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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The growth of Social Democracy in Europe during
the last quarter of the nineteenth century was primarily
the result of the varying but generally intense rates
of industrialization, and the growth and crystallization
of an urban working class. In most countries of Western
and Central Europe Social Democratic parties grew
rapidly during this period. Their membership and
electoral base were the least privileged strata of soci-
ety, those who felt they had too little share in the social
assets and economic benefits of existing society and
were determined to obtain them. The ends were thus
always social and economic, the means political; this
alone already distingui hed Social Democratic parties
from all others. Secondly Socialist parties were the first
mass political organizations in the history of Europe;
their chief resource was numbers, their ideology almost
invariably collectivist. While the working class consti-
tuted the major mass of organized participants and
supporters, the direction, control, and programmatic
articulation was, in most cases, in the hands of middle-
class intellectuals, with occasionally a self-taught
working man among them. But if the working man
was not only the numerical raison d'être of Social
Democratic politics, but also the idealized image of
its beneficiary, there was little attempt at exclusivity;
all supporters were welcome, and Social Democracy,
as the representative of the future good society for all,
regarded itself as much the bearer of a universal future
as the here-and-now representative of a deprived
working class. Partly because of the strong social and
intellectual polarization in German society, partly be-
cause of the failure of German liberalism as a revolu-
tionary or even reformist force, and most directly as
the result of nearly twelve years of repression through
special antisocialist laws, the German Social Demo-
cratic Party (SPD) from 1890 onwards was regarded
as the most powerful and revolutionary party in the
Second International—a model for all the others.

The SPD came into existence in 1875, the product
of fusion between a primarily political organization
founded in the 1860's by Ferdinand Lassalle and the
more fundamentalist movement headed by Wilhelm
Liebknecht and August Bebel, known as the
Eisenacher. The party program adopted at the congress
at Gotha incorporated many of the demands for politi-
cal democracy of the Lassallean leaders, who hoped
to use the existing Prussian-dominated imperial state
for the benefits of the labor movement against the
interests of the bourgeoisie. Marx strongly criticized
the tenor of the party program; too many concessions
to the Lassalleans for the sake of unity, too many
fundamental departures from basic Marxism, especially
in the reiteration of the so-called “iron law of wages,”
and neglect of the Marxist concepts of class struggle
and social revolution. But though the Lassallean influ-
ence in the early years of the SPD provides one of
the retrospective roots of revisionism, it should be born
in mind that before 1890 there was no orthodoxy to
“revise,” but rather a strong pragmatic current for
unity and an attempt to find an acceptable mean be-
tween different traditions and emphases in what was
basically a movement of the socially dispossessed.

The differences between Marxists and Lassalleans,
and the subsequent revisionist debate, were overtly
about socialism—the means of reaching it, the way it
would differ from capitalism, the antagonistic analysis
of capitalism itself which in its own way helped to
define its antipode, socialism. But in Germany particu-
larly any argument over socialism had a core directly
concerned with democracy. Socialists of whatever
shades necessarily inherited the burden of the failure
of the liberal-democratic revolution of 1848. Marx
himself had realized this clearly when he edited the
Neue Rheinische Zeitung. And Wilhelm Liebknecht,
who founded in the 1860's what was later to become
the SPD, always stressed liberal democratization as a
here-and-now priority against the longer-term socialist
and revolutionary perspectives of Marx in his London
emigration. Marx opposed the Prusso-German state
consistently; the Lassalleans regarded it as a means of
crushing the real enemy, bourgeois capitalism. In this
respect the Lassalleans represented an emphasis on
socialism to which democracy was only a secondary
factor—an authoritarian form of socialism, while the
Eisenachers were democrats with a socialist tinge. The
emerging supremacy of the Eisenacher leaders in the
SPD during the fifteen years from 1875 to 1890 was
partly due to the growing recognition that the German
state was the main enemy of democracy; that democ-
ratization was impossible within its existing frame-
work. The achievement of democracy thus remained
the vital hidden issue beneath much of the socialist
rhetoric of the SPD (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Pro-
May 1875).

During the period of illegality and repression from


1878 to 1890 the SPD thus became much more radical
and inclined to pin its hopes on revolution. As a party
of anti-Prussian revolutionary democrats it turned
away from Lassalle and to that extent towards Marx
and his opposition of the German state. For twelve
years the party's only permitted form of activity was
participation in elections to the central German legis-
lature (Reichstag); its votes rose from 311,961 in 1881
to 1,427,298 in 1890. A new program was adopted at
the Erfurt congress of 1891, a year after the fall of
Bismarck and the end of the antisocialist legislation.
This new program was much more Marxist in content.
It accepted specifically the main Marxist prediction
of class struggle and social revolution and looked for-
ward to a total transformation of society. The first part
specifically articulated long-run predictions of social
development—the first signs of ideological orthodoxy.
The program also enumerated a set of short-run aims
which the party would attempt to realize within the
existing framework of capitalist society but whose
effect was regarded as contributing materially to the
ideological strengthening of the movement for the final
assault on society as a whole. The maximum and the
minimum program, as they came to be called, thus
dealt with separate aspects of Social Democratic aims
but were politically as well as ideologically linked to
each other; not “either-or” but both. Marx himself had
died in 1883, but Engels, who was now the official
custodian of his ideas, approved substantially of the
new program and only suggested a limited number of
changes in phrasing. He also took this opportunity of
publishing Marx's critique of the 1875 Gotha program
for the first time in Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ
of the SPD, as a commentary on the progress made,
and to strengthen the hands of the stricter “Marxists”
in the party. Particularly the leaders of the SPD had
become more self-consciously Marxist as the party
became more radical, and the impact of Marx's old
critique and Engels' accompanying letters made a
significant contribution in their struggle against the
opponents of the new program before and at the 1891
Erfurt party congress.

The final version of what became known as the
Erfurt program was one of several drafts. The party
executive's own draft had been criticized earlier by
Engels (Marx/Engels, Werke, Berlin, XXII, 225-40).
Significantly it was the version prepared by Karl
Kautsky, editor of Neue Zeit and chief theoretician of
the SPD in Germany, which met Engels' approval and
was adopted. The fact that this important document
of principles and strategy was the work of the chief
theoretician rather than of August Bebel, the political
organizer and leader, provided the grounds for the
problems of orthodoxy and heresy to which its inter
pretation was to give rise during the revisionist contro-
versy eight years later. For, it created an article of
faith to which all subscribed, but at the same time this
formal ritual of sanctification hid a good deal of practi-
cal flexibility for the political leadership who treated
it as a symbol rather than a detailed program for action.

The Erfurt program committed the party to a fairly
rigorous and self-consciously Marxist ideology. Both
Marx and Engels had regarded the now dominant wing
in the SPD as their own followers, though Marx had
specifically refused to be associated with the party
directly as an exiled leader or even as its mentor (Letter
to Bracke, 5 May 1875, Selected Works, Moscow [1962],
II, 15). After Marx's death Engels became less reticent;
he helped all he could to combat the efforts of various
prominent Social Democrats, among them the influen-
tial South German George von Vollmar, to opt for a
more flexible and theoretically less rigorous program.
From 1891 to 1898 various attempts were made to
induce the party to accept specific departures from
its program in order to exploit possibilities of obtaining
electoral support, especially among the peasantry in
South Germany. In addition the SPD leaders in South
Germany, where official policies were less polarized
and in some cases had a more democratic tradition,
wanted to use their electoral strength for bargaining
purposes in the state legislatures on a quid pro quo
basis with bourgeois parties. The last decade of the
nineteenth century was still a period of ideological
crystallization in the SPD; it was felt that quite apart
from political practice, the party program ought to
permit such tactics. For some of the South German
party leaders the Erfurt program, if strictly interpreted,
actually involved a change in their traditional tactics;
its implementation might endanger their success. A
difference in interpretation thus began to emerge,
between those of whom the Erfurt program was fast
becoming traditional party policy and those who re-
garded it as a departure from traditional tactics. This
conflict, not between innovators and traditionalists but
between representatives of different traditions, came
to play a significant part in the revisionist debate. But
up to 1898 the great majority of party leaders and
activists treated these specific attempts at tactical
adjustment as part of the democratic process of open
debate, and a solid Northern majority at party con-
gresses defeated all attempts to tinker with the party

As the party grew in strength (measured both by
membership and by voting support at elections) and
as its organizational efficiency increased, it tended to
become more inward looking and self-sufficient, both
in its ideas and its organizational structure. Its enemies
regarded the party's very existence as a threat to soci-


ety, and this feeling began to be mirrored within the
party itself. The last two decades of the century were
a period of stability and economic growth; the party's
militancy thus found expression in contemplating its
own expansion and organizational consolidation rather
than in industrial or political action. An important
feature of this institutionalization of radicalism was the
shift from ideological problems and debates to matters
of internal and external tactics; the existence and
progress of the party not only symbolized the correct-
ness of the ideology expressed by the program, the
party was the concrete expression of the ideology. The
present proved that the past had correctly predicted
the future, it therefore subsumed the future now. The
old conflict between the application of correct Marxist
theory and the political immediacy of a mass party
in Germany seemed to have disappeared. When Engels
just before his death protested vigorously against the
heavily edited publication of his preface (1895) to a
new edition of Marx's Class Struggles in France, after
having previously agreed to certain cuts, the German
leaders ignored his letters of protest, and the version
which appeared in the party's daily Vorwarts seemed
to give Engels' blessing to a policy of legal action
only—the days of the barricades were, in the changed
circumstances of the day, simply not considered rele-
vant any longer. The onward march of organized mass
Social Democracy irresistibily rolled forward even over
its own prophets. But though the German party leaders
went much further towards the pure “democratization”
of Social Democracy than Engels ever did, they all
agreed on the primary aim of a democratic revolution,
in which the army would come to the side of the SPD
and the latter would achieve power as a Jacobin mass
party but without armed struggle.

By 1898 the early days of Sturm und Drang, of heroic
struggle and theoretical precision, had given way to
a time of consolidation and growth, when problems
of tactics, internal well-being, and above all orga-
nization and growth reigned supreme. The respon-
sibilities of leading a mass party were regarded as
substantially different from those appropriate to Marx's
own day, when socialist praxis found expression in
factional struggles between small groups of intellec-
tuals. The very existence of the SPD justified Marx's
historical predictions and overall theoretical perspec-
tives. The SPD was in this sense the institutionalization
of Marxist reality. The gap between society and the
SPD was large enough for all to see; the latter's pariah
position alone prevented a watering down of orga-
nizational autonomy and socialist ideology. The best
proof of the success of the party's policy of making
no concessions to society was the fact that a growing
number of distinguished academic nonsocialist intel-
lectuals now began to support the justice of the
workers' demands and demanded that the government
should accommodate them. In time society would fall
into the party's lap—always providing that the party
did not fall into society's lap in the meantime.

The protracted political ideological debate that
came to be called the revisionist controversy was both
unexpected and, as far as the leadership of the SPD
was concerned, thoroughly unwelcome. It opened up
problems that were thought to have been solved and
once more shifted emphasis back to ideology at the
expense of political structure. In 1896 Eduard Bern-
stein, Engels' former secretary and esteemed senior
colleague of all the SPD leaders, began to publish a
series of articles in Neue Zeit in which he submitted
the current social and economic situation of party and
society to detailed analysis. He was not primarily
activated by any desire to prove Marx wrong, as his
opponents alleged, but the course of his investigation
led him more and more firmly to the conclusion that
many of the Marxist predictions of crisis in the capital-
ist system were being contradicted by the facts of the
contemporary situation. For one thing, there had been
no major economic crisis for twenty years; quite the
contrary, the bourgeoisie was growing in numbers and
strength, while the peasantry was prosperous and
contented. Moreover, the atmosphere of relationship
between classes was, if anything, milder and more
benevolent than it had been in the past. Could capital-
ism survive by evolution and reform, and change its
self-contradictory nature? Could it after all provide a
harmonious integration of the means of production
with the relations of production, so that revolution was
no longer necessary? Could a gradual process of reform
enable the working classes to obtain most of their
demands without the revolutionary overthrow of the
existing system?

Important as these epistemological questions were,
Bernstein made it clear that they were not his main
concern. They merely imposed themselves because of
the evidence he marshalled; better to question the
theory than to explain away the facts. His main concern
was with the socialist tactics that would follow if his
conclusions were correct. Thus he was soon led to a
reexamination of the party's strategy and tactics.
Bernstein regarded the rapidly growing forces of Social
Democracy as a vital factor in transforming or reform-
ing capitalism from an oppressive system of injustice
to a socialized democracy. Not that he was an apologist
for capitalism; his concern was with the means of
change to socialism, a change he regarded as a poten-
tial continuum of reforms based on a moral imperative
(hence the insistence of his “Marxist” opponents that
he was a neo-Kantian not a dialectical materialist).

Bernstein's main concern was to maintain and in-
crease socialist strength which would result in yet


further concessions and changes in society. By extrap-
olating recent trends into the future the SPD was
bound to become a majority sooner or later and as such
its pressure to transform capitalism would become
irresistible. Perhaps the most important single notion
put forward by Bernstein was that no real change in
policy on the part of the SPD was called for in this
respect; behind the rhetoric of revolutionary ideology
embodied in the party program all that he proposed
was already happening. The party should recognize
and accept openly that it was reformist rather than
revolutionary, democratic in intention now rather than
socialist in its ultimate expectations; otherwise it would
come to grief. “The final goal, whatever it may be,
means nothing to me, the movement everything.” Once
again the conflict between political democracy and
revolutionary socialism, which had seemingly been
overcome by the Marxist anti-Prussian radicalism of
the SPD after 1878, came to the fore in a new form;
according to Bernstein democracy could transform and
improve the existing state without a prior social and
political revolution. It was the voice of 1848, not of
Lassalle, but support came nonetheless from Lassalle's
heirs within the party.

Culminating with this highly practical purpose of
confronting Social Democratic theory and practice,
and paring the former down to fit the latter, it is clear
that Bernstein did not intend to revise Marx as such—
though he did admit to going further in this direction
than he had ever intended. (It will be shown later,
however, that the subordination of theory to praxis is
necessarily an irreparable revision of Marx.) If the SPD
was the institutionalization of Marxism in the current
epoch, then whatever it did was justified; the main
point was to be clear about, and admit to itself, what
it was doing. The particularities of Marx's sayings and
writings were not so much wrong as dated, hence
irrelevant to the immediate present. Bernstein was
sufficiently a Marxist to assume that the transformation
of society was still the party's main concern; the alter-
natives were revolution or reform. For him the concern
with self-sufficiency and self-regard, the emphasis on
organizational strength and electoral growth, clearly
demonstrated the path of reform—also encouraged by
the economic and social circumstances of the time; the
revolutionary ideology was therefore claptrap and a
hindrance. In fact, there was, at least for the time
being, a third alternative which combined and stabi-
lized the apparent contradiction between reformist
practice and revolutionary ideology—that of absten-
tionism. But this was a position to which no one
admitted openly, of which no one was aware for an-
other decade.

The leaders of the SPD initially found little to which
they could take exception in Bernstein's articles, mainly
because theoretical discussion just was not very impor-
tant. Even Kautsky found the articles published in his
journal “at first sight very attractive.” The reaction
against Bernstein came from a quite unexpected quar-
ter: two East European immigrants, as yet hardly
known in Germany, opened a major campaign of
polemics against him. Parvus (Alexander Helphand),
then editor of a party paper in Saxony, unleashed a
highly abusive series of articles in reply (significantly
headed “Bernstein's Revolution in Marxism” after
Engels' Anti-Dühring); Rosa Luxemburg, recently
arrived from her graduate studies in Switzerland, also
published a series in which the revisionist character
of Bernstein's argument was analyzed and attacked in
detail. Briefly these two set out to show not only that
Bernstein was wrong but also his position was impossi-
ble for a socialist and intolerable for his party, since
it conflicted completely with the basic ideology and
program of the SPD.

The intellectual arguments will be examined sepa-
rately below. Politically, it was the programmatic
acceptance of Bernstein's views by a number of party
members who used his arguments to justify, and above
all, to provide a broad ideological foundation for their
own wishes—and what was worse, their past and pres-
ent actions—which brought the SPD leadership in-
creasingly into the fray against the revisionists. The
reason why a primarily intellectual debate took on
highly political and even organizational overtones was
that the cohesiveness and unity of the party were now
suddenly threatened. The isolated activities of trade
union leaders and South German socialists had always
been slapped down whenever they had been put for-
ward as a programmatic alternative or amendment to
the party's policy as embodied in its program; with
Bernstein's extended critique of the official ideology
and his downgrading of ideology below the rationality
of praxis, all these deviant activities at once acquired
theoretical justification, programmatic content, and
even organizational cohesion. An alternative system of
unified thought and action was challenging the existing
one, forcing a choice. The activities of SPD members
of provincial parliaments who supported bourgeois
governments with their votes for tactical reasons, the
“indiscipline” of trade union leaders who put the
benefit of their members before party unity, all
appeared retrospectively in a much more dangerous
light than hitherto. As Auer, the party secretary, wrote
pityingly to Bernstein: “My dear Ede, one does not
say these things, one simply does them.”

From a political point of view therefore the revi-
sionist controversy brought into the open a number
of factors which had previously been tolerated as mere
“acts,” and gave them a status which could no longer
be ignored. From 1898 onwards the SPD leadership


became much more sensitive to breaches of party rules
and political offences against the party program. It
attempted to impose discipline. In 1898, 1901, and
1903 the annual party congress voted sharply-worded
condemnations of the revisionists by a large majority.
Eventually, even Bernstein himself, who had hitherto
escaped formal censure, was condemned. But the
practical problems of revisionism could not be solved
by resolutions of a congress or by the disciplinary
enforcements of the executive. In a mass party which
prided itself on its democratic procedures and for
which unity in the face of an unremittingly hostile
society was the primary consideration, expulsions were
reluctant and rare. Ideologically revisionism stood time
and time again condemned, in practice it continued
unabated except during radical periods like 1905 and
1910. The South Germans continued their “flexible”
politicking, claiming special circumstances in the
South, the trade unions in practice quietly obtained
almost complete autonomy from the SPD, and the tacit
recognition that their members were not to be treated
as the party's political cannon fodder. The problem
of revisionism and reformism remained with the
German party until the First World War made it irrel-
evant by tacitly making it official policy.

It became clear to a number of intelligent outsiders,
most prominent among them Max Weber and Robert
Michels, that the real sociological issues of revisionism
were not so much theoretical as practical. The party
regarded itself as isolated, and recreated for itself a
self-sufficient world whose existence depended on a
sharp gulf between it and the rest of society. It was
the negation of society, and of all attempts to build
bridges from either side, that kept the party in being
and gave it the unity and strength of which it was so
proud. By the first decade of the twentieth century,
not only an established leadership but a party bureau-
cracy quite different from any other party in Germany
had grown up. The leaders, the activists, the local
bureaucracy all had a position to defend which was
threatened as much by closer integration of the orga-
nized workers into society (except for the trade unions,
this would make many of the party's “compensatory”
activities redundant), as by revolutionary activism
which would land them in jail or worse. The mainte-
nance of the status quo was vital, and they regarded
the programmatic revisionists as its disturbers. They
were thus conservatives in the real sense of the word,
determined to maintain a revolutionary tradition which
structured their self-sufficient world and justified the
party's social isolation within which it flourished. The
theoretical perspectives of the future, the argument
between reform or revolution, were of secondary in-
terest to them. Since the death of Engels there was
no longer anyone in authority able or willing to point
out the contradiction inherent in their position.
Kautsky was to prove their particular theorist. The only
critics were either outside the socialist camp or on its
radical margin and could safely be ignored.

The main effect of the revisionist controversy on the
future communist parties was its theoretical content.
Nonetheless, political and organizational conclusions
were drawn, and left their mark. The sensitivity of the
Bolsheviks to all forms of opposition platforms within
the party, the crucial distinction Lenin made between
the expression of individual opinions and the orga-
nization of collective disagreements with party policy,
all date back to the experience of the SPD. There was
to be much tension and conflict between the commit-
ment of intra-party democracy and the need to control
revisionist, hence inimical and bourgeois, manifesta-
tions of opinion. The German socialist failure to
eradicate revisionism eventually tilted the Russian
communist scales in favor of control and against
democracy. The SPD was often to be accused by
Bolshevik writers of failing to maintain discipline;
having condemned the revisionist position, its advo-
cates should have been expelled from the party. It was
the organizational failure of the SPD to cope with
revisionism that in part led to the later communist
sensitivity to organizational purity, to the frequent
waves of expulsions and purges. Marx's own philo-
sophical emphasis on the unity of theory and practice
came to be interpreted not only in favor of theory's
primacy, but in terms of a need to reinforce theoretical
differentiation with organizational absolutes; neither
purely theoretical argument without organizational
compactness nor organizational purity without theo-
retical clarification were sufficient. The whole concept
of praxis got a strong organizational twist, which may
or may not have been good Marxism, but won through
in the Russian party mainly because it was a direct
inference from German “mistakes” in dealing with