Eduard Bernstein was a German social-democratic Marxist theorist and politician. A member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany , Bernstein had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he began to identify what he believed to be errors in Marxist thinking and began to criticize views held by Marxism when he investigated and challenged the Marxist materialist theory of history. He rejected significant parts of Marxist theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics and rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective.
Bernstein distinguished between early and mature Marxism. The former, exemplified by Marx and Engels's 1848 The Communist Manifesto was opposed by Bernstein for what he regarded as its violent Blanquist tendencies. Bernstein embraced the latter, holding that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means through incremental legislative reform in democratic societies.
Early lifeBernstein was born in Schöneberg to Jewish parents who were active in the Reform Temple on the Johannistrasse whose services were performed on Sunday. His father was a locomotive driver. From 1866 to 1878, he was employed in banks as a banker's clerk after leaving school. Bernstein's political career began in 1872, when he joined a socialist party with Marxist tendencies, known formally as the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany, a proponent of the Eisenach, named after a German town, type of German socialism. He soon became known as an activist. Bernstein's party contested two elections against a rival socialist party, the Lassalleans, but in both elections neither party was able to win a significant majority of the left-wing vote. Consequently, Bernstein, together with August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, prepared the Einigungsparteitag with the Lassalleans in Gotha in 1875. Karl Marx's famous Critique of the Gotha Program criticised what he saw as a Lassallean victory over the Eisenachers, whom he favoured. Bernstein later noted that it was Liebknecht, considered by many to be the strongest Marxist advocate within the Eisenacher faction, who proposed the inclusion of many of the ideas that so thoroughly irritated Marx.
In the 1877 elections, the German Social Democratic Party gained 493,000 votes. However, two assassination attempts on Kaiser Wilhelm I the next year provided Chancellor Otto von Bismarck a pretext to introduce a law banning all socialist organisations, assemblies and publications. There had been no Social Democratic involvement in either assassination attempt, but the popular reaction against "enemies of the Reich" induced a compliant Reichstag to approve Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws.
Bismarck's strict anti-socialist legislation was passed on 12 October 1878. For nearly all practical purposes, the SPD was outlawed and throughout Germany, it was actively suppressed. However, it was still possible for Social Democrats to campaign as individuals for election to the Reichstag, which they did, despite the severe persecution subjected to the party, and actually increased its electoral success, gaining 550,000 votes in 1884 and 763,000 in 1887.
ExileThe vehemence of Bernstein's opposition to the government of Bismarck made it desirable for him to leave Germany. Shortly before the Anti-Socialist Laws came into effect, Bernstein went into exile in Zurich, accepting a position as private secretary for the social-democratic patron Karl Höchberg, a wealthy supporter of social democracy. A warrant subsequently issued for his arrest ruled out any possibility for him to return to Germany, and he was to remain in exile for more than 20 years. In 1888, Bismarck convinced the Swiss government to expel a number of important members of German social democracy and so Bernstein relocated to London, where he associated with Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky. It was soon after his arrival in Switzerland that he began to think of himself as a Marxist. In 1880, he accompanied Bebel to London to clear up a misunderstanding concerning his involvement with an article published by Höchberg that was denounced by Marx and Engels as being "chock-full of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideas". The visit was a success, and particularly, Engels in particular was impressed by Bernstein's zeal and ideas.
Back in Zurich, Bernstein became increasingly active in working for Der Sozialdemokrat and later succeeded Georg von Vollmar as the paper's editor, which he was for 10 years. It was during those years between 1880 and 1890 that Bernstein established his reputation as a major party theoretician and a Marxist of impeccable orthodoxy. He was helped in that by the close personal and professional relationship he established with Engels. The relationship owed much to the fact that he shared Engels's strategic vision and accepted most of the particular policies that Engels believed the ideas to entail. In 1887, the German government persuaded the Swiss authorities to ban Der Sozialdemokrat. Bernstein moved to London, where he resumed publication from premises in Kentish Town. His relationship with Engels soon developed into friendship. He also communicated with various English socialist organizations, notably the Fabian Society and Henry Mayers Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation. In later years, his opponents routinely claimed that his "revisionism" was caused by seeing the world "through English spectacles". However, Bernstein denied the charges.
In 1895, Engels was deeply distressed when he discovered that his introduction to a new edition of The Class Struggles in France, written by Marx in 1850, had been edited by Bernstein and Kautsky in a manner that left the impression that he had become a proponent of a peaceful road to socialism. On 1 April 1895, four months before his death, Engels wrote to Kautsky:
I was amazed to see today in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my 'Introduction' that had been printed without my knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent of legality quand même. Which is all the more reason why I should like it to appear in its entirety in the Neue Zeit in order that this disgraceful impression may be erased. I shall leave Liebknecht in no doubt as to what I think about it and the same applies to those who, irrespective of who they may be, gave him this opportunity of perverting my views and, what's more, without so much as a word to me about it.
In 1891, Bernstein was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program and from 1896 to 1898, he published a series of articles entitled Probleme des Sozialismus that resulted in the revisionism debate in the SPD. He also published the book Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie in 1899. The book was in great contrast to the positions of Bebel, Kautsky and Liebknecht. Rosa Luxemburg's 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? was also a polemic against Bernstein's position. In 1900, Berstein published Zur Geschichte und Theorie des Sozialismus.
Return to GermanyIn 1901, Bernstein returned to Germany after the end of the ban that had kept him from entering the country. He became an editor of the newspaper Vorwärts that year and a member of the Reichstag from 1902 to 1918. He voted against the armament tabling in 1913, together with the SPD fraction's left wing. Although he voted for war credits in August 1914, he opposed World War I from July 1915 and, in 1917, was among the founders of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, which united antiwar socialists, including reformists like Bernstein, centrists like Kautsky and revolutionary socialists like Karl Liebknecht. He was a member of the USDP until 1919, when he rejoined the SPD. From 1920 to 1928, Bernstein was again a member of the Reichstag. He retired from political life in 1928.
Death and legacyBernstein died on 18 December 1932 in Berlin. A commemorative plaque is placed in his memory at Bozener Straße 18, Berlin-Schöneberg, where he lived from 1918 until his death. His grave in the Eisackstrasse Cemetery became a grave of honour in Berlin.
Opposition to violent revolutionDie Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus was Bernstein's most significant work. Bernstein was principally concerned with refuting Karl Marx's predictions about the imminent and inevitable demise of capitalism and Marx's consequent laissez-faire policy which opposed ameliorative social interventions before the demise. Bernstein indicated simple facts, which he considered to be evidence that Marx's predictions were not being borne out while he noted that while the centralisation of capitalist industry was significant, it was not becoming wholescale and that the ownership of capital was becoming more and not less diffuse. Bernstein's analysis of agriculture, according to which Bernstein believed that land ownership was becoming less concentrated, was largely based on the work of Eduard David and was in its marshalling of facts impressive enough that even his Orthodox Marxist opponent Karl Kautsky acknowledged its value.
As to Marx's belief in the disappearance of the middleman, Bernstein declared that the entrepreneur class was being steadily recruited from the proletariat class and so all compromise measures, such as the state regulation of the hours of labour and provisions for old-age pensions should be encouraged. For that reason, Bernstein urged the labouring classes to take an active interest in politics. Bernstein also indicated what he considered to be some of the flaws in Marx's labour theory of value.
Looking especially at the rapid growth in Germany, Bernstein argued that middle-sized firms would flourish, the size and power of the middle class would grow and that capitalism would successfully adjust and not collapse. He warned that a violent proletarian revolution, as in France in 1848, produced only reactionary successes, which undermined workers' interests. Therefore, he rejected revolution and instead insisted the best strategy to be patiently building up a durable social movement working for continuous nonviolent incremental change.
In his work, The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy, Manfred Steger touches on Bernstein's desire for socialism through peaceful means and incremental legislation. Some say that is Marxism in its mature form after the revisionists said claimed many of Marx's theories to be wrong and came up with theories of their own, including socialism coming through democratic means.
Bernstein's moderation under attackBernstein was vilified by the orthodox Marxists as well as the more radical current led by Rosa Luxemburg for his revisionism. Nonetheless, Bernstein remained very much a socialist, albeit an unorthodox one as he believed that socialism would be achieved by capitalism, not by capitalism's destruction. During the intra-party debates about his ideas, Bernstein explained that for him the final goal of socialism was nothing; progress toward that goal was everything.
Luxemburg argued that socialism has its end in social revolution and revisionism "amounts in practice to the advice that we abandon the social revolution—the goal of Social Democracy—and turn social reform from a means of the class struggle into its final aim". She says revisionism has lost sight of scientific socialism and reverted to idealism and therefore lost its predictive force. Since reformists underestimate the anarchy of capitalism and say it has adaptability and viability, by which they mean that the contradictions of capitalism would not of historical necessity drive it to its doom, Luxemburg said they would abandon the objective necessity for socialism and give up all hope for a socialist future. The movement would collapse unless revisionism is repudiated. Trade unionists, who could see the successes of capitalism and the improvement of working conditions and who wanted to improve working conditions through parliament, generally followed Bernstein while those who were more orthodox hardliners generally followed Luxemburg.
Bernstein considered protectionism as helping only a selective few, being fortschrittsfeindlich for its negative effects on the masses. He argued Germany's protectionism was based only on political expediency, isolating Germany from the world, creating an autarky that would result only in conflict between Germany and the rest of the world. Bernstein wanted to end Germany's protectionism and argued that tariffs did not increase grain production, did not counter British competition, did not increase farm profits and did not promote improvements in farming. Instead, it inflated rents, interest rates and prices, hurting everyone involved. In contrast, he argued that free trade led to peace, democracy, prosperity and the highest material and moral well-being of all humanity.
Bernstein rejected reactionary bourgeois nationalism and called instead for a cosmopolitan-libertarian nationalism. He recognized the historical role of the national factor and said that the proletariat must support their country against external dangers. He called on workers to assimilate themselves within nation-states, which entailed support for colonial policies and imperial projects. Bernstein was sympathetic to the idea of imperial expansions as a positive and civilizing mission, which resulted in a bitter series of polemics with the anti-imperialist Ernest Belfort Bax. Bernstein supported colonialism as it uplifted backward peoples and it worked well for both Britain and Germany. Bernstein supported such policies in an intensely racialised manner, arguing in 1896 that "races who are hostile to or incapable of civilisation cannot claim our sympathy when they revolt against civilisation" and that the "savages be subjugated and made to conform to the rules of higher civilisation". However, he was disturbed by the Kaiser's reckless policies. He wanted strong friendship especially with Britain and France and protection against the Russian threat to Germany. He envisioned a sort of league of nations.
ZionismBernstein's views on Jewish matters evolved. He never identified as a Zionist, but after initially favouring a wholly assimilationist solution to "the Jewish Question", his attitude toward Zionism became considerably more sympathetic after World War I. Bernstein is also noted for being "one of the first socialists to deal sympathetically with the issue of homosexuality".
- Eleanor Marx Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893.
- The Preconditions of Socialism. . Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Edith C. Harvey, trans. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1909.
- Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution. H.J. Stenning, trans. London: Allen and Unwin, 1930.
- , trans. Bernard Miall, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1921.
- Selected Writings of Eduard Bernstein, 1900–1921. Prometheus Books, 1996.
- Marius S. Ostrowski, . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
- Marius S. Ostrowski, . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
- Tudor, Henry Tudor and J. M. Tudor, eds. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896–1898. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.