J.B. Askew March 1902

Bernstein and the German Party

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. VI No. 3, March, 1902, pp. 73-78;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A debate with Bax.

It is to me, I confess, a matter of no little astonishment that our friend Bax should consider it worth while to continue girding at the cowardice of our German comrades in their treatment of Edward Bernstein in “Justice” and the “Social Democrat.” Would it not be more to the point if, instead of explaining to the members of the S.D.F., who know already, what his views on the question are, and who, moreover, have no power in the matter one way or other, Bax were to turn his attention to the German comrades themselves? This, however, by the way. The question which I want to consider here is how far could, the German Social Democratic Party have acted otherwise than they have done in the matter of Edward Bernstein? Was their action merely dictated by fear of a split in their own ranks, of sentimental consideration for a traitor, and so on and so on; or was it the result of a thorough consideration of the whole circumstances of the case? As I think that the latter was the case, I will endeavour, in the course of the following article, to justify my position and also that of our German comrades. In order, however, to do this I am bound to consider what would have been the case supposing the advice of Bax had been followed, and Bernstein had been expelled; or, rather, supposing our German comrades had wished to carry out the policy advocated by Bax, how could they have done it, and what would its effect have been on the future development of the Party.

To commence with, I think I am justified: in assuming that Bax would agree with me that any resolution under which Bernstein, was expelled must be capable of application in any other similar case. It must also be perfectly clear on what general principles it is based, and what were its limitations, because otherwise there might be no end to the motions for expulsion. Now, in the case of Bernstein we should have to get clearly before, us why we think he ought to be expelled. Of this Bax makes very light. “Mr. Bernstein repudiates almost every principle hitherto, regarded as ‘of faith’ in, Social Democracy. He champions every form, and well-nigh every abuse, of capitalism. The politico-financial schemes of Messrs. Rhode’s, Beit, and the cosmopolitan financiers of the Rand have found in him their warmest advocate. English rule in India he also takes under his aegis. He has systematically attacked every Social Democratic doctrine in, turn, to the delight of reactionary readers and hearers. In a word, Mr. Bernstein is incomparably less friendly to Socialism if any meaning is to be attached to the word at all, than the mildest English Radical. To judge from his expressed opinions, in fact, Mr. Bernstein has no more sympathy with the recognised principles of Socialism, and perhaps rather less, than Count von Bülow himself. And yet, wonderful to relate, for fear of causing a split in the party, for fear of jeopardising party unity, the German Social Democrats could not muster up sufficient courage to exclude, Mr. Bernstein from their ranks. Truly a fearful and wonderful indictment! Bernstein the champion of well-nigh every abuse of capitalism – I like the “well-nigh”; why not every abuse, when he was about it? However, it will be much more to the point if we ascertain what Bernstein has said, and then we can come back and appreciate Bax’s statements at their true value.

The main subject of interest in the whole discussion between Bernstein and his opponents was undoubtedly, How far can it be said that under capitalism the upper classes become richer and the working classes become poorer? Bernstein was of opinion that the wage-earning classes, as shown by the statistics, had materially improved their position as over against the other classes of the community; and the question at issue was how far the degree of the improvement, which Bernstein put high, was really a relative improvement compared to the other classes. A heated dispute arose round the interpretation Bernstein put on the writings of Marx and Engels in respect of this question; Kautsky supporting the view that neither Marx nor Engels ever held the views which Bernstein ascribed to them. In fact, it may be said at once that unfortunately a great part of the controversy has been taken up in the task of explaining the misconceptions as to the teaching of Marx and Engels which Bernstein was responsible for spreading in his book.

The next point debated was how far wealth tends to concentrate in fewer hands; the number of independent business establishments to grow smaller; trade generally to came more and more into the hands of a small number of very rich firms; the middle class to disappear, and so on.

Bernstein supported the theory that the original tendency noted by Marx and Engels in the “Communist Manifesto” had been neutralised by others – that to-day the numbers and wealth of the middle class tend to increase; that capitalism itself has produced a new middle class, the class of managers, etc., who certainly are not to be identified in any way with the proletariat, because their sympathies were with the propertied classes, and also that, while in some directions trade certainly tended to concentrate, there were trades where the small capitalist was able not only to hold his own, but showed a tendency to increase.

Then, again, he maintained, as far as the class war was concerned, though he did not deny the class war, that class antagonisms, so far from getting sharper and more pronounced, seemed to be more and more modified by other considerations, ethical and patriotic, and the increasing influence which these were winning among the more enlightened members of the middle and upper classes. He deprecated, consequently, lumping all the bourgeois parties together as reactionary, and advocated seeking alliances with the bourgeois parties which stood nearest to us. He also held that crises, so far from being a necessary feature of capitalism, were rather a sign of its youth, and that capitalism had got over this stage, which theory he called the “Anfassungs fahigkeit” (adaptability) of capitalism, i.e., the power of adapting itself to circumstances and of overcoming the old tendency to overproduction, had been achieved by the trusts. Besides, according to him, cooperation and Trade Unionism were destined to play a large part in the emancipation of the workers, which would take place gradually and on Fabian lines, materially helped through the increasing interference of the Legislature, and their determination to secure a standard of decency for the workers; and also by the placing of monopolies of all kinds in the hands of public authorities. As far as the materialist conception of history was concerned, he practically agreed with Bax’s views, and as to Marx’s theory of value he was very certain that he held it, but wished to combine it with the Jevons-Bohm-Bawerk theory of final utility, a proceeding of which Kautsky had no difficulty in showing the absurdity, and proving that he had fallen into the inevitable error fallen into by almost all Marx’s critics of confusing value and price, a confusion which is natural to a certain extent to the adherents of a school like the Final Utility School, to whom price and value are the same thing, and whose theory of value, as Bernstein himself had on a previous occasion pointed out, is nothing more than a theory of prices, though, as has been still more recently[1] proved, inadequate at that, but was a confusion which was as unexpected as it was unpleasant in Bernstein. This, in brief, is what I understand to be Bernstein’s theory, which may he summed up generally by saying that he lays more stress on the obstacles in the way of the accomplishment of Socialism on the resisting power of capitalism, and also, I may add, on what he has called the unripeness of the proletariat for political power[2] and. that he considers that Socialists have been too apt to overlook the remedial forces at work under capitalism and to neglect what can be done in the present for the. sake of the future.

Now, it is fairly obvious that this theory or theories is open to dispute, and, indeed, I think that Kautsky has completely proved the worthlessness of most of Bernstein’s speculations, but that is a very different thing from thinking with Bax that it was advisable to expel him from the party on the strength of them. It is difficult to get a clear idea of what Bax means when he talks about Bernstein “repudiating every principle hitherto regarded as ‘of Faith’ in Social Democracy,” and “attacking every Social Democratic doctrine in turn.” What are the principles which we are to regard as “of faith"? I have a lively recollection that the last time I had a controversy on this question with the editor of “Justice,” if I mistake not, I was given as a reason for expelling Bernstein from the party that we all think that a parson who sticks to a Church after he has ceased to hold her doctrines is dishonest, and should not blame the Church for expelling him. Why, then, refuse to the Party what we allow to the Church? In reply I ask if the Social Democratic Party is, then, a body with fixed doctrines or dogmas, like one of the orthodox Churches? It must be remembered the Churches claim to have discovered Final Truth. Does Bax claim that for the “doctrines” which Bernstein has so wickedly denied? Is by any chance the materialist conception of history included among those “doctrines"? Would Bax expel Bernstein because he considers that the poor are comparatively better off than they were? Or because he thought that the period crises were things of the past? Certainly somewhat unnecessary when the logic of events gives Bernstein the lie. Moreover, we tie the party down to a formula, which nobody is to be allowed to criticise under penalty of expulsion, a proceeding which is consistent from those who consider that Final Truth has been achieved in this direction, but very stupid from those who do not. After all, what is a political party, or, rather, what is the Social Democratic Party, and what are the conditions of membership? The answer is, surely, we are a body of men and women who have come together to work for the achievement of a series of ideas which we have embodied in a common programme, the most important item of which is that of the socialisation of the means of production and exchange. Membership of this party is conditional on acceptance of this programme and the agreement to work for the common end. Bernstein accepts both these conditions, and the German Party contend that, at least as far as the first is concerned, he must be his own judge. There is a difference, I may remind Bax, between saying that Bernstein is inconsistent in remaining in the Party and thinking that the party would do well to turn him out. Between private morality and public law, as even the most extreme Puritan must agree, exists a wide difference, and the same thing applies to the laws of any body of people. There must always be a certain margin left for the individual to decide. It is all very well for Ba.x to talk in general terms about Bernstein denying every doctrine of the Party. The same may be said of any critic, and yet we do not, at least I am most anxious not to, wish to stifle criticism in the Party.

I should very much like, to see a plain, straightforward, answer from Bax to these two questions: Does he think that it is advisable to allow members the right of free criticism of the party programme? If Bernstein were turned out, how would it be possible to retain in the Party the right of free criticism?

Then Bernstein repudiates denying all the doctrines of the Party. Who is to decide who is right? Obviously it can only go by the majority. And Bax disputes at least two fundamental ideas of the Party. He denies possibly that they are fundamental. Who is to decide? Again the majority. That might be awkward for our would-be Torquemada. Hitherto the rule has been that adopted in. the German Party in the case of Bernstein. Undisturbed by any considerations of personality, they affirmed as an answer to. Bernstein’s criticisms – or, if you like, attacks – in a most categoric manner, that they saw no reason to change their theory or their tactic. That was the celebrated Bebel resolution at Hanover. If Bernstein accepted it, well and good; if not, he could go. The same tactic was followed at Lubeck. Here there was a tug-of-war between the Bersteinianer and their opponents. The latter had a resolution which, while affirming the full right of criticism enjoyed by every member, censured the use made by Bernstein of this. An amendment to this from the former affirmed simply the right of free criticism. This amendment came first to the vote, and was defeated by a large majority; then the resolution was accepted by a still larger majority. The great difference – which Bax naturally completely overlooks – between the conduct of the German Social Democrats and English Liberals is this: The latter water down their resolutions to maintain the unity; the former lay down their principles in their resolutions, undeterred by any such fear, and leave it to the individuals to accept them. This is practically the policy they have always followed, the Berlin opposition not excepted. Here it was no case of party doctrines. It was a case of four members who were expelled from the Party because of accusations which they made against the Parliamentary representatives, accusations which they could not substantiate and would not withdraw. The fact that they were developing into Anarchism had nothing to do with their expulsion, which is shown by the fact that no one who was not proved to have had a hand in spreading the accusations under question was expelled. That is quite enough, I think, to dispose of the charge raised some time ago, if I mistake not, by Bax in “Justice,” that the German Party had treated the Berlin opposition unfairly in comparison to Bernstein.

To come back now to Bax’s indictment, I must allow that it is difficult to take seriously such wild exaggerations. We may differ from a man without insinuating that he is a scoundrel, and, much as we may detest the war, it does not follow that everyone who supports it is drawing financial advantage from it. Of course, we deplore that any Socialist should be in favour of an abomination such as the South African War, but still, even in cases of our own members, the great thing is not so much to expel the member as to make it clear that his views are not shared by the bulk of the comrades, by a resolution laying down clearly what we think. If the member chooses to continue membership after that, and as long as they do not come out actively in favour of the war, there seems no reason to do anything. This is in the case of one of our own members, and deals with what is for us a question of practical politics, where the case for expulsion would be at its strongest. It is quite another when, the correspondent of a foreign Socialist paper writes in that paper to defend the war in the course of his regular work as correspondent, or writes an article in a small, comparatively little known, English paper – that cannot be described as taking an active part in favour of the war. Moreover, Bernstein has never, to my knowledge, defended any of the worse features of the campaign. Besides all this, recent controversies in “Justice” between, Bax and Hyndman has shown that even among the strongest Socialist opponents great differences of opinion can arise.

How Bernstein can be described as the “warmest advocate” of Mr. Rhodes’s politico-financial schemes I leave to Bax to explain, and ask him not to forget the superlative, “warmest.” How many “warmests” has Mr. Rhodes got? And where did Bernstein pour forth his soul in favour of Mr. Rhodes? In “Vorwarts"? When? Or was it in the “Neue Zeit.,” when Bernstein and Kautsky so ridiculed Bax’s statement that Arab slave-dealing was better than the Chartered Company? The comparison with the German Chancellor forms a fitting climax – folly could hardly go farther. I wonder he did not say William II. at once.

If Bax answers my article, which I suspect he will not, I hope that he will be a little more explicit in dealing with the question than he has been hitherto, and, above all, that he will answer my question how he could avoid being turned out himself if Bernstein was? A motion for expulsion is a two-edged sword, and his assurance that he is no heretic is no more worth than Bernstein’s for that matter. The majority would decide naturally in both eases, but any majority which expelled Bernstein would find it very difficult to avoid a similar motion in the case of Bax.

To sum up. I am against expulsion – as I believe the German Party is – in cases where the theory of the Party alone is concerned, and there is no question of Party discipline or character at stake, because I believe that if we are to progress as a Party, if we are to meet the difficulties which will confront us, our members must enjoy a full, free, and unlimited right of criticism in respect of the Party programme. To deny this is to imply that we have, attained Final Truth, and that new circumstances can never arise to alter it, or render a new tactic and programme necessary.


1. M. Beer, “Neue Zeit.,” January 4, 1902.

2. In reply to this objection attention was called by Liebknecht on a then celebrated gambling case, which threw a lurid light on the supposed fitness of the cultivated classes for ruling.