University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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


The word “revisionism” carries approximately the
same universal recognition and indefinite meaning as
heresy did in the late Middle Ages. It needs both a
heretic, an excommunicator, a body of ideas whose
interpretation is at issue, and a community of believers
exclusion from which is the penultimate, if not final,
sanction. It is therefore a sociological or political as
much as an intellectual or doctrinal phenomenon.


Hence no final objective definition of revisionism is
really possible; it depends on historical circumstances
as well as the body of ideas or beliefs at issue. In the
present context the meaning of revisionism is best
illustrated by examining the problem separately in its
historical context, its intellectual structure, and finally
in its current form of universalization. The origin of
the particular word revisionism is historically linked
with German Social Democracy before 1914 and this
is where any discussion must start.


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


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.


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.


The literature which deals with, or touches on, revision-
ism in one form or another is immense, and this bibliography
is therefore highly selective.

Bernstein's most important contribution to revisionism is
contained in Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die
Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie
(Stuttgart, 1899; republished
in a much enlarged edition, 1920), and in the version in
book form of his Neue Zeit articles published between 1896
and 1898: Zur Geschichte und Theorie der Sozialismus
(Berlin, 1901). A brief and more popular version of his views
is given in Wie ist wissenschaftlicher Sozialismus moglich?
(Berlin, 1901). For his retrospective apologia and self-
presentation see Entwicklungsgang eines Sozialisten in F.
Meiner, Die Volkswirtschaftslehre der Gegenwart in
Vol. I (Leipzig, 1924). Discussions of
the intellectual and political development of Bernstein, and
his impact on the history of socialism are Peter Gay, The
Dilemma of Democratic Socialism
(New York, 1952), which
includes extracts in English from Bernstein's own writing,
and, more recently and comprehensively, Pierre Angel,
Eduard Bernstein et l'évolution du socialisme allemand
(Paris, 1961). This book, originally a thesis, contains a very
useful bibliography of Bernstein's work, as well as of impor-
tant revisionist, centrist, and radical tests. For revisionism
generally see “The Roots of Revisionism,” Journal of Modern
11 (1939). A discussion of the structural relationship
between revisionist ideas and party praxis is J. P. Nettl,
“The German Social-Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a
Political Model,” Past and Present, 30 (April 1965), 65-95.

Extended historical treatment of the political problem
during and after the revisionist controversy can be found
in Carl E. Schorske's German Social Democracy 1905-1917
(Cambridge, Mass., 1955); more recently in Gerhard A.
Ritter, Die Arbeiterbewegung im Wilhelminischen Reich
(Berlin, 1959). The earlier, introductory period is well
treated in two recent books: Roger Morgan, The German
Social Democrats and the First International 1864-1872

(Cambridge, 1965) for the first years, and Vernon L. Lidtke,
The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany 1878-
(Princeton, 1967) for the second, more radical phase.
Both these monographs are primarily political histories.

For a more sociological approach, see Gunther Roth, The
Social Democrats in Imperial Germany
(Totowa, N.J., 1965).
The intellectual problems of revisionism in the context of
Marxism and the German philosophical tradition are dis-
cussed by George Lichtheim, Marxism: An Historical and
Critical Study
(London, 1961). A recent Soviet analysis
emphasizing the philosophical aspects of revisionism is
B. A. Chagin, Iz istorii bor'by protiv filosofskogo revision-
isma v germanskoi sotsialdemokratii
(Moscow and Leningrad,
1961). This is of course a modern version of the basic
Bolshevik text on revisionism: Lenin's “Imperialism, the
Highest Stage of Capitalism” (1917), in Collected Works
(Moscow, 1960-), Vol. XXII.

As far as the other theoretical protagonists in the
revisionist debate are concerned, see, for Kautsky, Erich
Matthias, “Kautsky und der Kautskyanismus,” Marxismus-
Second Series (Tübingen, 1957), 151-97; Ernesto
Regioneri, “All'origine del marxismo nella II interna-
zionale,” Critica Marxista, 5/6 (1965), 1-127. Kautsky's
own major statement on Bernstein is Karl Kautsky, Bernstein
und das sozialdemokratische Programm
(Stuttgart, 1899). For
Rosa Luxemburg see J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (London,
1966); her major polemic with Bernstein, and the most
thorough critique of revisionism is Sozialreform oder Revo-
in Ossip K. Flechtheim, ed., Politische Schriften
(Frankfurt, 1966). For Parvus see Z. A. B. Zeman and
W. B. Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution (London and
New York, 1965).

An attempt to capture the contemporary universality of
revisionism, and to relate it to its origins, is made in a
collection of rather summary pieces edited by Leopold


Labedz, Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas
(London, 1962). This can be compared to a collective Soviet
compendium on the same theme: Kritika ekonomicheskikh
teorii predshestvennikov sovremennogo revizionizma
cow, 1960).

Finally, anyone interested in contrasting the subtleties
of Marx's own system of ideas with both the intellectual
and applied vulgarizations which resulted in the “orthodox”
Marxism of the turn of the century, should refer to Shlomo
Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx
(Cambridge and New York, 1968).


[See also Historical and Dialectical Materialism; Ideology;
Ideology of Soviet Communism; Marxism; Necessity; Revo-
lution; Socialism.