Karl Korsch 1937

The Passing of Marxian Orthodoxy: Bernstein-Kautsky-Luxemburg-Lenin

First Published: in International Council Correspondence, Vol. 3, Number 11&12, December 1937
Source: Class Against Class;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, for marxists.org 2009;

Nothing reveals in such glaring colors the enormous contrast which have existed in the last thirty years between the being and consciousness, between the ideology and the actuality of the proletarian movement as does the final issue of that great dispute whose first passage at arms has come down in the annals of party history under the name of the "Bernstein Debate." Having to do with both the theory and the practice of the socialist movement, it erupted publicly for the first time in the German and international Social Democracy, now a generation ago, shortly after the death of Friedrich Engels. When at that time Edward Bernstein, who was already able to look back upon important achievements in the field of Marxism, expressed for the first time from his exile in London his "heretical" opinions (drawn mainly from study of the English labor movement) regarding the real relation between theory and practice in the German and all-European socialist movement of the time, his views and designs were for the moment and still for a long while thereafter, both among friends and foes, uniformly misinterpreted and misunderstood.

In the entire bourgeois press and specialized literature his work "Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie" was greeted with hymns of joy and showered with paeans of praise. The leader of the then just founded National Socialist Party - the social-imperialist ideologist Friedrich Naumann - declared in his sheet, without circumlocution: "Bernstein is our farthest advanced post in the camp of the Social Democracy." And in broad circles of the liberal bourgeoisie there existed at the time the confident hope that this first fundamental "revisionist'' of Marxism in the Marxist camp would formally also separate himself from the socialist movement and desert to the bourgeois reform movement.

These hopes of the bourgeoisie found their counterpart in a strong sentiment from the camp of the Social Democratic party and trade union movement of the time. However much the leaders of this movement were privately clear on the point that Bernstein's "revision" of the Marxist program of the Social Democracy was nothing more than the public blurting out of the development which had long since been accomplished in practice and through which the Social Democratic movement had been transformed from a revolutionary class struggle movement into a political and social reform movement, still they took good care not to give utterance to this inner knowledge toward the outside. Bernstein having ended his book with his advice to the party that it "might venture to appear that it is: a democratically socialist reform patty," he was confidentially tapped on the shoulder (in a private letter published later) by that sly old demagog of the party executive committee, Ignaz Auer, with the friendly warning: "My dear Eddy, that is something which one does, but does not say." In their public utterances, all the practical and theoretical spokesmen of the German and of the international Social Democracy, the Bebels and Kautskys, Victor Adlers and Plekhanovs, and by whatever name they are called, were opposed to the insolent blabber of the carefully guarded secret. At the party congress in Hanover in 1899, in a four-day debate opened by Bebel with a six-hour report, Bernstein was subjected to a regular trial. He barely managed to avoid formal exclusion from the parry, For many years thereafter, Bernstein was the butt of attack before the members and the voters, in the press and party meetings, at the great official party and trade union congresses; notwithstanding the fact that Bernstein's revisionism had already been victorious in the trade unions and finally was no longer to be resisted in the party either, the anti-capitalist revolutionary "class-struggle party" continued to be played without hesitation, literally to the very last moment-that is, until just before the closing of the social peace pact of 1914, followed by the pact of partnership between capital and labor in 1918.

For this double-faced attitude toward the first serious attempt at a theoretical formulation of the actual ends and means of the bourgeois labor policy which they actually practiced, the practical and theoretical representatives of the policy pursued by the Social Democratic patty executive and the affiliated trade-union apparatus had their good reasons. Just as today the representatives of the Communist Party apparatus in Russia and in all national sections of the Communist International, in order to veil the actual character of their policy, need the pious legend of the ever-advancing "construction of socialism in the Soviet Union" and of the "revolutionary" character (guaranteed if only by that very fact) of the whole policy and tactic, at any particular time, of all Communist party leadership in all countries, so at that time the crafty demagogs in the Social Democratic party executive and at the head of the trade-union apparatus needed, for the concealment of their actual tendencies, the pious legend that the movement which they were conducting was obliged, to be sure, for the present time, to restrict itself to merely tinkering at the bourgeois state and the capitalist economic order by way of all sorts of reforms, but that "in the final goal" it was on the way to the social revolution, to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the abolition of the capitalist economic and social order.

But it was not only the demagogs of the Social Democratic party executive and their "theoretical" advocates who, through the pseudo-struggle which they waged at that time against Bernstein's revisionism, lent aid to the danger of an advancing reformist and bourgeois degeneration of the socialist movement. Rather in the same direction with them there worked for a considerable time, unconsciously and against their will, also such radical revolutionary theoreticians as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia, who according to their subjective design conducted a serious and uncompromising struggle against the tendency expressed by Bernstein. When at the present time, on the basis of the new experiences of the last three decades, we look back on those earlier directional struggles within the German and all- European labor movement, it is somewhat tragic to see how deeply even Luxemburg and Lenin were stuck in the illusion that "Bernsteinism" represented only a deviation from the basically revolutionary character of the then Social Democratic movement, and with what objectively inadequate formulas they too sought to conduct the struggle against the bourgeois degeneration of the socialist party and trade union policy.

Rosa Luxemburg closed her polemic against Bernstein, published in the year 1900 under the title "Sozialreform oder Revolution?" with the catastrophically false prophecy that "Bernstein’s theory was the first, and at the same time the last attempt to give a theoretic base to opportunism." She was of the opinion that opportunism, in Bernstein's book in theory, and in Schippel's position on the question of militarism in practice, "had gone so far that nothing more remained for it to do." And although Bernstein had emphatically stated that he "almost completely accepted the present practice of the Social Democracy" and at the same time had devastatingly laid bare the entire practical insignificance of the then usual revolutionary phase of the "final goal" with his open acknowledgement: "The final goal, of whatsoever nature, is nothing to me; the movement everything," still Rosa Luxemburg, in a remarkable ideological bedazzlement, did not direct her critical counterattack against the Social Democratic practice but against Bernstein's theory, which was nothing more than a truthful expression of the actual character of that practice. The feature by which the Social Democratic movement was distinguished from the bourgeois reform policy, she saw not in practice but expressed in the "final goal" added on to this practice merely as ideology and very often only as a phrase. She declared passionately that "the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social Democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labor movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order." This general "final goal" which according to the words of Rosa Luxemburg should be everything, and by which the Social Democratic movement of that time was distinguished from the bourgeois reform politics, revealed itself in subsequent actual history as in fact that nothing which Bernstein, the sober observer of reality, had already termed it.

For all those people whose eyes have not yet been opened by all the facts of the last fifteen years, a convincing confirmation of this historical state of affairs is furnished by the express declarations on the matter which have come from the main participants themselves on the occasion of the various "Marxian" anniversary celebrations of recent times. Among these belongs, for example, that memorable banquet which was arranged in 1924 by the exemplars of Social Democratic Marxism, who were assembled in London for the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the first "International Working Men's Association" in honor of the seventieth birthday of Kautsky. Here the historical "dispute" between Kautsky's "revolutionary orthodox Marxism" and Bernstein's "revisionist" reformism found its harmonious close in those "words of friendship" (reported by "Vorwaerts") spoken by the seventy-five-year old Bernstein in honor of the seventy-year old Kautsky and in the symbolical embracing ceremony by which the words were followed: "When Bernstein had ended, and the two old men whose names have long since become honorable to a younger, the third generation, embraced each other and remained for several seconds clasped together-who on that occasion could avoid being moved, who could wish to avoid it?" And in the year 1930, the seventy-five-year old Kautsky writes in exactly the same sense in the Social Democratic "Kampf" of Vienna, in honor of the eightieth birthday of Bernstein: "In party-political matters we have been since 1880 Siamese twins. Even such persons can quarrel occasionally. We have attended to that now and then quite extensively. But even at such times it was impossible to speak of the one without thinking also of the other."

Subsequent testimonials of Bernstein and Kautsky illuminate quite dearly the tragic misunderstanding with which in the pre-war period those German left-radicals who, under the slogan "revolutionary final goal against reformist daily practice,” sought to conduct the struggle against the practical and m the last analysis also theoretical bourgeoisification of the Social Democratic labor movement, in reality merely supported and promoted this historical process of development carried out by Bernstein and Kautsky in their respective roles. With due allowances, the same may be said, however, of still another slogan by means of which in the same period the Russian Marxist Lenin, in his own country and on an international scale, sought to draw the dividing line between the bourgeois and the "revolutionary" labor policy. Just as Rosa Luxemburg in her subjective consciousness was the sharpest adversary of Bernsteinism, and in the first edition of "Reform or Revolution?" in the year 1900 still expressly demanded Bernstein's exclusion from the Social Democratic party, so also was Lenin subjectively a deadly enemy of the "renegade" Bernstein, and of all the heretical deviations committed by him, in his "herostratically celebrated" book, from the pure and undefiled doctrine of the "revolutionary" Marxist program. But exactly like Luxemburg and the German left-radical Social Democrats, so also the Bolshevist Social Democrat Lenin made use, for this struggle against Social Democratic revisionism, of a wholly ideological platform, in that he sought the guarantee for the "revolutionary" character of the labor movement, not in its actual economic and social class content, but expressly only in the leadership of this struggle by way of the revolutionary PARTY guided by a correct Marxist theory.


1. Translated by Edith C. Harvey under the title "Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation" and published in London (1909) by the Independent Labor Party.

2. "Reform or Revolution?" Three Arrows Press, 21 E. 17th Street, New York. 25 cents.