Modern History Sourcebook:
Edouard Bernstein (1850-1932) faced the problem - for Social
Democrats - that things did not work out as badly as predicted
in the Communist Manifesto. He was a colleague of Engels, and
claimed Engel's support in dismissing with revolutionism, and
calling for an evolutionary socialism, or as it is more commonly
It has been maintained in a certain quarter that the practical
deductions from my treatises would be the abandonment of the conquest
of political power by the proletariat organised politically and
economically. That is quite an arbitrary deduction, the accuracy
of which I altogether deny.
I set myself against the notion that we have to expect shortly
a collapse of the bourgeois economy, and that social democracy
should be induced by the prospect of such an imminent, great,
social catastrophe to adapt its tactics to that assumption. That
I maintain most emphatically.
The adherents of this theory of a catastrophe, base it especially
on the conclusions of the Communist Manifesto. This is
a mistake in every respect.
The theory which the Communist Manifesto sets forth of
the evolution of modern society was correct as far as it characterised
the general tendencies of that evolution. But it was mistaken
in several special deductions, above all in the estimate of the
time the evolution would take. The last has been unreservedly
acknowledged by Friedrich Engels, the joint author with Marx of
the Manifesto, in his preface to the Class War in France. But it is evident that if social evolution takes a much greater
period of time than was assumed, it must also take upon itself
forms and lead to forms that were not foreseen and could not be
Social conditions have not developed to such an acute opposition
of things and classes as is depicted in the Manifesto. It
is not only useless, it is the greatest folly to attempt to conceal
this from ourselves. The number of members of the possessing classes
is today not smaller but larger. The enormous increase of
social wealth is not accompanied by a decreasing number of large
capitalists but by an increasing number of capitalists of all
degrees. The middle classes change their character but they do
not disappear from the social scale. The concentration in productive industry is not being accomplished
even today in all its departments with equal thoroughness
and at an equal rate. In a great many branches of production it
certainly justifies the forecasts of the socialist critic of society;
but in other branches it lags even today behind them. The
process of concentration in agriculture proceeds still more slowly.
Trade statistics show an extraordinarily; elaborated graduation
of enterprises in regard to size. No rung of the ladder is disappearing
from it. The significant changes in the inner structure of these
enterprises and their interrelationship cannot do away with
this fact. In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist
bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organisations.
Under the influence of this, and driven by the movement of the
working classes which is daily becoming stronger, a social reaction
has set in against the exploiting tendencies of capital, a counteraction
which, although it still proceeds timidly and feebly, yet does
exist and is always drawing more departments of economic life
under its influence. Factory legislation, the democratising of
local government, and the extension of its area of work, the freeing
of trade unions and systems of cooperative trading from
legal restrictions, the consideration of standard conditions of
labour in the work undertaken by public authorities-all these
characterise this phase of the evolution.
But the more the political organisations of modern nations are
democratised the more the needs and opportunities of great political
catastrophes are diminished. He who holds firmly to the catastrophic
theory of evolution must, with all his power, withstand and hinder
the evolution described above, which, indeed, the logical defenders
of that theory formerly did. But is the conquest of political
power by the proletariat simply to be by a political catastrophe?
Is it to be the appropriation and utilisation of the power of
the State by the proletariat exclusively against the whole non-proletarian
He who replies in the affirmative must be reminded of two things.
In 1872 Marx and Engels announced in the preface to the new edition
of the Communist Manifesto that the Paris Commune had exhibited
a proof that "the working classes cannot simply take possession
of the ready made State machine and set it in motion for their
own aims." And in 1895 Friedrich Engels stated in detail
in the preface to War of the Classes that the time of political
surprises, of the "revolutions of small conscious minorities
at the head of unconscious masses" was today at an end, that
a collision on a large scale with the military would be the means
of checking the steady growth of social democracy and of even
throwing it back for a time-in short, that social democracy would
flourish far better by lawful than by unlawful means and by violent
revolution. And he points out in conformity with this opinion
that the next task of the party should be "to work for an
uninterrupted increase of its votes" or to carry on a slow propaganda of parliamentary activity. Thus Engels, who, nevertheless, as his numerical examples show,
still somewhat overestimated the rate of process of the
evolution! Shall we be told that he abandoned the conquest of
political power by the working classes, because he wished to avoid
the steady growth of social democracy secured by lawful means
being interrupted by a political revolution? If not, and if one subscribes to his conclusions, one cannot reasonably
take any offence if it is declared that for a long time yet the
task of social democracy is, instead of speculating on a great
economic crash, "to organise the working classes politically
and develop them as a democracy and to fight for all reforms in
the State which are adapted to raise the working classes and transform
the State in the direction of democracy."
. . .
In short, Engels is so thoroughly convinced that the tactics based
on the presumption of a catastrophe have had their day, that he
even considers a revision of them necessary in the Latin countries
where tradition is much more favourable to them than in Germany.
"If the conditions of war between nations have altered,"
he writes, "no less have those for the war between classes."
Has this already been forgotten?
No one has questioned the necessity for the working classes to
gain the control of government. The point at issue is between
the theory of a social cataclysm and the question whether with
the given social development in Germany and the present advanced
state of its working classes in the towns and the country, a sudden
catastrophe would be desirable in the interest of the social democracy.
I have denied it and deny it again, because in my judgment a greater
security for lasting success lies in a steady advance than in
the possibilities offered by a catastrophic crash.
And as I am firmly convinced that important periods in the development
of nations cannot be leapt over I lay the greatest value on the
next tasks of social democracy, on the struggle for the political
rights of the working man, on the political activity of working
men in town and country for the interests of their class, as well
as on the work of the industrial organisation of the workers.
In this sense I wrote the sentence that the movement means everything
for me and that what is usually called "the final
aim of socialism" is nothing; and in this sense I write down
again today. Even if the word "usually" had not
shown that the proposition was only to be understood conditionally,
it was obvious that it could not express indifference concerning
the final carrying out of socialist principles, but only indifference-or,
as it would be better expressed, carelessness - as to the form
of the final arrangement of things. I have at no time had an excessive
interest in the future beyond general principles; I have not been
able to read to the end any picture of the future. My thoughts
and efforts are concerned with the duties of the present and the
nearest future, and I only busy myself with the perspectives beyond
so far as they give me a line o conduct for suitable action now.
The conquest of political power by the working classes, the expropriation
of capitalists, are no ends themselves but only means for the
accomplishment of certain aims and endeavours. As such they are
demands in the programme of social democracy and are not attacked
by me. Nothing can be said beforehand as to the circumstances
of their accomplishment; we can only fight for their realisation.
But the conquest of political power necessitates the possession
of political rights; and the most important problem of
tactics which German social democracy has at the present time
to solve appears to me to be to devise the best ways for the extension
of the political and economic rights of the German working classes.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997