Joseph Hansen

Bernstein’s Challenge To Marx

(Fall 1954)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.13 No.4, Fall 1954, pp.139-143.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism
by Peter Gay
Columbia University Press, New York, 1952. 334 pp. $4.25.

THIS IS A POLITICAL biography of Eduard Bernstein, an outstanding member of that group of disciples whom Marx and Engels knew personally and helped develop as leaders of the revolutionary socialist movement. Bernstein had the unenviable distinction of being the first after the death of Engels to break from the great founders of scientific socialism. Faced with new, unanticipated facts that seemed to vitiate the prognoses of the masters, he revised their basic views from top to bottom so that Marxist theory, as he saw it, would better correspond with what he took to be the living reality.

The causes of this spectacular change, Bernstein’s substitute theories, and their impact on the Social Democratic movement make up three parts in Peter Gay’s book. Of these the first two are the best. The third suffers from the author’s unfortunate sympathy for his subject as a man and as a politician.

Bernstein began his political life like most other adolescents of the day as a patriot in the Franco-Prussian war. However, late in 1871 his reading of radical newspapers convinced him that the government’s charge of treason against Bebel, Liebknecht and other socialist leaders was false. The war, he decided, was wrong. In February of 1872 he joined the Social Democratic movement.

The 22-year-old youth had left school six years before to begin his apprenticeship as a bank clerk. Now he began his apprenticeship as a revolutionary socialist. The depression of 1873 touched off an upsurge of labor and the young enthusiast found his spare time occupied to the full.

The school of public speaking and debating in the suburbs of Berlin was rough. Besides evenings it meant three debates or speeches each weekend. This went on for six years. As his activities brought him into prominence in the party, he began his theoretical studies. These consisted of a little of Marx and more of a Professor Dühring who was then in repute as a socialist with a university education. Continually under attack from his superiors, the blind professor attracted much sympathy. Actually he turned out to be an anti-Semitic megalomaniac.

The educated Professor Dühring made such an impression on the unschooled Bernstein that he enthusiastically pushed his pretentious writings within the Social Democratic movement. The fact that this was well received even by the leaders indicates how low the theoretical level of the movement was in politically backward Germany. It took a long series of articles by Engels himself, which were finally published as a book, to finish off the Dühring fad. Anti-Dühring, Bernstein admitted, was what really won him to Marxism.

Despite some persecution, the party scored sufficient successes to frighten Bismarck, chancellor of the German government. In 1878 he deliberately framed up the Social Democratic Party after two attempted assassinations of the aged emperor by psychotics who had nothing to do with the party. The Reichstag passed the legislation he demanded, outlawing the Social Democratic Party, and Bismarck set in motion a nation-wide witch hunt. Meetings of the party were banned, its newspapers confiscated, members arrested. Companies all over Germany joined in the hysteria, compelling their employees to sign a “loyalty” oath; i.e., that they were not members of the proscribed party or would abandon membership immediately.

Bernstein went to Switzerland where he became editor a little later of Sozialdemokrat, the party’s official paper, which was smuggled into Germany. He proved to be an able editor, receiving Engels’ commendation and encouragement when the responsibility of the assignment and the inadequacy of his education caused him to think of resigning.

Those years of resisting the witch hunt and all its pressures became known as the “heroic years.” Despite the persecution, which included the arrest and imprisonment of party leaders, the Social Democrats made headway. Not even the death of Marx denied their ranks. They concentrated their defensive fight around the ballot box and began to roll up an impressive vote.

Bismarck’s response to their electoral gains was to grant concessions to the workers such as sickness, accident and old-age insurance at government expense. This was coupled with intensification of the witch hunt. Through diplomatic bullying and bribery, Bismarck even secured expulsion of the staff of Sozialdemokrat from Switzerland in 1888. Bernstein, under indictment in Germany for ‘sedition’ and now under attack from the Swiss authorities, went to London.

By 1890, twelve years after the witch hunt began, the Social Democrats had become so powerful in Germany that Bismarck’s policy of repression was considered a fiasco. He was dismissed by the young Kaiser and the party emerged into the public arena, seemingly well on the way to becoming Germany’s most powerful political force.

Bernstein was now working in close collaboration with Engels. He spent considerable time in the reading room of the British Museum, where Marx had labored for decades. In 1895 he published an important contribution to Marxist literature, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution. (In the English translation the title of the book is Cromwell and Communism.) This marked the pinnacle of Bernstein’s achievements. In 25 years of revolutionary socialist activity and ‘study he had more than made up for his lack of university training. He was now recognized everywhere as one of the leading intellectuals of the Marxist movement.

“Evolutionary Socialism”

But all was not well with Bernstein. As early as 1892 Engels had indicated his displeasure over Bernstein’s enthusiasm for the Fabians in England, a grouping of socialists headed by such figures as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb who thought the best way to get socialism was to talk the the capitalist class into it. Engels ascribed Bernstein’s wavering to a “nervous illness” which he had recently undergone.

Bernstein’s friends noted a growing moodiness and irritability in the usually affable writer as if he were suffering from an unresolved conflict. The reason for this cooling off toward his friends began to be apparent in 1896, a year after Engels’ death, when Bernstein started a series of articles on Problems of Marxism. By 1898 a storm was raging in the ranks of the Social Democracy over these articles, for they revealed Bernstein’s basic break from Marxism. Kautsky and Bebel pressed him to develop his views.

He did this in a book published in 1899, Evolutionary Socialism, a systematic attack on the fundamentals of Marxism that quickly became known as the bible of Revisionism. The sensation of his attack on Marxism made Bernstein famous throughout Europe, propelling him overnight into leadership of a powerful current in the Social Democratic movement.

Bernstein went to the heart of Marxism, the materialist dialectic. This method, which Engels described as “our best working tool and our sharpest weapon,” was denounced by Bernstein as a “snare.” He considered Marx and Engels to have been “seduced by the Hegelian dialectic, which after all is not integrally connected with the theory.” In his opinion, “The great things which Marx and Engels achieved they accomplished in spite of, not because of, Hegel’s dialectic.” In place of the logic of contradiction he advocated “organic evolutionism”; that is, a concept of unilinear progress that conveniently leaves out the role of such abrupt transitions as revolution among the motor powers of history.

He felt, in accordance with this, that Marx and Engels had too much stressed the role of force in history and had overlooked the possibility of the gradual growth of capitalism into socialism. No longer seeing development through contradiction, the logic he substituted for dialectic gave him development through continuous, small, mostly irreversible changes. Thus as a practical result of his theory he visualized the “permeation” of capitalism with a socialist content (the Fabian view).

The principles which he had defended for a quarter of a century now appeared to Bernstein as “dogmas” that must be rooted out if Marxism was not to become ossified. And so he leveled his guns at the undue power of “tradition” in the movement. The entire concept of the coming decline and overthrow of capitalism in any sense except its gradual assimilation of a socialist content now seemed to him so much “cant.” Against this “cant” he put Kant, the philosopher, advocating cultivation of a “critical spirit” and a “Critical Socialism” in the tradition of the “Critical Philosophy” of the Königsberg sage.

And, setting the example, he raised the banner of what he considered to be Kantian ethics. In place of Marx’s view that socialism is inevitable, the next stage of society whose lineaments can be seen in capitalism itself as the present order prepares the economic, social and political groundwork for its replacement, Bernstein spoke of socialism as nothing more than an ethical ideal, something that “ought to be.” He was not even sure that socialism; would necessarily follow capitalism. Why not something different? Something completely unforeseen? He decided that socialism is really “utopian,” not scientific, because it is “biased”; biased for the working class against the capitalist class.

Bernstein’s revisionism was just as sweeping in economics. He accepted the views of the new bitterly anti-Marxist school of marginal economists as compatible with Marxist economics. He decided that capitalism was not heading toward worse depressions, but that instead the periods of prosperity were widening. In place of increasing concentration and centralization of wealth as forecast by Marx, ownership, along with its benefits, was being spread more widely among the people.

As for the class struggle,

“In no way do I deny that a class struggle is going on in modern society. But I wish to argue against the stereotyped conception of this struggle as well as against the claim that it must necessarily assume ever harsher forms.”

The continuous increase of productivity signified not increasing polarization of classes in society and the eventual destruction of the middle class, but steady improvements for the workers and the increase of the middle class. Thus, the role of the Social Democracy was not “to dissolve this society and to make proletarians of all its members. Rather, it labors incessantly at lifting the worker from! the social position of a proletarian to that of a ‘bourgeois’ and thus to make ‘bourgeoisie’ – or citizenship – universal.”

In that way the class struggle becomes increasingly milder as the workers become petty bourgeois and eventually bourgeois. This view strikingly revealed the limitations of Bernstein’s concepts. The class struggle within a few years was to reach pitches of unheard of ferocity as the workers instinctively sought to transcend capitalist society. Bernstein, however, was incapable of transcending capitalist society even in thought. To his mind, the socialist goal for a worker is to become bourgeois. His incapacity to pass beyond the limits of capitalist ethics and outlook showed that he had never really grasped capitalism as a whole in theory. This prevented him; from seeing its rise and decline in a qualitative sense. He could only see it quantitatively – as less or more of what is. That is a typical limitation of non-dialectical thought.

On the political level, Bernstein was just as thorough in sweeping out what he considered to be cobwebs. He declared Marx and Engels to be wrong about the withering away of the state. In his opinion the capitalist state could be reformed into socialism and would continue to play a useful-role. The talk about revolution was therefore so much nonsense. He demanded that the Social Democrats free the movement of such “outworn slogans.” The influence of the party would increase, he declared, if “it found the courage to emancipate itself from a phraseology which is actually obsolete, and if it were willing to appear what it really is today; a democratic-Socialist reform party.” Bernstein was specific about where the influence of the party would increase: among the bourgeoisie, who would lose their fear of socialism once they were assured it had no revolutionary intentions. In brief he demanded that the Social Democrats should rearm themselves by junking the old Marxism.

(An instructive present-day parallel to this revisionist view is the Cochranite contention that the influence of Trotskyism would increase among the Stalinists if it would only “junk the old Trotskyism” and give up calling for the revolutionary overthrow of the reactionary Soviet ruling caste. One is reminded of Hegel’s observation that while we are often advised to learn from the experiences of history, “what experience and history teach is that peoples and governments have never yet learned from history, let alone acted according to its lessons.”)

Bernstein’s Empiricism

Gay’s study of what lay behind Bernstein’s revisionist views is the best feature of the book.

“Bernstein came to technical philosophy late and without expert guidance,” he points out. “This is not to say, by any means, that anyone trained in philosophy would automatically become an addict of the Hegelian logic. Nor is it to accuse Bernstein of ignorance in philosophy. But his lack of a really thorough philosophical education drove him to rely on common sense and to give free play to his already powerful skeptical and empiricist sympathies.”


“Bernstein ... did not fully grasp the significance of the dialectic to Marxism ... Bernstein’s empiricism is apparent everywhere. His philosophical case against Marxism was really an afterthought; it was appended to his attempt to refute Marxist conclusions on empirical grounds. He distrusted metaphysical structures as Utopian constructions and suspected abstract thought of leading to unwarranted results. The world to him was ‘a complex of ready-made objects and processes.’ [1] True, his empiricism was not identical with the extreme anti-philosophical attitude of the Fabians, whom he condemned for reducing Socialism to ‘a series of sociopolitical measures, without any connecting element that could express the unity of their fundamental thought and action.’ But his kinship to the Fabians was closer than he cared to admit.”

An empiricist such as Bernstein lacks a powerful network of thought that can sift and assess facts on a big scale, gathering them together in correct historic proportion. His thought therefore becomes entangled in the network of facts and their immediate relationships which are often superficial or even contradictory to the main trend. The empiricist is convinced to the marrow of his bones that he is viewing reality as it is. He sees it right in front of his eyes and no one is going to convince him otherwise. Hence the arrogance and contempt for theory that is so often seen in a vulgar empiricist. Don’t try to tell him the earth is round or revolves around the sun. He can see otherwise and besides it’s just as easy to plow a straight TOW if you consider the field flat; and crops grow just as well if you figure that it is the sun that rises in the east and sets in the west instead of the earth revolving under its rays. So what can the theory do for you that common sense won’t do just as good?

Bernstein was impressed by the prosperity of England, the damping of the class struggle there, and then the unparalleled prosperity that swept Germany in the Nineties. Lacking the dialectic method of Marxism, he was unable to fit these unexpected facts into the general theoretical structure of Marxism. Hadn’t Marx and Engels predicted worsening crisis, growing misery of the workers, disappearance of the middle class, even world war? And precisely the opposite was happening. A theory that led to such wrong results must be worthless.

The unhappy man, who did not have any insight into his own limitations, took what to him was the only course. Since the facts before his eyes could not be denied, he denied the theory. Seeking for the causes of the errors, he made the blunder of ascribing them to what seemed to him to be mystical hangovers from Hegel that had always proved a bit too hard for him to either crack or enjoy. Conscientiously, he set out to purge them from a movement which obviously needed re-arming with a “new” theory. He was forceful about it because he was completely convinced and sincere. He knew What he saw. But that was Bernstein’s blind side. Despite all his honesty, he was incapable of putting together more than rags and patches from various sources, many directly from bourgeois currents, others indirectly.

Bernstein was not expelled from the party, nor did he resign as some pressed him to. Instead, to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s he found himself at the head of a ready-made, powerful, and fanatic faction, who acclaimed his gross betrayal of Marxist principles. Moreover, in social composition they included not only middle class elements, including trade union bureaucrats, but a heavy section of workers. How did this seemingly strange turn occur?

The Effect of Prosperity

The Social Democrats had proved their capacity to survive and grow in the years of fierce persecution. What they couldn’t stand was prosperity.

“A sudden short depression in 1890,” Gay explains, “was soon followed by moderately good times. But the boom that broke the Marxists’ back began in 1895 and lasted, with brief interruptions, until the outbreak of the World War. With such a bright economic picture, who can wonder at the emergence of Revisionism?”

“The effect of the prosperity upon German Social Democracy,” Gay notes, “was twofold: it sapped the proletariat’s will to revolt by making nonsense of the Erfurt Program, and it gave grounds for theoretical skepticism regarding several of Marx’s basic tenets.”

The social source of revisionism was the skilled workers of Germany organized in trade unions headed by Social Democrats. These bureaucrats, as they gathered wind in their sails from the prosperity, insisted on equal partnership in guiding the party. But conceding to this demand meant the surrender of political leadership to the trade union bureaucrats and their ascendancy at the expense of the revolutionary wing of the party.

A fight to the finish was clearly called for. Instead the centrist leadership headed by Bebel and Kautsky chose to temporize, to obscure the differences. They put party unity above principles. They sought compromises that meant verbal concessions to the left and power concessions to the right, an arrangement quite satisfactory to the “practical” trade unionists who didn’t give a damn about official declarations so long as they were permitted to continue their anti-revolutionary course. As a matter of fact such declarations provided a convenient left cover for their politics. When the honest Bernstein at one time demanded that the party openly confess its reformist character, Auer wrote him in a cynical letter,

“My dear Ede you don’t pass such resolutions. You don’t talk about it, you just do it.”

Gay sums up the relationship of the conservatized union section to Bernstein as follows:

“First of all, the trade unions never evinced the slightest interest in the theoretical side of Revisionism. Bernstein’s rewriting of Marxism without dialectics, his demonstration that the middle class was not disappearing, his attempts to combine the Marxist theory of value with the new marginal utility approach, left the trade unionists completely cold. These matters, to them, were intellectual pastimes of no value for practical affairs. They felt that they knew, empirically, that the lot of the working class could be bettered by reformist activity within the existing order. After all, were not the unions doing it every day?”

They were as contemptuous of the intellectual leaders whom they followed as they were of the revolutionary wing they opposed. “I have the feeling,” cried one of them, at a Congress in 1908, “that our party comrades have too little contact with the masses ... When science is remote from practice, it must lead to one-sided results.” He was arguing for voting for the budget submitted by the government to the legislature, an act long held by the Social Democrats to be wrong in principle since it indicated confidence in the capitalist government.

The failure of Bebel and Kautsky to open all-out faction war on the Revisionists and their trade-union supporters in defense of orthodox Marxism meant the ruin of the party. It paved the way for its colossal betrayal in 1914 when the party leadership supported the imperialist war, and later for its impotence in the face of Hitler’s drive to power.

The debate over Revisionism raged for years; it was condemned in resolutions, and the party continued to preach revolution, but actually the Social Democracy had become a liberal bourgeois party in a shell of socialist declarations. Of those who fought Bernstein most vigorously, Gay deals only with Rosa Luxemburg whom, he regards as “undoubtedly the most effective and profound.” But she, too, did not understand the need for building a combat party – Lenin alone in those years advanced this concept – and so the great Social Democratic Party drifted toward disaster.

Party of Counter-Revolution

Gay follows Bernstein’s career sympathetically through World War I – first his support of German imperialism along with the other social imperialists of the party, then his doubts and finally regret over the monstrous betrayal. Bernstein eventually split from the party because of its German chauvinism, but his shifting to the side of British and French imperialism was no better, coinciding as it did with their victory.

When the Social Democrats were thrust into power at the end of the war, Bernstein took a post in the government. To him the Weimar Republic was living proof of the correctness of his views. In his theory, Social Democrats in power equaled a Germany fast approaching socialism. He thought it would be absurd to call post-war Germany a “capitalistic republic,” since organized labor had forced acceptance of higher wages and social legislation and was bringing the dictatorship of the capitalists to an end.

In Gay’s words, the Social Democrats “mistook form for substance.” They were really consolidating the old bourgeois centers of power in the army, the government bureaucracy and the judiciary. To do this they waged civil war against the revolutionary currents headed by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were murdered in cold blood. The Social Democracy had turned into its opposite – from a party of revolution to a party of counter-revolution.

Bernstein rejoined the Social Democrats in 1919. The extreme right wing now openly dominated the parly. Bernstein served them no longer as theoretical cover but simply as a hack polemicist.

“His favorite targets,” Gay declares, “were those Socialists who advocated immediate wholesale nationalization, and the Bolsheviks. In true Revisionist fashion, Bernstein inveighed against haste which, he felt, was the besetting vice of many German radicals. He saved his heavy ammunition, however, for the Bolsheviks, who stood for all the things he abhorred.”

The fear and hatred of the right-wing Social Democrats for the Bolsheviks was quite natural. First of all, the capitalist class, with whom they had made it a principle to collaborate, was engaged in a civil war and a vast armed intervention under Churchill’s guidance against the infant workers’ state, trying to put it down by force and violence. Secondly, the Bolsheviks represented the orthodox Marxism which they had long ago rejected as outmoded dogma. The catastrophe of World War I, the Russian revolution, and the revolutionary upsurge of the working class throughout Europe now offered the most crushing verification of the basic outlook of orthodox Marxism. Bernstein, however, did not undertake to revise his Revisionism. He simply sputtered at the stunning new facts and tried to sweep them back with rhetoric.

The former disciple of Marx and Engels lived until December 18, 1932, when he died at the age of 82. Six weeks later Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the Reich. Thus Bernstein did not see the full consequences to the German working class of the Revisionism that destroyed their vanguard party.

In his own eulogy to Bernstein, Gay counts him as “one of the most attractive personalities produced by German Social Democracy.” He lauds him for submitting “Marxist dogma to searching examination while not surrendering the Socialist standpoint,” and considers his position on tactics “of great value,” serving “as an antidote against the Leninists on the one hand and the Syndicalists on the other.”

Gay’s “Dilemma”

Gay ends somewhat unexpectedly with the old chestnut about means and ends, as if this were the main lesson history has to teach about the degeneration of Bernstein and the Social Democratic Party.

“From the outset, Revisionism faced a dilemma that confronts all democratic movements intent on radical social change: What methods shall be used to gain the desired end? The use of violence may overthrow the ruling class that bars the way – but is it not likely that the exigencies of the revolution will transform the movement into a repressive tyranny? Can the rule of terror not be established in the sacred name of the general will? On the other hand, if the parliamentary path is followed and the use of force eschewed, will the reformers ever gain the power they must have to put their theories into practice?”

Such questions would seem to have been pretty well answered by what happened in Germany itself. Had the Social Democrats not succumbed to Revisionism, Germany would have been socialist for some 36 years now. Not only that, if Germany had gone socialist when it should have, Stalinism could never have risen in the Soviet Union. Can there be any doubt that all of Europe would long ago have been united in one planned economy, that we could have avoided the horrors of fascism and of World War II, the threat of World War III and the menace of atomic destruction that now faces us? The United States itself would surely have gone socialist under those conditions when the great depression of the Thirties gave fresh warning that capitalism in the long run means only increasing misery for the working people.

But Gay does not appear to have considered such possibilities. Like Bernstein, he lacks imagination, is at heart only an empiricist. It is true that he is not as gross an empiricist as Bernstein, just as Bernstein was not as gross as the Fabians who attracted him. He is nevertheless an empiricist; moreover, one limited in a peculiar way.

He seems completely unaware of the fact that orthodox Marxism has given profound consideration to the problem of the inter-relation of means and ends, the “dilemma” that appears so tragic, so troublesome and so insoluble to Gay despite the “expert guidance” he seems to have received in “technical philosophy.” One wonders, for example, if he is really ignorant of Trotsky’s final contribution on this subject, Their Morals and Ours, or if he is silent about it out of desire to strike the fitting “tragic” note in closing his book on Bernstein.

Similarly he seems unaware of the fact that orthodox Marxism long ago solved the problem of fascism in theory; for, in excusing Bernstein for his role in disarming the German workers before Nazism, he claims that “Marxism” has not been able to “offer more than a crudely mechanistic explanation” of its rise. Is he really ignorant of Trotsky’s writings on the subject?

Much as one can learn from Gay’s study about how Revisionism arose in Germany and how it helped paralyze the working class when the threatening figure of Hitler appeared on the political horizon, the lessons – so far as the book itself is concerned – remain negative ones. To work out the implications you need a course in Trotskyism as a prerequisite.

However, as background material for the writings of Lenin and Trotsky on the lessons of Social Democratic politics, the book is both valuable and interesting. I recommend it for your personal library.



1. Gay quotes this from Bernstein. Evidently a reference to the following statement by Engels, it shows Bernstein’s confusion in a most striking way:

“The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind-images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, in spite of all seeming accidents and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end – this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is scarcely ever contradicted.” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, p.54, International Publishers, 1935 edition)


Last updated on: 22.2.2006