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Bernstein Notes

History Notes > History of Political Thought c.1890-present Notes

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What did Bernstein mean when he said that he wished 'to raise the worker from the social position of proletarian to that of citizen?
Eduard Bernstein believed himself to be a dedicated follower of the school of Marxism; I will attempt to argue the title demonstrates almost unequivocally that he was not. Tracing the stream of Bernstein's thought is intrinsically hazardous as it evolves throughout his life. During the 1870s and 1880s, while Bernstein was in exile in both Zurich and London, he developed a close personal relationship with Friedrich Engels - the co-founder author of The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx in 1848. Furthermore Bernstein was influential in proliferating Marxist rhetoric throughout Germany as the editor of the socialist periodical Die Neue Zeit. In 1883 Bernstein echoed Engels' formulation of class struggle, historical materialism and the domination of the state by the bourgeoisie; 'Why have a state when statecraft and government of any kind has become unviable?' Remarkably however, by 1896 such a powerful conviction had been transformed. The achievement of 'The Dictatorship of the Proletariat', as Marx put it, was for Bernstein at this time pure utopia and utterly unattainable in reality; social and democratic reform of the existing polity in Germany was the appropriate avenue for improving the well-being of the working class. He declared in the same year; 'No responsible Socialist nowadays paints pictures of the future'. Equality and freedom in society were unlikely to be obtained through communist revolution but rather through what Bernstein termed social democracy. In this sense, although Bernstein wrote relatively few tracts detailing the exact political structure of such a regime, he was in fact a positivist who sought to lift the status of the proletarian to that of citizen rather than negatively destroy the omnipotence of the bourgeois state as he conceived it. The necessity of this action in Bernstein's thought cannot be fully appreciated unless his relationship with, and critique of, orthodox Marxism is explored. Bernstein has been accredited with giving birth to Marxist revisionism. Karl Kautsky, having shared many of Bernstein's criticisms of Marx during the 1880s, vehemently turned on his intellectual compatriot in the years after 1895. He accused Bernstein of betraying Marxism following the death of Engels during the same year. This is however a fallacy. There does in fact exist a subtle strand of unity throughout Bernstein's work. D. W. Morgan suggests that Engels, who outlived Marx by twelve years, began to revise his earlier thesis himself. Although, in 1883, the year of Marx's death, Engels explained his objective was a Freier Volkstaat or free people's state as opposed to the ruling Gewaltstaat or 'contemporary state based on force, by 1895 he had revised such views. Famously Engels admitted, in the 'preface' to the 1895 edition of Marx's The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50, 'we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolts'. Bernstein therefore, in mirroring these sentiments, was not completely annihilating Marxism from within; he believed the opposite in fact. On the other hand, Engels' sympathies shifted in this direction largely because he feared the retribution of the political state and its consequent oppression of Marxism. Bernstein, unlike Engels, believed violence was not essential to the socialist cause. Such distinctions between Bernstein's and Engels' relative standings would ultimately grow into vast chasms in thought, but it would be unfair to label the former a traitor of Marxism. Bernstein's shifting stance, with to regard the future of the proletariat and Marxism in general, is based directly upon the contemporary developments in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century; his stance evolved in tandem with the socio-economic make-up of Germany. In particular the number of votes that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) - the chief political voice of socialism in Germany during the period - received in the Reichstag elections increased dramatically from only 493,00 in 1877 to over 3 million by 1903. Moreover, Bismarck's Socialist Law that had officially prevented the party from serving in the Reichstag during the 1880s was repealed in 1890; in 1891 Bernstein was able to return to his native country from exile. These developments convinced Bernstein that the SPD had an influential role to play within the German Parliament, and thus in governing the German state, in the very near future. Crucial in Marxist thinking is the notion that capitalism, and the liberal political systems that it supports, will invariably collapse as a result of their inherent contradiction and oppression of the majority of society - the proletariat. In Bernstein's eyes however, this simply was not happening as Marx had predicted. Capitalism appeared to be reforming and stabilising itself. The emergence of

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