The Fabians, Bernstein and Revisionism – Part 1

Now and again old ideas turn up and, after some refurbishing, are presented as fresh discoveries. The old wine in new bottles is then described as the sole product of the very latest and most highly developed vineyards. The working class movement has been no stranger to this fraudulent or ignorant artifice, and many a reputation has been built upon the deception.


Since the Socialist movement began most of those who claimed adherence to it have been obsessed with the idea of a mass movement. Even most of those who claimed to be Marxist have hedged, compromised, and thrown principles to the winds in order to swell the numerical support for a movement that put Socialism in the forefront as its theoretical aim, and then took practical action that denied this aim. The result has been defeat, disaster and the submerging of much that was valuable.


Examples of this craving for a mass following have been the Fabians, the Bernstein Revisionists, Independent Labour Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Labour Party, the Communists and, recently, movements, like the one sponsored by G. D. H. Cole. Supporters of these movements have brought up old arguments and ideas as if they were newly discovered examples of progress.


As some useful lessons can be drawn from it we will describe the circumstances in which one of these movements, the Bernstein Revisionist Movement occurred. It produced a bitter controversy in the Social Democratic Parties at the turn of the century. What exaggerated the importance of the theoretical dispute was the fact that Bernstein had been a prominent advocate of Marxism for many years, was regarded as an outstanding leader of German Social Democracy, had been a friend of Engels and, along with Kautsky, had been appointed by Engels as one of his literary executors. True, he did not disclose the cloven hoof until Engels was dead.


The controversy was set going by a series of articles on Problem of Socialism, contributed by Bernstein to the German Social Democratic paper, the Neue Zeit, in 1897. A demand was thereupon made that the German party state its position with regard to his ideas, and particularly to his contention that the task of social democracy was “to organise the working classes politically and develop them as a democracy and to fight for all reforms in the State which are adapted to raise the working classes and transform the State in the direction of democracy.”


In 1899 Bernstein published a book gaining a complete statement of his views. This book was translated and published in England by the Independent Labour Party in 1909 under the title Evolutionary Socialism, with an English preface by Bernstein. The quotations of Bernstein’s views that we will give later on will be taken from this edition, although the controversy ranged round the original German edition.
To begin with, let us see what the views were that Bernstein held. Briefly summarised they were the following:


That the numbers and wealth of large and small Capitalists tended to increase and society to become more democratic. That class antagonisms were being modified by ethical and patriotic considerations. That crises were decreasing in size and frequency through a process of adaptation largely influenced by trusts, cartels and the like. That the Materialist Conception of History overestimated the economic factor; the influence of the economic factor was diminishing whilst the influence of ideological factors, including the ethical, was increasing. That Capitalism had undergone fundamental changes since the middle of the 19th century when Marx made his analyses, but, though true for the time of which he was writing, they no longer applied.. That the theory of surplus value was incomplete and needed the addition of the theory of final utility. That the workers have now become citizens of the country and therefore have a fatherland to defend. That as Germany is becoming more and more dependent upon products from the colonies, these colonies should be developed and protected. Savages have only a conditional right to the land occupied by them; the higher civilization of advanced countries can claim a higher right. That Socialism is a long way ahead and will only come by a process that is gradual and almost imperceptible; consequently we should not worry about the future but concentrate on the present, on the extension of the political and economic rights of the working classes and “In all Advanced countries we see the privileges of the Capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organisations” (Preface, page XI). That the Social Democratic Party should form alliances with the Capitalist parties nearest to them.


These were the views that Bernstein put forward. The controversy that developed was two-fold. On the one hand it was concerned with Bernstein’s ideas, on the other it was a struggle to keep him in the Party, in spite of his heresies, on the ground of democracy. On the latter question Liebknecht made the following observations:—


“No socialist, therefore, has the right to condemn attacks on the theoretical ideas of the Marxian teachings or to excommunicate anyone from the party because of such attacks. But it is wholly different when such attacks imply a complete overturning of our whole conception of society, as, for example, is the case with Bernstein. Then vigorous defence is in order.” (p. 38, “No Compromise, No Political Trading.”)


However, it is well to remember that all the participants in this controversy accepted the reform policies of the Social Democratic Parties. Where they differed among themselves was that some advocated a reform policy but, at the same time, insisted that the Party should remain independent. The muddled attitude of the German party is made plain by a report of the two conferences at which the Bernstein position was debated. The report is taken from the Social Democrat of January, 1902.


At a Congress at Hanover in 1899, after Kautsky and Bebel had bitterly attacked Bernstein’s views, Bebel moved a resolution that was carried by 216 votes to 21. The resolution began as follows:—


“That the party remains as heretofore on the basis of the class-struggle whereby the freedom of the working class can alone be effected.”

But it finished up in this way:—


“The party, without in the least deceiving itself as to the character of the bourgeois parties, does not, on principle, refuse to co-operate with the parties of order from time to time, if the party can thereby obtain some definite advantage, whether for the purposes of election, or in the acquirement of political rights and freedom for the people, or in the event of obtaining some real improvement in the social condition of the working classes, or in the struggle against elements and measures hostile to the masses. . .  and has no reason to change either its principles or fundamental demands, or its tactics, or its name.”


This weak-kneed resolution in fact gave Bernstein his case for reforms and alliances, and he was not slow to realise it. He was precluded from visiting Germany, and consequently could not attend the Congress. As soon as the terms of the resolution were conveyed to him he telegraphed his willingness to vote for it!


The Congress resolution did not settle the question. The controversy went on though Bernstein took no part in it until the middle of 1901, when he delivered a lecture in Germany under the title “ How is Scientific Socialism Possible?” In this lecture he argued that “ to be purely scientific Socialism must cease to be the doctrine of a class, the expression of the class interests of the working class.” This lecture stirred up the flames of controversy again, particularly as the Capitalist press lauded Bernstein as one of their own men. Thus the question came up again at the next Congress, which was held in Lubeck. Bebel opened the attack upon Bernstein, and Bernstein, who was present this time, defended his ideas claiming that he had not attacked the programme, the agitation or the practical working of the party, but only the theory which could not conceivably injure the party, and that he could not recant any of his views.


Two resolutions were moved. The first, for Bernstein, was rejected. The second was carried by 203 votes to 31, and was as follows:—


  “The Congress recognises the unreserved right of self-criticism for the intellectual development of the party. But the thoroughly one-sided manner in which Bernstein has conducted his criticism in the last few years, while omitting to criticise bourgeois society and its leaders, has placed him in an equivocal position, and aroused the displeasure of a large portion of his comrades. In the expectation that comrade Bernstein will accept this view and act accordingly, the Congress passes over the resolutions [there were four demanding a formal vote of censure] to the order of the day.”


After the resolution was carried Bernstein rose and made the following declaration:—


  “As I declared to you at the Congress at Stuttgart, the decision of the Congress naturally cannot cause me to abandon my convictions. At the same time, the decision of the majority of my comrades is never indifferent to me. My conviction is that the resolution is unjust towards me, being based, as I have pointed out, on erroneous suppositions. But since Comrade Bebel has declared that the resolution contains no vote of censure, I declare that henceforth I will respect and observe the decision of the majority of the Congress in the manner due to such a decision.”


This ended the dispute over Bernstein’s membership as far as the German Party was concerned. In the next contribution we will discuss the repercussions in England of the German party’s decision.


We will end this section by pointing out that the ideas Bernstein put forward were not original. He himself had taken them from the Fabians, about whom we will have something to say later on, but there were groups on the Continent holding similar ideas before he put forward his. One of these groups held a view which was described as Integral Socialism. A member of this group, Benoît Malon, published a book in 1891 entitled “Integral Socialism.” Malon was opposed to Marx’s conception of economic motives and class-consciousness, arguing that Socialism was an outlook not for the workers alone but for all humanity, and was inspired by spiritual as well as economic aims, directed at conciliation rather than antagonism of classes, and trying to obtain benefits for all who suffered hardships. An outlook that required the co-operation of the liberal elements in society and involved the moral betterment of the workers.


Believing that Socialism was gradually seeping into society Malon, César de Paepe and others of like conviction, were opposed to any drastic proposals that might interrupt this process and advocated state ownership and the usual multifarious baggage of reformism in their proposals for practical action.


The seeping Socialism must have seeped out as fast as it seeped in, because 60 years later the class struggle has not eased; the workers are still wage slaves of capital and the ruling class is still in the seat of power and opulence.




(To be continued)