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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The history of revisionism since the original contro-
versy is no less than the history of the communist
movement. Yet to ignore subsequent developments is
to treat the original controversy in an abstract and
isolated historical manner. The very meaning of revi-
sionism is much more the product of later emphasis
than of contemporary relevance. A brief reference
must therefore be made to the subsequent history of
the concept.

Already at that time German emphasis on the
importance of the revisionist problem was making
socialists everywhere more conscious of similar prob-
lems at home. The most important consequence was
that revisionism became the basic countersystem of
ideas to the official ideology in the Second Interna-
tional. Moreover, almost every effort at accommo-
dation with existing society was called, and treated,
as a form of revisionism. This linked one party more
closely to others, and greatly helped the process of
ideological simplification.

The few committed theorists of Marxism in the
Second International emphasized the need for philo-
sophical clarity and defended the status of theory
against mindless but still ideological praxis. Plekhanov
exhorted the Germans to take philosophy seriously and
to condemn revisionism with the philosophical rigor
it deserved. He berated Kautsky and the German
leadership for underestimating the importance of the
issue. In a more directly political context, the French
socialist parties used the German revisionist contro-
versy as an important weapon against the strong radical
Republican or democratic element characterized by
the leadership of Jaurès. Antirevisionism was identified
with correct Marxism, and between the “Right” and
the traditional “Left” represented by the old com-
munards, there emerged a rigid, largely abstentionist
echo of the German Center position under the leader-
ship of Jules Guesde. By 1904 German pressure suc-
ceeded in inducing the International Congress at
Amsterdam to condemn the revisionist tendencies in
the French movement; a resolution was carried which
duplicated the German condemnation of their own


revisionists and forced the French party to adopt, at
least in theory, a more rigorous socialist line. This
transfer onto French soil of a German solution to a
basically German problem naturally failed to deal with
the issue. In France, unlike Germany, the struggle for
democracy had been largely won; the problem here
was to defend democracy against reaction on the one
hand, and to envisage its transformation into socialism
on the other by peaceful or by revolutionary means.
The options were therefore more advanced and so-
phisticated, while the German solution merely helped
to obscure them by postulating an arbitrary predemo-
cratic situation in which, as in Germany, democracy
could only be attained through socialism.

In some other cases where the leadership was itself
inclined to reformism—as in Belgium and Austria—the
German experience helped to categorize these parties
among socialists and enabled their internal oppositions
to express their dissent against the leadership on the
grounds of its alleged revisionism. Though it would be
an exaggeration to suggest that the international so-
cialist movement was simply split into revisionists and
orthodox Marxists, the German revisionist controversy
nonetheless forced into the open a more consequent
self-appraisal along German lines. In the parties of
Eastern Europe, like the Russians and the Poles, whose
leadership was largely in exile, the German example
certainly helped to create a quite fundamental division
between revisionists and self-styled revolutionaries.
Conditions differed substantially from those in
Germany, however, and the word “revisionist” pro-
vided a label of abuse and an ideological weapon
against party opponents rather than reflecting any
genuine replication of the German situation. In Russia
and Poland the problem of integration into society
hardly arose; many of those labelled revisionist were
just as committed to revolution as their detractors.
Revisionism thus became merely synonymous with
deviance from some postulated orthodoxy anchored in

This foreshadowed later communist use of the con-
cept. The definition of orthodoxy after 1917 became
far tighter and narrower than it had ever been in the
Second International—which, apart from fundamental
issues, was a permissive and loosely structured associa-
tion of ideas and policies. Hence revisionism became
one of the major means of identifying and condemning
opponents—those who questioned the current form of
orthodoxy. Since this often changed sharply and
frequently, revisionism came to include not only Right
Wing supporters of policies of conciliation, but also
extreme Left Wing positions; under Stalin Right and
Left were lumped together as revisionist because
Stalinist orthodoxy, whatever its current position in the
spectrum of possible policies, always identified itself
as being on the Left. Revisionism, of course, lost all
precise meaning in this process; any attempt to identify
a continuity of ideas among those labelled as revisionist
became a barren exercise in classification. In the
broadest sense, however, the incompatibility between
revisionism and Marxism was always emphasized. “Ei-
ther we destroy revisionism or revisionism will destroy
us; there is no third way” (Moskva, 1 [1958]). In terms
of philosophical explanation of revisionism various
contradictory and often irrelevant classifications were
adduced by Soviet commentators, ranging from
treacherous infusion of liberal ideology to subjective
idealism and excessive activism based on theories of
spontaneity. The current definition, resulting from the
reopening of basic philosophical questions in Eastern
Europe and the application of Marxist Problematik of
postrevolutionary socialist societies, stresses the over-
emphasis on the early Marx—precisely those texts
selected by Marxist critics of the mechanical and
dogmatic Marxism of Stalinism. “The revisionists
turned to the early writings of Marx, selecting from
them isolated pre-Marxist statements borrowed from
the German philosophical schools which were one of
the sources of Marxism” (Soviet Philosophical Encyclo-
I, 415). The direct descent of contemporary
revisionism from its historical ancestor in Germany is
established by suggesting that contemporary revision-
ists, “using the 'theoretical baggage' of their prede-
cessors, changed only some of their dogmas and sup-
plied them with a new phraseology” (Polyanski, in
Kritika ekonomicheskikh teorii [1960], p. 61).

Hence, revisionism today covers both the simple case
of deviation from orthodoxy within the revolutionary
Marxist movement as well as the actual reflection of
the original revisionist position. Since almost all social
democratic parties have long since abandoned any
claim to Marxist revolutionary orthodoxy, the label
revisionist hardly applies to them any longer; the con-
tinuity in regarding revisionism as a form of bourgeois
ideology within the socialist camp has been maintained.
Phenomena of revisionism in communist movements
today are of course legion. They include not only the
application of Marxist critique to current socialist
societies by Marxist intellectuals in both East and West,
but also whole regimes and national movements like
the Yugoslav communist league since 1948, and the
1968 Czech leadership under Dubcek. The transposi-
tion of revolutionary Marxism into an armed struggle
by small groups of all-purpose revolutionaries in Latin
America is also qualified periodically as a form of
revisionism. As the tightly defined orthodoxy centered
on Moscow gave way to pluralist approaches to social-
ism and greater independence was attained by the


communist leadership of different parties in East and
West, so the definition of orthodoxy necessary loosened
somewhat. Nonetheless the borderline drawn round
acceptable versions of Marxist praxis does, if crossed,
still lead to the universal accusation of revisionism.

Most important in this context has been the use of
the concept in the struggle between the Soviet Union
and China for possession of the authoritative definition
of Marxism. Though the origins of this struggle have
little to do with the problems of revisionism in either
its historical or its contemporary definition, the very
fact that fundamental issues of Marxist epistemology
have been raised made the application of the di-
chotomy Marxism-revisionism almost inevitable. In
characterizing the Soviet Union and its policy of
peaceful coexistence as modern revisionism, as an ap-
plication in the international sphere of Bernstein's
policies of societal integration, the Chinese have linked
the present to the past with more than usual attention
to the details of historical analogy. In this regard the
Soviet counter-accusation of Chinese dogmatism, with
its emphasis on the need to apply Marxist analysis and
praxis to the particular circumstances of the present
time instead of a blind acceptance of old revolutionary
attitudes for all time, does carry an echo of the
revisionist response to their orthodox critics at the end
of the nineteenth century.

There is therefore a fundamental continuity in the
history of Marxism which suggests that as long as there
is orthodoxy, there will be revisionism, and as long as
there is revolutionary isolationism there will be pres-
sures for integration and for an effective praxis
measurable in terms of immediate payoffs. The revi-
sionist controversy does therefore provide an objective
historical example of an endemic, continuing problem
for institutionalized revolutionary movements. This
continuity goes well beyond the particular issues raised
by Bernstein. It is based on being rooted in problems
of praxis and not merely in debate about theory.