Friday, 23 March 2018

Dissecting Bernstein: Bernstein and the International.

In the previous posts of this series we've been commenting on a series of claims for the resurrection of Eduard Bernstein as anti-Marx champion for the left.

This is the third such claim. As payment for his selfless efforts to update Marxism, Matt says, poor Bernie was almost/fully “drummed out of the International”.

Is that right?

The short answer:
This one is doubly wrong, which in itself is a record: two howlers within a five-word phrase. Both the what and the where are wrong.

The where: International Working Men’s Association was not a big international party (just to be on the safe side, I probably should add that it wasn’t a shadowy, sinister conspiracy like the mythical Elders of Zion, either). It was founded by working men’s societies (trade unions, clubs, cooperatives, and such) and such societies could join it, leave it or be expelled from it.

During the 1890s there were many “mainstream Marxists” mad at Bernstein (less, however, than you’d imagine). They would have been a whole lot madder if they knew his story in detail, but they didn't. Some of them did demand Bernstein’s expulsion, but not from the International: from the SPD.

(By now, even readers sympathetic to Matt must be starting to see a pattern of sloppiness emerging: Marx = Engels, the International = SPD, dates don’t matter.)

The long answer:
What actually happened and why it happened, however, are more instructive.

Although Tudor listed three of Bernstein’s critics (p. xl-xli), his list included only one SPD member at the time: Karl Kautsky, Bernstein's BF4E since Zürich (rumour has it Wilhelm Liebknecht’s urging eventually forced Kautsky’s hand). There were good reasons for that. Unlike among the SPD rank-and-file, within SPD insider circles Bernstein’s articles and book caused little initial public fuss.

Things were otherwise without the SPD.

The Russian Georgy Plekhanov, who would become a leading Menshevik, was one demanding Bernie’s head. Without going into the “spirit of socialism” thing, which is best left for last, one can advance that Bernstein’s reformism presumed the existence of liberal democracy. The thing is the Russian Empire, unlike Britain or Germany, had no parliament or elections. Serfdom, which in England was abolished in 1574, was only abolished in Russia in 1861. It wasn’t a case that Russian democracy was new or fragile. Nope: Russia had no liberal democracy. The Tsar was an autocrat, much like Louis XVI.

Bernstein’s claims amounted to the need to disband Russian social democracy. In his zeal to get a clean break from the past, he had extended what in Engels’ writings was a tactical principle intended only for Germany and conditional on her at the time admittedly favourable circumstances into a universal strategic principle to be applied everywhere.

Oops! (Keep this is mind until the next post).

(I trust anti-Marxists reading this, who love the word “simplistic”, will appreciate the delicious irony. On second thoughts, this is hell, I probably should abandon all hope.)

That, however, doesn’t explain why SPD bigwigs weren’t quicker to reply.


The chart suggests an answer. Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws (October 1878 - February 1888) hampered the development of German social democracy, but didn’t stop it. The SPD Fraktion’s growth was far from explosive and its legislative influence within a 397-seat parliament marginal, but growing.

When Bernstein started his Problems of Socialism articles in 1896, the Fraktion numbered 44 deputies; after the 1898 elections the corresponding figure was 56. Seating Reichstag deputies (by extension deputies to state legislatures, city councilors, trade unionists, and party apparatchiks and the hopefuls for each of these categories) would have had serious reservations regarding a debate on their role within the broader socialist movement. Such a debate could easily spook more moderate voters and disappoint more radical ones, to say nothing of its inherent divisiveness.

As head of the SPD, Bebel himself had been in parliament almost continuously since 1871. He was not only committed to preserving party unity at almost any cost, but to parliamentarianism (to a degree intermediate between the unconditional anti-parliamentarianism of the De Jungen anarchist extreme left faction and the unconditional parliamentarianism of the petty bourgeois extreme right Vollmar/Bernstein faction. Yes, Matt, such things existed). He may not have been aligned to Bernstein’s stance, but if one seeks the mythical “mainstream Marxist” intransigence of Matt’s nightmares, one should try somewhere else first.

When Bernstein’s series finished in 1897, the 1898 elections (to be held in June) were on the horizon. The timing of Bernstein’s delivery may have been coincidence, but if so, it was a remarkable one.

Still, the subjects he raised required consideration. It’s not for nothing the party leadership decided to leave that to the SPD Stuttgart Conference (from 3 to 8 October 1898).

What happened there? Frankly, I don’t know. There are written records of the proceedings, of course (the so-called Protokolls, in German) but I have no access to them. More importantly, I’m not inclined to access them. Speeches were made, to be sure. The mountain may have moaned and trembled, trees may have fallen uprooted; all that may or not have happened. What we do know with absolute certainty happened is that Bernie wasn’t expelled (which, considering the party leadership’s sensitivity to “boat-rocking”, was a surprisingly good outcome, yes?). The mountain gave birth to a mouse.

Others may have felt differently, I suppose, but I don’t think Bebel or Kautsky would have been overly outraged by that result.

Dear Ede wasn’t marginalised, either. In 1901, upon returning to Germany from exile Bernstein became editor of Vorwärts (Liebknecht croaked in 1900); next year the SPD endorsed him for the incoming federal elections. He won a Reichstag seat, too, and would retain it until 1906 (he would return for the period 1912-1918 and then 1920-1928). If readers remember last post: it was 1880 all over again.

In 1903 again Bernstein rekindled his reformist crusade to reconquer holy land from the infidel: another reformist debate at the SPD Dresden Conference.

That’s a peculiar way of drumming someone out of somewhere, isn’t it Matt?


I’ll guess now how you, Matt, would fit those inconvenient historical facts to your Jesus versus the Pharisees narrative: yes, “mainstream Marxists” were a monolith of dogmatic intransigence, but they -- each and every single one of them -- were too stupid to act accordingly.

Readers who still remember my first post should realise I fulfilled the promise I made then: that’s my guess. For reformists, workers are dumb. Like sheep, they need someone like Matt who’s read “really very good” books “unjustly ignored” to shepherd them, someone to channel the spirit of socialism and tell them when to be happy or unhappy.

It doesn’t take a genius to make that guess and the credit for making it isn’t mine. It’s not just what underlies Matt’s two comments, but reformism itself. This is how Marx and Engels described in 1879 the attitude of the Zürich trio:
“In short, the working class is incapable of emancipating itself by its own efforts. In order to do so it must place itself under the direction of ‘educated and propertied’ bourgeois who alone have ‘the time and the opportunity’ to become conversant with what is good for the workers.”
Think about it. More than fifteen years before Bernstein wrote, Marx and Engels were already discussing and ridiculing and debunking Bernstein’s 1890s “discovery”, supposedly hot from the oven. Almost a century and a half later, we still stumble on the same immortal inanity.

That’s something, isn’t it?

There’s a more parsimonious explanation to those events and to your inability to explain history, Matt. You’ll find it a lot less flattering, though: that monolith of intransigence and stupidity existed in your imagination only.


That’s it for Matt’s Claim #3: Bernstein and the International. The last observations land us squarely into the “spirit of socialism” thingy. Matt’s Spiritism is the subject of the last installment in this series.


  1. I think I can put that more clearly. Bernstein was white anting the party. He was wanted to fix what wasn't broken

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    The way you put it's about right.

    For overseas readers, this is what white-anting means:



    (Australia, colloquial) The action or process of bringing down from within, undermining, sabotage.