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Book Review: 'The Preconditions of Socialism'

Waste, War & Want

'The Preconditions of Socialism', by Eduard Bernstein (Cambridge University Press)

This is the first complete edition in English of Bernstein's Preconditions of Socialism, part of which has long been in print under the title Evolutionary Socialism. Written in 1899 one of the leading figures of German social democracy during the period of the Second International, this work is an elaboration of Bernstein's criticism of the precepts of orthodox Marxism as interpreted by Kautsky, Bebel, Luxemburg and others.

Though much of it is ponderously written, Bernstein managed well enough to demonstrate some of the deficiencies of orthodox Second International "Marxism". Over-mechanistic interpretations of the materialist conception of history and Marx's economic writings led many leading social democrats of this period into making serious errors of judgement, such as in adopting the view that capitalism would collapse. In this work, Bernstein refutes such misconceptions with alacrity.

However, Bernstein's text is now remembered principally as a justification of reformism and the use of co-operatives. Indeed, Bernstein sneered at real socialists and their objective, declaring "I frankly admit that I have extraordinary little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed 'the final goal of socialism'. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything." Bernstein argued that the German Social Democratic Party should abandon its formal commitment to socialist revolution and instead build up a movement able to form a government and enact reforms. Both these things, of course, eventually happened.

Underpinning Bernstein's reformism - partly influenced by the British Fabians - was his belief that Marx had been wrong about capitalism's inability to resolve its inner contradictions. Bernstein claimed, mainly on the evidence of income tax returns during a few years of boom at the end of the nineteenth century, that the long-term concentration and centralisation of capital had been reversed. He also argued that the development of the credit system means that periodic economic stagnation was avoidable. As later events were to demonstrate, Bernstein was wrong on both counts.

Nearly a hundred years after Bernstein first made his claims we have a world where the rich continue to get richer, where the gaps between the richest and the poorest are wider than ever, and where social disintegration eats at the fabric of the capitalist system. Far from being the land of reformed capitalist opportunity that Bernstein imagined, we are now in the era of truly world crises and devastating world wars. The reformist followers of Bernstein have come and gone, and despite their efforts capitalism is more than ever a system of waste, war and want.

Dave Perrin