Futures for social democracy: revisionism, past and present.

AuthorFishman, Nina

At a recent Policy Network seminar Giles Radice made the case for the periodic revision of social democratic ideas. Explaining that Anthony Crosland had written The Future of Socialism in 1956 in self-conscious emulation of the German Marxist Eduard Bernstein's writing at the end of the nineteenth century, (1) he argued that such projects were necessary to ensure that social democratic parties took account of new developments and remained capable of governing. Radice cited Tony Blair's success in convincing the Labour Party to delete Clause IV as an exemplary revision. He then suggested that Gordon Brown's assumption of the Labour leadership presented a timely opportunity for a renewal of the revisionist project. However, having outlined the new problems of how best to assert social democratic values in a multi-polar world and globalised economy, he provided few clues as to the directions a neo-revisionist demarche should take.

Original revisionism

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), was the son of a Berlin Jewish railway engine driver, who left secondary school to help support the large family and became a bank clerk. An early social democratic activist and auto-didact, his political flair and intellectual ability were spotted by the SPD leader August Bebel. In 1880, two years after the passage by the Reichstag of the Anti-Socialist Law, Marx and Engels enthusiastically approved Bebel's plan to give Bernstein and Karl Kautsky editorial responsibility for SPD propaganda. Bernstein went into political exile in Switzerland, but moved to London in 1888, and was in close contact with Engels and Marx's family. (Bebel and Bernstein became Engels' joint literary executors.) He found it difficult to assimilate in his new environment, and moved mainly in the cosmopolitan circles of other socialist refugees. But pioneering research into the English Civil War in the British Museum Reading Room and attendance at meetings of the Fabian Society enabled him eventually to form close friendships with British socialists, notably Ramsay MacDonald. Engels complained to Bebel in August 1892, about Bernstein's 'Fabian Schwarmerei [enthusiasm]' (Gay 1983, 55-56). (2)

Even though his life and revisionist convictions were a genuine Anglo-German melange, Bernstein has little resonance for most British socialists. But then, unlike their German colleagues, British social democrats usually ignore and rarely acknowledge the close connections between the two countries' cultures, politics and economies. Bernstein's first revisionist offensive, a series of occasional articles entitled 'Problems of Socialism', began to appear in 1896, two years after Engels' death, in the SPD's weekly broadsheet, Die Neue Zeit, edited by Kautsky. The series continued until 1898, and excited growing controversy in the British Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and throughout the recently founded Second Socialist International. Many socialists considered that Bernstein had abandoned his revolutionary principles, having been corrupted by his British friends and residence in a liberal state.

Bernstein's novelty was his willingness to challenge orthodox interpretations of Marx's analysis of capitalism. He faced the fact that whilst Volume I of Kapital, published in 1867, had made a confident social scientific prediction that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions, Volume III, published posthumously in 1896, presented a wholly different picture. Marx introduced the concept of countervailing forces, capable of shoring up the falling rate of profit and delaying its demise, apparently indefinitely. Most SPD leaders and intellectuals glossed over the difference between the two, being afraid to acknowledge that socialism was no longer inevitable. Bernstein had the political and intellectual courage to think his way through the problem. As he wrote to Bebel in October 1898, 'I have already said that, as a party, German Social Democracy has never allowed itself to be led very far astray by errors in its theory ... But the party's responsibilities increase with its power, and so does the need to be completely clear about where one stands. For this reason, a close examination of the theory is more vital today than ever before' (Tudor and Tudor, 1988, 327-8).

Bernstein's revisionism was debated at the 1898 and 1899 SPD congresses, and both times unequivocally condemned by a majority, comprising delegates of the centre and left. Nevertheless, a significant minority of pragmatists and union leaders supported him, and he himself refused to fall back into the party's theoretical orthodoxy. Fearful that the controversy would split the SPD irrevocably, Bebel planned to expel Bernstein from the party. He was dissuaded by the arguments of the Austrian socialist Victor Adler, that Bernstein 'was one of the best of the party, a man who had brought into the open the doubts which all Socialists often felt' (Gay, 1983, 81, quoting Adler to Bebel, 1 November 1898). But Bebel was determined to bury the ideological controversy. He needed to concentrate on isolating the party left-wing, who were intent on pursuing the escalation of extra-parliamentary class struggle as the only way to achieve socialism. Bebel leant on Kautsky to do an intellectual hatchet-job on Bernstein, and Kautsky complied, even though he continued to privately acknowledge to fellow intellectuals that Bernstein was on the right track.

Bernstein was able to return to Germany in 1901, after Chancellor von Bulow's personal intervention to enable the warrant for his arrest to...

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