University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionIV. 
collapse sectionIV. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionIV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionVII. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionVII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionIII. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionVII. 
collapse sectionVII. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionI. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionIV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionII. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionV. 
collapse sectionIV. 

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.