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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Modern Forms of Revisionism. If the original Ger-
man Revisionism was the result of one Marxist's efforts
to produce a coherent statement of his views on eco-


nomics and politics, modern forms of Revisionism have
fallen broadly into two distinct but related types, po-
litical and philosophical. Neither type originated in a
single mind: each was rather the product of multiple

1. Political Revisionism. Perhaps the first sign that
Revisionism might be due for a revival came in 1948,
when, in the increasingly angry exchange of corre-
spondence between the Soviet and Yugoslav Central
Committees, Stalin accused the Yugoslav Party of
“being hoodwinked by the degenerate and opportunist
theory of peaceful absorption of capitalist elements by
a socialist system, borrowed from Bernstein, Vollmar
and Bukharin” (R.I.I.A. [1948], p. 16). The Yugoslav
challenge to Stalin's authority may be taken as the first
postwar manifestation of political Revisionism, of
which the chief characteristic was the rejection of
Soviet authority, rather than any specific program
which might justify the name of Revisionist. Not only
were the political circumstances so changed since
Bernstein's time—parties in power concerned with the
maintenance and development of socialist states in
contrast to a party in opposition aiming at the attain-
ment of power by revolution or otherwise—that a close
analogy would be hard to find; but in Yugoslavia at
least there was, at the time of the break with Stalin,
little to justify the accusation of deviation from the
Soviet “model” of socialism and nothing to support
that of leanings towards bourgeois society. In any
event, the Soviet-Yugoslav dispute escalated so quickly
that within a year the Russians were calling the Yugo-
slavs “Fascists.” Revisionist thus hardly seemed a useful
epithet, although the Yugoslavs subsequently developed
certain policies (notably the abandonment of agricul-
tural collectivization, the introduction of “workers'
self-management,” and the redefinition of the role of
the Party in society) with theoretical implications
which could plausibly have been called Revisionist; so
could their view that neither pure capitalism nor pure
socialism exists, but only a spectrum of mixed social

Paradoxically, it was the Yugoslav ideologist Edvard
Kardelj who revived the label Revisionist in 1953-54
so that he might condemn Milovan Djilas' “social-
democratic” heresy within the Yugoslav Party. But it
was not until after the Soviet-Yugoslav reconciliation
of 1955-56 that it became an appropriate term for the
Russians to use for the official Yugoslav leadership. By
then the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, with Khru-
shchev's denunciation of Stalin, had set in motion a
process which brought the “national Communists” to
power: Imre Nagy briefly and tragically in Hungary,
Gomułka more enduringly in Poland. Insofar as they
rejected Soviet leadership, in the name of their own
country's interests, these men could be called political
Revisionists: but the fact that Gomułka, after a strug-
gle, gained Soviet approval for his leadership, enabled
him to avoid stigmatization as such. Meanwhile, Pravda
revived the term revisionism in criticism of Kardelj's
failure to support the Soviet view of the Hungarian
revolution (Yu. Pavlov in Pravda, 18 December 1956);
Mao Tse-tung, concerned at the possible disintegration
of the socialist bloc, judiciously contrasted “dogma-
tism,” defined as blind imitation of Soviet experience,
with Revisionism, defined as “revising Marxism under
the pretext of fighting dogmatism” (Mao Tse-tung,

By 1957 the struggle against Revisionism had be-
come a convenient rallying-cry for all those who feared
that the principle of “separate roads to socialism” had
been interpreted in such a way that some of the roads
might diverge from socialism altogether. These in-
cluded not only the Soviet leaders, but some others:
Gomułka in Poland—for all his challenge to Soviet
authority and his rejection of Soviet example in such
matters as agricultural and Church policy—was con-
cerned at the appearance within his own Party of
philosophical revisionism (see below); Ulbricht in East
Germany was faced with a program for the democrati-
zation of the régime elaborated by Wolfgang Harich,
an intellectual Party member, which included elements
from Yugoslav and Polish practice and far-reaching
suggestions for rapprochement with the West German
SPD. In these circumstances the Soviet leaders, with
Chinese encouragement, began an international cam-
paign against Revisionism, which would have the
effects of ensuring the bloc against disintegration from
the virus of Titoism, and also stabilizing those régimes
which were under pressure from Westernizing intel-
lectual dissidents in the Party ranks.

Early in 1957, the Soviet ideologist Boris Ponomarev
defined the seven sins of Revisionism in terms which
illustrate this double purpose: (1) minimization of im-
perialist aggression; (2) denial of CPSU leadership; (3)
rejection of class struggle and collaborationism be-
tween classes; (4) social-democratism; (5) denial of
Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat; (6) rejection
of a centralized, disciplined Party; and (7) adoption
of national Communism (Brzezinski [1962], p. 305). In
October 1957 Gomułka complained of Revisionists and
Liquidationists “of various sorts... [who] offer no
positive program... [but] act by negation and fruitless
criticism” in the Polish Party (Pravda, 31 October
1957; trans. R. K. Kindersley). Shortly afterwards, at
the meeting of twelve Ruling Parties in Moscow in
November, Revisionism was declared to be “the main
danger” in the international workers' movement, the
Yugoslavs refusing to subscribe.


The Yugoslavs' retort took the form of a new Party
Program in the spring of 1958, which was at once
recognized as the epitome of political Revisionism,
much as the Erfurt Program had been the epitome of
orthodoxy. This program was a major document, the
length of a small book, and embodied, from the ortho-
dox, i.e., Soviet and Chinese, point of view, five serious
transgressions: it exaggerated positive developments in
the capitalist world, notably the social effects of the
extension of state intervention in the economy; it failed
adequately to distinguish between the aggressive na-
ture of the imperialist and the defensive nature of the
socialist camp; it underestimated the value of Soviet
experience (e.g., collectivization) for other Socialist
countries; it spoke prematurely of the withering-away
of the State as a practical policy; and it reduced the
role of the Party in a socialist country to one of ideo-
logical education instead of active leadership. It will
be seen that all these are specifications of one or other
of the sins of Revisionism listed by Ponomarev in 1957.

In the antirevisionist campaign which followed (and
which involved the execution of Imre Nagy and his
associates), the Chinese took the lead; and within the
next two years their attacks on “modern revisionism”
began to be aimed at the Soviet Union rather than
the Yugoslavs. The main Chinese argument in support
of their accusation has been that the Soviet leaders
have compromised with imperialism. In 1968 a Soviet
spokesman, prompted by the Maoist inspiration of
some of the French student rebels of May 1968, re-
ferred to the struggle against the revision of Marxism-
Leninism both from the Left and from the Right
(Pravda, 19 June 1968), and the term “left revisionism”
has appeared since on occasion (see, e.g., Chesnokov
[1968], p. 3). Like medieval schismatics, each side has
called the other heretic, using the terms appropriate
to convey odium theologicum in a secular movement.

The Czechoslovak Communist reform movement of
1968 represents a further instance of political Revi-
sionism. (The term was used by the Soviet leader
Leonid Brezhnev with the Czechs in mind in March
1968.) Mindful of the experience of their Hungarian
predecessors in 1956, the Czechoslovak leaders care-
fully attempted to reassure the Russians on the two
points on which the Hungarian Revisionists over-
stepped the bounds: the Czechs repeatedly affirmed
first that they remained loyal allies of the Soviet Union
in the Warsaw Pact, and secondly, that they had no
intention of allowing the revival of a multi-party sys-
tem in such a form as would jeopardize the leading
role of the Communist Party.

The reasons why these assurances were not accepted
fall outside the scope of this article. But two points
may be noted in conclusion: Soviet speakers used the
terms “revisionism” and “nationalism” repeatedly in
close conjunction during their criticisms of the Czech-
oslovak movement during 1968, almost as if they were
two different aspects of the same phenomenon. Sec-
ondly, the Chinese took the view that the Czech crisis
was the action of one “revisionist renegade clique”
against another. These two instances, among many,
illustrate the decline of “Revisionism” into an emotive
term of political vituperation.

2. Philosophical Revisionism. Philosophy was, as we
have seen, the weakest side of Bernstein's doctrine but
it may well prove to be the most important form of
latter-day Revisionism. Modern philosophical Revi-
sionism is the product of numerous philosophers, more
or less isolated, working under various conditions,
mainly in Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, but
also in the Communist movements of certain Western
countries, particularly France and Italy. The term is,
nevertheless, used not only by Soviet ideologists to
describe certain philosophical trends with which they
disagree, but also by non-Marxist scholars in the West
(Z. A. Jordan, G. L. Kline) when discussing the same
trends from a more sympathetic point of view. It has
therefore sufficient currency, if not precision, to justify

Whereas Bernstein rebelled against Marxist ortho-
doxy in the name of existing practice, modern Revi-
sionist philosophers have rebelled against Marxist-
Leninist—and residually Stalinist—orthodoxy in the
name not of reality, of which they are also more or
less critical, but of a social ideal. It is for them no
longer a question of achievement of power by one or
another means—revolution or evolution—but of using
the power possessed by ruling Communist parties (of
which they have generally been members, at least
initially) to create the good society. As philosophers,
they have attempted to define the principles relevant
to this task in their most general form. Their efforts
in this respect have led them from the “Marxism” of
Engels, Lenin, and Stalin back to that of Marx himself.
They have tended to reject such features of Marxist
philosophy (more closely associated with Engels and
Lenin than with Marx) as the epistemological theory
of reflection, the dialectic of nature, and ontological
materialism, while accepting Marx's historical materi-
alism and his critique of capitalism and religion. But
they have moved away from impersonal historical
determinism to the reassertion of the responsibility and
freedom of the individual; from the primacy of society
to the primacy of Man; from socialism as a means of
material abundance to socialism as an ethical ideal.