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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Precisely because revisionism was an onslaught of
praxis against a theoretical self-image, the ideological
foundation of revisionism was not articulated in any
great detail at the time. There is only Bernstein's writ-
ing and subsequent discussions by his supporters; and
these took on a fundamental character mainly because
they were challenged as such. Almost unintentionally
Bernstein found himself elaborating a whole philosophy
in order to defend his original, rather eclectic com-
ments; the series of articles in Neue Zeit between 1896
and 1898 were reinforced by the much more “thor-


ough” Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus (1899) which
became revisionism's chief theoretical text. Too much
should accordingly not be read into his writing in terms
of a consistent set of ideas with which to challenge
another equally consistent set of ideas. The revisionist
controversy differs from both the types of arguments
that Marx and Engels sometimes unleashed on their
opponents, and also from the later exegeses of revi-
sionism produced by the Bolsheviks and their German
supporters in order to specify their own diametrically
opposed position. The fact that revisionism has come
to be regarded as a consistent attack on Marxism may
be partially inherent in its original formulations, but
is primarily due to later efforts to characterize it as
such. Revisionism has no meaning except in the context
of a fundamental departure from accepted or “correct”

Hence, if anything, the articulation of a consistent
position was not the work of Bernstein and his sup-
porters but of his opponents, who provided the very
consistency and internal logic that his own work
lacked. In the work of Parvus and particularly Rosa
Luxemburg, we find an ideological systematization of
Bernstein's arguments which never ceased to surprise
the latter, and whose main purpose in turn was to give
a grounding to the orthodox interpretation of the
party's ideology. Once he had been stimulated into
awareness of the intellectual dangers of revisionism,
Kautsky too defended the orthodox position against the
revisionist “system” of ideas.

Bernstein challenged the accepted orthodoxy on two
fronts: the accuracy and relevance of the social philos-
ophy implicit in the party program—which in turn was
based largely on Marx's own philosophy—and the po-
litical implications which resulted from this challenge.

1. The Challenge to Marxism. We have already
noted the empirical nature of this challenge; certain
social and economic developments should by now have
been taking place but were not. It is naturally ques-
tionable whether the social philosophy of Marxism had
ever stipulated any rigid time scale for processes of
crisis; much of the argument hinged on the extent to
which contemporary prosperity and social peace were
temporary, or structural and permanent. There was a
substantial discussion about the accuracy of Bernstein's
statistics, the relative status of monopolistic concen-
tration through the development of finance capital in
the hands of banks as against Bernstein's observation
that small-scale capitalism was growing in numbers and
prosperity. If, on economic and social grounds, capi-
talism was indeed capable of internal reform and hence
of survival, then a substantial part of the teleological
basis which made its collapse and the proletarian revo-
lution historically necessary under certain circum
stances simply disappeared. Bernstein opposed the
potential violence of revolution, emphasizing instead
the need for legal transformation (even “expropriation
of the exploiters” was to take place through agreed
compensation); he also argued strongly against deter-
minist notions of historical necessity which deprived
human beings of the capacity to shape their own des-
tiny. Hence he attacked what he conceived to be the
tyranny of the dominant economic base—the relations
of production—over social, political, cultural, and
ideological phenomena; in this he affected to see a
completion of the gradual relaxation already begun by
Engels in the dominance of economic factors allegedly
preached by Marx (“it is not man's consciousness that
determines his existence, but on the contrary his social
existence that determines his consciousness”). Nothing
shows more clearly the confusion of Bernstein and
almost all his contemporaries on both sides of the
revisionist controversy about the real nature of Marx's
thoughts and the respective attitudes of Marx and
Engels than this ascription of a philosophically activist
role to Engels in his post-Marx years; in fact it was
Engels who was primarily responsible for the
mechanization of the Marxist theory of consciousness
into a “mere” reflection of nature—the mechanistic
materialism Marx had attacked in The German Ideol-
(cf. Avineri [1968], pp. 66-67).

Somewhat reluctantly, Bernstein attempted to found
his dissent ultimately on philosophical grounds. “My
natural intellectual inclination would have rather led
me to a positivist philosophy and sociology,” he later
avowed (Entwicklungsgang [1924], p. 40); as it was,
his very empiricism and unconscious eclecticism (for-
mally he opposed eclecticism in the name of Marxist
consistency) led him to opt for a version of neo-Kantian
evolutionary idealism that had been advocated by a
number of philosophers on the fringe of the SPD (Con-
rad Schmidt, Ludwig Woltmann, above all, Bernstein's
most immediate philosophical inspirer, Friedrich
Albert Lange). This was especially marked with regard
to the important role Bernstein assigned to morality
“as a power capable of creative action” (Geschichte
und Theorie
[1901], p. 285). With the insistence on
absolutes necessarily went a commitment to a linear
evolution in the direction of human perfectibility,
which was very typical of nineteenth-century philo-
sophical optimism, and was specifically taken over by
Bernstein from the English Fabians. Socialism, from
this point of view, became primarily a moral move-
ment based on ethical premisses. Bernstein criticized
dialectical materialism—from which he believed
Engels to have been departing anyhow at the end of
his life. The notion of dialectical change, with its
brusque cataclysms, was for Bernstein “the worst ele-


ment of Marxist doctrine, the snare, the obstacle
blocking access to any logical perception of things”
(Voraussetzungen, p. 46). Instead, “Social Democracy
needs a Kant who will at last confront traditional
ideology... with a critical spirit and the necessary
curiosity and... who will show... that the contempt
for the ideal, the raising of material factors to the level
of omnipotent forces in the process of evolution, are
merely an illusion” (ibid., pp. 177-78).

This brief survey of Bernstein's economic, social, and
philosophical position shows the scrappy basis of the
revisionist position; how feeble the attempt was to
translate what one of its opponents called “the theory
of a praxis” into a consistent position vis-à-vis Marxism,
or at any rate what passed as Marxism at the time.
Bernstein was in his way as guilty of “flattening out”
Marx into an almost mechanical materialist and deter-
minist as were the Stalinists of a much later epoch.
A great deal of what was criticized in Marx was in
fact Engels' interpretation, and even this was over-
simplified. The contradictions of a hybrid philosophy
between positivism as a commitment to action, and
idealism as a source of moral objectives, were glossed
over; Bernstein was simply unaware of such problems,
and also seemed to have hoped that Marx and Kant
could somehow be combined. The tendency to equate
the Hegelian dialectic (which, Bernstein said, Marx had
not really demystified at all) with violent political
revolution was quite unjustified on any grounds but a
highly arbitrary linkage between Kautsky's incessant
advocacy of revolution (in his capacity as Marxist
“pope”) and its alleged Hegelian roots—when in fact
the Marxism of the Second International did everything
to loosen the connection with the Hegelian method,
and the rediscovery of Hegel was a feature of the early
Bolshevik period (Lenin during the war, G. Lukacs in
the early 1920's). Marx himself had realized clearly that
in grafting Feuerbach's materialism or naturalism onto
the Hegelian dialectic, there was a danger that the
active component in idealism might be swamped by
the contemplative nature of Feuerbach's analysis; his
theses on Feuerbach specifically stress the need to
preserve the element of activism in the new Marxist
materialism. The activist component in revisionism
thus flogged the wrong philosophical horse—even
though its immediately practical concerns with politi-
cal action were relevant enough in the context of the
“orthodox” abstentionism which underlay the radical
rhetoric of the SPD's program and leadership.

The revisionist debate between Bernstein and sup-
porters, against the orthodox on one side and the radi-
cals (as yet undifferentiated) on the other, was only
in part concerned with the interpretation of reality and
the prediction of the future. These problems were
rapidly subsumed by more fundamental and immediate
ones of self-definition. Could a nineteenth-century
evolutionary view based on strong reliance on the
perfectibility of human nature and its social system,
be compatible with a socialist philosophy—and, more
important, a socialist party program? What was the
true meaning of socialism? Regarding society as
irrevocably divided into two camps, Bernstein's oppo-
nents tried to demonstrate that his views were not
socialist at all. They had therefore to be considered
anti-socialist, i.e., bourgeois. A significant analogy was
drawn between the “bridge building” on the part of
the Kathedersozialisten, academic sympathizers with
labor (like Sombart, Schmoller, Roscher, and others)
who advocated a policy of working-class integration
into society through substantial concessions to the
workers, and the revisionist who proposed a very simi-
lar policy from within the socialist camp. With a span
being constructed from both sides across the Marxist
gulf between antagonistic classes, these would disap-
pear and society become a continuum. For Bernstein
this would represent a positive achievement for Social
Democracy; to his opponents it spelled the acceptance
of permanent class domination.

One of the major issues in the debate was concerned
with intellectual method. Bernstein had started with
an empirical and eclectic analysis of the present and
from this analysis had attempted to construct a philos-
ophy and a policy based on reality as he perceived
it. This form of inductive theory was characterized by
Marxists as a form of opportunism, in which policy
and philosophical system were tailored to meet imme-
diate and ever changing needs (the analogy with
tailoring was in fact made by Rosa Luxemburg, Sozial-
reform oder Revolution?,
1899). Since there could be
no ideological vacuum, no empty spaces in the sociol-
ogy of knowledge, the surface systematization of dis-
crete phenomena must necessarily be a reflection of
bourgeois ideology and help to support it. It was but
a short step from such intellectual empiricism to prac-
tical opportunism—and this label was henceforth in-
creasingly used to characterize all socialist attempts
to validate epiphenomena into a justification for praxis.

Hence one of the most important elements of con-
troversy concerned the status of theory vis-à-vis praxis.
Rosa Luxemburg underlined the way in which Bern-
stein's revisionism provided a cover for established but
hitherto “silent” practices; indeed Bernstein had
specifically extrapolated from the acceptance of these
practices into a theoretical justification of them. Most
of his supporters were antitheorists, and much emphasis
was placed on the fact that revisionism took the form
of a denial of theory in favor of praxis. Bernstein's
orthodox opponents defended the party program as a


correct formulation of the necessary relationship be-
tween theory and praxis; the maximum program pro-
vided the theory, the minimum program the praxis.
In attempting to undermine the maximum program
Bernstein was in fact undermining theory altogether
and replacing it with a theoretical justification of praxis
tout court.

In raising this aspect a confrontation between party
theorists and the party “practitioners” became inevita-
ble, though this had not been Bernstein's intention;
already revisionism was as much the creature of its
opponents as of its supporters. Throughout the revi-
sionist debate from 1898 until the First World War—
and like an echo ever since—those who advocated the
need for correct theory found themselves differentiated
from, and often opposed by, those whose task it was
to manage the day-to-day political affairs of the party.
Again and again a sharp distinction was drawn between
theorists and activists—a distinction that was rein-
forced by the fact that some of the most articulate
theorists were immigrant Easterners who, particularly
after 1905, infuriatingly taunted the passive SPD with
the example of Russian activism—or anarchy—as the
German leadership would have it.

This division into theorists and practitioners was one
of the main consequences of the revisionist controversy.
Once the party leadership had come down against the
revisionists, a tacit agreement to split theoretical from
practical politics provided an escape route for all
concerned; the leadership had articulated the party's
self-sufficiency, the revisionists could continue their
practices provided they did not raise them in ideologi-
cal form. Theoretical debates were discouraged as
much as possible after 1903. All the theorists suffered
as a result. Bernstein never ventured again into any
major theoretical statement; his later pacifism and his
strong democratic and anti-imperialist attitudes before
and during the First World War made him respected
but relatively isolated. Kautsky increasingly became
the spokesman of the party's self-sufficient isolationism;
provided he did not advocate revolutionary action, his
analyses and interpretations of events and his historical
studies provided a theoretical gloss of intellectual
respectability for the SPD, which by now had become
the most important party in the Second International
and an example for all. The radicals were increasingly
pushed to the margin of relevance in the SPD; the
party leadership accused them of losing touch with
political reality. In the end therefore the revisionist
controversy resulted curiously enough in a virtual em-
bargo on all fundamental controversies; the real
beneficiaries were the party leadership and the practi-

Also inherent in the revisionist controversy was the
eventual intellectual split between the party center,
with its increasingly deterministic philosophy, and the
radical Left, which opened out politically in 1910.
Kautsky was later accused by the communists of
changing from orthodox or revolutionary Marxism to
a determinist (and therefore in the end revisionist)
position just before or at the beginning of the First
World War (Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the
Renegade Kautsky,
1918; Regionieri, 1965). As against
this it has been argued that his views were consistent
throughout; that the strongly deterministic element in
his social philosophy was there from the start (Mat-
thias, 1957). As the SPD became more concerned with
its internal affairs, and regarded its success more openly
in terms of size and organizational strength rather
than revolutionary action, Kautsky increasingly fo-
cussed on the inevitability of the collapse of capitalist
society before a confident, ever-growing, majoritarian
socialist party, winning victory after victory at the
polls and gaining the support of disaffected lower
middle-class elements. The middle course which he
advocated against revolutionary adventurism on the
Left and overt revisionism on the Right made him the
official spokesman par excellence of the party leader-
ship. After 1910, a small, though vocal group of Left
Wing radicals began to crystallize. Many of them had
been in the forefront of the polemics against Bernstein
during the revisionist controversy, but had now become
disillusioned with the inactive component of the official
condemnation of revisionism and the immobile self-
sufficiency of the SPD leadership and Kautsky himself.
In a sense, the revisionist controversy had obscured the
problem of activism versus determinism. It was this
issue which later divided Center and Left, with the
revisionists amused spectators on the sidelines as their
enemies fell out among themselves.

2. Political Implications of Revisionism: Activism
vs. Determinism.
In one sense, Bernstein's critique of
party policy was thus a positivist commitment to ac-
tion. The SPD's isolationism justified itself by a deter-
minist social philosophy; maintenance of the “correct”
status quo in ideology and program would bring about
the eventual collapse of self-contradictory capitalism
and the victorious inheritance of socialism. As against
this, Bernstein stressed the need for involvement by
socialists in order to bring about further transformation
in capitalist society towards the desired end—a better
life for all in a better society. His theoretical justifica-
tion of greater involvement with existing society legit-
imated precisely those elements in the party already
most concerned with political action; the South
German SPD, who participated directly in local gov-
ernment, and the Trade Unions facing the employers
and the state in the economic interests of their mem-


bers all the way from individual shop floor to national
industrial sector. His appeal for greater realism was
thus implicitly and at the same time a call for greater
activation of political possibilities. Bernstein had lived
in England for some years and had absorbed not only
some of the underlying attitudes of Fabianism towards
human nature and society but had witnessed the success
of British trade unionism in its pragmatic struggle to
obtain economic benefits and political representation
for labor. Marx himself had already stressed the impor-
tance of working-class practicality: “not only in think-
in consciousness, but in massively being, in life
... in forming associations... in which social criti-
cism becomes the living real criticism of existing soci-
ety...”; England and France were outstanding exam-
ples, to be copied by the excessively speculative, purely
philosophical Germans (The Holy Family, 1845; 1956
Moscow edition, pp. 73, 205). Though Bernstein did
not cite Marx against current orthodox Marxism, his
own prescriptions for practical activity were intended
to align theory to praxis in a harmonious relationship
which, he felt, had been sundered by too much venera-
tion for an increasingly irrelevant theory no longer
able to accommodate existing praxis.

But while Marx had criticized the “pure” philosophy
of knowledge-seeking by the Hegelians of the Left,
Bernstein was dealing with a powerful mass movement
organized in a Social Democratic party. The problem
of activism became one of doing, not merely being;
not activism per se but its direction. Anything con-
ducive to the internal strengthening of the party was
considered legitimate by everyone, but what about
those activities which related to and took place in the
context of society at large? The problem had existed
throughout the history of the SPD before the First
World War; the revisionist controversy made it into
a critical test of orthodoxy. One issue was the right
of party intellectuals and journalists to write for the
nonparty, i.e., bourgeois press. The revisionists en-
couraged such cross-fertilization, the radicals con-
demned it; the party executive failed to establish any
clear policy. Another, more crucial matter came to the
surface during the crisis of the French Socialist Party
in 1898, when the first ministerial participation of a
socialist, A. Millerand, in a nonsocialist government
caused much controversy in Germany. The problem
of “ministerialism” was closely related to the issues
raised in the revisionist controversy; both the orthodox
leadership of the German party and the radicals
condemned it as a serious manifestation of revisionism.
Though there was at the time little likelihood of the
same possibility arising in Germany, the relationship
of the French case with the German revisionist crisis
was stressed.

But the most important German problems of partic-
ipatory activism were elections and the role of socialist
deputies in the Reichstag and the provincial legisla-
tures. The 1891 party program had stressed the lowly
expectations of immediate benefits from such activities,
and had regarded them, together with trade union
action, mainly as a means of spreading socialist propa-
ganda and reinforcing the party's ideology. Instru-
mentally they were thus mere “labors of Sisyphus,”
in Rosa Luxemburg's telling phrase. The revisionists,
however, regarded them as fruitful in themselves.
Bernstein stressed that favorable election results and
the activities of SPD deputies were not only an index
of the party's strength but the most immediate and
powerful means for the party to make itself effective
in society here and now. When the SPD suffered a
major setback in the 1907 elections at the hands of
a Liberal-National and Conservative coalition, aimed
specifically at reducing socialist representation,
Kautsky and the Party leadership felt their teleological
optimism about the linear growth of Social Democracy
to be seriously threatened; in order to restore it they
began to pay much greater attention to the instru-
mental aspects of elections, and thus unconsciously
adopted an important aspect of revisionist activism.
The problem of democracy now came openly to the
fore. In electoral matters revisionists and Center
henceforward collaborated against the Radicals, who
continued to stress the purely ideological function of
elections and protested against the party's growing
preoccupation with elections, which they called “par-
liamentary cretinism.”

In one very crucial area of activity the revisionist
superordination of praxis to theory had triumphed
officially. Important secondary consequences followed.
As elections came to preoccupy the SPD increasingly
after 1907, the status and influence of Social Demo-
cratic deputies within the party grew apace. The party
caucus in the Reichstag became the most powerful
organized group within the party leadership; when
World War I broke out, this group swiftly and effec-
tively took control of the party. Significantly this shift
in ideology was given extended theoretical justification
by Kautsky, and signifies and first major convergence
between the orthodox Center and the revisionists.

Revisionist activism thus triumphed over orthodox
abstentionism. In a mass party a social philosophy of
criticism could only be institutionalized meaningfully
in conjunction with a highly determinist theory of
inevitable social collapse. Even so the pressures of
practical activism were proving too strong; ideology
began painfully and slowly to adjust itself to praxis.
Under the traumatic shock of the First World War the
remaining theoretical barriers were irretrievably


breached; henceforth the SPD was to become an
openly reformist party which regarded itself as inte-
grated into society and spent most of its time and
energy trying to persuade society of this. After the war
Kautsky became an irrelevance. For, in becoming a
reformist party, the SPD ceased to be revisionist; there
was no longer any Marxist orthodoxy to defend or to
“revise.” Philosophically and ideologically Bernstein's
revisionism foreshadowed future orthodoxy with all its
eclecticism, its difficulties of identity, its negation of
the party's revolutionary past, above all its commit-
ment to all the instrumental criteria of unbridled
praxis. Yet Bernstein was no prophet. His social opti-
mism proved unjustified, his idealism and ethical em-
phasis irrelevant. Only the implicit critique of absten-
tionism and the underlying stress on the pressures of
activism proved to be accurate, though these were not
his main or manifest concern. Revisionism in the last
resort was a struggle for orthodoxy not for tolerance;
it was the challenge of an alternative ideology articu-
lated in opposition to the existing one that set the tone
of the revisionist controversy. Whatever Bernstein's
intention, the official reaction turned it into a funda-
mental debate about the one correct ideology. The
postwar SPD certainly did not regard Bernstein as its
ideological prophet; as the spokesman of revisionism
he too had become an irrelevance though he lived and
wrote till 1932.

In any case there developed an alternative activist
challenge to the party's determinist abstentionism. The
Left radicals also advocated confrontation with society
but of a revolutionary kind. For some the Russian
revolution of 1905 came to serve as a model; others
regarded the determinism elaborated by Kautsky as
conflicting with the party's activist tradition and liable
to put off the effective transformation of society to
the Greek Calends. These radicals therefore went back
on their initial wholehearted support for the party's
official antirevisionist stance which they now regarded
as conservative rather than revolutionary.

Kautsky characterized the official position and his
own as opposed to two forms of impatience: reformist
impatience which was determined here and now to
act within society, revolutionary impatience which
wanted here and now to act against society. His break-
down theory, preoccupied with the analysis of the
“readiness” of objective conditions (which was the basis
of his determinism), was later used to criticize the
Bolshevik revolution as premature. But he did recog-
nize clearly that in one sense revisionists and radicals
shared a commitment to activism which stood in com-
mon opposition to the waiting policy of the party. And
when this policy seemed in danger of leading to
regression as a result of electoral defeat, the commit
ment to electoral (hence revisionist) activism was
characterized as a buttress to the established theory
of societal breakdown rather than as a major concession
to revisionist ideology. The dangers inherent in this
commitment were later clearly understood by com-
munists, who though always advocating electoral par-
ticipation, were careful to circumscribe its ideological
importance and limit the status and power of its elected
deputies through strict control by the party leadership.