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Eduard Bernstein

Eduard Bernstein German politician

German politician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro German politician
A.K.A. Edouard Bernstein
Countries Germany
Occupations Editor Politician Philosopher Writer Economist Contributing editor
Type Finance Journalism Literature Philosophy Politics
Gender male
Birth 6 January 1850 (Berlin-Schöneberg)
Death 18 December 1932 (Berlin)
Politics Social Democratic Party of Germany, Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany
Eduard Bernstein
The details

Eduard Bernstein (6 January 1850 – 18 December 1932) was a German social-democratic Marxist theorist and politician. A member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Bernstein had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxist thinking and began to criticize views held by Marxism when he investigated and challenged the Marxist materialist theory of history. He rejected significant parts of Marxist theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics; he rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective.

Bernstein distinguished between early Marxism as being its immature form, as exemplified by The Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1848, that he opposed for what he regarded as its violent Blanquist tendencies. He instead favoured Marxism in its mature form. This mature form of Marxism holds that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means through incremental legislative reform in democratic societies.


Bernstein was born in Schöneberg (now part of Berlin), to Jewish parents, who were active in the Reform Temple on the Johannistrasse where services were performed on Sunday. His father was a locomotive driver. From 1866 to 1878, after leaving school, he was employed in banks as a banker's clerk. His political career began in 1872, when he joined a socialist party with Marxist tendencies, known formally as the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Eisenacher Programms – a proponent of the Eisenach (named after the German town Eisenach) type of German socialism – and soon became known as an activist. Bernstein's party contested two elections against a rival socialist party, the Lassalleans (Ferdinand Lassalle's Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein), but in both elections neither party was able to win a significant majority of the leftist vote. Consequently, Bernstein, together with August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, prepared the Einigungsparteitag ("unification party congress") with the Lassalleans in Gotha in 1875. Karl Marx's famous Critique of the Gotha Program criticized what he saw as a Lassallean victory over the Eisenachers whom he favoured; Bernstein later noted that it was Liebknecht, considered by many to be the strongest Marxist advocate within the Eisenacher faction, who proposed the inclusion of many of the ideas which so thoroughly irritated Marx.

In the Reichstag elections of 1877, the German Social Democratic Party gained 493,000 votes. However, two assassination attempts on Kaiser Wilhelm I the next year provided Chancellor Otto von Bismarck with a pretext for introducing a law banning all socialist organizations, assemblies, and publications. There had been no Social Democratic involvement in either assassination attempt, but the popular reaction against "enemies of the Reich" induced a compliant Reichstag to approve Bismarck's "Socialist Law."

Bismarck's strict anti-Socialist legislation was passed on 12 October 1878. For nearly all practical purposes, the Social Democratic Party was outlawed and, throughout Germany, it was actively suppressed. However, it was still possible for Social Democrats to campaign as individuals for election to the Reichstag, and this they did. Indeed, despite the severe persecution to which it was subjected, the party actually increased its electoral success, gaining 550,000 votes in 1884 and 763,000 in 1887.

The vehemence of Bernstein's opposition to the government of Bismarck made it desirable for him to leave Germany. Shortly before the "Socialist Law" came into effect, he went into exile in Zurich, accepting a position as private secretary for social democratic patron Karl Höchberg, a wealthy supporter of Social Democracy. A warrant subsequently issued for his arrest ruled out any possibility of his returning to Germany, and he was to remain in exile for more than twenty years. In 1888, Bismarck convinced the Swiss government to expel a number of important members of German social democratism from its country, and so Bernstein relocated to London, where he associated with Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky. It was soon after his arrival in Switzerland that he began to think of himself as a Marxist. In 1880, he accompanied Bebel to London in order to clear up a misunderstanding concerning his involvement with an article published by Höchberg and denounced by Marx and Engels as being "chock-full of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideas." The visit was a success. Engels in particular was impressed by Bernstein's zeal and his ideas.

Back in Zurich, Bernstein became increasingly active in working for Der Sozialdemokrat ("Social Democrat"), and later succeeded Georg von Vollmar as the paper's editor, a job he was to have for the next ten years. It was during these years between 1880 and 1890 that Bernstein established his reputation as a major party theoretician and a Marxist of impeccable orthodoxy. In this he was helped by the close personal and professional relationship he established with Engels. This relationship owed much to the fact that he shared Engels's strategic vision and accepted most of the particular policies which, in Engels's opinion, those ideas entailed. In 1887, the German government persuaded the Swiss authorities to ban Der Sozialdemokrat. Bernstein moved to London where he resumed publication from premises in Kentish Town. His relationship with Engels soon developed into friendship. He also communicated with various English socialist organizations, notably the Fabian Society and Henry Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation. In later years, his opponents routinely claimed that his "revisionism" was due to his having come to see the world "through English spectacles." Bernstein denied the charges.

However, in 1895, Engels was deeply distressed when he discovered that his introduction to a new edition of The Class Struggles in France, written by Marx in 1850, had been edited by Bernstein and Kautsky in a manner which left the impression that he had become a proponent of a peaceful road to socialism. On April 1, 1895, four months before his death, Engels wrote to Kautsky:

“I was amazed to see today in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my ‘Introduction’ that had been printed without my knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent of legality quand même (at all costs). Which is all the more reason why I should like it to appear in its entirety in the Neue Zeit in order that this disgraceful impression may be erased. I shall leave Liebknecht in no doubt as to what I think about it and the same applies to those who, irrespective of who they may be, gave him this opportunity of perverting my views and, what’s more, without so much as a word to me about it.”

In 1891, he was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program, and from 1896 to 1898, he published a series of articles entitled Probleme des Sozialismus ("Problems of Socialism") that resulted in the revisionism debate in the SPD. He also published a book titled Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie ("The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy") in 1899. The book was in great contrast to the positions of August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Rosa Luxemburg's 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? was also a polemic against Bernstein's position. In 1900, Berstein published Zur Geschichte und Theorie des Sozialismus ("The history and theory of socialism," 1900).

USPD Partei Board on 5 December 1919, Arthur Crispien, Wilhelm Dittmann, Viktor Adler, Richard Lipinski, Wilhelm Bock, Alfred Henke, Eduard Bernstein, Friedrich Geyer, Fritz Zubeil, Hugo Haase, Fritz Kunert, Georg Ledebour, Arthur Hagen, Emanuel Wurm.

In 1901, he returned to Germany, after the end of a ban that had kept him from entering the country. He became an editor of the newspaper Vorwärts that year, and a member of the Reichstag from 1902 to 1918. He voted against the armament tabling in 1913, together with the SPD fraction's left wing. Although he had voted for war credits in August 1914, from July 1915 he opposed World War I and in 1917 he was among the founders of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which united anti-war socialists (including reformists like Bernstein, "centrists" like Kautsky and revolutionary Marxists like Karl Liebknecht). He was a member of the USDP until 1919, when he rejoined the SPD. From 1920 to 1928 Bernstein was again a member of the Reichstag. He retired from political life in 1928.

Bernstein died on 18 December 1932 in Berlin. A commemorative plaque is placed in his memory at Bozener Straße 18, Berlin-Schöneberg, where he lived from 1918 until his death. His grave in the Eisackstrasse Cemetery became a "Protected Grave" (Ehrengrab) of the city-state of Berlin.


Opposition to violent revolution

Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus (1899) was Bernstein's most significant work. Bernstein was principally concerned with refuting Marx's predictions about the imminent and inevitable demise of capitalism, and Marx's consequent laissez faire policy which opposed ameliorative social interventions before the demise. Bernstein indicated simple facts that he considered to be evidence that Marx's predictions were not being borne out: he noted that the centralisation of capitalist industry, while significant, was not becoming wholescale and that the ownership of capital was becoming more, and not less, diffuse. Bernstein's analysis of agriculture (according to which Bernstein believed that land ownership was becoming less concentrated) was largely based on the work of Eduard David, and was in its marshalling of facts impressive enough that even his orthodox opponent Karl Kautsky acknowledged its value.

As to Marx's belief in the disappearance of the middleman, Bernstein declared that the entrepreneur class was being steadily recruited from the proletariat class, and therefore all compromise measures, such as the state regulation of the hours of labour, provisions for old-age pensions, and so on, should be encouraged. For this reason, Bernstein urged the labouring classes to take an active interest in politics. Bernstein also indicated what he considered to be some of the flaws in Marx's labour theory of value.

Looking especially at the rapid growth in Germany, Bernstein argued that middle-sized firms would flourish, the size and power of the middle class would grow, and the capitalism would successfully adjust, and not collapse. . He warned that violent proletarian revolution, as in France in 1848, produced only reactionary successes that undermined workers' interests. Therefore he rejected revolution and instead insisted the best strategy was patiently building up a durable social movement working for continuous nonviolent incremental change.

Bernstein's moderation under attack

Bernstein was vilified by the orthodox Marxists, as well as the more radical current led by Rosa Luxemburg for his revisionism. Bernstein remained, however, very much a socialist, albeit an unorthodox one: he believed that socialism would be achieved by capitalism, not by capitalism's destruction (as rights were gradually won by workers, their cause for grievance would be diminished, and consequently, so too would the motivation for revolution). During the intra-party debates about his ideas, Bernstein explained that, for him, the final goal of socialism was nothing; progress toward that goal was everything.

Socialism, Rosa Luxemburg argued, has its end in social revolution. Revisionism, she said, "amounts in practice to the advice. . . that we abandon the social revolution--the goal of Social Democracy--and turn social reform from a means of the class struggle into its final aim." She says Revisionism has lost sight of scientific Socialism and reverted to Idealism, and therefore lost its predictive force. Since Reformists underestimate the anarchy of capitalism and say it has "adaptability" and "viability," by which they mean that the contradictions of capitalism will not of historical necessity drive it to its doom, they would, she said, abandon the "objective necessity" for Socialism and give up all hope for a Socialist future. The movement will collapse unless Revisionism is repudiated. Trade unionists, who could see the successes of capitalism and the improvement of working conditions, and who wanted to improve working conditions through parliament, generally followed Bernstein, while those who were more orthodox hard-liners generally followed Luxemburg.


Foreign-policy was Bernstein’s main intellectual interest, 1902-1914, with many articles in the Sozialistische Monatshefte (Socialist Monthly). He advocated policies positions for Germany that were aggressively nationalist, imperialist, and expansionist.

Bernstein considered protectionism (high tariffs on imports) as helping only a selective few, being fortschrittsfeindlich (anti-progressive), for its negative effects on the masses. Germany's protectionism, Bernstein argued, was based only on political expediency, isolating Germany from the world (especially from Britain), creating an autarky that would only result in conflict between Germany and the rest of the world. Germany did have protectionism, and Bernstein wanted to get rid of it, arguing that tariffs did not increase grain production, did not counter British competition, did not increase farm profits, and did not promote improvements in farming. Instead it inflated rents, interest rates and prices, hurting everyone involved. In contrast, he argued that free trade led to peace, democracy, prosperity, and the highest material and moral well-being of all humanity.

Bernstein rejected reactionary bourgeois nationalism and called instead for a cosmopolitan-libertarian nationalism. He recognized the historical role of the national factor and said that the proletariat must support their countries against external dangers. He called on workers to assimilate themselves within nation-states, which entailed support for colonial policies and imperial projects. Bernstein was sympathetic to the idea of imperial expansions as a positive and civilizing mission, which resulted in a bitter series of polemics with the anti-imperialist Ernest Belfort Bax. Colonialism, Bernstein argued, was a good idea because it uplifted backward peoples, and it was working well for both Britain and Germany. Bernstein supported such policies in an intensely racialised manner, arguing in 1896 that ‘races who are hostile to or incapable of civilisation cannot claim our sympathy when they revolt against civilisation’ and that these ‘savages[must] be subjugated and made to conform to the rules of higher civilisation’. He was disturbed, however, by the Kaiser’s reckless policies. He wanted strong friendship especially with Britain, as well as France, and protection against the Russian threat to Germany. He envisioned a sort of league of nations.

Jewish question

Bernstein's views on Jewish matters evolved. He never identified as a Zionist. Yet after initially favouring a wholly assimilationist solution to "the Jewish Question", his attitude toward Zionism became considerably more sympathetic after World War I.

Bernstein is also noted for being "one of the first socialists to deal sympathetically with the issue of homosexuality."


Primary sources

  • Tudor, Henry Tudor and J. M. Tudor, eds. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896–1898. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
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