Max Shachtman

The Death of
the Father of Revisionism

Eduard Bernstein’s ‘Triumph’ Over Militant Marxism

(December 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 51, 31 December 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There are few figures left in the international social democracy today who ever exercized so pronounced an influence upon it as did Eduard Bernstein, the “Father of revisionism” who just died in Berlin. With his name is inseparably associated the current which finally won the day in the socialist movement, gaining favorable recognition even from many of those who originally fought it. One of those who never reconciled herself with it, Rosa Luxemburg, summed it up more than three decades ago:

“The opportunist current in the party theoretically formulated by Bernstein is nothing but an unconscious endeavor to assure the upper hand to the petty bourgeois elements who have come over to the party, to remodel the practise and the aims of the party in their spirit. The question of social reform and revolution, of final goal and movement is on the other hand the question of the petty bourgeois or the proletarian character of the labor movement.”

Bernstein came to prominence in the German social democracy during its heroic days. At the head of the party stood the popular tribunes, Bebel and Liebknecht. The movement had been strengthened by the unity of the two factious – Lassalleans and “orthodox” Eisenachers – even if at a sacrifice of clarity which provoked the classical polemic of Marx against the Gotha program. Not even the exceptional laws of the Bismarck regime were able to prevent the party from forging ahead.

Friendship with Engels

It was during this period that Bernstein was entrusted with the editorship of the central party organ, Der Sozialdemokrat, which was published in Switzerland (later in London) for illegal distribution in Germany. The confused views he expressed in its columns at the outset did not bring him much praise from Marx and Engels who, from England, followed the continental movement with unflagging attention. But the young editor finally managed to establish closer relations with the founders of the movement, particularly with Engels, after meeting with them in London.

From that time on, Engels was able to maintain much more intimate contact with the Sozialdemokrat. Under his tutelage, Bernstein guided the paper in a manner so true to the ideas of the two London exiles as to cement a firm and almost unbroken friendship with Engels. The latter energetically supported Bernstein’s views in Zurich against the dubious conduct, criticised in the Sozialdemokrat, of the social democratic Reichstag fraction – even when a split threatened the party. In 1885, engrossed in the work of completing the unfinished manuscript of Marx, he wrote to Bernstein as if in anticipation of the fact that the rising writer was to become his literary executor:

“For the moment we have a lot against us. Bebel is sick and, as appears, discouraged. I too cannot help as I should like to until I am finished with Marx’s manuscript. So the burden of the struggle falls upon you and Kautsky. But do not lose sight of the old rule: because of the present of the movement and the struggle, not to forget the future of the movement. And that belongs to us.”

Bernstein proved to be unworthy of the trust placed in him. He seems to have been organically indisposed to maintain a revolutionary standpoint, and the period of Engels’ decisive influence turned out to be a fleeting episode in his life. His long exile in England during the Bismarckian epoch had brought him into intimate association with the British labor movement, such as it was. It was then in the process of emerging from the “romanticism” of the militant Chartist days. The might of British imperialism weighed mountain-heavy upon the working class and most particularly upon its leadership. The successful Liberal-Labor politicians, the respectable members of the Fabian Society, the “practical”, conservative trade union leaders – all of these created the environment which reawakened all the reformist inclinations dominant in Bernstein when he first joined the social democracy. Upon his return to Germany, he had already shaken off the revolutionary teachings of Marxism. In the interests of his restored convictions, he utilized the first opportunity to pay back Engels in forged coin for the confidence placed in him.

Bernstein’s “Fine Trick”

Engels had just then (1895) written a foreword to a German edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France. It was a bold reaffirmation of the proletarian right to revolution. At the same time it pointed out that under the prevailing conditions the old tactics of barricade by militant minorities were unfavorable for the working class. What was required at the moment was the consolidation of the proletariat under the socialist banner, utilizing the legality which the bourgeoisie was compelled to grant. Bernstein, together with Wilhelm Liebknecht and the other party elders – terrified at the prospect of new exceptional laws with which the bourgeoisie threatened the party – chopped up this foreword in such a manner as to arouse Engels to a fury. His protesting letters were of no avail (he died practically a few days later) and the forged introduction was transmitted to the new socialist generation as proof that Engels had revised his whole revolutionary outlook at the last moment, To this day the reformists have played the falsified words of Engels as their trump card, but fortunately Engels lived just long enough to make clear his views.

“X... (Bernstein) has just played me a fine trick”, he wrote to Lafargue on April 3, 1895. “He has taken from my Introduction to Marx’s articles on the France of 1848–1850 all that could be of use to him to support the tactic of peacefulness and anti-violence at all coats which he has been pleased to preach for some time now, especially at the present moment when the coercive laws are being prepared in Berlin. But I advocate this tactic only for the Germany of today, and even then with substantial reservations. For France, Belgium, Italy and Austria this tactic, taken as a whole, cannot be followed and for Germany it may become inapplicable tomorrow.”

Engels did not revise his revolutionary conceptions. But it is likely that at the last moment he did revise his judgement of Bernstein. As for the latter the Berlin falsifications were a sort of springboard for the whole revisionist movement which he launched more formally a year and a half later. By that time he was freed from the vigilance of a living Engels, whose injunction “not to lose sight of the old rule” left no trace upon him.

The Father of Revisionism

In October 1896, he commenced a series of articles on the problems of socialism in the theoretical organ of the German party, Die Neue Zeit. Towards the end of his then still cautiously worded observations, he wrote the sentences which were to become bywords of the revisionist movement: “I admit openly that I attach extraordinarily little sense and interest to what is commonly understood by the ‘goal of socialism’. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything, and by the movement I understand the general movement of society, that is, social progress, as well as the political and economic agitation and organization for the bringing about of this progress.” Although he explained later in his autobiography – when a storm of discussion broke over his head – that by these words he meant only that he had no interest in Utopias, he soon left no doubt in anybody’s mind that under the heading of Utopia he meant the social revolution.

Bernstein was more than a child of his epoch: he was the clearest and boldest spokesman for it. He set down the fundamental guiding lines of social reformism in a far more rounded-out manner than even his spiritual and practical predecessor, the former radical and post-Bismarckian apostate, George von Vollmar who first scandalized the party with his patriotic speeches. The situation was as if specially created for the appearance of Bernsteinism on the scene. The Exceptional Laws of Bismarck had not only been badly defeated, but the second attempt to make the social democracy illegal was unsuccessful. The party had grown considerably even during its underground days. It marched ahead from election to election, swelling its legislative representation.

Germany was well launched on her imperialist career and a new stratum of better-situated workers began to break through the social structure. Bismarck’s successor, Caprivi, was introducing a number of social reforms, including the reduction of the high customs walls. The conditions of labor, at least of its upper layer, were undergoing a distinct improvement. The trade unions progressed and attracted the interest of the proletarian mass towards the practical daily questions of bread and butter, hours and wages. Even during its illegality, and more so afterwards, the party gained the adherence of countless numbers of petty bourgeois from the middle class and the intelligentsia, who saw in the social democracy the only popular democratic movement. In such an idyllic atmosphere the problem of the proletarian seizure of power seemed remote indeed, and Bernstein’s pioneering for reformism did not encounter insuperable obstacles.

The Essence of Bernsteinism

In 1899 he presented his views in a systematic and more outspoken form in a book called Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (The Prerequisites of Socialism and the Tasks of the Social Democracy, published in English as Evolutionary Socialism). It left no front of the Marxian system unassailed. The theory of historical materialism, the dialectic method, the conception of the class struggle, the theory of value, the Marxian crisis theory, the seizure of power – all of them encountered his opposition. He disputed Marx’s contention that the capital is concentrated and centralized into even fewer hands, with the concentration of poverty at the other pole of society. The middle class was not disappearing, for there was a growth of those whose income was derived from the possession of small properties or from sharing in the benefits of corporate ownership and management. He was one of the first avowed opponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat: what sense did it have when the party representatives were increasingly active in all the popular legislative bodies in such a practical, manner as stripped the term of any meaning?

The party’s tactics must not be founded upon the idea of social convulsions or catastrophes; the utopia of a coming revolution must be given up. The evolution of society was moderating all the social antagonisms and class conflicts. The management and ownership of industry was being democratized, and so also – with the granting of suffrage, the legalization of the party and its growth in the Reichstag – was the political management of society. With an audacity which does not seem astounding today, but was then, he concluded by asserting that the social democracy can progress only by having the courage “to emancipate itself from a phraseology which is actually outlived, and be willing to appear as what it is today in reality: a democratic-socialist reform party”.

(Concluded in Next Issue)

Shachtman button
Max Shachtman
Marx button
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 5 February 2015