Friday 27 April 2018

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (i)

Well, a promise is a promise.

The initial idea behind this series of weekly posts on Eduard Bernstein’s Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus was to consider the book on its own merits; in other words, to write a critical review of the argument embodied in Voraussetzungen, not a denunciation of its author: I have already done that and I have little more to add. Moreover, originally I intended to limit this review to its empirical argument, which his modern admirers find so compelling.

That is still my goal, although, as often happens, the idea seemed much better at the time. Even though I tried my best, I may have overestimated my ability to be impartial or even to keep my cool. The fact is Voraussetzungen is the work of its author, a chip of the old block, so to speak. Trust me, this shall make sense pretty soon.

I certainly overestimated the feasibility of sticking exclusively to the empirical argument, disregarding the rest.

At any event, readers shall be the judges of my success.


It is important, then, before starting, to make clear what is it I will be reviewing.

According to Bernstein’s Preface to Evolutionary Socialism, when Evolutionary appeared in 1909, nine German editions of Voraussetzungen had already been published. In principle, I could tackle Evolutionary itself (i.e. Edith C. Harvey’s 1909 translation of the eighth or seventh edition of Voraussetzungen): the Marxists Internet Archive made it freely available online, therefore it is very convenient for the readers.

I’ll review, instead, The Preconditions of Socialism, Henry Tudor’s translation of the 1899 first edition (published by Cambridge University Press in 1993), which I’ve been referring to in this blog as Preconditions. My decision follows Tudor’s own choice: it was that first edition that sparked the Revisionist Debates. Ted Crawford, the MIA transcriber of Evolutionary, also recommends it.

There are two more reasons to choose Preconditions. One is that it is a more scholarly translation.

The second is an interesting peculiarity of that book. To my surprise, once allowances are made for translation issues, there remain important differences between Preconditions and Evolutionary. Indeed, against my initial expectation, I found those differences instructive: there’s lots of material in Preconditions absent in Evolutionary. Both Tudor (p. xi) and Crawford commented on that. (More on this in the next post)

So, I’ll focus on Preconditions, although, unlike Tudor, I won’t limit myself to it. At times I’ll refer to Evolutionary as well.

To save some typing, “Chapter 1 of Preconditions”, for example, will be shortened to P1 (similarly, with Evolutionary: E1). “Section” will be shortened to §, say §a. Unless otherwise stated, page numbers quoted are from Preconditions: p. x, for instance, means page x from Preconditions, print edition.

(Although when referring to Evolutionary I’ll link to the online MIA version, downloadable PDF files, seemingly out of copyright, can be found here. I don’t recommend the Kindle versions, they are atrocious).


What kind of book Preconditions is? Should one apply to it the same criteria one would apply to an academic work?

Modern fans, like Matt, after deep consideration say authoritatively that book is really very good and very unjustly ignored. Earlier admirers, like Sidney Hook (who wrote the Introduction to Evolutionary), would probably have concurred; he praised its author’s “intellectual courage [which] measured up to his intellectual honesty”. So, the cream of Western intelligentsia has vouched for it and it certainly deals with academic subjects.

On the other hand, Joseph Schumpeter, whom apparently knew Bernstein personally, wrote that he “was an admirable man but he was no profound thinker and especially no theorist”. Tudor describes Preconditions simply as “famous polemic” (p. xi). All of which suggests one should cut it some slack.

As a compromise, I’ll focus on rigorous thinking.

One, after all, doesn’t want to nitpick. The intellectually honest and courageous Western petty bourgeois intelligentsia and Bernstein himself would never resort to excessive punctiliousness, yes?

One, that is, must apply to them Lord Keynes’ dictum:
“[A]n economic writer requires from his reader much goodwill and intelligence and a large measure of co-operation.”

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