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Opportunism in Practice


2. Opportunism and Doctrine.


Since opportunism appeared among German Socialists, it has never ceased to complain that it was being misunderstood. Vollmar’s Eldorado speeches in 1891 were misunderstood, his remarks on State Socialism were misunderstood, the consent of the Bavarian fraction in the Landtag to the budget was misunderstood, the idea of independent farmers in the draft of the South German agrarian program was misunderstood, Schippel’s position toward militarism at the Hamburg congress was misunderstood, Heine’s compromise policy was misunderstood, and finally Bernstein’s revision was misunderstood first by myself, then by everybody else who attacked it, including Karl Kautsky, the intimate friend of Bernstein, with whom a twenty years’ exchange of ideas connected him. The capacity for being misunderstood is the strongest intellectual weapon of opportunism. There are politicians who can never succeed in being misunderstood, no matter how much they try. They are rather too outspoken, draw too one-sided conclusions out of individual eases and pay the penalty by falling unawares into a ludicrous contradiction. A contradiction arising from a daring and upright search for truth and clearness is surely more praiseworthy than that intellectual adaptability which always carries in its mouth two half-truths that do not fit together because they belong to two different wholes. But the contradiction is clearly apparent, the half-truth is plainly perceptible.

The alleged misfortune of being misunderstood is founded in the character of opportunism. First and most of all it is misunderstood by itself. It needs outside help in order to draw the conclusions from its own actions, and a long experience in order to know itself. When it first appears, it is only a modification, a different shade of color, a grease spot. No matter how much it grows, it never becomes a system, a doctrine, or even a principle. It remains a shapeless, gelatinous mass. For this reason nothing in the world is so distasteful to it as a firm outline, a doctrine or a dogma. At the same time, when attacked, it never finds any difficulty in adhering to a dogma.

Hence it has always been impossible to strike opportunism by any resolution. When Bebel offered his resolution in Erfurt, the congress was convinced that Vollmar would have to define his position by certain amendments and additions. But he did nothing of the kind and at once fully endorsed the resolution. He even declared in his closing speech that he did not wish to see the tactics of the party changed; they suited him very well as they were. Likewise Bernstein now endorses all resolutions.

While carrying on a bitter fight against the entire scientific and political activity of Marx and Engels, he declares that he is standing on the ground created by the ideas and activity of these men. And although an abyss has long since formed between him and the entire policy and historical tradition of the party, he persistently repeats that the party is standing on the same ground with him and is only not aware of it.

To clearly formulate opportunism is not feasible. It is as little adapted for that purpose as quicksand is for sculpturing. In criticizing it, we must confine ourselves to exposing its origin, its development, and its muddle-headedness.

One trait is common in the origin of all opportunist errors in the Socialist labor movement: the incapacity for organically combining the present policy of the party with its final revolutionary aim. In the eyes of the opportunists these two points separate themselves: here the final aim, there the present policy. At best they recognize a parallel activity: agitation for the social revolution and activity within the capitalist state. That it is possible for our present activity to be thoroughly revolutionary with all its variety, all its “positive” and practical character, even in the old true sense of the term, according to which the social revolution does not begin until the proletariat is supreme, that passes their understanding. But the simple revolutionary spirit that scorns all present activity is perfectly plain to them. Vollmar, e. g., represented the so-called “young Socialists” as models of consistency. In 1891, he described their position as follows: “The modern social and political conditions are beyond improvement. . . . Hence we have stood aloof from all participation in practical politics and confine ourselves to protesting and waiting, until our strength lies in the street and we can get the whole at one stroke. And this time is near; it even depends on us alone to hasten its arrival.” And he added: “This position is doubtless clear and precise.”

But the position of Bebel, Liebknecht and others appears to him as pure inconsistency. He writes in the same articles of the Muenchener Post (Ueber Optimismus [On Optimism], reproduced in the pamphlet Ueber die naechsten Aufgaben der deutschen Sozialdemokratie [On Social Democracy’s Immediate Tasks], publisher M Ernst): “It directly contradicts our entire conception of a gradual growing into a new form of society, if now and then declarations are suddenly sprung on us that represent any work for immediate measures as practically worthless. . . . A prominent party member recently said in a well-considered speech at Berlin: ‘The state of the ruling classes will never yield to more than petty concessions.’ That might have been said very well by one of the ‘young Socialists’ as an argument in favor of his policy of abstention from all practical politics and of pure agitation of principles. Why should we, indeed, devote nine-tenths of our activity to work which will never yield anything but insignificant results?” You see, what Vollmar does not understand is the value of present day parliamentary work and practical politics for our revolutionary propaganda. This value will become plainly apparent when the class interest or the class egoism of the ruling elements prevent the realization of our demands by legal means. It was precisely this that was later emphasized by the Erfurt resolution, and Vollmar did not even hesitate to approve of it.

Whoever does not know how to combine the fight for social revolution with the present day political or parliamentary work, finds now the revolutionary agitation in the way of present day work, now the latter in the way of the former. Hence he is placed before the alternative: pure revolution, or pure reform. That explains why the time limit plays such an important role in the opportunist reflections on the social revolution. If the revolution is impending, then they are freed from the vexing problem and believe that there is no use in bothering with social reform measures; they are then extremely revolutionary. Thus Vollmar replied to Bebel, who expected great social changes in the near future: “If I could share this belief, no regard to agitation could induce me to continue any political chores.” By the way, that would be just the right method to delay the revolution a little longer.

Whether it takes ten, or twenty, or fifty years for the proletariat to obtain sufficient power to make an end of capitalist exploitation, that is a question of great ethical importance. But revolutionary politics are not dependent on the date of the revolution. They are the result of capitalist evolution that creates an irreconcilable conflict between the working class and the capitalists, no matter whether its march is slow or rapid. It has caused some surprise that Vollmar, who first was much more inclined to go to extremes in his ultra-revolutionary attitude, became so moderate. We know to-day that therein lies a peculiar consistency which was also exhibited later on by the “young Socialists” of 1891, all of whom have shed their skins and become Vollmarians, unless they have left politics entirely. It is clear: if a man is only a revolutionary, because he expects a revolution tomorrow, he will turn into a reformer, if the revolution is delayed by the march of events until the end of the week. The revolutionism of the “young ones” was due more to desire than to conviction. It lacked the true insight into the development of social conditions, and it was as hollow as their present opportunism. But Marx and Engels fought for the social revolution during half a century without wavering for a single moment. On the contrary, their buoyancy increased with the years, for they had the historical perception which the others lacked. Nor did August Bebel change when no great political events took place by 1898. It is not a matter of any great political day, but of great historical events that are not dependent so much on our ability to plan ahead, as on capitalist development.

Vollmar, who charged Bebel with inconsistency because the latter did not push his revolutionary tendencies to the point of totally abandoning his “chores,” failed to draw the logical conclusions from his own standpoint. For if such a chasm yawns between the social revolution and the “daily chores,” then it follows that in order to devote ourselves fully to the “chores” we should have to give up the idea of a social revolution. This Vollmar did not do, however, but declared that he wished to keep his eye on the “final aim” while doing his “chores.” Eduard Bernstein went a step farther in his well-known statement: “The final aim is nothing, the movement everything to me.” But this is precisely the characteristic mark of opportunism that it does not dare to solve the contradictions that entangle it. Once the opportunist draws his conclusions as to social reforms, he ceases to be an opportunist and becomes a reformer. That would at once clear the situation, and we should settle the pure reformer’s account as quickly as we did the advocates of pure revolution.

The development of opportunism tends toward reformism. But until this final result is reached, opportunism throws a cloak over its own development. Thus the theories are born of a gradual growing of society into socialism, of an insensible stifling of capitalism, etc., all of which simply tend to substitute social reform for social revolution. They pretend to change things by changing names. As this is impossible, they become gradually involved in an irreconcilable opposition to their starting point. They sneer at revolutionism, first proclaim the freedom of Socialist science, then appeal from science to the fallaciousness of human perception, and finally make Socialism a matter of belief and temperament. Hence these Socialists who first could not be revolutionary enough, turn into social reformers long before capitalism is transferred into Socialism. Instead of stifling capitalism, they choke their own political past.

So far from solving the contradiction in which he is entangled, the opportunist transfers it to his whole party. He thinks that in fighting him we oppose the future ideal of social revolution to the present-day chores. But this problem does not exist for us at all. For the work of the present does not interfere with our revolutionary agitation, it rather furthers it. The trouble lies in the present day work itself, from which the opportunists want to eliminate revolutionary agitation. The question is:

Shall we aim exclusively at immediate parliamentary and economic results in our present work, or shall these results be simply the means for the realization of a higher object, the revolutionary organization of the proletariat. It is not merely a question of voting, obtaining political successes, advocating social reforms and democratic laws, organizing strikes for higher wages, and other labour demands — but of either leaving the political power in the hands of the bourgeoisie or leading the proletariat by means of these measures to the conquest of the political powers for the purpose of changing the foundations of the state, of property and of the mode of production.


Last updated on 30 April 2023