From Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol.II, Moscow 1976, pp.340-351.
Originally published in German in Sächsische Arbeiterzeitung, Nos.253-255, October 30, November 2 & 3, 1898.
Translated from Russian by Julius Katzer.
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Dear and esteemed comrade:
Permit me to begin by thanking you for the pleasure I got from your speeches at the Stuttgart Party Congress of German Social-Democrats. The speeches were a political event of great importance, in view of the warm approval of you expressed by the vast majority of delegates to the Party Congress. There was a time when speeches and articles by certain members of the German Party, such as Herren Bernstein, Conrad Schmidt and Heine, could evoke in the hearts of our enemies the fond hope that the German Social-Democrats intended to abandon the revolutionary ground of the class struggle, and sink into the morass of opportunism; that hope has now vanished like the morning mist. There can no longer be any doubt. People are coming to realise that Herren Bernstein, Conrad Schmidt, and Heine were not voicing the Party’s views, and that Comrade Singer had good reason to say, in his concluding address: we are and shall remain what we have always been. Indeed, German SocialDemocracy has remained what it has been always and at all times: the true standard-bearer of the revolutionary thought of our times!
It is to be regretted that one of your speeches contained passages capable of somewhat weakening the overall deep and gratifying impression, and give cause for considerable misunderstandings in the future. I am referring to your speech against Bernstein. Since the controversial points in it could not but have surprised many other people besides myself, I would like to bring them up for discussion in an open letter to you, in lieu of a private talk.
You said in your address: “Bernstein has not discouraged us, but has given us food for thought; we shall be thankful to him for that.”
That is true, but only partly so. Indeed, Bernstein has not discouraged the German Social-Democrats, as is shown by the decisions of the Stuttgart Party Congress. But has he given us any food for thought? Has he been in a position to do so? That is hardly the case, I think.
To provide food for thought, either new facts must be adduced or familiar facts should be presented in a new light. Bernstein has done neither, which is why he has been unable to get anybody to engage in the appropriate thinking.
Perhaps I am mistaken in my appraisal of Bernstein’s literary activities. Let us see if that is so.
It goes without saying that we are interested only in that part of his literary activities which has led to his being reproved by some of the comrades. The reference here is to the latter years of his activities. There may be varying opinions of his former literary work, but we have no reason to enlarge on it here.
In recent years, Bernstein has been waging a struggle against what he has called revolutionary phraseology in general and against the “theory of catastrophes” in particular. The gist of his argument against that theory lies in his stating what he considers an indubitable fact, namely that many views voiced by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto have not been confirmed by the ensuing course of social life. “The aggravation of social relations,” he says, “has not proceeded in the manner described in the Manifesto. It is not only useless but most stupid to turn a blind eye to that. The number of property-owners, far from decreasing, has grown. The tremendous growth of social wealth has been accompanied, not by a rapid fall in the number of capitalist magnates but by a greater number of capitalists of all degrees. The middle strata are changing in character but they are not disappearing from the social ladder.” If we add to these thoughts of Bernstein’s his remarks that concentration is proceeding very slowly in certain branches of industry and that trade crises should not be expected to be as acute and widespread as before, we shall have every right to say that this exhausts all his arguments against the “theory of catastrophes”. And now, esteemed and dear comrade, if you give serious consideration to this line of argument, you will see that it contains nothing, absolutely nothing, that has not already been said on countless occasions by our enemies in the bourgeois camp. In that case, you will also have to admit that we have absolutely no grounds to feel in any way indebted to Bernstein.
You are, no doubt, familiar with the writings of Herr Schultze-Gävernitz. Kindly take his book Zum sozialen Frieden and read page 487 et seq. in Volume 2. The author attempts to disprove the “theory of catastrophes”, which he formulates as follows: “The development of large-scale industry means the workers being reduced ever more to the status of the non-differentiated proletariat, the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, the disappearance of the middle classes, and the appearance of the party of social revolution.” In Schultze-Gävernitz’s opinion, the facts do not fall in with this theory: “The detailed statistics provided by the Board of Trade show the reverse in the case of Britain, this leaving the social-revolutionary trend witli nothing to stand on.” On one hand, the workers’ economic condition has been constantly improving during the last fifty years; on the other hand, “the widespread idea that property is being concentrated in ever fewer hands” has proved erroneous. Last, the spread of joint-stock companies has drawn ever more possessors of small savings into participation in the profits of the big industrial enterprises. In Schultze-Gävernitz’s opinion, all these circumstances taken together open the road towards the peaceful solution of the social question.
He voices similar views in another book, Der Grossbetrieb—ein wirtschaftlicher und sozialer Fortschritt.
“It is far from true that the rich are becoming richer, and the poor poorer; in fact, just the reverse is taking place, which has been proved statistically in respect of Britain. By the time the industrial employers come to the fore socially and politically, new middle classes arise in their rear, which gain strength first economically, and then politically.” (p.225)
Schultze-Gävernitz’s arguments and conclusions refer to Britain. He admits that relations are developing differently in other countries, and that in Germany, for instance, “the middle classes are still rapidly diminishing in number”. However, he attributes this fact simply to Germany’s backwardness, thereby indicating that what he considers himself entitled to assert in respect of Britain will hold good in time for Germany as well.
This is not the place to show how one-sided and tendentious these arguments and conclusions of Schulze-Gävernitz’s are. That is something that you, esteemed and dear comrade, of course know far better than I do. George Joachim Goschen, one of the researchers who were out to prove that a new middle class is at present in the process of formation in Britain, remarked in a speech he made to the Royal Statistical Society in December 1887: “The expression, derogatory to statisticians, that ‘figures will prove anything’ ... simply means that figures, which never tell untruths, may be so handled as to present untruths. Figures themselves never lie, but every one must admit that there is no sound and accurate material which can be so easily handled for the special purposes of the compiler as statistics can.” These words of Goschen’s come to my mind each time I have occasion to turn the leaves of the above-mentioned book by Schultze-Gävernitz, but that is something I shall not dwell on here. I merely wished to point out to you that Bernstein is merely repeating what Schultze-Gävernitz said several years ago.
But Schultze-Gävernitz has said absolutely nothing new either. Several British statisticians dealt with the same subject before he did, as, for instance, the above-mentioned Goschen, as did several French economists, for instance, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu in his essay on the distribution of wealth and the trend towards the least inequality in social status (Paris, 1881). It will be no exaggeration to say that the works of Schultze-Gävernitz I have quoted from are nothing but a new variation on an old theme dealt with specially and in the greatest detail by Paul Leroy-Beaulieu. Thus, Bernstein is merely giving us a rehash from bourgeois economists. Why then should we thank him, and not those economists? Why should we assert thai Bernstein, not they, has given us food for thought? No, most esteemed and dear comrade, we cannot do that. If we really have to speak here of our debt of gratitude, let us be fair and address our thanks to the proper quarters. Let us do so. in general, to all supporters and admirers of “harmonies economiques”, and, of course, first and foremost to the immortal Bastiat.
Bernstein has often voiced regret that “serious attempts to scientifically implement scientific socialism are still very rare”, and, in launching, in his Problems of Socialism, a “searching criticism of long-proved Social-Democratic theories and demands”, he proudly declares that “any theoretical work consists in a ‘searching’ criticism of hitherto recognised propositions” and that “if Neue Zeit would be the theoretical organ of Social-Democracy, it cannot eschew such ‘searching’ criticism”. “Besides,” he goes on to say, “what error was not once a ‘long-proved truth’?” And what has been the outcome of his “theoretical work”? Several philistine considerations, such as the importance of the “principle of economic self-responsibility”, and then ... a decisive turn towards the theoretical viewpoint of the opponents of scientific socialism. Bernstein presents us with the “truths” of the latest bourgeois economy, imagining that he is “carrying Marx’s theory beyond the point it was left at by that great thinker”. What strange self-deception! One can only repeat about Bernstein what Faust says of Wagner:
Mit gier’ger Hand nach Schätzen gräbt,
When the Stuttgart Party Congress was ending its deliberations, Comrade Greulich came out in defence of Bernstein, incidentally stating the following: “I am deeply convinced that our cause can only gain from criticism. German Social-Democracy has received a great heritage from those great thinkers Marx and Engels. But we are dealing here, not with the ultimate truth but with science, which must always take fresh account of the facts.” Nothing could be truer, but does Comrade Greulich really think that the great heritage handed down to us by Marx and Engels stands to gain anything from an eclectic fusion with the doctrines of bourgeois economists? Can he, forsooth, make so bold as to call criticism something that is an absolutely uncritical iteration of those doctrines? Yet, we find in Bernstein nothing but that uncritical iteration. It is only due to that uncritical iteration that he has been able to make us a gift of his earthworms.
Incidentally I shall note that Bernstein has not alone been at fault in revealing such an uncritical attitude towards the doctrines of our opponents, although he has shown it with a particular outspokenness. There are also other of our scholarly comrades who find a fleeting pleasure in trying to prove that they can be “critical” even of Marx himself. With that end in view, they take his theory in the distorted form it has been given by its bourgeois opponents and then triumphantly unleash their “criticism” with the aid of arguments borrowed from those opponents.
Of course, you realise, most esteemed and dear comrade, that it is not socialist theory that stands to gain anything from this kind of “criticism”; at best, it will merely enhance the favour in which such “critics” are held in educated bourgeois quarters.
Indeed Marx’s theory is no ultimate or eternal truth, but it is the supreme social truth of our times, and we have just as little ground to downgrade that theory to the level of the “harmonies économiques” of the new-fangled Bastiats and Says as to welcome as serious criticism the attempts made along the same lines, and to give them our approval.
Please forgive me this digression, most esteemed and dear comrade. I shall now return to Bernstein, namely to the now resounding episode of the “ultimate aim”. [1*]
After Bernstein had made clear his attitude of indifference to the ultimate aim, he saw himself obliged to explain matters to justify himself, which however led nowhere. When I read his explanations and self-justification, I realised more and more the usefulness of the old and tested rule that any writer should unswervingly observe, namely, that one should first carefully peruse the proofs of one’s articles and only then send them to the printers, since corrections made after publication of an article rarely help matters. At the same time, I asked myself what could have induced Bernstein to write that article, which patently lacked all logical meaning or, as they say, was without rhyme or reason. At first I thought that he had rehashed in his own way, a la Bernstein, the well-known dictum which, if I am not mistaken, belongs to Lessing: “If the Creator held all the truth in one hand, and, in the other, a striving towards that truth and told me to choose between the two, I would prefer the striving towards the truth to possession of the ready-made truth.” But then, I had occasion to turn the pages of Zum sozialen Frieden, and saw that this well-known sentence had quite a different origin.
According to Schultze-Gävernitz, the old British economy was hostile to any labour legislation, and could not but be hostile, because that legislation placed restrictions on the individual freedom of adults. Yet, the restrictions on individual freedom were an inescapable outcome of the factory legislation, which, for its part, could not but develop together with the mountingpolitical influence of the working class. These conditions laid the ground, in Britain, for the acceptance and spread of the theory of continental socialism, which had, however, undergone appreciable change, inasmuch as “the assertion that the condition of the worker was hopeless” had, so to speak, lost validity. “ Socialism thereby loses its revolutionary edge,” Schultze-Gävernitz goes on to say, “and is used to substantiate legislative demands. Hence, it is, in essence, a matter of indifference whether the etatisation of all means of production is accepted or rejected as an ultimate aim; since, if that demand is essential to revolutionary socialism, that is not the case in respect of practical-political socialism, which prefers immediate aims to the distant ones.” (Zum sozialen Frieden, II, S.98).
Among the representatives of British “practical-political” socialism is, in Schultze-Gävernitz’s opinion, John Stuart Mill, who, though not a socialist in the “spirit of Engels and Marx”, yet considers permissible far-reaching state intervention in the individual’s economic activities, and is “the first political economist to defend the need to extend protection, in certain conditions, to adult men as well.” (Zum sozialen Frieden, II, S.99.) I aver that Eduard Bernstein is now a “practical-political” socialist of the same brand. Schultze-Gävernitz tells us the history of the development of John Stuart Mill’s “socialist” views, and does so on the basis of the latter’s autobiography. For our part, we can picture to ourselves, in just the same way, the course of Eduard Bernstein’s evolution, with due account of his own explanations, and linking them together with the above-quoted ideas of Schultze-Gavernilz regarding the minor significance of the ultimate aim to “practical-political” socialists.
After assimilating the view held by Schultze-Gavornitz and other harmonists to the effect that the development of social life in Britain has disproved the views of Engels and Marx, Bernstein has felt drawn to the “practical-political” socialism described by the selfsame Schultze-Gävernitz, from the viewpoint of which the ultimate aim—the etatisation of all means of production—is indeed something almost indifferent if not quite utopian. And now, imbued with the spirit of that socialism, Bernstein lias hastened to make public his new attitude to the ultimate aim, Schultze-Gävernitz’s above-mentioned remark on the ultimate aim determining, not only the direction of his thoughts but even his mode of expression. Thus, everything becomes quite clear, and his celebrated sentence, which at first glance seemed most absurd, acquires a very clear and very definite meaning. True, Bernstein himself is frightened by that meaning, this being borne out by his explanations and his attempts to justify himself. It is also shown by his letter to the Stuttgart Party Congress, in which he wrote: “The forecast made in the Communist Manifesto regarding the development of modern society was correct, inasmuch as it characterised the overall trends in that development.” However, what follows next in the letter patently contradicts these words, and if Bernstein himself does not or will not realise that, the contradiction is obvious both to the friends and the enemies of our cause. You stressed that splendidly in your Stuttgart speech when you said: “He” (Bernstein) “explains to us that the number of the wealthy capitalists is growing, so that the foundations on which we have built our views are wrong. Indeed, if that were true then not only would the moment of our victory be put very far off, but we would never arrive at our goal at all.”
Comrade Liebknecht expressed himself in much the same way: “If Bernstein’s arguments were true, we could then bury our programme and all our past, and would cease to be a proletarian party.”
On the other hand, Professor Julius Wolf wrote the following shortly after the appearance of Bernstein’s article The Struggle of Social-Democracy, and Revolutions in Society: “The importance of his words cannot he exaggerated. They are a punch in the face to present-day socialist theory, an open declaration of war against it.” (Illusionisten und Realisten in der Nationalökonomie, Zeitschrift fiir Sozialwissenschaft, 1898, Heft 4, Seite 251.)
I have not the least desire to dispute Bernstein’s right to engage in fisticuffs against that very party whose views lie formerly preached. Anyone is entitled to change his views. However, he should not have tried to convince us that the change in his views is of no substantial significance. He should have known and understood that his new views inevitably lead to the “social peace” preached by Herr Schultze-Gävernitz and his ilk. In short, Bernstein had every right to wage battle against Social-Democracy, but he should have done so with his intentions declared. Since he has not done that, he deserves, not our gratitude but bitter rebuke. During the Renaissance and even earlier, there were scholars who did their best to prove that some philosophers of antiquity were Christians. It goes without saying that they actually proved, not what they had set out to but what they had no intention of proving, namely, that they had themselves abandoned the stand of Christianity and had become pagans. Something of the kind has happened to our “scholars”, who have taken Bernstein under their wing; they have not proved that Bernstein lias remained true to socialism (“in the spirit of Engels and Marx”), but that they are themselves infected with the views of the bourgeois “social-politicians”. World Social-Democracy should be on the alert against such “scholars”, otherwise they can cause it a good deal of harm.
The instance of Bernstein is highly instructive to anybody who would give thought to the matter; it is only in this sense that I will say, together with you, most esteemed and dear comrade, that Bernstein deserves our thanks. The history of his conversion from a Social-Democrat into a “social-politician” should always draw attention from all thinking members of our Party. Comrade Liebknecht ascribed this defection to the influence of the British conditions. “A mind like Marx,” he said, “had to he in Britain ... in order to ... write his Capital. As for Bernstein, he has been impressed by the tremendous ... development of the British bourgeoisie.” But is it really necessary to be a Marx to avoid falling under the influence of the British bourgeoisie, while living in that country? As I see it, there are quite a number of comrades in the ranks of the German Social-Democrats who, though they have lived in Britain, have remained true to socialism (“in the spirit of Marx and Engels”). No, the reason is not that Bernstein is living in Britain hut that he has gained a poor knowledge of that very scientific socialism that he has undertaken to “implement scientifically”. I know that many people may find this unbelievable, hut it is true.
In my article Bernstein and Materialism, which was published in Neue Zeit, I showed how infinitesimal this man’s knowledge of philosophy is, and how erroneous in general his ideas of materialism. In the article I am now writing for Neue Zeit I shall show how poorly he has mastered the materialist understanding of history. [2*] I shall now ask you to note how amazingly little he has understood of the theory of catastrophes, which he has “critically” risen up against.
Here is how he sets forth “the understanding now predominant among Social-Democrats of the course of the development of present-day society”:
“According to this understanding, an economic crisis of vast force and extent will sooner or later, in view of the impoverishment it brings about, so passionately inflame hearts against the capitalist economic system, and so irrefutably convince the masses of the impossibility, under the domination of that system, of guiding the given productive forces for the common weal that the movement against that system will acquire an irresistible force, and the system will collapse under its pressure. In other words, the great and irresolvable economic crisis will grow into an all-embracing social crisis, whose outcome will be the political domination of the proletariat as the sole consciously revolutionary class, and the complete transformation of society in the socialist sense, under the rule of that class.”
Please tell us, most esteemed and dear comrade, is it in that light you have seen the social “catastrophe” which will come about sooner or later as the inevitable outcome of the class struggle? Are you, too, of the opinion that such a “catastrophe” can be the result only of a vast and universal economic crisis? I think that is hardly the case. Moreover, I think that, for you, the future victory of the proletariat is not of necessity linked with an acute and universal economic crisis. You have never seen the matter in such schematic terms. As far as I can remember, nobody else has understood the matter in that way. True, the revolutionary movement of 1848 was preceded by the crisis of 1847, but it does not hence follow that a “catastrophe” is unthinkable without a crisis.
It is also true that an exacerbation of the class struggle can hardly be counted on during a sharp economic upswing. Who, however, can guarantee a continuous industrial upswing in the future? Bernstein thinks that, in view of the present-day international means of communication, acute and general crises have become impossible. Let us assume that is the case and that the business slump, as stated as early as 1865 by the French economist Batbie, will be only partial, “l’engagement des produits ne sera que partiel”. But then, nobody denies the possibility of a repetition of the terrible “trade depression”  we have just gone through. Does not a depression of that kind show most tellingly that present-day society’s productive forces have outgrown its production relations? And is it indeed so difficult for the working class to realise the meaning of that phenomenon? The fact that periods of industrial depression, with their concomitant unemployment, need and hardships, extremely aggravate the class struggle has been graphically shown by the example of America.
Bernstein passes all these considerations by. He makes all our expectations of the future hinge on an acute and universal economic crisis, and, after saying that such crises can hardly occur in the future, he imagines that he has done away with the entire “theory of catastrophes”. He gives us his patterns and then proves to us that these patterns are absolutely stereotype. After that, he voices the utmost delight at these cheap triumphs. This is to be seen in the tone in which he instructs the “dogmatists”.
You remember, of course, most esteemed and dear comrade, how very many comrades at the Stuttgart Party Congress rebuked Parvus for the tone in which he waged his polemic against Bernstein. I, too, think that had Parvus polemised in a different tone, Bernstein would have had no pretext to fall silent. The whole world would then have clearly seen the amazing poverty of Bernstein’s thinking. That is why I, too, regret that Parvus did not keep himself in check, but at the same time I can fully understand his indignation. As I see it, he was fully justified by the circumstances as well. Besides, none of those who rebuked Parvus paid due attention to the unpleasant tone used by Bernstein himself, one of a smug pedant. When I read Bernstein’s didactics addressed to the “dogmatists of German and, in part, of British Social-Democracy”, I said to myself: had Sancho Panza been appointed, not governor of an island but professor of social sciences, and had his natural common sense become suddenly clouded over, he would have fallen into no other tone but Bernstein’s. I know that de gustibus non est disputandum—there is no arguing about tastes—but I do think that many people find that tone much less to their liking than one that is ardent and passionate.
You have yourself admitted, most esteemed and dear comrade, that you were amazed by the vapidity of the series of articles which Bernstein has so pregnantly entitled Probleme des Sozialismus. Yet you say that these vapid articles have given yon food for thought. You are predisposed in favour of Bernstein and, for that reason, you are very much in the wrong.
“Bernstein has been reproached,” you said at Stuttgart, “for his articles weakening our confidence in victory, and tying the hands of the fighting proletariat. I do not share that view ... If Bernstein’s articles have indeed made one person or other falter in his convictions, then that would merely prove that there is no reason to feel sorry over such people, that their convictions are not very deep rooted, and that they have grasped at the iirst opportunity to turn their backs on us; in that case we can only feel glad that this has taken place now, and not during a catastrophe, when we shall stand in need of each arid every man.”
Who could have been discouraged by Bernstein’s articles? Obviously only one who has, even if temporarily, adopted Bernstein’s new point of view. The transition to that point of view must inevitably lead any logically thinking man to a complete break with the old Social-Democratic programme. But this kind of change of front cannot go unpunished, and mnst inevitably, if only temporarily, sap the energy of one who has made that change; besides, the energy of those who have adopted Bernstein’s point of view has very little in common with that characteristic of a Social-Democratic party confident of victory. Such people must of necessity understand the struggle differently from the way we do, and consequently their confidence of victory must also be substantially different from ours. That is why it has to be said that the energy needed by our Party has been weakened in direct proportion to the number of those who have joined forces with Bernstein if only temporarily. Like you, I also think that international Social-Democracy has no reason to attach particular importance to such people’s loyalty; on the contrary, it has every reason to wish that such people should leave its ranks before the hour of grave trial strikes. In my opinion, your rigorous judgement of such people is well grounded, but it seems to me that you are inconsistent, and that, if you decided to be consistent, you should have passed even severer judgement on a man under whose influence such people have fallen, i.e., on Eduard Bernstein himself.
I have no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of German Social-Democracy or to decide whether you should have accepted Bernstein’s articles for Neue Zeit, or not. Nothing of the kind has occurred to me, but you are well aware, most esteemed and dear comrade, that at Stuttgart matters came up for discussion which are of tremendous significance to Social-Democrats the world over. It is only for that reason that I have decided to address you with this letter. You say that, properly speaking, the polemic with Bernstein is only beginning. I am not quite in agreement with that, since the questions posed by Bernstein were, in considerable measure, brought closer to solution by Parvus’s articles. This is a great service rendered by Parvus to the proletariat of all lands. But that is not what I am referring to. What is most important is that, in returning to the polemic with Bernstein, we must recall the words of Liebknecht, which I have already mentioned: were Bernstein right we could bury our programme and all our past. We must insist on that, and frankly explain to our readers that the matter can be worded as follows: who is to bury whom, whether Bernstein will bury Social Democracy or Social-Democracy will bury Bernstein. As for me, I do not doubt and have never doubted the outcome of this controversy, but, most esteemed and dear comrade, permit me. in closing my letter, again to ask you the following question: do we really owe a debt of gratitude to a man who has dealt such a savage blow at socialist theory and (consciously or unconsciously—that makes no difference) is out to bury that theory, to the delight of the concordant “reactionary mass”? No, and a thousand times no. It is not our gratitude that such a man deserves!
1. [Who doth, with greedy hand, for treasure grope,
And finding earthworms, is with joy inspired!]
2. [These two words are in English in the original.)
This article was written by Plekhanov as an open letter to Kautsky after the Stuttgart Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party, on October 3-8, 1898. Bernstein addressed the Congress with a statement in which he set forth his principal “critical” propositions directed against Marxism. This statement gave rise to a heated discussion on the question of revisionism. A resolution was finally passed condemning revisionism, but no organisational measures against Bernstein were taken.
It was the concluding sentence in Kautsky’s speech to the Congress, in which he thanked Bernstein, that prompted Plekhanov’s article. It was published in the newspaper Sächsische Arbeiterzeitung, Nos.253-55, October 30, November 2 and 3, 1898.
1*. Plekhanov is referring to Bernstein’s well-known proposition, “the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing”, developed by the latter in his article Der Kampf der Sozial-Demokratie und die Revolution der Gesellschaft (The Struggle of Social-Democracy and Revolution of Society),
2*. Plekhanov means his own article Cant Against Kant.
Last updated on 3.8.2008