did not undertake an exhaustive analysis of Bernstein’s writings to prove his article unjustified. Askew might know that this was impossible on grounds of space alone, and was the more unnecessary as the facts of my contention were implied in the formal censure passed on Bernstein by the party congress. In this case everybody does know the facts – or those, anyway, who are familiar with the German language, save, of course, those who won’t know. Besides, I have given at least one strong instance of Bernstein’s supporting abuses of capitalism in his defence of the Chartered Company, Rhodes, and the whole policy of the mining syndicates.

Bernstein’s whole position was made clear by himself years ago in the Neue Zeit, and led to a controversy with myself in the same journal. Bernstein has steadily advocated all things tending to the spread of capitalism (c f., controversy Bernstein-Bax, January to April, 1898 – I think, having no file of the Neue Zeit by me to refer to). He advocates the Armenian cause in the hope that once free from Turkey the Armenians will fall in with the main stream of Western capitalism, On the same grounds he defended the crushing and enslavement of the Boer nation, viz., because they (a peasant community) refuse to keep pace with modern capitalism. Askew says that “Kautsky and the bulk of the German leaders” disagreed with my assertion (to which, by the way, I hold as strongly as ever) that the Arab slaveholder is less dangerous to progress, and less injurious to the native races at the present time, than a “chartered company.” I presume from his statement comrade Askew has “polled” the members of the German Party on the subject, otherwise he could hardly speak so confidently of the “bulk” of the party! It must have been an arduous job! Kautsky’s views on this particular point are contained in a “note” to an article of mine on the general question in the Neue Zeit (July, 1901). Talking about Kautsky, his enthusiasm for Askew’s article I confess surprises me, as it is in contradiction with Kautsky’s spoken and written utterances. (I do not mean by this, I may say, that Kautsky has ever formally expressed an opinion in favour of Bernstein’s exclusion.) For the rest, the opinions even of many Socialists on the subject of capitalist expansion are tinged with the fallacy pointed out by me as such, both in the English and German Socialist press, to wit, that the complete development of capitalism presupposed by Socialism means that the sooner the whole world is turned into one vast factory the sooner shall we have Socialism, instead of the contrary being the case. These comrades confound the intensive development of capitalism with its extensive expansion. Such are mostly the Socialists who condone chartered companies and the like.

Comrade Askew’s bids for the “gallery” in his references to the National Liberal Club arm-chair politicians, & c., would not be worthy an answer did they not display the violence of his pro-Bernsteinian prejudices and at the same time give me an opportunity of pointing out a bad habit which, common enough with the bourgeois, is in one or another form ever and anon cropping up among Socialists. (I may remark, by the way, that Askew’s exuberant enthusiasm at his imaginary score against me and the not specially good taste of his jokes indicate pretty clearly a consciousness of having to use any means to make the best of a bad case.)

Now let us state the case. Edward Bernstein has avowedly attacked in speech and writing (or let us say “criticised” unfavourably) positions regarded by most Social-Democrats as fundamental (such as the class war), and has also in current politics taken the side of aggressive capitalism which he has supported by what, to most impartial persons, seem obviously incorrect and misleading statements. Notwithstanding this, according to Askew, Bernstein is fit, not only to remain in the party, but to hold a leading position in it. I, on the other hand, even apart from any infraction of principle, it is insinuated, am violating party-integrity by merely sitting in a room, or belonging to a club, containing Liberals, two-thirds of whom are at least as much socialistic in sympathy as Bernstein (which is not saying much, I’ll admit), and none of whom would probably “champion insanitary factories or unprotected machinery endangering life,” a negative virtue which, in itself, it seems, in Askew’s view and where Bernstein is concerned, goes a long way toward constituting a man a Socialist! Comment is needless!

And now to the main issue. There is an unfortunate tendency with certain party-disputants besides Askew to save themselves the trouble of arguing to the point, or the slur of remaining silent, by cheap bids for gallery applause. Such persons pretend to test the party-integrity of individuals, not by their words, writings, or political action, but by where they live, what places they visit, how they amuse themselves, in what way they gain their living, or such things which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, have no bearing whatever on the question at issue – viz., their Socialism. All who have even a blushing acquaintance with the theory of modern Socialism know well enough that we cannot as individuals live Socialism under the present conditions of society, or even make any successful approximation to doing so. It is miserable “cant” in anyone to attempt to taunt one member of the party with getting his living by finance, another with his membership of a passably well-furnished club, a third with having visited Ostend, a fourth with having backed a horse, a fifth with having been seen with a girl at Richmond, and so on. This kind of claptrap can only be the last resort of persons who are too lazy to argue or who feel themselves beaten in argument. Yes, some may say, we admit so far, but when it is a matter of belonging to a political club we think the question is different. I cannot agree in this. A political club has more than one function. First of all comes its social and material side, quite apart from its politics. Now it seems to me perfectly admissable for a Socialist, provided he does so without concealing his views (actual trimming, of course, I leave out of the question), to accept membership of such a club. If the committee, with full knowledge of the facts, choose to elect him, that is their matter. Where the line ought to be drawn is, I think, at the part he plays in the club. If he confines himself to making use of the club for business, study, amusement or social intercourse, never losing an opportunity of doing a little propaganda-work when opportunity offers, it seems to me his membership is rather likely to be beneficial to the Cause than otherwise. Certainly it cannot be harmful. The case is of course altogether different when he takes an active part in the political life, of the club. This, undoubtedly, he should rigidly abstain from associating himself with in any way whatever.

The above is the course pursued by myself, and those members of the S.D.F. (and they count among them men who have certainly paid their tribute to the Cause in the past), who like myself are members of the N.L.C., not to speak of other genuine but unattached Socialists (also club members) who aid the cause of Social-Democracy from time to time. The reason why we prefer the N.L.C. for our natural club requirements, is, I take it, that we find the society on the whole more congenial there than in a non-political club, which generally consists three-parts of mere hide-bound reactionaries. It is, moreover, necessary to distinguish between official Liberalism and the Radical wing, which, though only too often apt to backslide into, or at least to work with, hack Liberalism, has, nevertheless, furnished us in the past with some of our best recruits. This element, as is well-known, is largely represented among the habitués of the National Liberal Club. Our hatred of Liberalism refers first and foremost to the official Liberal Party.

My remaining answers to Askew’s allegations will be brief, as I find I am running into too much space.

My reference to Bebel was not to the passage quoted by Askew, which, moreover, if I mistake not, is different in the earlier editions of the “Frau,” but to another passage in which Bebel deplores the fact that many Social-Democrats are as hostile to the feminism he advocates as members of other parties. I have not the book at hand so cannot give chapter and verse, a fact of which Askew is welcome to make as much capital as he likes. For that matter, however, I am also for the emancipation of woman from all economic dependence and oppression, “such as it is” and “ what there is of it.” Anyway, the passage quoted was not the one to which I referred, and I admit does not seem altogether consistent with it. But Bebel’s “Frau” is not, as yet, precisely Socialist “Holy Writ.”

Now, as to the materialist conception of history, Kautsky himself, in the Neue Zeit (August, ‘96), expressly and categorically disclaimed regarding the materialist conception of history as a party test question. However, I do not wish to press this point. The fact is, as I repeatedly stated, while the controversy with Kautsky was going on, I have never repudiated the “materialistic theory of history” save where it is presented in an extreme and one-sided form Such being the case, I can entirely subscribe to the remark of Kautsky quoted by Askew. I am myself never tired of insisting on the great truth embodied in the doctrine so ably developed and applied in various directions by Kautsky. My criticism of the one-sided presentation of the theory and the statement of my own views appeared in a Vienna literary and philosophical review in the summer of 1896, and led to a controversy with Kautsky in the Neue Zeit during the following winter. Now what does Mr. Bernstein do? In his book, which saw the light some two years later, he (not to put too fine a point on it) appropriates my ideas on the subject, not merely without acknowledgment, but actually while pretending to combat them – with, however, a very important and fatal modification (see my article in the Deutsche Worte, December, 1899). I had pointed out that the economic conditions tend, with the progress toward a fully developed capitalism, progressively to preponderate as a causal factor over the conscious or unconscious psychical initiative in human development. Bernstein turns this round, maintaining, on the contrary, that in the present day ideological influences are more operative than ever before in history. Now, mark the enormous difference of standpoint practically. Bernstein’s position leads him straight to opportunism, the denial of the class war, reform-politics, classes working together for the common good as a united happy family, & c. With me, on the contrary, the whole question, important as it is from philosophical point of view, involves no change in current practical bearing since I admit that under capitalism all psychical initiative is so overweighted as to be practically inoperative, swept along as it is in the current of the capitalist-economic development. Hence in the practical application of the theory I am in agreement with, say, Plechanoff or any other of its most one-sided theoretical exponents. If some of our Swiss comrades, as Askew says, have confounded my views on the materialist theory of history with Bernstein’s plagiaristic travesty of them, I can but deplore the state of their intellects, and pass on.

I think I have now shown sufficiently that my ideas on the materialist theory of history are not in opposition to any fundamental principle of Socialism; and, seeing that Askew has signally failed to show that Bernstein has any right in the Socialist Party at all, in consequence, finding himself (Askew) driven to distract attention from the weakness of his position by irrelevant personal allusions that may fairly be described as “cheap and low,” I think the matter may well rest where it is. Askew may retain his admiration for Bernstein as a Social-Democrat, and may continue to hold by his rule of faith that the German Party, and especially the Breslau “genossen,” can do no wrong. I personally must decline to further discuss matters relating to Bernstein or the German Party with comrade Askew on this or any subsequent occasion, as I see no good likely to result therefrom.


[This controversy must close here. Elsewhere, in this number, we give the first article in the discussion referred to above between Bax and Kautsky on the Materialist Conception of History.]