Hal Draper


The Two Souls of Socialism


7. The “Revisionist” Façade

Eduard Bernstein, the theoretician of social-democratic “revisionism,” took his impulsion from Fabianism, by which he was heavily influenced in his London exile. He did not invent the reformist policy in 1896: he merely became its theoretical spokesman. (The head of the party bureaucracy preferred less theory: “One doesn’t say it, one does it,” he told Bernstein, meaning that the politics of German social-democracy had been gutted of Marxism long before its theoreticians reflected the change.)

But Bernstein did not “revise” Marxism. His role was to uproot it while pretending to prune away withered limbs. The Fabians had not needed to bother with pretense, but in Germany it was not possible to destroy Marxism by a frontal attack. The reversion to Socialism-from-Above (“die alte Scheisse”) had to be presented as a “modernization”, a “revision”.

Essentially, like the Fabians, “revisionism” found its socialism in the inevitable collectivization of capitalism itself; it saw the movement toward socialism as the sum of the collectivist tendencies immanent in capitalism itself; it looked to the “self-socialization” of capitalism from above, through the institutions of the existing state. The equation of Statification = Socialism is not the invention of Stalinism; it was systematized by the Fabian-Revisionist-State-socialist current of social-democratic reformism.

Most of the contemporary discoveries which announce that socialism is obsolete, because capitalism no longer really exists, can already be found in Bernstein. It was “absurd” to call Weimar Germany capitalist, he declared, because of the controls exercised over the capitalists; it follows from Bernsteinism that the Nazi state was even more anti-capitalist, as advertised ...

The transformation of socialism into a bureaucratic collectivism is already implicit in Bernstein’s attack on workers’ democracy. Denouncing the idea of workers’ control of industry, he proceeds to redefine democracy. Is it “government by the people”? He rejects this, in favor of the negative definition “absence of class government.” Thus the very notion of workers’ democracy as a sine qua non of socialism is junked, as effectively as by the clever redefinitions of democracy current in the Communist academies. Even political freedom and representative institutions have been defined out: a theoretical result all the more impressive since Bernstein himself was not personally antidemocratic like Lassalle or Shaw. It is the theory of Socialism-from-Above which requires these formulations. Bernstein is the leading social-democratic theoretician not only of the equation statification = socialism, but also of the disjunction of socialism from workers’ democracy.

It was fitting, therefore, that Bernstein should come to the conclusion that Marx’s hostility to the state was “anarchistic,” and that Lassalle was right in looking to the state for the initiation of socialism. “The administrative body of the visible future can be different from the present-day state only in degree,” wrote Bernstein; the “withering away of the state” is nothing but utopianism even under socialism. He, on the contrary, was very practical; for example, as the Kaiser’s non-withering state launched itself into the imperialist scramble for colonies, Bernstein promptly came out for colonialism and the White Man’s Burden: “Only a conditional right of savages to the land occupied by them can be recognized; the higher civilization ultimately can claim a higher right.”

Bernstein contrasted his own vision of the road to socialism with that of Marx: Marx’s “is the picture of an army. It presses forward, through detours, over sticks and stones ... Finally it arrives at a great abyss. Beyond it there stands beckoning the desired goal – the state of the future, which can be reached only through at sea, a red sea as some have said.” In contrast, Bernstein’s vision was not red but roseate: the class struggle softens into harmony as a beneficent state gently changes the bourgeoisie into good bureaucrats. It didn’t happen that way – when the Bernsteinized social-democracy first shot down the revolutionary left in 1919, and then, reinstating the unregenerate bourgeoisie and the military in power, helped to yield Germany into the hands of the fascists.

If Bernstein was the theoretician of the identification of bureaucratic collectivism with socialism, then it was his left-wing opponent in the German movement who became the leading spokesman in the Second International of a revolutionary-democratic Socialism-from-Below. This was Rosa Luxemburg, who so emphatically put her faith and hope in the spontaneous struggle of a free working class that the myth-makers invented for her a “theory of spontaneity” which she never held, a theory in which “spontaneity” is counterposed to “leadership.”

In her own movement she fought hard against the “revolutionary” elitists who rediscovered the theory of the Educational Dictatorship over the workers (it is rediscovered in every generation as The Very Latest Thing), and had to write: “Without the conscious will and the consious action of the majority of the proletariat there can be no socialism ... [We] will never assume governmental authority except through the clear unambiguous will of the vast majority of the German working class ...” And her famous aphorism: “Mistakes committed by a genuinely revolutionary labor movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee.”

Rosa Luxemburg versus Eduard Bernstein: this is the German chapter of the story.


Last updated on 25.9.2004