The "revisionism" debate of 1898-9

Submitted by martin on 28 July, 2019 - 10:41 Author: Martin Thomas
Kautsky's reply to Bernstein

The "revisionism controversy" in the German socialist movement in 1898-9 is often described, with hindsight, as showing that the movement was already rotten. It is held that such central figures in the movement as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky opposed Eduard Bernstein's revisionism only half-heartedly, and really had gone most of the way to accepting Bernstein's gradualist approach.

The conclusion, often, is that there is not much to learn from the writings of the movement from that era, after Marx and Engels and up to 1914, except perhaps for some texts by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky. That conclusion cuts us off from a whole continent of Marxist culture and debate, and leaves us to see Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky as only comets sweeping through a dark sky, not as citizens of that continent.

In 1938, when Kautsky died, Trotsky wrote: "We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal... There was a time when Kautsky was in the true sense of the word the teacher who instructed the international proletarian vanguard... Kautsky undoubtedly leaves behind numerous works of value in the field of Marxian theory, which he applied successfully in the most variegated domains. His analytical thought was distinguished by an exceptional force..."

Kautsky's 1899 reply to Bernstein is much less known than Rosa Luxemburg's, and has never been translated into English. Yet it is valuable, and indeed on some issues, such as the supposed "collapse of capitalism", in my view better than Luxemburg's.

Kautsky and Bernstein were not in 1898-9 as the image of them transmitted down the decades would have them: Kautsky the stodgy "Pope of Marxism"; Bernstein the cynosure of increasingly snotty and short-sighted self-acclaimed intellectuals and trade-union functionaries who corroded the labour movement with acid scepticism.

Bernstein was 49, Kautsky 45. They had both come into the socialist movement in their early 20s, Bernstein in 1872, Kautsky in 1875. To understand the events of 1898-9, we also have to understand the history, both of the SPD and of Bernstein and Kautsky personally.

Socialism had existed as a doctrine, or cluster of doctrines, systematically pursued by a variety of activist groups, since the early 19th century. Until the early 1860s the groups were mostly sects, each cherishing its own revelation - the most influential being the Owenites in England and the Proudhonists in France - and only tenuously linked to the broader labour movement.

That broader labour movement itself was weak. The main centre of trade unionism was Britain, and the British trade unions were mostly small organisations of skilled workers, charging high membership fees, active as welfare systems as much as in struggle against the bosses, and tepid or Liberal in politics.

With the First International, in 1864-72, a sizeable socialist labour movement, integrating socialist ideas with day-to-day worker organising, emerged in Europe for the first time. It collapsed after the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. Big socialist labour movements re-emerged, and on a more stable basis, in the 1880s.

The German socialist movement had been weak in the First International, partly for reasons of legal restrictions on its involvement, partly from lack of political coherence, and partly because of the still weak and scattered character of the German industrial working class. That working class grew fast in the following decades.

Ferdinand Lassalle, a revolutionary from 1848 and a frequent correspondent of Marx and Engels though by no means guided or endorsed by them, founded the ADAV (General German Workers' Association) in 1863. The ADAV was built around Lassalle as leader. After his death in August 1864 it survived, but floundered. Wilhelm Liebknecht, another 1848 revolutionary who had been an associate of Marx and Engels as a political exile in London between 1850 and 1862, founded the rival SDAP, the "Eisenachers", with August Bebel in 1869.

Bebel and Liebknecht won fame and credit by refusing to vote in the Reichstag for war credits for the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and then being jailed for "treason". The Lassalleans supported the Prussian war credits. Later they sobered up, opposed the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, and backed the Paris Commune.

In 1875 the SDAP and the ADAV united to form the SPD. Marx and Engels saw the merger program, the Gotha Program, as too Lassallean. In fact Liebknecht, Bebel, and their close comrades were able to dominate the merged party politically, although ADAV was still bigger than the SDAP at the time of merger (16,500 members vs 9,000).

The chief post-Lassalle Lassallean leader, Schweitzer, had lost his leading position in ADAV in 1871. Of his main successors, Hasselman deliberately positioned himself as a maverick and oppositionist in the merged party, and Hasenclever cooperated with Liebknecht and soon moved away from the SPD centre, which was then in Leipzig.

But this was not a "Marxist party". Marx was well-known as having being a leader of one wing of the First International. The Communist Manifesto had had several new editions and translations in the years of the First International. Marx's pamphlet on the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France, was well-known. Capital volume 1 was in print for the theoretically-minded (in German, 1867; in French, 1872; in English, not until 1883).

But no-one was "a Marxist". Marx's famous quip, "myself, I am not a Marxist" (reported by Engels in a letter to Bernstein, 2 November 1882) was a sigh of exasperation at the political mis-steps of the people in the leadership of the French Workers' Party personally linked to him, notably his daughter Laura Marx and her husband Paul Lafargue. They were being denigrated by others, politically worse, such as Paul Brousse, a former anarchist turning reformist, as being a clique secretly directed by Marx.

Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel could not really see what Marx and Engels were so bothered about in their now-famous 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. When Kautsky, on Engels's prompting, eventually published the Critique in 1891, the issue of the SPD magazine Neue Zeit containing the critique got out only because the (SPD) publisher's order to stop distribution didn't arrive in time. Liebknecht held a grudge against Kautsky for many years after.

In 1893 Bernstein would publish an excellent dissection of Lassallean politics, Ferdinand Lassalle as a Social Reformer. Marx and Engels respected Bebel's judgement more than they did Wilhelm Liebknecht's, but even Bebel, even looking back in ceremonial mode decades later, saw the dispute over the Gotha Program in these terms: "It will be seen that it was not an easy matter to satisfy the two old gentlemen in London [Marx and Engels]. What was really a clever tactical move on our part and the result of prudent calculation they regarded as mere weakness".

The SPD became "Marxist" through a laborious process, in which Bernstein played a big part.

Even though the "Lassallean" divagations in the 1875 merger had proved less grievous than they might have been, the newly united SPD immediately launched into another intellectual folly, further exasperating Marx and Engels. It not only defended Eugen Dühring, a professor at the University of Berlin and author of his very own socialist system, against attempts by conservatives at the university to get him sacked; it lauded Dühring's writings. Even the level-headed Bebel thought Dühring's theoretical failings secondary to the great fact that a university professor, no less, had come out for radical anti-capitalism of a sort. (It was pretty much unknown for any sort of "socialist", other than very conformist advocates of social reform by the existing government, to have a university post. Later the government would pass a special law banning SPD people from academic posts).

Wilhelm Liebknecht became alarmed at the Dühring fad. That required no great acumen. Dühring was exuberant in his disdain for Marx and for what he called the "Jewish" Social Democracy. Liebknecht persuaded Engels to write a critique. Engels's text caused some uproar. At the SPD congress in May 1877 there was an attempt to stop the serialised publication of it in the SPD paper Vortwärts, circumvented only by finesse. But eventually it was published as a book, Anti-Dühring, in July 1878. A (much) abridged version, with some of the positive arguments but none of the detail about Dühring, was produced in 1880 under the title Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, and became the foremost textbook of the movement.

That was where Bernstein and Kautsky, and indeed Marxism as an "ism", came in.

Bernstein, son of a railway engineer, had left school at 16 to become a bank clerk. After joining the SDAP in 1872 he quickly became a leading activist in Berlin. Although Jewish, he reckoned himself a disciple of Dühring.

Anti-Dühring turned him round intellectually and, on Bernstein's own later account, "made him a Marxist". Maybe not just "a Marxist". For the next couple of decades Bernstein would be "the Marxist": the main person whom Marx and Engels trusted as having understood the theory and being competent to translate it into day-to-day journalism and politics.

In late 1878 Bernstein took what must have seemed a big improvement on the bank clerk job. Karl Hochberg, a wealthy Social-Democrat sympathiser living in Zürich, offered Bernstein a job as his personal secretary. Soon after that, the German government passed an "Anti-Socialist" law, making most of the activity of the SPD illegal (its press had to circulate "underground", but its members could and did still run as election candidates).

Bernstein was thrown into the middle of a row about arranging for an SPD paper to be published somewhere abroad from where it could be smuggled into Germany. Hochberg weighed in with a declaration advocating a softer, less militant, less "one-sidedly" working-class policy for the SPD. Marx and Engels responded with an indignant broadside. Bernstein and others came to London to discuss. When the dust settled, Bernstein was first a deputy to Georg von Vollmar (then an SPD left-winger, though later he would shift to the right of the SPD), and then the editor, on the SPD exile paper Der Sozialdemokrat.

Marx and Engels - especially Engels, for Marx died in 1883 - thought highly of Bernstein. Their correspondence is full of the most withering comments on almost everyone else, but appreciative of Bernstein. Engels would eventually appoint Bernstein to be his literary executor. (Engels died in 1895).

In the 1880s Kautsky was a less central figure. He had been a socialist in Vienna since 1875. He came from a slightly better-off middle-class family than Bernstein. His mother was a socialistic fiction writer, known to Marx and Engels as such before they heard of Kautsky. Despite a poor academic record in school, Kautsky attended university for nine semesters from 1875. He never graduated. Engels saw Kautsky's university education as a handicap, a source of things to unlearn, by comparison with Bernstein's self-education within the movement.

From the start, Kautsky saw himself as a writer. He did less than Bernstein of the sort of detailed socialist legwork which Bernstein had done in his early years. Many of Kautsky's first articles were published in the German socialist press rather than the scantier Austrian socialist press. They drew comment from Marx and Engels, even before they knew who stood behind the pen-names, as egregious examples of the flooding of the German socialist press by half-baked ramblings from half-educated know-it-alls.

Anti-Dühring was decisive for Kautsky too. In 1880 he too was invited by Hochberg to Zürich, with a promise he would be paid to write. Kautsky met Bernstein and studied Anti-Dühring under Bernstein's guidance. Kautsky became a Marxist. The two became friends.

It seems that each was the other's best friend until the "revisionism" debate sundered them. When Kautsky started divorce proceedings against his first wife, Luise Strasser, in 1888, Bernstein was the only one of his friends who stood by him. Engels strongly believed Strasser had been ill-treated by Kautsky, and took her in as his housekeeper.

Bernstein and Kautsky would renew their friendship as old men, in late 1914 and early 1915, when they both, though rejecting Karl Liebknecht's revolutionary opposition to the war, came to advocate abstention on war credits, in opposition to the SPD leadership's full support for Germany's war. They would be expelled from the SPD together in 1916, be members of the more left-wing USPD together, and then go back to the SPD, Bernstein earlier than Kautsky. But between late 1898 and 1914, their friendship was broken, each seeing the other as politically distant.

Kautsky in the late 1870s and the 1880s was not the solemn socialist professor of his later image. While Bernstein was quiet, affable, even-tempered, Kautsky was brash and exuberant, a devotee of acrobatics and dancing. Marx met Kautsky once, and commented tetchily that he was glad that Engels would be able to deal with him because Kautsky was "a very talented drinker". Marx described Kautsky as "super-wise" and "very conceited".

Both Marx and Engels, however, recognised that Kautsky was "industrious". Under Bernstein's guidance, Kautsky educated himself, and learned to take more care about what he wrote. Kautsky wrote a still-valuable summary of The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx; Bernstein dealt with thornier politics, with for example his critique of Lassalle. Bernstein edited Der Sozialdemokrat; Kautsky helped.

In 1890 the Anti-Socialist Law was repealed. The SPD press returned to Germany. Kautsky (not a German citizen) had in fact returned a little earlier. Against Bernstein, however, there stood not only the Anti-Socialist Law but also a specific warrant for his arrest. Until 1901, when the warrant was rescinded, he remained in London, now isolated from SPD life. He continued to write for the SPD press, and in fact lived off the payment he got for that, but he was no longer an editor, and he could not take part in party committees or congresses other than by sending written statements. The debate in the SPD about his "revisionism" took place in his absence.

Bernstein wrote a long series of articles on "Problems of Socialism" in 1896-7 for Die Neue Zeit, the SPD theoretical magazine, edited by Kautsky. All rather dull. No-one took much notice.

Then, in the course of an irritated response on another issue to a maverick English socialist, Ernest Belfort Bax, Bernstein declared (19 January 1898) that "the final goal of socialism... whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything".

The other issue was Armenia. Armenian nationalists had attempted terrorist reprisals against the Ottoman Empire after Ottoman massacres in 1895-6. Bernstein backed the Armenians. In doing so, he felt it necessary to adduce that the Armenians were a civilised and advanced people, combatting a medievalist empire.

Rosa Luxemburg had the same attitude as Bernstein, without the patter about the Armenians being "civilised". Wilhelm Liebknecht, editing Vorwärts, argued that the conservation of the Ottoman Empire would be better than its break-up into sections dominated by the bigger powers. Bax proposed an "extreme" version of Liebknecht's argument: the progress of capitalist civilisation into less-developed countries would prolong the life of capitalism and postpone its collapse. Socialists should support the conservation of the Ottoman Empire (until the soon-coming collapse of capitalism) precisely because it was "medievalist".

Bernstein's attitude here foreshadowed later arguments (especially in 1907) in which he would say that European colonialism, though in fact brutal, could with some Social-Democratic pressure be made a factor for progress. Kautsky would respond angrily and effectively then, and Bernstein his co-thinkers retreated.

This Bax-Bernstein debate, however, caused a storm not so much because of the Armenia issue, which passed, but because of Bernstein's tangential, and now famous, remark about the "final aim" and the "movement".

Protests exploded. Bernstein responded, in the SPD paper Vorwärts, 7 February 1898, that he had been misunderstood. He meant only to deprecate puffed-up blueprint-mongering.

The further debate would show, bit by bit, that Bernstein's early critics really hadn't misunderstood him. Whether through his ideas changing over the months, or through him being forced to declare clearly what he half-thought from the start, Bernstein came out for a socialism which amounted, as Rosa Luxemburg would put it, to "proposing to change the sea of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness by progressively pouring into it bottles of social-reformist lemonade" (more trade-union influence in the workplace, more consumer cooperatives, more Social-Democratic influence in Parliament, etc.)

The gist of Bernstein's "revisionist" doctrine, as it would come to be fully developed, can be stated shortly.

Capitalism had been made to adapt by growing Social Democratic activity, and could gradually and unlimitedly be made to adapt more and more. Social Democracy was distracted from this truth by the idea that there would soon be a breakdown of capitalism and a revolutionary crisis. It had that idea because of the influence of errors by Marx and Engels which Marx and Engels had never quite been able to shake off.

Error one: a rigidly materialist conception of history, which foresaw society moving along iron rails and allowed too little play to "ethical" factors.

Error two: a dialectic inherited from Hegel which licensed the erection of arbitrary perspectives of cataclysm.

Error three (though this element was not so closely tied to the conclusion); a "one-sided" labour theory of value where some middle way would be better, between the labour theory of value and the "marginal utility" theory which had become dominant in mainstream economics since the 1870s (and remains so).

The gist can be stated shortly. Bernstein did not state it shortly. The full picture came out only in the polemic, and amidst long qualifications, reservations, and digressions.

Bebel and Kautsky, who worked together closely in the whole "revisionism" dispute, were already puzzled and perturbed about other texts from Bernstein. Curiously distanced and even-handed articles by Bernstein on engineering strikes in England (NZ 28 Dec 1897 and 19 Jan 1898) had made Bebel write to Kautsky (15 Feb 1898) that those articles were "disgraceful... What would Engels say if he saw now how Ede [Bernstein] is undermining everything that he himself once helped to build up... The most appalling opportunism is spreading among us like wildfire".

Meantime, other writers in the SPD had started looking more closely at the "Problems of Socialism" articles which they had maybe previously skimmed or dozed over. In January and February 1898 Franz Mehring wrote a polemic in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, and Alexander Parvus a much longer and more furious one in the Sächsische Volkszeitung. Parvus focused on Bernstein's arguments about decreasing class polarisation, relative increase of a middle class and small businesses, etc.

Born and brought up in the Tsarist empire, and best known to history as a co-worker of Trotsky's in the early development of the theory of permanent revolution, Parvus had just become editor of the SVZ, one of the SPD's vast array of provincial newspapers. On all accounts his assault on Bernstein, or at least its manner and length, was motivated in part by a desire to spice up the often dull newspaper and make his name as an editor.

George Plekhanov, the leading theoretician of Russian Marxism, living in exile in Switzerland, and a frequent contributor to Neue Zeit, followed in July 1898 with a blast against Bernstein on the philosophical questions.

Meantime, Kautsky was perplexed. He did not dissent from Bebel's censure of Bernstein. When the Austrian Social-Democratic leader Victor Adler wrote to him (4 Apr 1898) saying that he, Adler, had "heard from Luise [Ronsperger - Kautsky's second wife] that you see Ede's attitudes almost as a betrayal", and remonstrating that Bernstein's errors were not as bad as that, Kautsky replied mildly but clearly that yes, indeed, they were bad.

However, Kautsky was also getting letters from Karl Marx's younger daughter Eleanor Marx, a personal friend of his and, since the death of Engels, the person in England (and thus in direct contact with Bernstein) whom he trusted most politically. Eleanor Marx wrote to Kautsky that Bernstein was in a condition of personal semi-collapse, "terribly irritable", saturated with "unhappy pessimism". (He talked of quitting politics, emigrating to South Africa, and becoming a bank clerk again). She appealed to Kautsky: "You alone can make Ede our Ede again".

And then Eleanor Marx, in a personal crisis, killed herself (31 March 1898). The shocked Kautsky tried to find ways to act on Eleanor Marx's last message. He suggested to Bernstein that he move to Switzerland and take over the editorship of Neue Zeit for six months to reintegrate him into SPD life and discussions. Bernstein refused.

Meanwhile, in May 1898, Rosa Luxemburg moved from Switzerland, where she had been a student, and quickly became friendly with Kautsky. She started work on her now-famous critique of Bernstein. Her concern was not that no-one else would criticise Bernstein sharply, but that some other writer would gazump her. She hoped that a good all-round critique of Bernstein would establish her as a well-known and respected figure in the SPD (as in fact it did). On that count (so she wrote to her friend Leo Jogiches in July 1898), "all our work will be for nothing, if someone else gets in first". Her critique was serialised in the Leipziger Volkszeitung from 21 September 1898.

The Stuttgart SPD congress of 3-8 October 1898 would be the first of a number to discuss "revisionism". At Stuttgart, the issue came up under the agenda item: party press.

Clara Zetkin opened the debate, conceding that Bernstein deserved "credit for having touched on a series of problems which needed thorough scientific investigation", but denouncing his conclusions as showing that he had "lost touch with party life". She criticised Neue Zeit for responding inadequately.

Parvus and Luxemburg spoke, Parvus also criticising NZ. A right-winger semi-defended Bernstein by criticising Parvus and Luxemburg for being over-sharp.

Kautsky then spoke at some length, to respond to the criticisms of NZ. He unequivocally rejected Bernstein's "view that, from now on, development can take place peacefully - not indeed without conflict, but without major catastrophes". Kautsky's political exposition was praised later in the debate by Zetkin and by Wilhelm Liebknecht.

At first - so the minutes suggest - Kautsky was nervous in the debate. He could not, in the circumstances, cite Eleanor Marx's letters as an explanation for his own delay in writing. He gave other reasons which were probably true as far as they went, but not the whole picture. Other writers had promised. Rosa Luxemburg had been working on a response. He, Kautsky, was "waiting for something more" from Bernstein before he could do a better response. "His articles seemed to me incomplete because they came to no positive conclusion... they so often seemed the product of a weary pessimism and scepticism" (Vorwärts, 13 Oct 1898).

Kautsky enjoined Bernstein to write up his ideas precisely and tersely, and Bebel would write to Bernstein later that month to the same effect.

Bernstein would do that. Kautsky then wrote a pamphlet-length reply, serialised in Neue Zeit from March 1899. As Rosa Luxemburg had feared would happen with her reply, Kautsky's pamphlet was overshadowed by the previous polemics, in fact mostly by Luxemburg's own. As far as I know, it was translated into no language but French (the French text being, however, substantially modified from the German). It is less crisp and vivid than Luxemburg's text. It opens with long sections in which Kautsky dealt with Bernstein more by sarcastic and pedantic poking at the weakest parts of Bernstein's exposition than by reconstructing Bernstein's argument at its strongest and then demolishing it.

It retains value alongside Luxemburg's text, though. Where Luxemburg responded to Bernstein's argument that capitalism would not go into a single and irrecoverable collapse by contending (wrongly) that it would, Kautsky explained that revolutionary perspectives depended on recurrent crises of capitalism, not on a single catastrophic "collapse" or "absolute impoverishment".

Kautsky's text included probably the clearest account to that date of what Marxists were beginning to call "imperialism", meaning the "high imperialism" of that period. Hilferding, Bukharin, Lenin, Luxemburg and others would add to what Kautsky wrote there, but they all built on it.

Kautsky's text was also, or could have been, a classic source on other debates still relevant today, notably on the "new middle class" of officials, lower-level managers, civil servants, teachers and so on, which was swelling and has swollen as the "old" petty bourgeoisie of independent craft workers and small shopkeepers has shrunk. It is valuable, also, in fact, on what we really mean by "revolution" as distinct from reform.

The SPD would formally and officially denounce "revisionism" at subsequent congresses. Some, such as Plekhanov, considered the denunciation inadequate because the SPD did not follow up by expelling Bernstein. And the whole "revisionism" debate is often described, with hindsight, as empty and formal because the increasingly bureaucratic SPD trade union leaders skirted round it. As one of them, Ignaz Auer, famously said: "What you call for, my dear Ede, is something which one neither admits openly nor puts to a formal vote; one simply gets on with it".

That, however, is mostly to say that the SPD never fully analysed, and never developed an adequate answer to, the problem of the trade-union bureaucracy as a distinctive and conservative social layer. (That was a question distinct from "revisionism": almost none of the union leaders backed Bernstein on his "revisionism"). That the SPD fell down on that question; that, besides, it never worked out an even approximately clear idea of how the revolution it foresaw might happen; that Kautsky himself shifted to more equivocating, conservative views after 1910; and that this shift revealed weaknesses in Kautsky's earlier ideas - none of that tells us that the "revisionism" debate was empty. It tells us only that, like any debate, it could not deal with everything. It could not deal with all the questions that would turn out to be connected, more intricately than at first thought, with its own issue-in-dispute.

The main contrast, however, between the "revisionism" debate and many of the SPD's other chief debates - the Gotha Programme debate, the Dühring debate, the Millerandism debate only soon after (in 1900), the mass strike debate, the imperialism debate... - is this: it was carried through relatively crisply and with clear-cut conclusions rather than a formula designed to placate all (or at least most) sides.

It had a great educative effect on the whole socialist movement of the time. Lenin's What Is To Be Done? is in many ways all about a deliberate attempt to translate the lessons of the "revisionism" debate into Russian socialist politics.

We should learn from the "revisionism" debate, and not dismiss it as empty jousting.


Submitted by Jason Schulman on Sun, 05/01/2020 - 18:37

I think Martin is mostly right in saying that "the SPD never fully analysed, and never developed an adequate answer to, the problem of the trade-union bureaucracy as a distinctive and conservative social layer." The one major exception among prominent SPD members was Rosa. See the eighth chapter of "The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions" at

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