Friday, 30 March 2018

Dissecting Bernstein: the Spirit of Socialism.

Matt never spelt out what the "spirit of socialism" was. That means we are left to discuss nothing. His “argument” is unassailable, because there’s no argument.

Eduard Bernstein was more forthcoming. Although he didn’t use that phrase himself, he defiantly put his attitude towards socialism this way:
“I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism’. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything.” (p. xxviii)
Again he repeated that, almost verbatim, ten years later in the Preface to the English edition (Evolutionary Socialism).

It's going to take some explaining to untangle this mess.

First things first. What is the final goal of socialism? To build a better, more humane, classless society. And because the private property of the means of production is the material foundation of class society, such transformation requires the elimination of private property. (Incidentally, that’s what “mainstream Marxists” mean by “scientific socialism”: to change a game one doesn’t appeal to the goodwill of its players, one changes the rules of the game, the material foundations of society. Appeals to the brotherhood of man while everything else remains the same, as utopian socialists were wont to make, won’t do the trick.)

One doesn’t change society’s game bit by bit: a rule either applies or it doesn’t. That big, discrete change, that mother of all reforms, is called “revolution”.

In our own times all this seems to have been forgotten, but in 1918, some twenty years after Bernstein wrote Preconditions, even Lord Webb (one of Bernstein’s British petty bourgeois Fabian friends) decided to include Clause IV in the Constitution of the UK Labour Party.

Webb wasn’t a revolutionary anymore than Bernstein was. It would have taken much naivete to imagine a poorly argued case -- like Bernstein's was -- would have convinced an impartial readership: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Whatever his intellectual limitations, it's hard to imagine that Bernstein was so naive.

Bernstein was being intentionally provocative; Webb was being smart.

Bernstein was saying openly to “mainstream Marxists” that he didn’t want to change society in any fundamental way. He also claimed (for instance, in the above mentioned Preface):
“I declared then that I regarded the excitement of my comrades over the book as the outcome of a state of nervous irritation created by the deductions the opponents of socialism drew from some of its sentences, and by an overestimation of the importance to socialism of the tenets fought by me.”
I am no psychiatrist, so I’ll abstain from diagnosing schizophrenia. There are other possible explanations:
  1. He was being disingenuous. The fact he lied shamelessly about Engels strongly suggests -- to me, at any rate -- this possibility, but doesn’t prove it conclusively.
  2. He didn’t know what he was talking about, to begin with. His epic blunder on Russia supports this hypothesis: he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the tool-shed. But even if he didn’t know it when he wrote that, the repeated criticism he received should have thought him something and, judging by that preface (written 10 years later), he learned nothing.
  3. Tudor offers a long and somewhat convoluted alternative explanation: he started from different priors. In my opinion, for what it is worth, he gives Bernstein too much credit. I'd stick to Occam's razor.
At any rate, I'll leave readers to decide which explanation does the trick for them.

However one explains that, though, I doubt exceptional courage (as required in the reformist narrative) had much to do with it: a second exceptionally courageous petty bourgeois intellectual, Conrad Schmidt, initiated a more academically-minded series in Vorwärts (Bernstein apparently discovered Kantianism through Schmidt), simultaneously to Bernstein’s articles at Die Neue Zeit. In a short time, exceptionally courageous outside enemies of socialism, too, were showering both men with accolades.

Exceptional courage wasn’t that exceptional back then, it seems. And we are talking only of the better-known literati (soon you’ll see what I mean). Bottom line: there was a surplus of exceptionally courageous men back then: all of them on the anti-Marxist side of the fence.

But Bernstein had, if not outright backers, other more influential well-wishers (as often happened during his career).

Modern readers may find all that surprising, but I suspect his readers at the time (particularly well-placed insiders like Bebel and Liebknecht) would have felt otherwise. Although Vollmar’s name appears only once in Preconditions (p. 158) it would have been difficult for his contemporaries to miss that Bernstein was at least in part attempting to provide a veneer of theoretical respectability to Vollmar’s early 1890s stance

This may require some explaining. Georg Heinrich Ritter (knight) von Vollmar auf Veldheim was one of the SPD right-wing leaders and a major chieftain in largely agrarian Bavaria. By 1894 he and the Bavarian branch of the SPD were one of Engels’ main worries, as reflected by the latter’s correspondence (see for instance Engels’ letters to Sorge, Lafargue, and Liebknecht, November 10, 22 and 24, 1894, respectively, MECW vol 50).

Vollmar was actively refashioning the SPD in his own likeness: as a farmers’ party. Initially, that was predicated on the grounds of solidarity to “your small, debt-ridden Rhenish chap”; soon enough, however, those chaps revealed themselves wealthy farmers who exploited their own rural workers. There’s a reason I gave Vollmar’s lengthy name entire: he was a wealthy landed aristocrat. On top, in 1880 he had been the caretaker editor of Der Sozialdemokrat: his resignation created the vacancy Bernstein would fill. It’s a small world.

A confrontation between the party leadership and the Bavarians seemed unavoidable and by late 1894 Bebel and Vollmar had engaged in a war of words, the former attempting on theoretical grounds to reassert the party’s authority, the latter opposing him on supposedly pragmatic grounds.

Engels was caught in a bad spot. Although he felt compelled to intervene, he was ill. Moreover, if 15 years earlier his and Marx’s intervention was poorly received in the recently exiled party (to the point that an anonymous article furiously slandering Engels appeared in Der Sozialdemokrat, allegedly penned by Ignaz Auer) by 1894 an electorally successful party definitely resented such intervention as a poorly-informed outsider’s meddling into the party’s internal affairs. Worse, Bebel himself wasn’t above that. In their own expert opinion, the students had long surpassed the teachers.

Engels knew that. The third letter referenced (November 24), addressed to Liebknecht, evidences an attempt to tread lightly on other people's susceptibilities, while providing his best advice.

That showdown, however, never happened, even though opportunities presented themselves after 1894 (the 1898 Stuttgart Conference, for example). Things never went beyond words.

Bebel’s own memoirs are the ideal place to search for answers to that mystery. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the second volume of their English translation (if readers know where to get it, by all means).

Engels' letter suggests an explanation: “mainstream Marxists”, like Liebknecht, maybe even Bebel, were placing party unity above all, including principles. Internal conflict should be avoided at all costs, was the unstated official SPD policy. Even the principled ones, it appears, were falling pray to “pragmatism”: the party had replaced the socialist movement as their main concern.

The bottom line is that by 1899 Vollmar and Bernstein learned the wisdom of generations: barking dogs seldom bite. They held the party to ransom.

They weren’t the only ones to notice and feel deep revulsion at that weakness (or restraint, depending on one’s perspective). While the literati focused themselves on abstract mumbo-jumbo to make headlines, the riff-raff took a more practical approach. In France, Georges Sorel re-discovered the anarchistic anti-parliamentarism of Des Jungen: he renamed it revolutionary syndicalism.

But it would be some three years later when a 19 year old Italian migrant worker in Switzerland, with delusions of grandeur and criminally violent proclivities, would find inspiration in that toxic brew formed by Bernstein’s half-baked unconditionally parliamentarian reformism and Sorel’s nihilistic unconditionally anti-parliamentarian revolutionism. Benito Mussolini’s Fascism was born, appropriately in Switzerland, like its fictional analogue, the monster of Frankenstein: Bernstein's anti-Marxist reformism plus Sorel's anti-parliamentarian revolutionism.

As political practice, Nazi/Fascism was the opposite of Marxism, but as political "philosophy" Nazi/Fascism was born from Bernstein's reformist revisionism. You've gotta love the irony.


Bernstein had little to fear when he wrote that he didn’t give a fuck about the revolution. Instead, we had enlightened capitalism. That explains his eager adoption of the bowdlerised Vorwärts version of Engels. His letter to the 1898 Stuttgart Conference boiled down to this: The revolution was impossible because … because … Engels said so! I know, I was his friend and he told me with his dying breath (p. 1).

One doesn't need to be an extremely astute and demanding critic to see that was an argument from authority, with the aggravating circumstance that the authority quoted didn't say what he was being quoted as saying.

When defiance failed to persuade -- surprise! -- Bernstein changed to gas-lighting conciliation (as one sees in the preface, above). Now his problem is compounded: he must explain that away. His critics, he whined, misunderstood him (Me, I can’t see how one could misunderstand that, but that’s me.).

At any event, even his own supporters understood him well enough. Tudor mentioned one Heinrich Peuss, whom “at the Stuttgart Conference, roundly declared: ‘I find the whole concept of a final goal repugnant, for there are no final goals’." (p. xxx)

The big change was repugnant, but Bernstein would still allow for little changes: reforms. By that he understood things like extending the franchise, improvements in Staatssozialismus: things that, come election time, motivate the public to vote. Other than that, the public is no longer needed. Those things certainly could improve workers’ lives, but they just as certainly didn’t threaten capitalism and remained contingent upon capitalists’ will: the rules of the game remain unchanged.


The situation, as presented by Bernstein, seems simple: Revolution? No! Reform? Yes! I can’t find any alternative there. Can readers?

But then in his retort to Plekhanov Bernstein writes:
“[W]hen I reviewed Schulze-Gavernitz's book in Die Neue Zeit eight years ago, I discarded as irrelevant the notion that the final goal and practical reform work are mutually exclusive -without encountering any protest”. (p. 191)
So, there, Bernstein concludes triumphantly, silly Plekhanov misunderstood him: nowhere one finds in Preconditions a dilemma where socialists must choose either reform or revolution, but not both. Of course, now there’s no fucking dilemma (from the Greek, di- ‘twice’ + lemma ‘premise’): he’s just ruled out one of the terms of it!

After Luxemburg and others pointed that out in his articles, Bernstein chose to play fast and loose with the word revolution in his book. Now, he keeps the word, but divested from its “discrete change of the rules of the game” meaning. It’s that kind of childish word games that really pisses me off.

For the record: “mainstream Marxists” do not, and did not disdain those little reforms. What they do disdain was to trade the mother of all reforms, the revolution, for them. “Mainstream Marxists” aren’t as dumb as Esau, nor Bernstein was as clever as Jacob: we do refuse to trade our birthright for a bowl of lentil stew and that is what Bernstein offers us.

The dilemma “Reform or Revolution?” in the title of Luxemburg’s reply to Bernstein refers to the false dichotomy that Bernstein himself dishonestly created, and which she already debunked in the first couple of pages of her pamphlet:
“At first view the title of this work may be found surprising. Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.
“It is in Eduard Bernstein’s theory, presented in his articles on Problems of Socialism, Neue Zeit of 1897-98, and in his book Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie that we find, for the first time, the opposition of the two factors of the labour movement.”
One didn’t need to search far to find that. It’s disappointing that modern socialists don’t even bother themselves to find it.


Enter Bernstein’s own innovations. Liberal democracy, parliamentarism, and elections were here to stay and they rendered class struggle irrelevant. They provided the only way forward for the socialist movement world-wide.

If one believed that, as we’ve seen, then one must conclude that Russian social democracy is done for. That’s evident, isn’t it?

Well, Bernstein’s full argument did the same to social democracy in general.

Luxemburg again:
“But since the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order – the question: ‘Reform or Revolution?’ as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for Social-Democracy the question: ‘To be or not to be?’.”
The revolution is what gives Marxist social democracy a unique title to the workers’ support and loyalty: is its “spirit”. Without its spirit, social democracy has no reason to expect their loyalty: there's nothing to make it different from, say, liberal parties. That should ring a bell to modern socialists, and yet, they seem strangely incapable of understanding that.

Every other party in the political spectrum, from the Nazi/Fascist extreme far right, passing through liberalism (and occasionally even conservatives) can promise “piecemeal reforms”. On the base of “piecemeal reforms” alone there’s no reason to expect workers to adhere faithfully to social democracy: it's not social democracy without the revolution.

I’ll put that another way. If Staatssozialismus is the best workers can aspire to, then they don’t need social democracy. Staatssozialismus wasn’t built by the SPD, it was built by Bismarck, with liberal support. Get it now?

Bernstein was making the liberal argument, nothing more natural than to resign to the SPD and apply for membership in one of the German liberal parties. He never decided to jump ship; the party should have pushed him and his mates. Shame on the SPD.


With this I conclude my comment on Matt’s Claim #4: The Spirit of Socialism (boooo!), of necessity unusually long for my standards. Frankly I’ve had enough of Bernstein. It’s remarkable how much stupidity one can find concentrated in 270 words thrown at random in the comment threads of blogs (to say nothing of how infuriating it is to pay that stupidity the attention it does not deserve).

Quite seamlessly we entered into an examination of Preconditions. Although bored, a promise is a promise: my review shall start within two or three weeks’ time.

In the meantime, as time permits, I might still write about a funny/interesting tidbit or two I discovered while researching for this series.

1 comment:

  1. U always get 2worked up with that. Relax smile ��