In defense of Eduard Bernstein
The philosopher of social democracy and a great Marxist
Was Eduard Bernstein a revisionist, and were his reasonings a fundamental rupture with Marxism? Were his economic predictions correct? He is often labeled as a revisor. I think this not very true and it misses some details.
Was Eduard Bernstein against the materialist conception of history?
No, he was not. He states bluntly that the statement made in the Communist Manifesto about the transformation of the feudalist society into a capitalist society and then into a socialist one is correct, just that Marx and Engels may have under-estimated the length of this transformation and perhaps the exact political means that will act as the vessel for this social transformation. However, the materialist conception of history was never declared to be invalid altogether by Bernstein.
He says this almost immediately in the preface of Evolutionary Socialism:
‘’The theory which the Communist Manifesto sets forth of the evolution of modern society was correct as far as it characterized the general tendencies of that evolution. But it was mistaken in several special deductions, above all in the estimate of the time the evolution would take.’’
Bernstein also writes:
‘’It will, of course, not be maintained that Marx and Engels at any time overlooked the fact that non-economic factors exercise an influence on the course of history. Innumerable passages from their early writings can be quoted against such suppositions. But we are dealing here with a question of proportion — not whether ideologic factors were acknowledged, but what measure of influence, what significance for history were ascribed to them, and in this respect it cannot be denied that Marx and Engels originally assigned to the non-economic factors a much less influence on the evolution of society, a much less power of modifying by their action the conditions of production than in their later writings.’’
Bernstein did not assert that the materialist theory of history is wrong, because he was defending Marx and Engels from the accusation or the notion that they were rigid economic determinists. Bernstein was also criticizing some of the ‘’vulgar Marxists’’ of that era and their simplifications of historical processes entirely for political reasons. Bernstein asserts that Marxist theories were always nuanced and never absolute, and therefore there is no question of wether their theory of history is absolutely right or wrong.
Bernstein was making the argument that Marx and Engels perhaps miscalculated the extent of their theories’ applicability, but nowhere does he say these ideas are wrong or inapplicable. Bernstein again defends Friedrich Engels and the materialist conception of history from the accusation of being dogmatic and ignoring the ideological:
‘’In a letter to Conrad Schmidt dated October 27th, 1890, Friedrich Engels showed in an excellent manner how from being products of economic development, social institutions become independent social forces with actions of their own, which in their turn may react on the former, and according to circumstances, promote or hinder them or turn them into other directions. He brings forward in the first place the power of the state as an example, when he completes the definition of the state mostly given by him — as the organ of the government of the classes and of repression — by the very important derivation of the state from the social division of labour.  Historical materialism by no means denies every autonomy to political and ideologic forces — it combats only the idea that these independent actions are unconditional, and shows that the development of the economic foundations of social life — the conditions of production and the evolution of classes — finally exercises the stronger influence on these actions.’’
He further defends it:
‘’But in any case the multiplicity of the factors remains, and it is by no means always easy to lay bare the relations which exist among them so exactly that it can be determined with certainty where in given cases the strongest motive power is to be sought. The purely economic causes create, first of all, only a disposition for the reception of certain ideas, but how these then arise and spread and what form they take, depend on the co-operation of a whole series of influences. More harm than good is done to historical materialism if at the outset one rejects as eclecticism an accentuation of the influences other than those of a purely economic kind, and a consideration of other economic factors than the technics of production and their foreseen development.’’
‘’More harm than good is done to historical materialism if at the outset one rejects as eclecticism an accentuation of the influences other than those of a purely economic kind…’’ This would seem to be a key phrase in understanding Bernstein’s thoughts on this matter. Bernstein finally writes at the end of the second sub-chapter that the materialist conception of history should not imply the inevitability of events based upon changes in the mode of production, just that it is good rule of thumb. Marxism is not, or should not, be a historical dogma to create pure prophecies. It is a useful tool for analyzing the word or finding inspiration for policy:
‘’To the words “materialist conception of history” still adhere all the misunderstandings which are closely joined with the conception of materialism. Philosophic materialism, or the materialism of natural science, is in a mechanical sense deterministic. The Marxist conception of history is not. It allots to the economic foundation of the life of nations no unconditioned determining influence on the forms this life takes.’’
Bernstein also elaborates on the materialist conception of history in his work Karl Marx and Social Reform, this time on the speed at which history might develop. As Bernstein said in the preface of Evolutionary Socialism, the materialist conception of history is not entirely wrong, just that implies a social evolution rather than necessarily a revolution.
‘’But in every period of history we can easily distinguish a prevailing mode of production and exchange, and a corresponding conception of life, and of duties and rights, which also prevail and determine the nature of the social and political institutions of the period. This is quite obvious in the earlier stages of social life. But the more complex society becomes, the more will the objective causes of social evolution recede into the background, and subjective ones appear to determine its course. But, powerful as the subjective factor is in history, it is still under the control of the working of the economic foundations of social life.’’
What Bernstein is saying here is that ‘’subjective’’ (moral and ideological) foundations for history become more prominent as the ‘’objective’’ (material) foundations of history have already put them into play. This is exactly the point he makes above in his analysis of Engels’s writing, although this is not the main point. He continues:
‘’People have stigmatised the materialistic conception of history as historic fatalism. But they have, as yet, not been able to point out a country where production on commercial lines and feudal law and morals are coexisting in full vigour […]
Bernstein expressly rejects the notion that the materialist conception theory is fatalistic. And finally:
‘’The dream, fostered by men like Bakunin, of saving the Russians the period of bourgeois economy is done with for ever; neither can the all-powerful Tsar — to speak with Marx — remove it by decree, nor can the fiery revolutionist make Russia jump over its phases of evolution with the aid of dynamite…
In short, there is what we Germans call Gesetzmässigkeit — an order of law — in social evolution.’’
It should be noted that none of this is refutation, as it has sometimes been characterized. Indeed, Bernstein wrote at the end of the third sub-chapter of his work, The Fundamental Doctrines of Marxist Socialism, that it was an attempt at correcting the mistakes or errors of Marxist theory. This was so that Marxism would continue to have relevance as a form of analysis for socialists:
‘’Marx and Engels confined themselves sometimes merely to hinting at, sometimes only to stating in regard to single points, the changes recognised by them in facts, and in the better analyses of these facts, which influenced the form and application of their theory. And even, in the last respect contradictions are not wanting in their writings. They have left to their successors the duty of bringing unity again into their theory and of co-ordinating theory and practice.’’
‘’But this duty can only be accomplished if one gives an account unreservedly of the gaps and contradictions in the theory. In other words, the further development and elaboration of the Marxist doctrine must begin with criticism of it.’’
‘’Its is also a necessary work. The mistakes of a theory can only be considered as overcome when they are recognised as such by the advocates of that theory. Such recognition does not necessarily signify the destruction of the theory. It may rather appear after subtraction of what is acknowledged to be mistaken — if I may be allowed to use an image of Lassalle — that it is Marx finally who carries the point against Marx.’’
In his own words, Bernstein was never attempting the outright destruction of this particular part of Marxist theory, as perhaps oversimplified accounts of ‘’revisionism’’ have made over the years. This is a well-thought update or perhaps clarification to the theories of Marx and Engels, which should be appreciated.
The validity of this theory of history
Regardless of how Bernstein’s thinking related to Marx and Engels, it is also important to note that this interpretation of the materialist conception of history is incredibly accurate with the hindsight of 120 years of history. Everywhere across the globe, working-class movements emerged in response to the capitalist system and many such movements eventually did compel a move towards a more egalitarian order.
In numerous countries, labor movements advocating socialism emerged. These labor movements later compelled policy and economic changes such as universal suffrage, the 8-hour work day, the welfare states, regimes of progressive taxation, industrial and workplace democracy legislation and even the nationalization of the principal means of production.
In very few countries did socialism progress through revolutionary means, only in relatively underdeveloped countries such as Russia, China and Vietnam was this the case. In most countries, it was the material forces of history that compelled the aforementioned reformist changes. The failure of socialist revolutions to take hold in well-developed nations after the 1920s does not disprove the materialist conception of history, and can only do so if that theory of history is conflated with predicting that the event that may trigger a socialist transformation of society is by neccessity a revolution.
When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels initially wrote their social theories, they were referring to a time when the working-class was literally, and not figuratively or indirectly, shut-out from control over the state. When Marx referred to the state as:
‘’The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
He was not exaggerating at this point in history. Most countries at the time allowed but only a small percentage of their population (usually property owners) to vote. Some countries were still autocracies or with no semblance of democracy whatsoever, such as Russia. Because Marx and Engels understood this form of exclusion as essential to the class rule of the bourgeoisie, it was assumed just to be the natural order of the political system and a necessary outgrowth of capitalism. Therefore, only revolutionary means could eliminate class rule. Claims about what is called ‘’bourgeois democracy’’ usually stem from this particular tendency of Marx and Engels’s thought.
‘’Bourgeois democracy,’’ in the sense that Marx and Engels might have meant or thought it, was literal. It was not a more abstract concern about the democratic state serving the interests of capital, it was a concern that capital was the state. Later socialists invoking this line of thought to justify everything from anti-parliamentarism, to revolution and even authoritarian rule by a single-party (as Vladimir Lenin did when he dissolved the constituent assembly) were removing this general line of thinking from its proper context.
However, with the gradual elimination of these directly exclusionary laws at the end of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie no longer held a monopoly upon political power. The threat to political democracy remained, but in the form of private ownership of industry, by which power is concentrated in a relatively small number of property owners. Bernstein argued that this development of more open government was fundamentally threatening to the bourgeoisie. It empowered average working-class people and the victims of present society to seek a more egalitarian economic order and to challenge the propertied classes:
‘’In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organisations. Under the influence of this, and driven by the movement of the working classes which is daily becoming stronger, a social reaction has set in against the exploiting tendencies of capital, a counteraction which, although it still proceeds timidly and feebly, yet does exist, and is always drawing more departments of economic life under its influence. Factory legislation, the democratising of local government, and the extension of its area of work, the freeing of trade unions and systems of co-operative trading from legal restrictions, the consideration of standard conditions of labour in the work undertaken by public authorities — all these characterise this phase of the evolution.’’
Bernstein was right, in a sense, to advocate that socialists apply parliamentary methods. This was because the worst of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was behind them. As Bernstein succinctly put it:
‘’Democracy is in principle the suppression of class government, though it is not yet the actual suppression of classes.’’
However, this principle is not absolute and political democracy is still not absolute as long as economic classes still continue to exist, thus a powerful argument for socialism.
Marx and Engels also seemed to somewhat shift their views as social conditions progressed and as it was becoming clearer that the bourgeoisie did not have total exclusivity over the state. The notion that Marx and Engels were dogmatic revolutionary romanticists, especially by the end of their lives, is wrong. In many regards, Bernstein had taken inspiration from these new developments. Karl Marx stated in 1872 that socialism could be achieved peacefully in countries with more liberal political regimes. Revolutionary action was still necessary in authoritarian states with limited levels of democracy:
‘’The worker must one day capture political power in order to found the new organisation of labour. He must reverse the old policy, which the old institutions maintain, if he will not, like the Christians of old who despised and neglected such things, renounce the things of this world.
But we do not assert that the way to reach this goal is the same everywhere.
We know that the institutions, the manners and the customs of the various countries must be considered, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and, if I understood your arrangements better, I might even add Holland, where the worker may attain his object by peaceful means. But not in all countries is this the case.’’
All of that stated, Marx was not a pure reformist, but neither was he a pure revolutionary. He advocated (in this quote) socialist action based upon the particular economic and political circumstances of each country.
The so-called revisionism of Eduard Bernstein is more of a mythical attack than a careful reading of his works. Bernstein was not attempting to destroy or refute Marxism, but rather to improve it so that it could serve the cause of social democracy well. In many instances, Bernstein’s views were directly aligned with those of Marx, and more so than even some of Bernstein’s so-called ‘’orthodox’’ critics. Bernstein was critiquing ‘’vulgar Marxism’’ and oversimplified and rigid interpretations of Marxism more often than he was critiquing these ideas all together.