Thursday, August 12, 2010

Eduard Bernstein, Revisionist

Over the weekend, I read Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism (the original title is Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie-- The Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy). The purpose was to get a better grasp on the debates of the Second International. If you don't already know, Bernstein, who published the book in 1899, is the central figure of revisionism, and is, along with the renegade Kautsky, constantly the target of the scorn and polemics of Lenin and Lukács. 

The reason I picked up Evolutionary Socialism was to find out if all the accusations are true.

And they are.*

Bernstein lists most of the typical objections to Marx's political thought: dismissing its method as Hegelian obfuscation, mistaking 'vulgar' materialism for historical materialism,  claiming its so-called predictions didn't come true, arguing against revolutionary violence without grasping the systemic violence of capitalism, and accusing his more radical opponents of utopianism.

It almost makes me think that Lukács revised "What is Orthodox Marxism?" for History and Class Consciousness with Bernstein's book in front of him.

But most importantly, Bernstein argues that the basis of social struggle was the capture of democracy for socialism. That is, even if democracy's history is that of bourgeois class advantage, it is the premise of socialism: "democracy is a condition of socialism to a much greater degree than is usually assumed, i.e., it is not only the means but also the substance” (page 166).** In large part, the Social Democrats accepted the idea that the means of production, and the democratic regime of rights, would gradually lead to more democratic organizations. But this required presupposing that history was a story of progress (which is why Bernstein-- who took a rather chauvinistic view on these matters-- couldn't grasp the problems of internationalism and colonialism). The problem with progress is that its proponents tended to wait; accelerating the process of social change through revolutionary struggle becomes, for somebody like Bernstein, more pernicious on principle than the systemic violence of capitalism.

The point of Marx, Lenin, Lukács, and Benjamin (just to name those I am reading lately) is that history is not a story of progress, it is a story of social struggle, with both advances and reversals. In addition, the emphasis on the progressive realization of rights ignores that capitalism is not defined by its juridical relations, but by the combined and uneven development of, and conflict between, social forms and capital accumulation.


* It doesn't help Bernstein's intellectual legacy that Sidney Hook, CIA cultural frontman and FBI informant, wrote the Introduction to the 1961 edition published by Schocken.

** 'Democracy as substance'...does this make Hardt and Negri Bernsteins with a 21st century twist?

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