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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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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.