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Opportunism in Practice


5. Bernstein’s Revisionism.


The fact that scientific understanding never stands still, that with the development of economic relations a revision of economic theories becomes necessary, is a mere banality. Nobody disputes this. Part of the intellectual emptiness of opportunism is that it makes a song and dance of not wishing to bow to dogma, that it has the right to its opinion and that it will not allow anybody to deny it its right to criticise or revise ideas and so on.

Those who really have something new to say should just say it, without asking many questions, and above all they should ensure that what they have to say is given substance, leading to a clear and precise delineation between what they are saying and what others said before. But opportunist revisionism does not dare to bring about this delineation, which is indispensable to clarity; whenever it is attacked, it hides behind the same doctrine that it is attacking. It does not dare to speak in its own voice, it purses its lips in the old style and claims that its wretched chirping is the same as the spirited whistling of old. We are not disputing revisionism’s right to its own opinion, but rather its right to foist this opinion on the ideas of scientific socialism established by Marx and Engels in the entirety of their thought and activity. The fundamentals of revolutionary socialism may be false – they should prove it – but when it is said that for the past fifty years the whole world has misunderstood Marx and Engels; that they themselves did not know what they wanted, and that – had they not died an untimely death – they would have only found out what they wanted from Bernstein, then, with reference to scientific and political documents, we mockingly laugh at such accusations. What we need above all is clarity. We must decidedly protest against all attempts at literary confusion that conceal the consequences of their own thought; against everything that has the effect of obscuring the truth, instead of clarifying it.

The whole of the four-year-long campaign against Bernstein’s revisionism strives for nothing else than clarity. Whether to the right, or to the left: shall we continue to stand on the ground of revolutionary socialism, or shall we become a social-reformist party? Just let there be no confusion, no masques, no self-deception! But Bernstein is obviously no longer capable of producing a clear and certain position. He has lost the ability to look at things without shifting his point of view even for a moment: his is a great twirling dance in which he spins around his own axe, with the result that everything around shimmers in a blur. If he is challenged to draw the consequences of his own point of view, then he considers this to be most annoying or even insulting. Can we imagine a more risible situation than one in which this party reformer, this trailblazer of socialism that wishes to point out new paths to the international proletariat, bitterly and miserably moans about the fact that he was tricked into making his views public?[1] Apparently, by asking him to formulate his views in a book, Bernstein’s old friend Kautsky had treated him quite treacherously. What perfidy! After all, Kautsky had to know that Bernstein would make an absolute fool of himself by writing a coherent outline of his revisionism! It is a most interesting character trait of revisionism: on the one hand, the more that Bernstein “revises”, the more talkative he becomes; on the other hand, the more he “revises”, the more he carries around with him the feeling that he perhaps should have remained silent.[a]

Marx and Engels too, after all, appeared as critics, as revisionists. But look at the sharpness with which they attempted to carve out their ideas from the muddle of traditional ideas, how boldly and surely they drew boundaries between the new and the old. They did so all the way through to the formalities: they called themselves communists in contrast to the socialist mish-mash of that time.

For they had a political programme, a social doctrine, to bring to bear. And hitherto this is exactly how anybody who had an original thought to champion in science or politics has acted. But this opportunistic revisionism is characterised precisely by the fact that it cannot demonstrate a single idea of its own and is unable to offer new facts. It has become unfaithful to the old convictions and has not arrived at any new ones. It combats social-revolutionary principles with social-reformist arguments but does not know what to replace socialism with.

Let us look at the whole smorgasbord of Bernstein’s positioning, which makes him claim that class separation is not proceeding as rapidly as socialism assumes; that the middle class is preventing the intensification of class antagonisms; that the peasantry is clinging onto its small property; that there continues to be a large number of small industrial enterprises; that the concentration of capitalist enterprises is slowing down; that the capitalist plays a significant role as an entrepreneur; that the crises of trade are not founded in the essence of capitalist production, but should be attributed to fraud and must in any case give way to the capitalist organisation of trade, cartels, etc; that capitalist culture continues to progress and that the condition of the workers is improving; that the influence of philanthropic views, of public opinion, of democracy all slow progress; that history does not proceed in leaps; that the working class is still immature; that the proletarian is transformed into a capitalist through the possession of a small share or a savings bank booklet; that the ongoing economic transformations in and of themselves, without the purposeful interference of political power, slowly but surely transform capitalism into another social order and so on. In all of this, is there a single word that has not already been uttered or written a thousand times over, an idea that is not already a generation old? We have long been familiar with these views and, by providing good counter-arguments, have long rejected them as the crass over-exaggerations, direct falsehoods and mixing up of the facts that they are.

The factual material with which Bernstein substantiates his revisionism is so meagre, so uncritically compiled, that any German bourgeois social reformer would be ashamed to march into battle against socialism with it. Since here we are not engaged in a refutation of Bernstein’s revisionism – that has already taken place – but rather a characterisation of it, I merely wish to highlight how Bernstein’s citing of the German Occupation and Employment Statistics is being contradicted even by the man who compiled them.

So it is that Bernstein became puzzled by the fact that, alongside the general decline of small businesses in individual trades, a growth of small businesses can actually be observed. Bernstein sees in this a parallel of the development of large and small businesses. Let us listen to the official statistics! “The reasons for the growth of sole enterprises in the above-mentioned trades are various. While in some trades, such as gardening and livestock rearing, gas and water installation etc., this may be seen as a sign of the healthy development of small businesses, in other trades it is a phase in the competition between small and large businesses, which essentially means the defeat of small businesses. This is especially true of craftsmen, who are forced back into the most primitive form of business, in which they then partly become pure cottage manufacturers and partly dependent on warehouses and other large-scale enterprises.” The statistics cite the shoemakers, watchmakers and book printers as an example of this decline. “By contrast, the increase in the number of sole proprietorships in the various types of merchandise trading, tailoring and stove-making is essentially due to formal statistical factors.”

The report shows that the changed method of counting in 1896 must have made the number appear larger than it actually was. “The decline in the number of sole proprietorships is evident not only in trades where advanced technology is the most important ally of large-scale enterprises, as in the various types of textile industry, the manufacture of coarse wooden goods, dairies, laundries, etc., but almost even more so in trades where larger-scale competition offers only organisational advantages, as in the trades of the commercial trade group, and also in the freight haulage industry, freight haulage” and so on. When comparing businesses by size, the official statistics emphasise that the statistical number of employees alone is by no means decisive. “In reality, the economic weight of large enterprises appears to be even greater, since on the one hand, in addition to the human labour force, the mechanical labour force (motors, machines) is also taken into account, and on the other hand, a portion of the large enterprises are treated as small and medium-sized enterprises in the statistics due to the fragmentation of overall enterprises”. The statements in the official statistics on the ability of the individual trades to develop into large-scale enterprises are particularly striking. You can get an idea of this by looking at the statistics for each trade to see the highest size class in which enterprises of this type occur.

At first, the lowest maximum sizes of businesses are compiled. The result: “Strikingly, the listed trades are mostly quite insignificant and include only very few of the old and large trades. Only barbers, hairdressers, chimney sweeps and violin makers could be described as such; these are also about the only trades in which large-scale enterprise cannot offer technical progress at all and can only offer organisational progress only to a very limited extent”. Then a special survey is made of the trades which “still represent the most important crafts today”. The result: “Of the trades listed above, four have already developed into co-operative enterprises: Gardening, wheelwrighting, ropemaking and tanning. . . . They appear to have developed into very large businesses (with 501 to 1000 persons): Brickyard, millinery and bricklaying. . . . The important trades of shoemaking and carpentry are developed to large factories (with 201 to 500 people). . . . Also included here are pottery, milling, confectionery, the installation of gas and water systems, which is praised as a “modern craft”, as well as cooperage, girdling, stonemasonry, and saddlery.” And then, on the basis of a comparison with 1882: “One can only speak of a development away from large-scale enterprise in the case of gardening. Otherwise, animal husbandry and fishing, accommodation and recreation have retained most of their small-scale character, all other groups are striving more or less rapidly towards large-scale commercial development”.

As we mentioned above, the official statistician himself points out that the breakdown of the composite enterprises into individual specialities in the statistical records results in a shift in favour of small firms and to the disadvantage of the large ones. As a result, the enterprises with more than 100 employees alone lose more than 160,000 workers. However, those capitalist organisations that are not restricted to one place, but spread out through branches, subsidiary and auxiliary enterprises over the whole country and even beyond its borders, cannot be recorded in the official statistics at all. The Deutsche Bank, for example, appears in more than a dozen independent enterprises, and the Krupp works etc., are also divided into many independent enterprises. Fully aware of this important deficiency, the official statistics at least try to supplement the inaccurate numerical picture by providing individual descriptions of typical colossal enterprises. For Bernstein, none of this exists.

He places great emphasis on the present state of class organisation. Whatever the tendency of development may be, the large number of self-employed people shows how unripe the conditions still are for social revolution. In contrast, the criticism of these deemed “self-employed” by the official statistics is interesting. “There is no doubt that the social differences within the large stratum of the self-employed are hardly less in number, and certainly just as significant, as those within the large stratum of the dependent workers; it is true that the owner of a plot of land who grows barely as much as he needs for himself and his family is self-employed, but so is the landowner, the sole master or the owner of a factory employing thousands of workers, the grocer or the wholesaler who turns over millions in value annually, but the social (class[2]) differences are no less pronounced than those between the self-employed and the dependent employees.”

Specifically with regard to the self-employed in industry, it says: “Of the more than one million individual masters, the self-employed in the clothing, cleaning trades and building trades account for far more than half; as a rule, they do not need any capital at all for their business, often they do not even need business premises. The building tradesmen who work alone, especially the numerous bricklayers and carpenters, are mostly pieceworkers and temporary workers who are hired to do subordinate work and often only play the role of self-employed workers if they do not have the opportunity to work for a master craftsman. Even among the self-employed in the garment and clothing trades who work alone, work in the customer’s home is still very widespread. On the other hand, while a large number of these workers – especially tailors and cobblers – do not yet count themselves as cottage industries, they have in fact become home workers (Sitzgesellen) or “displaced” craftsmen. The 43,000 self-employed in the textile industry, who belong to the lowest class of the self-employed, are in much the same situation. The rest of the self-employed working alone – about 300,000 people – are also in need of only a small amount of capital and working capital”. So most of these “self-employed” people are only labelled as such for “formal statistical” reasons!

Finally, the official statistics try to draw up a numerical image of the “social stratification” of the population. After having subjected the conditions in agriculture, industry and commerce to a separate examination, without in the slightest being guided by social revolutionary principles or by the bias of an orthodox Marxist, it arrives at the following result:

Social Stratification of the German Population[3]
In General: In Industry:
a) Wealthy class of the self-employed: 0.74% 0.83%
b) Middle class of the self-employed: 31.32% 14.58%
c) Impoverished class of the self-employed: 14.64% 16.04%
Layer of the dependent workers (wage workers): 58.31% 68.55%

Here, then, we find official state proof of the fact that the capitalist class that dominates the state accounts for not even 1% of the population, whereas wage workers make up the majority of the people. But, together with the class of self-employed workers without means, who are linked with the wage workers not only by their poverty, but in their entire economic existence (they are only listed separately for formal statistical reasons), they make up two-thirds of the population. We further find proof that, particularly in industry, the proletariat makes up more than two-thirds of the population and, together with the class of self-employed workers without means, over four-fifths of the population – almost 85%!

When Bernstein first outlined his statistics in Die Neue Zeit, the official overview of the German Occupation and Employment Statistics, published in 1895, was still not available. But already back then, in the Sächsische Arbeiter Zeitung,[b] I sharply criticised him by pointing out all the statistical factors mentioned above that were later emphasised by the official statistics.

He did not even dare to attempt to refute my critique of his facts. He said that he felt personally offended by me and that he would therefore not respond. He evidently felt personally offended by the official statistics too, for he systematically ignores them in his Preconditions of Socialism – as well as in everything else he has published since then.

It is not the facts that have caused Bernstein to change his views, but the change in his point of view that makes the facts appear to him in a different way. That is why we can no longer come to an understanding with him. No matter how striking the facts, no matter how clear the statistics, he either always reads them differently or does not notice them at all. He allowed the official German publications to pass him by with the same incomprehension as he did the tremendous social changes, the rapid intensification of class antagonisms, the growth of the cities and the concentration of capital that were taking place even during these brief years that encompassed the Bernstein debate. He also views the current trade crisis with such incomprehension. He does not know that, besides the fact that he used them most inadequately, the figures from 1895 on which he based himself were already thoroughly out of date in 1899, when his Preconditions of Socialism appeared, and are now no less outdated than the 1882 trade census was in 1895. The statistical figures and, what is more, the great industrial upswing of recent years have silenced even the bourgeois political economists and the bourgeois social reformers, or have led them to other ways of thinking. The middle class is forgotten, even the peasant is forgotten, everyone and everything now flirts with the proletariat of the factories, this most numerous and rapidly increasing social class. Bernstein was the only one who failed to notice a single trace of this development. He just repeats his adage about the slow change in the social structure, the immaturity of the proletariat and so on.

Bernstein’s change of heart is an interesting problem of personal psychology. However, important documents needed to account for this change of heart are missing. Bernstein’s correspondence with Friedrich Engels during the years of the former’s editorial work on the Sozialdemokrat is unavailable. Even from the few letters that Bernstein himself published, in fragments and with many deletions, it is clear that Bernstein liked to seek advice from London on all important matters and that Engels – as is to be expected given his scrupulous scientific conscientiousness – wrote him entire historical, philosophical and party-political treatises in response. It was an extremely lively correspondence, the number of letters must have been most extensive. We all know how masterfully Engels was able to characterise a situation, an entire development, with a few strokes of his pen; we all know what an almost inexhaustible wealth of suggestions his smaller writings contain. So one can only imagine what knowledge and what wealth of thought must have filled those letters in which the old master of socialism instructed the young editor of the Sozialdemokrat.

Only when these letters have been published in chronological order, without omissions or deletions, will it be possible to judge what Bernstein had written in the Sozialdemokrat and what he had simply fed into the Sozialdemokrat, and in general to what extent he pursued his own originally conceived ideas and a self-acquired knowledge of the circumstances or followed the ready-made directives of an intellectually and scientifically superior man.

To the extent that he remained within the framework of the adopted doctrine, Bernstein produced work that was distinguished by its considerable analytical acuity, but also by a certain absentmindedness in the presentation of evidence, a multiplicity of trains of thought that, instead of being subordinate to one another, ran parallel to each other. His doubts and vacillations can be traced from the beginning of the 1890s. His articles left the reader increasingly dissatisfied. One read them with interest, but when one reached the end, one did not know where one actually stood. Some interesting ideas, some exaggerations, some limitations – but where it was all going remained unclear. He provided no solution. Things might be like this, or they might be like that, or they might be completely different – that was all that his critique amounted to. Then he narrowed down the possibilities, and obstacles began to pile up before him everywhere, on every question, for every problem. Only insofar as his point of view remained fixed did his parallel trains of thought have a unifying focus; the more his point of view became uncertain, the more independent from each other his conclusions became. He acquired the ability to unite the most heterogeneous things and to divide and dissolve the simplest. He began by seeing in everything a thousand possibilities and no solution, and he ended by seeing in everything a thousand impossibilities and no way out.

Bernstein believes that his social-reformist arguments take him beyond scientific socialism, whereas in fact he falls short of it. This is the crux of the matter. He presents us with new arguments that we have long since overcome. But as much as we are prepared to revise our principles, to check whether they correspond to the requirements of changing developments, to replace the scientific pillars on which our party is built because they have become weathered over the course of time, we cannot repeatedly dwell on matters that we overcame a long time ago. A revision of our party principles is only possible to the left, not to the right, on the basis of the social-revolutionary proletarian class struggle established by scientific socialism, not on the basis of social-reformist utopianism that scientific socialism has abandoned. A revision can only occur along the lines of widening the political activity of the proletariat, not by narrowing it, by sharpening its social-revolutionary energy, not by paralysing it, by being bolder in our aims and our willingness to achieve them, and not through timid retreat.

Bernstein could only dare to propagate his revisionism under the cover of the authority he enjoyed as a former editor of the Sozialdemokrat and by his personal connections within the party: only in this way was he able to keep himself within the party for years. Anyone else would have been laughed at and it would have been pointed out to him, in Auer’s words, that he “had no idea of the nature and tasks of socialism’. If the Preconditions of Socialism had been published anonymously and sent to Bernstein for review, he might have accidentally subjected them to a thorough critique.

He did, in fact, criticise it, even before he wrote it. He fought these ideas solely with the weapon of scientific socialism but then brought them to the world in their entirety as his own original continuation of socialism. After he lost his guiding point of view, the facts and arguments really did appear to him in a different light: just like the outside world looks different in candlelight than it does in sunlight. But how could the others be deceived? Some told themselves that it was quite impossible for “Ede’ merely to repeat what he himself had disproved, for him to fall for social reformism after he had preserved the party’s principles for so many years – something else must be behind this and we just need to learn how to read him correctly. And these people were very annoyed about the “excessive exaggerations’ of those people, lacking in any respect, whose critical faculties were not dulled by the name Bernstein. If Bernstein’s friends did him a disservice, then they did so through the indulgence they showed him, which was far too excessive, and through the Byzantine interpretive tricks with which they attempted to convince themselves and the whole world that Bernstein actually meant something else than what he actually said.

Looking back on this four-year-long discussion of Bernstein, we see that his views have come in for far less defence than his personality has. No single critic has not passed judgement on his views without much respect for him. The defence of Bernstein actually consisted of opposing his opponents. These opponents sought to discredit him publicly by accusing him of exaggerations, spite and so on. In so doing, it was de facto conceded that if the critics were correct in their assessment of Bernstein, then their criticism was also right. Eventually there was an appeal to the right to freedom of expression. That had an ever greater impact on the masses in that the entire dispute, insofar as it moved within the realm of theoretical abstraction, was alien to them. The inconsistency of Bernstein, who still does not dare to draw the ultimate practical conclusions from his new theoretical suppositions, and who at any rate miscalculated his practical proposals, did something else. The party tolerated Bernstein, but it was never able to place itself on his new point of view.

Eventually, however, a theoretical clarification occurred. And at the same time, the matter began to take on an eminently practical shape in a way which, although logically derived from Bernstein’s revisionism, he and his friends were not at all able to predict. For a certain time, it was possible to deceive oneself by declaring Bernstein’s revisionism to be a new variety of socialism, but this was not so among the bourgeois social reformers, who recognised in him the bone of their bones and the flesh of their flesh. It must be acknowledged that the social reformers showed a great deal of tact in their relationship to Bernstein. This time around they were guided by a real class instinct. At first they did not impose themselves. They held back their jubilation about the fact that they had been gratified by their critic in such a blatant manner. They knew that doing so would compromise Bernstein in the eyes of the party and bring about a speedy end to the whole hullabaloo. So they let Bernstein get on with things and gathered in the background. But they did form the chorus to his heroic deeds. They flattered him, praised him as the man of science, the man who had boldly superseded revolutionism, the promulgator of new ways. First Bernsteinianism had to be popularised by all means within social democracy. When the social reformers thought they had achieved this goal, they began to ask for their IOUs. They lay claim to this man who politically valorised their intellectual property. First they helped Bernstein to clear the way, now they fall in behind him. What is right for Bernstein must also be right for them; they say the same thing, only they say it with much more clarity and certainty; since they have never been anything else than social reformists, they dare to express their thoughts in a clear and unambiguous manner and to think through their ideas fully. Mr. [Alfred] Nossig draws with playful ease the conclusions from which Bernstein timidly refrains. And so the party suddenly saw how, behind Bernstein, a swarm of bourgeois project-makers, self-important do-gooders and other swashbucklers drew closer to the party and prepared to steer social democracy in new directions. At the same time, Bernstein’s revisionism became a standing item in the bourgeois press. The well-read advertising press brings to the working masses the message of the pacification of Social Democracy, of it being open to negotiation, like all other parties, of its no longer being serious about social revolution etc. When we are engaged in agitation, we hear these things all the time. And so it is necessary to counteract the confusion and to achieve clarity.

But it will first be “demanded”, then “expected”, that Bernstein take a firm stand on the bourgeois exploitation of his revisionism, that he at least reject the entourage of literary and political adventurers who accompany him at every turn, glorify him in public and speak in his name, that he draw a clear line between himself and the social reformers. But these calls will be in vain. He cannot do so: he is intellectually indebted to [Werner] Sombart, and he already has more intellectual ties with Nossig than with “orthodox Marxism”. On the other hand, Bernstein clings to social democracy for the very reason that he would simply lose all political relevance outside of it. His purpose is the social-reformist decomposition of social democracy. If he steps out of this role, then the bourgeoisie will toss him aside: they only need him as long as he is able to exploit his prestige among the workers.


Original Footnotes

[1] By the way, Bernstein mixes up the facts here. The discussion of his views was already fully underway before the appearance of his book Preconditions of Socialism and nothing could hold back the discussion. There were lively calls from various sections of the party for Bernstein to clarify his position and show where it differed to the party’s outlook. I personally asked Kautsky, who did not take part in this discussion, to take a position. He had no alternative but to come out against Bernstein or to declare solidarity with him. In these circumstances, Kautsky’s suggestion that Bernstein formulate his views in a comprehensive manner was the last opportunity to make up for what he had written.

[2] Social class differences is the term Bernstein uses in his initial text.

[3] These figures do not include those working on the state railways and other state-run transport bodies or those working in the forestry sector. Nor do they include public officials, the liberal professions or pensioners.

Explanatory Notes

[a] A brief, difficult-to-translate paragraph comparing Bernstein to the “Ovidian Raven” follows, which has been left out of this translation. —MIA Editor’s Note

[b] Parvus, alongside Rosa Luxemburg, was one of the first to publish a public response to Bernstein. They both did so within the pages of the left-wing Sächsische Arbeiter Zeitung. —BL

Last updated on 26 April 2023