The Passing of Eduard Bernstein
The death (recently announced) in Germany of Eduard Bernstein recalls a life which spanned a period that saw rapid growth and development in working-class history.
He was born in 1850 of working-class parents. At the age of 22 he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and eight years later became editor of the Sozial Demokrat, the official organ of the party. When Bismarck’s anti-Socialist laws came into existence he had to leave Germany and for some years carried on his work as editor from Zurich, in Switzerland. In 1890 the anti-Socialist laws were withdrawn, but still Bernstein was not allowed to return to Germany. As a result he came to England, where he stayed for about 12 years until the ban was lifted.
During his stay in England Bernstein published writings, notably “Evolutionary Socialism,” which afterwards came to be described and known as “Revisionism.” He held that Marx’s theories had to be modified on the grounds that capitalism had not developed along the lines that Marx had anticipated. He held, for example, that the middle-class and the capitalist-class were not decreasing in numbers, but were increasing both in numbers and in the amount of wealth that they owned; that the theory of the recurring cycle of industrial crises was wrong. Bernstein produced statistics, based on income-tax returns, to show that at one period there were more millionaires than at a slightly earlier period: and this, he claimed, was a flat contradiction of the theory that wealth was becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer hands ! What he seemed unable to grasp was that in a period of rapid capitalist expansion the capitalist-class could increase in number and wealth without affecting the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. Nor did he connect the fact of an increase in the number of millionaires with a possible decrease in the number of smaller capitalists. Similarly, what he mistook for a middle-class growing in numbers and security was a growing army of relatively well-paid salaried workers and officials who were brought into existence by capitalist development. Bernstein’s “Revisionism” was in the first place due to his failure to interpret modern tendencies in the light of Marxian teachings; and, secondly, to the anti-Marxist influences of the British labour movement. He was lavish in his praise for the Fabian Society—particularly Mr. and Mrs. Webb—and the “I.L.P.,” and held the “progressive reformism ” of these organisations before the Social Democratic Party as being suitable for Germany. Like the I.L.P. in this country, he advocated compensation for the capitalists, arid stated that to expropriate the capitalist class without compensation was “robbery.”
Bernstein’s standpoint caused great consternation in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and on his return debates on Revisionism took place at the party’s conferences. He remained in the party, however, and gathered round him considerable support for his views. The acceptance of Bernstein’s position by large numbers of German workers who professed an understanding of Marxist principles pointed to something more than the strong personal position that he held. It showed, above all else, the unsound and shaky foundation of the German Social Democratic Party. Though it had claimed to be Marxist, and through its leading members had published many sound theoretical expositions of Marx’s writings, so little had this soundness been translated into policy that so far as concerned practical politics the differences between the “Marxist” and Revisionist sections of the party proved to be negligible. The one claimed to accept Marx; the other refuted him. Both sections, however, supported the policy of electioneering on a reformist and anti-Socialist programme. The result of this policy has justified condemnation of it. In 1919 the Social Democratic Party held power in Germany; but it was limited—by the millions of non-Socialist supporters who had voted it—in the extent to which it could interfere with the legally established property rights of the German capitalist-class. It therefore had no alternative but to administer capitalism. In consequence many German workers learned that capitalism is still capitalism no matter what Government administers it. To-day the German Social Democratic Party commands little more than a third of the votes it did in 1919. Moreover, its failure has damaged the progress of Socialism since the workers do not realise that the S.D.P. is not Socialist.
Bernstein opposed the War in 1914, while the so-called “Marxists” supported it. In taking up this attitude he found allies—temporarily—in such working-class champions as Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.