Friday, 16 March 2018

Dissecting Bernstein: Bernstein in the 1910s.

Last week we examined one of Matt's claims for the resurrection of Eduard Bernstein. Today we'll consider another one. In Matt's gospel, Bernstein had been a Pharisee. He, however, had an epiphany and converted to Reformism. According to Matt, Bernstein heard the words "Eduard, Eduard, why persecutest thou me" as early as the "1910's".

Is Matt right?

The short answer:
It's a good legend, one that Bernstein himself contributed to create. The problem is that all evidence seems to contradict it. Bernstein is not a trustworthy source.

Let's proceed by steps. By now, careful readers -- even if they didn’t read Preconditions -- know that "as early as the 1910's" is another howler: Voraussetzungen was published in 1899. By this measure, you are over 11 years late, Matt.

Like in the literary executor thing, however, there's more beyond that. Unlike in the literary executor thing, Matt's latest brain fart has far deeper consequences.

Nowhere in Preconditions Bernstein mentions it (neither does Tudor), but in September 17-18, 1879 Marx and Engels wrote precisely about Bernstein’s reformism. They were seriously pissed off, too, to the point of threatening to publicly denounce the SPD, then underground. Yup, believe it or not.

By this second measure, you are late by some thirty years, Matt. Yes: 30.

Bernstein's omission is tantamount to a lie. As Engels' literary executor he was responsible for curating the latter's papers. He otherwise quoted them liberally when it suited his purposes, yet, that letter's text was only made public in its German original in 1931 (a "mainstream Marxist" initiative) and in its full English translation in 1984, with MECW vol. 24 (pp. 253-269).

There's more. MECW vol. 45 (published in 1991) shows a paper trail starting at least the previous June. In it both Engels and Marx detail their increasingly harsh opinion of Bernstein. At least August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Nikolai Danielson, Friedrich Adolph Sorge, Johann Philip Becker and … Eduard Bernstein himself had been privy to that.

That material is copyrighted, but here is the partial text of Marx's September 19 letter to Sorge in Hoboken. "The Leipzigers" are August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, among others. "Their Zürich allies" (variously referred to elsewhere as the "Zürich trio" or simply as "Zürichers") are Bernstein, his master Karl Höchberg, and one Karl August Schramm.

The sobering thing is that that lie may not be the most egregious in Bernstein's case.

The longer answer:
The short answer is not satisfactory, though. There’s heaps left out.

First a little background.


In October 1878 the Reichstag passed the Anti-Socialist Law, seizing SPD funds, closing a number of party publications and issuing arrest warrants against a number of militants. SPD deputies in the Reichstag, however, were left largely undisturbed. Indeed, over the law’s 12-year long duration, the SPD parliamentary group (the Fraktion) grew.


To replace now-closed Vorwärts (formerly the flagship of the socialist press) the party decided to launch Der Sozialdemokrat, based in Zürich, with official endorsement. Höchberg, a wealthy publisher, generously came forward to provide the funds and the editorship for the new publication. His team included 28-yo Eduard Bernstein, high-school education, no experience as journalist, and no demonstrated inclination for intellectual work (unlike Karl Kautsky, his close friend from this time, also in Höchberg's team).


It was an anonymous article coming from the Höchberg-Bernstein group that led Marx and Engels to threaten the SPD, as mentioned above. That article’s authorship has been the object of much speculation. Regardless of who its precise authors were one thing is clear: even if Bernstein only played a minor role in its composition (I’m not convinced of this), he knew of it, and at the time never gave any indication of disagreement with its content (or even of the knowledge required to disagree).

The three men met in November 1880, Bebel acting as moderator (it wouldn’t be the last time he had to cover Bernstein’s ass). Despite their 1879 agreement, Bebel now wanted Bernstein as Der Sozialdemokrat editor. To appease Marx and Engels, he and Bernstein had to rush desperately to London (someday I’ll write about the road to the Bebel-Bernstein Road to Canossa, as they called this episode).

How did that meeting go? Marx and Engels voiced their opinions, that much is clear: Bernstein himself described that. Otherwise he was exasperatingly vague.

Bebel’s own account reveals even less of substance. His own attitude about the concerns of Marx and Engels, however, is as cavalier as his understanding of the issues at play is appalling: in a nutshell, the “oldsters” -- Bebel’s description -- were making a storm in a tea cup, because Bernstein’s boss was a fair dinkum top bloke.

At any event, I checked MECW and couldn’t find anything from Marx and Engels about that meeting, which suggests they accepted Bebel’s assurances. Anyway, short of denouncing the SPD, what else could they have done? Both enjoyed a huge moral authority, but Bebel was in charge, not them.

In 1880 Bernstein wasn’t “drummed out” at all, Matt: Bebel got him the job. This was a serious mistake, as we’ll see soon: at best, a grossly unqualified simpleton, at worst a cynical careerist, was put in charge of what was arguably the most important publication of German social democracy. Either way, a loose cannon.

Marx himself wouldn’t live to regret that decision: he died less than 3 years later.

(In itself this episode contrasts with the myth, dear to anti-Marxists, of Marx as Allah and Engels as his Prophet whose every wishes were their faithfuls’ commands).

MECW does contain letters from Engels to Bernstein, though. As a result of that meeting, Engels apparently saw himself as a mentor. For years he followed Bernstein’s journalistic career as closely as circumstances allowed: by mail. In his first letters, addressing himself to “Herr Bernstein”, Engels explained things (the ills of reformism, among them) as a teacher would a student. With time, as the student progressed, the teacher’s trust grew. No longer it was a teacher supervising a student: “Herr Bernstein” became “Dear Ede”.

Until he died, in 1895, it’s apparent that Engels believed Dear Ede was one of them. With reservations, he extended that appraisal to the socialist leadership.

In what concerns Bernstein, Engel's belief would prove ultimately mistaken, but it wasn’t gratuitous. Whatever Dear Ede really thought, he behaved and expressed himself as a “mainstream Marxist”. The youthful no-frills reformist successfully re-branded himself.

That served him well, too. In two years the young bank clerk and part-time rank-and-file militant had become a full-time party employee and internationally-known newspaper editor. Not bad, uh? The best, however, was yet to come. From there, he rose to prominence within the German socialist movement as Engels’ protegé.

His ascension can hardly be explained by his intellectual gifts. His literary output at the time was the standard for a journalist. Characters as different as Bebel and Joseph Schumpeter could assess Bernstein's personality in surprisingly coincident ways: not much of a thinker, but a "lovable" one (in Schumpeter's words!!). His ascension seems more a matter of making friends and being in the right place at the right time. You know, on second thoughts, maybe he wasn’t a simpleton, after all.

Franz Mehring offers a tactful, bare-bones version of that episode. I had to dug out many of the details from a variety of sources (chiefly MECW, vol. 24, 27, 45-50).

The episode that follows is much better covered: Tudor’s account for one, Paul Hampton’s for another.


Fast forward to 1895. Engels was in for a rude awakening: at 74 he was dying of cancer. The newly legalised SPD commissioned him an article, specifying additionally that he should tone down the revolution talk: for the good of the party, they demanded, don't rock the boat. By that time, Bernstein had moved to London, where he networked like crazy with the Fabians. After the closure of Der Sozialdemokrat, he worked as a foreign correspondent for the new Vorwärts (the re-opened official SPD newspaper, no less), edited by Wilhelm Liebknecht, and for Die Neue Zeit, edited by Kautsky.

Engels reluctantly accepted the job. He also expressed in writing both to the party leadership and to close friends his unease about the whole business (he didn't know it and it certainly didn’t help him much then, but in the long run, that was a lucky decision).

The powers that be, however, were in a rush and the oldster was taking too long to die; moreover, they weren’t happy with his forced “moderation” and decided to adulterate his words to make him sound like a born-again reformist, who at last repented from his revolutionary sins. Without even awaiting for his death, they published a bowdlerised version behind his back, going beyond Engels’ forced concessions.

Guess where it was published? In … Liebknecht’s (and Bernstein’s) Vorwärts! (Interestingly, Ignaz Auer, an insubordinate reformist assistant editor who hated Liebknecht’s guts and wasn’t one of Engels’ fans, was infamous for taking liberties with texts).

We’ll never know who redacted Engels’ text and with who's authority he/she acted. Engels thought the buck should stop with Liebknecht, as editor (the letter he supposedly wrote him was never found). Another question impossible to answer is who was more surprised, Engels himself or hundreds of thousands of German socialist militants: decades-old truths allegedly were no longer so. Worse, German social democracy was the model for socialists worldwide.

Engels was aware the harm that would do to the socialist movement the world over, to say nothing of his own personal reputation: he had put that in writing to the party leadership. An old dying man had to fight one last desperate battle against his disciples. Things had changed from fifteen years earlier.

To Karl Kautsky’s credit, an unadultered version of Engels’ toned-down article was finally printed in Die Neue Zeit. By then, however, the harm was done: an article by Engels, no less, disavowing the revolution? The foreign socialist press could not possibly miss that, let alone the enemies of socialism outside the socialist movement.

Why didn’t Engels stick to his and Marx’s 1879 threat and denounce the SPD in public? One could speculate that the balance of power between the two parties had shifted, but we’ll probably never know for sure, so there seems to be little point in the exercise.

Engels died shortly after that. His person was spared the worst of the betrayal, too. Bernstein, however, didn't spare his memory.

Within a few years he came triumphantly out of the reformist closet. Conveniently his road-to-Damascus moment happened when his job was safe.

Again, Bernstein re-branded himself. He had found his anti-Marx champion: the Vorwärts-doctored version of Engels (apparently, even the toned-down Die Neue Zeit version wasn’t good enough). From 1896 on Bernstein published his revisionist articles professing not only his undying love for Engels, Marx and the socialist movement, but feigning an exceedingly unlikely ignorance of the events Hampton (and Tudor) related, chastising -- on top -- “mainstream Marxists” for not following Engels’ “example”. Engels, Bernstein claimed, had not only gradually moved towards reformism, he also knew (and presumably approved) of Bernstein's flip-flop.

I wish I could claim credit for discovering that. But I can't. I learned that from Tudor:
"[E]ven the text thus bowdlerised was capable of interpretations other than the one Bernstein proffered in his letter to the Stuttgart Conference. Rosa Luxemburg, for one, was able to detect its revolutionary intent; and she did not have the benefit of personal acquaintance with its author.
"In fact, Bernstein was well aware that he had put forward a onesided account of Engels's position." (p. xxiii)
Whether he realised it or not, it’s irrelevant: it took him over fifteen years, but Bernstein had his revenge. Once he had to crawl before the two oldsters to get a job. Now he was free to destroy their work, using Engels’ own name for that. Unwittingly, Matt ended up being right on something: “The world had changed in ways Marx had not predicted”.


History is not the morality tale Matt wants us to believe, but if it were, he would be on the wrong side.

Bernstein’s reformism wasn't the result of a positivist comparison of predictions versus facts. You have it backwards, Matt. He didn’t start from a “mainstream Marxist” stance or wait for facts to derive reformism. Much like you, Matt, Bernstein disliked Marxism viscerally, he just needed a rationalisation.

Reformism was older than Marxist socialism. Bernstein’s critique was crafted to justify his preferred conclusion and it would be more accurate to say that he somehow managed to have a 15 or so year-long outwardly Marxist phase (between around 1880 and 1896-97, a year or two after Engels’ death) within a 82 year-long life, where reformism was his default.

He owed his career to that outwardly Marxist phase.


This does it for Claim 2. Claim 3 (the spirit of socialism), and Claim 4 (the International and Bernstein) are next.

Image Credits:
[A] MECW Vol 24. p. 255.
[B] Source: Wikimedia. This image is in the public domain.
[C] Source: Wikimedia. Author: Akl. This work is in the public domain.
[D] "Erstausgabe der Zeitung 'Der Sozialdemokrat' (1879)". Source: Wikimedia. Author: Machahn. This work is in the public domain.

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