Gary P Steenson, "Not One Man! Not One Penny!”  German Social Democracy, 1863-1914

Karl Kautsky

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) was the most important of the many hundreds of people who tried their hands at theory for German social democracy. From the early 1880s until after the end of the First World War, Kautsky devoted virtually all of his time and energy to making Marxism the viable doctrine of a  growing working-class movement. To a great extent his success in this endeavor ensured a continued concern with Marx's work as something other than simply a fascinating intellectual exercise. Along with Engels, Kautsky was the chief popularizer of Marxism, and it was his tie with the SPD, more than his creativity and brilliant interpretation, that made his efforts successful. Entire generations of SPD intellectuals learned their Marxism from Kautsky, as did scores of the most prominent figures in the history of Marxism, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg.

Kautsky, who was born in Prague, came to the German movement from Vienna, where he had grown up. As a young man he was strongly attracted to socialism because of its romantic appeal as a defender of the downtrodden and its scientific appeal as the most rational and historically necessary system of social-economic organization. The strongest intellectual influences of his early years were the major so-called natural philosophers - Ernst Haeckel, Ludwig Buchner, and Charles Darwin - who were popularizing the natural-scientific, positivist outlook that dominated the intellectual atmosphere of the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe.

Although he received a formal university education and had originally planned to become a university or secondary-level teacher, Kautsky's growing attachment to socialism soon pulled him toward devoting full time to this cause. But the socialist party in Austria at that time, the mid- to late 1870s, was far too weak to satisfy his vigorous and eclectic interests. From the very beginning of his career as a socialist, he was far more concerned with intellectual activities than he was with politics and organization. The meager socialist press of the Dual Monarchy could not support him, so he began publishing articles in the newspapers of the more prominent German movement. Here his work attracted sufficient attention to cause Karl Hochberg, who already employed Bernstein as a private secretary, to offer to subsidize him in the pursuit of socialist scholarship. In January 1880 Kautsky arrived in Zurich to begin his nearly half century of devotion to German socialism

During the decade of the eighties, Kautsky developed from a romantic natural-scientific socialist into a consistent Marxist strongly influenced by Engels. In unison with Bernstein, he carefully studied the major tracts of Marxism, especially Capital and Anti-Duhring, and gradually began to write his own political and historical pieces in which Marxian categories and language played a central role. He also established a close personal relationship with Engels, and for three years  (1885-1888) he lived in London, where he had almost daily contact with Marx's closest friend and collaborator and used the marvelous resources , of the British Museum library to further his studies. The founding in1883 of Die Neue Zeit gave him a steady income, but more importantly it gave him a nearly perfect forum from which to propagate Marxism.

In 1887 Kautsky published his first major contribution to the popularization of Marxism, The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx, which was written in London with regular and important assistance from Engels. The book was a lucid and fairly comprehensive summary of the economic analysis contained in Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Wage Labor and Capital, Capital, and Poverty of Philosophy . The major features of Economic Doctrines were . careful and straightforward definitions of critical Marxian terms (commodity, surplus value, socially necessary tabor, constant and variable capital, etc.), a very brief review of the historical development of capitalism, and a description of the process of capitalist production and the role of labor in it. In this study Kautsky neither offered new statistical evidence nor attempted any imaginative extension of Marx's work; it was a summarization and simplification of Marx's sometimes turgid and complicated notions.

Economic Doctrines did more than any other single work to establish Kautsky's reputation as heir t) Marx and Engels. Over the quarter of a century following its publication, it was reprinted innumerable times in Germany. In a 1907 guide for socialist lecturers, Eduard David, one of Kautsky's ideological opponents within the SPD, wrote of it: "The reading of this book should always precede the study of Marx's original.  For most people it may serve as a substitute for [the original]." Within four years of its initial publication, the book was translated into Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, and Czech, and it eventually appeared in eighteen different languages, some in several different translations.  For a great many budding young socialists throughout the Western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kautsky's Economic Doctrines was their first introduction to the thought of Karl Marx.

By the time the party adopted its new program in 1891, studies like Economic Doctrines and the polemical exchanges conducted in the pages of the Neue Zeit had established Kautsky as one of the leading theoreticians of German social democracy. His part in drafting the new program further enhanced his reputation, but it was a work of his commissioned by the party executive to explain and amplify the new program that elevated him to the stature of the leading theoretician.  This book, called Das Erfurter Programm (1892) in German but usually entitled The Class Struggle in English translations, became his most famous and most translated work. It was also the first major piece in which he presented his own version of Marxism without tutoring from Engels. After eleven years of close guidance, however, Kautsky espoused a brand of Marxism that did not differ from Engels in any essential points.

Das Erfurter Programm had five sections. In the first three Kautsky summarized the material he had presented in Economic Doctrines, defining terms and describing the process of the development of capitalism. Section four was one of the very few times he tried to offer some suggestions about the nature of post-capitalist society. Like most Marxists, Kautsky hesitated to do this because social development is so complex that specific predictions are difficult to make. He did, however, speculate that wages would tend to equalize and that workers would gain "the freedom from labor." The last section of Das Erfurter Programm dealt with the nature of class relations under capitalism and the tactics available to the workers.  Here Kautsky emphasized the need for economic organization and participation in the political arena to advance the interests of the workers. But he cautioned that the party should steadfastly remain independent, maintaining its exclusively working-class character, and that no amount of reform could delay the revolution that would inevitably come with the maturation of capitalism and the industrial proletariat. These themes-the necessity of preserving the purity of the party, the importance of participating as fully as possible in the political process, and the inevitability of the eventual revolution-were the hallmarks of Kautsky's political recommendations for the SPD.

For the next twenty-odd years, Kautsky would continue to add to his reputation as the world's leading Marxist with historical studies and contemporary political and economic analyses. But the great bulk of his efforts were directed at guiding the policies of the SPD in appropriate directions. The key to his success in this task was his partnership with Bebel. The party leader generally gave Kautsky his lead in political matters, while Kautsky's theory gave a sort of intellectual validity to Bebel's positions. Although Bebel frequently used Kautsky's writings to bludgeon political opponents, their relationship was neither crude nor exploitative. Rather, the two men usually cooperated out of shared interests and convictions, but they worked on different levels. Occasionally Kautsky opposed Bebel's positions, and occasionally he won, but most of the time their partnership was mutually supportive and satisfying.

Between 1891 and 1914 four major episodes demonstrated Kautsky's influence and helped define his interpretation of acceptable tactics for the SPD. In 1895, largely because of pressure from the south Germans, the party took up the question of whether or not it should try to appeal to the peasants and small farmers of the nation for support; Kautsky played a central role in this discussion. From about 1897 to 1903 the major theoretical concern of the party was the debate over Bernstein's revisionism; Kautsky entered the fray somewhat belatedly, but he gradually developed a comprehensive critique. In 1905-1906 the SPD was rent by disagreements on the issues of the mass strike, and Kautsky's position was very revealing. Finally, in 1910 the old issue of budget support came up again, and the aftermath of this debate saw the complete development of Kautsky's centrist position between the reformists on the right and the radicals on the left.

Serious concern for the peasantry among social democrats began shortly after the end of the outlaw period when south German branches of the party realized that they had very nearly reached the saturation point of their popular appeal if they could not attract the votes of rural workers and small farmers. The issue was then further stimulated when, for the first time in German history, a political association of farmers, the Bund der Landwirte, was formed. The ability of this group to rouse political interests among small farmers and its severely anti-socialist stands-it was essentially a front organization for the very conservative large landowners of the East Elbe region of Prussia-served to force the issue on the SPD

Led by Georg von Vollmar , the south German forces gained sufficient support to get the 1894 Frankfurt party congress to pass a resolution calling for the adoption of an agrarian policy to be grafted onto the Erfurt program. Two things about the campaign particularly rankled Kautsky. One was the almost vituperatively anti-theoretical posture of the major proponents of the agrarian program. Over and over again these people scornfully rejected any theoretical objections to including peasants and small farmers among party membership and to making special programmatic concessions to try to win their votes. Quite naturally Kautsky resented this attack on his special bailiwick. Kautsky also opposed the suggestion that the exclusively worker character of the ; party should be violated. This was contrary to what was for him the most important basic political principle of any socialist party.

For a time it seemed that perhaps Kautsky had chosen the wrong side on this issue because Bebel sided with Vollmar and the south Germans.  Actually Bebel had never been entirely happy with the exclusively worker party; he had tried to keep worker out of the name of both the SDAP and the SAPD to avoid offending possible non-worker followers. But the issue did not come up again in the intervening period, largely because of the radicalizing impact of the anti socialist law. In 1894 Rebel was securely in control of the party, and the number of issues on which he lost at parts congresses was very small.

In the end, however, Bebel, not Kautsky, chose the wrong side this time. Even though a major theoretical dispute on the agrarian question preceded the 1895 Breslau congress at which the new policy was voted on, the issue was not so much one of facts and theories as it was an emotional one. At Breslau the agrarian commission selected the previous year presented its report to the delegates, and Kautsky offered a counter-resolution calling for the rejection of the commission's proposal.  Vollmar was unable to attend the congress, so Bebel delivered the major attack on Kautsky's resolution, arguing primarily that even if the agrarian program was ineffective, it did not cost the workers anything, and it might win the party some new supporters.

Clara Zetkin and Kautsky both gave strong speeches in favor of preserving the proletarian purity of the party. Zetkin met with prolonged stormy applause when she closed her presentation with a stirring call for the party to reject the agrarian program and thereby "hold firmly to the revolutionary character of our party." Kautsky conceded that the new program might win the SPD some voters but added that such followers would only desert the party "at the decisive moment." He concluded with an emotional appeal to revolutionary solidarity: "We face great and difficult battles, and must train comrades-in-arms who are resolved to share everything with us and to fight the great fight to the end." Such entreaties got a sympathetic response from the delegates, most of whom shared the prejudice of urban dwellers against what Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto as "the idiocy of rural life." By a vote of 158 to 63, Kautsky's resolution passed.

The revisionism controversy, which is dealt with in greater detail below, was for Kautsky at least as much of a personal crisis as it was a theoretical problem. Ever since the early eighties, he and Bernstein had been the closest of friends, and they had conducted a heavy regular correspondence after Kautsky settled in Germany; until 1901 Bernstein was unable to return to his homeland because of an outstanding indictment for lese majesty. This personal relationship was, for Kautsky at least, in large part based on what he thought was a shared commitment to Marxism, which the two men had learned together. To have Bernstein fall away from the fold was a traumatic emotional loss for Kautsky, which explains why he delayed for nearly two years before taking a strong public stand against his friend

Once again the issues debated did not always reflect what was really going on in the party. Basically Bernstein called on the SPD to abandon its revolutionary rhetoric and begin to act like a reformist party that accepted the existing system. His position was backed by an elaborate reworking of the basis of Marxism in which a Kantian-derived ethic replaced the Hegelian-based dialectic materialism of the original. In practical terms Bernstein emphasized that legal activities were preferable to illegal ones, that the stronger the movement grew the more its opponents would be forced into illegal acts, and that the major task confronting the party vvas democratic and economic reform. He also urged that non-proletarian elements be embraced by the SPD to strengthen further its membership and votes.

Much of Kautsky's part in the debate was devoted to refuting Bernstein's objections to the fundamentals of Marxism-value theory, the dialectic, materialism, the class struggle-in fact, virtually everything that made it different from various forms of ethical socialism that were common in the nineteenth century . As to Bernstein's more practical contentions, Kautsky found only one of them objectionable. No one disputed that legal means were better than illegal ones, Kautsky claimed, nor did anyone doubt that the continued growth of the SPD would soon force its opposition into desperate, illegal acts. Above all else democratic political and economic reforms were accepted by the entire party as the most pressing immediate goals. What then, Kautsky asked, was Bernstein proposing that should be resisted?

Kautsky and other critics of Bernstein were on the firmest ground when they rejected his call for the expansion of the party beyond the industrial working class. Despite the growing number of reformists in the SPD-people who were inclined to accept Bernstein's softer approach to politics and who argued that the official rhetoric was sometimes too strong-this issue brought the overwhelming majority of the party to reject revisionism. At the 1899 Hanover congress, Bernstein's theory was rejected by a vote of 216 to 21 when the delegates specifically denied that the SPD should become "a democratic-socialist reform party." Four years later, after revisionism refused to die, the 1903 Dresden congress again rejected it, this time by a 288 to 11 tally.

Of course these votes, like the rejection of an agrarian policy, did not mean an end to the forces of reformism in the party. Bernstein may not have been able to convince the SPD to change its theory, but the party's practice continued to be more like what he favored than not. The apparent paradox here can be explained if we understand the function of theory within the social-democratic movement. For the most part theory was not looked upon as a specific guide to action, but as an expression of the deeply felt sense of solidarity of the membership. The very same socialists who favored the party's backing of minor reforms and had a strong attachment to things German, often including even the state, could unabashedly support theoretical statements that emphasized the uniqueness of socialist workers, rejected the state in principle, and foretold the coming of revolution. This sense of solidarity was quite real and widely shared, and it held the party together.

Eventually Kautsky developed a more comprehensive view of what revisionism was. Pointing to the right-wing socialists of France led by Jean Jaures and to the new progressive party that was gradually replacing the Liberals in England, he concluded that all of Europe was undergoing a "renaissance of bourgeois radicalism." He regarded revisionism as the theoretical expression of this renaissance, which he felt was a "historically necessary manifestation" of maturing capitalism. As their status declined, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois radicals could no longer find comfort in the great liberal and conservative parties, but neither had they yet descended into the proletariat. Thus they found themselves in a theoretically untenable position, which they hoped to rectify by converting socialist parties according to their own confused image. Both privately and publicly Kautsky urged Bernstein to show the courage of his convictions by breaking with the SPD to form a new left-bourgeois oppositional party.

During the course of the revisionism controversy, Kautsky came to comment on nearly every aspect of Marxian theory, which allowed him to clarify many matters. For instance, Bernstein repeatedly criticized Kautsky's brand of Marxism because it supposedly included a collapse theory, that is, the notion that the transition from capitalism to socialism would be the result of a massive business crisis in the former.  Bernstein objected to the rigid determinism of this view while also contending that capitalism had already proved itself capable of surviving deep crisis, thus demonstrating its endurance.

Kautsky staunchly denied that he, Marx, or Engels had ever made such a fatalistic suggestion. While not rejecting the notion of recurrent crisis in capitalism, he argued that to tie the transition from capitalism to socialism simply to the economic collapse of the former was a very one-sided view, because "the class struggle remains unmentioned in this description." Despite the historical necessity of recurrent capitalist crisis, he maintained, a second critical part of the transition to socialism was the maturation of the proletariat as a viable political force. The desired change would not come automatically; the proletariat had to engage vigorously in the class struggle in order to seize power.

Two books came out of Kautsky's part in the revisionism debate: the very polemical Bernstein and the Social-Democratic Program: An Anti-Critique (1899) and The Social Revolution (1902), The latter was his most comprehensive discussion up to that time of the path from capitalism to socialism, and in it he forcefully reiterated his orthodox line. The Social Revolution was one of his most successful books, selling thousands of copies and going through multiple printings very quickly.  The response to it encouraged him to believe that progress was being made against the reformists and revisionists, although he had few illusions about the number of committed Marxists in the party.

By the eve of the party's great debate over the mass strike, Kautsky stood firmly at the head of the radical wing, regularly admonished by the south German reformists and the trade unionists, but with the solid support of Bebel, and therefore the party leadership. With Bernstein's move to revisionism, Kautsky was the undisputed master of social democratic theory in Germany, and because of the SPD's status in the international socialist movement, he was also the most important Marxist in the world. But the ten or so years before the war were to see an erosion of his place in the party, as a more consistent, though largely powerless, left wing emerged after 1905-1906, and as the reformist forces gained even more influence in the leadership. Faced with these changes, he developed his position as a centrist, fighting a two-front battle in theoretical disputes. Bebel's death in 1913 severely undermined Kautsky's influence in the party, while his opposition to the war eventually brought an end to his affiliation with the SPD.

This erosion was not immediately apparent because Kautsky continued to command the support of most of the party leaders and because even among his intra-party opponents, his prestige still carried a great deal of weight. But in the mass-strike debate he was somewhat reluctantly forced into a position of defending Rosa Luxemburg and the emerging left wing in their stand against the trade unions. When both Kautsky and Luxemburg were outmanoeuvred at the 1906 Mannheim congress, the fate of the extreme left seemed to be sealed. In the aftermath of this dispute, Kautsky too had a brief falling out with the party executive. In 1909 his study The Road to Power was published by the official party press. When the first edition of five thousand copies sold out in a few weeks' time, the executive refused to authorize a second edition because of what it considered the exaggerated radicalism of the book.

In The Road to Power Kautsky emphasized three things. First, he argued forcefully that the ruling clique of Germany could not much longer tolerate the continued growth of the SPD and the trade unions. Very soon, he contended, the state was going to be forced to take some very harsh steps, and when that time came, the party had to be prepared to take advantage of the situation. Second, he mounted his most persuasive campaign ever in favor of theoretical guidance of practical political action. Whereas the reformists claimed that the minor concessions the party was winning demonstrated the possibility of peacefully growing into socialism, in reality such party victories simply increased class tensions because they clarified party lines. Those who emphasized this "positive work" needed theory to show them the reality that was concealed by appearances. Finally, Kautsky argued that no matter how much they grew, party and trade-union organizations could never hope to include anything more than an elite. Since the remainder of the population was "only revolutionary as a possibility, not a reality," only effective socialist propaganda, i.e., theory, could convert the possibility into reality.

Trade-union leaders and most of the party bureaucracy quite naturally considered The Road to Power a fundamental attack on their positions. Clearly Kautsky was attempting to reassert the superior position of the intellectuals in the party over those who conducted day-to-day affairs. Thus challenged, the functionaries responded by refusing to approve a second edition of the book. Kautsky briefly threatened to leave Germany altogether if he did not receive better treatment. He also used the available appeals channel of the party by taking his case to the control commission, where his close friend Clara Zetkin used her influence to persuade the executive to relent. The Road to Power was reprinted, and second and third editions of five thousand copies each quickly sold out.

Kautsky's problems with the party leadership w-ere short-lived, however, as two events in 1910 brought him back into good graces. The first was his final personal split with Luxemburg, a break that had been gradually developing for several years. The actual theoretical disagreement concerned the extent to which the party should support illegal street demonstrations to back its demands for franchise reform, especially in Prussia. Luxemburg favored such demonstrations, while Kautsky thought them dangerous. When he refused to print an article by her on the subject, Luxemburg's alienation was complete.

But Kautsky's dispute with Luxemburg was interrupted when the socialist delegation to the Baden Landtag approved the state budget in July 1910. This was a blatant violation of party discipline, and Bebel immediately called upon Kautsky to forget his quarrel with Luxemburg in order to concentrate on sharp criticism of the Badenese. The conjunction of these events gave the party's chief theoretician a perfect opportunity to articulate the centrist position he had been developing at least since the mass-strike controversy began in 1905-1906. In an August 1910 article entitled "Between Baden and Luxemburg," he pointed out that on a map Marx's birthplace, Trier, lay between Luxemburg on the left and Baden on the right. So too, he claimed, did the proper course for the SPD lie between Luxemburg's left radicalism and the right, reformist capitulation of the Baden party; fidelity to Marx would bring the party to victory.

After 1910 Kautsky's mature view of the SPD and its place in pre-war Germany did not change. Neither the increasingly vocal radicals nor the increasingly dominant reformists had the answers as far as he was concerned. He characterized the SPD as a "revolutionary, not a revolution-making" party, meaning that the socialists should prepare for the revolution by participating in politics sufficiently to heighten class conflict, but should not force confrontations by putschist action in the streets. Rather than pursuing a policy of revolutionary antagonism, he counseled a "strategy of attrition" in which the tried and true methods of the past would continue to yield gains until tensions reached a breaking point at some unspecifiable time in the future. Also, hostility to the state and the proletarian purity of the party had to be preserved, lest the workers be compromised. These tactics would yield a socialist victory, Kautsky argued, because history was on the side of the workers.

Unfortunately for his own views, Kautsky was neither able to nor particularly interested in countering intra-party developments that undermined the SPD's capacity to maintain this position of wearing the enemy down. In part this was simply a personal failing; he lacked the political sophistication to perceive the impact of these developments. In part, too, he was trapped by his long commitment to the movement; given the depth of his attachment to it, he was doomed to take it as it came. But he also had a strong faith in the revolutionary potential of the masses. He was convinced that when the time came, the party of the workers would be forced to take the lead. When that time did finally come, however, his beloved party had been split and almost fatally weakened by the Great War.

Eduard Bernstein

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) came to socialism from rather different origins than did Kautsky. Bernstein was the seventh of fifteen children in a petty-bourgeois Jewish family of Berlin; his father was once a plumber but later became a railway engineer, a job that ensured a regular though modest income. Bernstein was forced by material considerations to take up work before finishing the Gymnasium, and at age sixteen he began a twelve-year career as a bank clerk. As a young man he pursued his education on his own, dabbling in poetry and for a time considering a career in the theater, either as an actor or a playwright. However, the more mundane employment as a bank clerk was considerably safer, so he stuck with it until he left Germany in 1878 to become Karl Hochberg's private secretary

Like so many other young Germans, Bernstein was first attracted to socialism during the Franco- Prussian War. For him it was not just the military expansionism of the war that was repellent; he was also apparently quite shocked by the government's persecution of Bebel, Liebknecht, and other Eisenachers for their opposition to the war.  Bernstein felt that the charges were clearly trumped up in order to still opposition. Around the same time he and some friends had formed a discussion group, and shortly after the prominent trade-union leader and socialist Friedrich Fritzsche spoke to the group, Bernstein joined the Eisenachers at the age of twenty-two.

At the time he joined the party, the major theoretical contacts Bernstein had with socialism were Lassalle's Herr Bastiat Schulze von Delitzsch and Duhring's Critical History of National Economy and Socialism. Within a year or so he also read Marx's The Civil War in France and Duhring's Course of National and Social Economy. But in fact during these early years he devoted little time to serious theoretical study, concentrating instead on public speeches and debates that dealt with the more practical aspects of the movement. Not until after his move to Zurich did he turn to theory, although this in no way retarded his rise in the socialist ranks. Probably his devotion to and skill at agitation and campaigning accounted for his early prominence. By the time the socialist unity drive was culminating in 1875, he was sufficiently important to serve as an SDAP delegate to the unity conference that preceded the Gotha congress.

After unification Bernstein continued to be very active in the new party as an agitator, campaigner, and member of the control commission. He also helped found a new discussion club and a workers' night school in which he taught some classes. While engaged in these activities, he first met Karl Hochberg. For a short while Bernstein was rather strongly influenced by Duhring, even to the point of establishing personal contacts, but two things brought this to an end. First, in October 1878, he left Berlin for Zurich where he became Hochberg's assistant. Second, in 1879 he studied Engels' Anti-Duhring, which turned him against Duhring and toward Marx. Thus at about the time the party was forced into exile by the anti-socialist law, Bernstein had already begun the course toward Marxism which characterized much of the rest of the party's development for the next twelve years.

Bernstein's extensive experience with practical agitation coupled with his obvious intelligence and writing ability made him uniquely qualified for his first major position in German social democracy, the editorship of the exiled official journal the Sozialdemokrat. Vollmar had edited the paper for its first years, but when he insisted on leaving the job, some difficulties in finding a replacement ensued. The major problem was that Marx and Engels from the beginning had resented Hochberg's ties with the paper or any other aspect of the party. When Bebel decided that Bernstein, Hochberg's closest associate, should take over the Sozialdemokrat, it seemed that Marx and Engels would objec

In order to make peace with the old ones in London and to get them to give their blessing to the new editor, Bernstein and Bebel made a trip to England in December 1880. Although it was the first time either had met Marx or Engels, the encounter was a major success. Not only was Bernstein given the seal of approval, but very quickly Engels, at least, developed a good deal of admiration and even respect for the younger man's work..  When after three months on the job Bernstein began to  doubt his capacity for the task, Engels encouraged him by writing: "You have edited the paper skillfully from the very beginning; you have given it the right tone and developed the necessary wit. In editing a newspaper, erudition is not nearly so important as a quick understanding of matters in the right spirit, and you have always done that." Under Bernstein's direction the Sozialdemokrat became the handmaiden of Bebel's radical political position and an important factor in the victory of the radicals over the moderates in the outlaw years. As editor of the party's official organ, Bernstein usually found himself in the center of intraparty struggles, and he always sided with Bebel and the radicals. Backed by the regular counsel of Engels, Bernstein orchestrated the exiled social democrats' assault on Bismarck's social policies and took strong objection to the efforts of the moderate members of the Reichstag Fraktion to support the government's steamship subsidy bill in 1885. In March of that year he precipitated a major confrontation when he refused to publish in the Sozialdemokrat the following statement by the Fraktion: "The paper does not determine the attitude of the parliamentary party; it is the parliamentary party that must control the attitude of the paper "

Victory in the steamship-subsidy-bill controversy meant that the Sozialdemokrat was firmly controlled by the radicals after 1885. Along with Kautsky, Bernstein had also developed into a consistent Marxist during the early eighties. Because of his journalistic skills and editor's post, Bernstein did not continue to develop his theory as intensely as Kautsky did, but his Marxism was not called into question by anyone. After 1888, when Bismarck finally succeeded in pressuring the Swiss into expelling many of the exiled German socialists, Bernstein and the rest of the editorial staff of the paper moved to London. There Bernstein's ties with Engels grew even closer. This relationship remained very close after the end of the anti-socialist law, when the Sozialdemokrat came to an end, as Bernstein was unable to return to Germany because of his outstanding indictments for seditious editorial activities.

Having left Germany in late 1878, Bernstein eventually spent twenty-two years in exile, returning to Berlin in early 1901. During this time his only contacts with the homeland were an extensive correspondence with leading party figures and voracious reading of the German press. But twenty-two years is a very long time, and while the facts of changing conditions in the country and the party could be followed from afar, it was much more difficult to remain in touch with the feelings and emotions of the movement. Particularly after the move to London, Bernstein came more and more under the influence of non-German, especially English, sources.  Gradually these influences began to alter his views about the course of modern society and the proper politics of the working-class movement.

Once Engels died in 1895, Bernstein was free to reveal publicly the changes wrought in his theories without fear of provoking a corrosive split with an old and respected friend. From 1896 to 1898, Kautsky's Neue Zeit carried a series of articles entitled "Problems of Socialism" in which Bernstein first announced his break with orthodox Marxism, and in 1899 a more systematic and convenient presentation was made in his most famous book, The Presuppositions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy (Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie), which is usually translated into English under the title Evolutionary Socialism.

Bernstein hoped in these works to provide German social democracy with a comprehensive, consistent theoretical justification for the practice he perceived it to have been pursuing for years; he did not do so.  Although he met with a sympathetic response in many segments of the party, his theories were repeatedly and resoundingly rejected as official doctrine. Furthermore, there is very little evidence that the SPD ever had more than one revisionist-Bernstein himself-in the years prior to World War I. The fact of the matter was that those forces in the party most inclined to agree with his practical conclusions, the south Germans and the trade unionists, were not particularly interested in any theory.  These people occasionally defended him from the attacks of radicals, and many of them also read his works, although doing the former did not necessarily imply having done the latter. But few of them accepted Bernstein's formulations as definitive, and he always remained only one among many roughly equal leaders of the right wing. 

For the purposes of this chapter, the distinction between reformism and revisionism is an important one. Reformists were plentiful in the SPD, from the radical-moderate splits of the early eighties through the debates over the agrarian question in the mid-nineties to the divisive budget-support disputes that occurred periodically. But even after 1899, reformists rarely if ever used Bernstein's theories to support their demands. While they readily accepted him as an ally, they did not use his writings as any special rationalization of their actions. Bernstein was not to the reformists what Kautsky was to the radicals.

Revisionism, according to Bernstein, was the product of his growing conviction that several of the specific economic predictions of orthodox Marxism were not being realized. In particular he was convinced that the tendency toward ever-increasing concentration under capitalism had only limited validity, that capitalist crises were not becoming more frequent and deeper, that the middle classes were not disappearing, and finally that the proletariat was not becoming increasingly impoverished. These conclusions led him to reject many of the basic philosophical tenets of Marxism, including the dialectic and historical determinism, which in turn led him to certain political contentions that differed from those officially accepted by the party. Specifically, he urged that any notion of revolution be abandoned in favor of a concept of gradual, reformist growth from capitalism to socialism, and that in pursuit of the latter the party should modify its theory and practice to allow non-proletarian elements to be incorporated on a significant scale

Some of Bernstein's points were based on well-nigh irrefutable facts that proved particularly troublesome for the defenders of orthodoxy to counter. For instance, both the obvious prosperity and stability of capitalism for the two decades before the First World War and the extent to which the vast majority of the workers of the industrialized world shared in this prosperity stumped orthodox Marxists for along time. Not until the various forms of the imperialism critique began to appear-from Rudolf Hilferding in 1910, Rosa Luxemburg in 1913, and Lenin in 1917- was a reasonably satisfying Marxian explanation offered.

Other of his observations, however, were simply examples of Bernstein's eagerness to see short-term developments as having long-term implications. The most prominent example in this category was the ardor with which he and his sympathizers seized on the results of the 1895 occupational census in Germany as proof that the agrarian middle sector was increasing, not decreasing. The survey revealed that between 1882 and 1895, the number of middle-sized agrarian holdings increased both absolutely and relatively. This was used both to refute the orthodox theory of concentration and to pressure the party into trying to win a following among this group of farmers, A major debate ensued that lasted until the next occupational census, 1907, revealed that what had seemed a trend twelve years before was only a temporary aberration; in that year the number of middle-sized farms showed a marked decline.

From an intellectual perspective, the major problem of revisionism was its shallowness. Bernstein was primarily an autodidact who was ill-equipped to conduct a rigorous analysis of Marxism and even less able to provide a philosophically satisfying alternative to the dialectic and historical determinism as a basis for socialism. In the first case his contention that the dialectic was only a peripheral element of Marx's thought totally missed the mark, and in the second, his grasp of Kant was never sufficient to allow him to develop a systematic ethical basis for his own theories. Bernstein's thought, as expressed in his revisionist writings, was dominated by skepticism and a very limited common sense outlook. While both of these qualities are perfectly respectable and useful, together they do not often yield the sort of gratifying, self-contained system that he hoped to provide.

Ironically, Bernstein's insistence that his recommendations for alterations in the program and practice of the SPD be based on a theoretical revision of Marxism undoubtedly cost him a great number of potential supporters. There is little question that the general thrust of his arguments, namely the anti-revolutionary, gradual, and compromising aspects, was favored by a majority of the party, But because he set the tone for the revisionism debates by attacking the theory of the party, those within it who rejected theoretical considerations out of hand were not interested in the quarrel. This is strikingly true of the majority of the trade-union leaders, who, despite their own very strong reformist tendencies, simply refused to take sides at all. For the most part they limited themselves to expressions of regret that so much of the party's time was being wasted in fruitless debates over meaningless (for them) theo

Ultimately neither the validity of the facts he chose to emphasize nor the inadequacies of his theoretical formulations led the SPD to its decisive rejections of Bernstein's revisionism; a party that could live comfortably with the weaknesses of Kautsky's Marxism would not have been bothered by these failings. Rather, the political conclusions he derived from his theoretical analysis undermined Bernstein's appeal.

His urgings to expand party membership to non-proletarian elements met with a hostile reception. On this issue more than any other, the impact of his physical separation from the movement in Germany was most apparent. After more than twenty years in exile, Bernstein lacked identification with the emotions of the socialist-workers w hen he formulated his revisionism, and even after his return, he never regained the sympathy he had expressed so effectively as editor of the Sozialdemokrat in the turbulent eighties.

The reasons for the rejection of revisionism were obviously the same as the reasons for the SPD clung to the old theories. First there was inertia; most German socialists were content to leave things well enough alone, even if they had some specific objections to the party program. Second, the extent to which the Erfurt program captured the enduring spirit of the heroic years when the party had struggled for survival against an extremely hostile state was a powerful argument in its favor. Even though objective conditions may have altered somewhat, the ruling powers of the Reich provided sufficient reinforcement to perpetuate an emotional commitment to hard-line opposition.

Finally, the coalition opposed to Bernstein was much too powerful for him to overcome without much more solid and extensive support than he had. Not only was revisionism attacked from within the party by the devoted Marxists, led by Parvus (pseudonym of the Russian Alexander Helphand) and Rosa Luxemburg, but foreigners outside of Germany also joined the assault, with Georgi Plekhanov, the "father" of Russian Marxism, and the very widely respected leader of the Austrian socialist party, Victor Adler, eventually joining the ranks. However, the single most important opponent Bernstein had was not a theoretician at all, but a socialist politician of the first rank, August Bebel. Bernstein was genuinely puzzled by the vehemence of Bebel's opposition, since the party leader seemed so reasonable when it came to practical political matters. But Bebel played a central role in the critique of revisionism because his constant goading kept Kautsky involved w hen the party theoretician would have liked to let the matter drop.

Despite persistent attacks and repeated official rejections, revisionism would not die. This was because the SPD membership would neither accept it or let it go. Enough intellectuals were attracted by the doctrine to ensure its survival, and enough of its component parts had sufficient general appeal to endure. Bernstein not only remained in the party; he also maintained his role as a leading figure, and shortly after his return to Germany he was elected to the Reichstag, where he became an influential member of the Fraktion. Although an early supporter of the German war effort, Bernstein eventually joined Kautsky in opposition, and the reunited old friends were among the founders of the splinter party that was formed in 1917 to protest the old party's nearly unqualified support for the war. In the aftermath of defeat and abortive revolution, Bernstein returned to the fold, living to see the SPD become much like what he had suggested it be at the turn of the century . He died in December 1932, only six weeks before Adolf Hitler became chancellor of a Germany that would pervert every value Bernstein had held dear

Historically, revisionism might be said to have been ahead of itself. The contradictions that characterized Wilhelmian Germany were not sufficiently worked out to allow the SPD to adopt an openly reformist posture or to become a truly mass, people's party. Nonetheless, Bernstein's theory did serve as a whetstone on which the orthodox sharpened their own views. Kautsky in particular modified his conception of the increasing oppression of the proletariat to include a strong political element in response to the revisionist critique; he also wrote one of his least successful books, Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (1906), in an effort to deal with questions raised by Bernstein. But the earliest and sharpest response to him came from the young Rosa Luxemburg, presaging the radical Marxism of which she was to be the major figure in the years after 1905-1906.

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the SPD and the Second International. She was the only woman in the pre-war party to establish herself as a prominent figure without being tied specifically to the women's movement; in a party that honored female equality more in principle than in practice, this was a major achievement. In the Second International she was the only woman to attain a stature similar to that of Jean Jaures, Victor Adler, Emile Vandervelde, August Bebel, and Karl Kautsky. Rosa Luxemburg is one of only two women, along with Marx's daughter Eleanor, who currently commands significant interest among historians concerned with western European Marxism and socialism.

In the case of Luxemburg, this interest derives from her intellectual brilliance. Hers was perhaps the best mind put to the service of Marxism during the years of the Second International. She was a swift and decisive analyst of history and contemporary affairs; she was a superb polemicist and debater; and she had sufficient wit and self-detachment to make her an invaluable ally and a formidable opponent. Although she had far more enemies than friends, both in the SPD and outside it, everyone who came into contact with her was respectful of her intellectual capacities, and many were awed by them.

Despite these truly impressive qualities, Luxemburg cannot now be judged an influential figure in terms of shaping policy or molding the character of German social democracy or world socialism; the same traits that were her theoretical strengths-incisiveness, harsh judgments, brutal attacks on opponents-were personal and political weaknesses. She was an unusually intolerant person, who judged friend and foe alike by very rigid standards, and she was rarely inclined to tolerate weaknesses in or show generosity toward others.

Even her closest allies and friends frequently found her exceptionally difficult to get along with. Coupled with this was an almost pathological inability to compromise her standards for the sake of political success.  All of these traits resulted in her nearly total isolation from lasting institutional ties in a movement that was heavily based on such ties.

To a certain extent then, Luxemburg's isolation and consequent failure to influence substantially the development of the SPD derived from problems of character and style. However, several other factors that had nothing to do with her real failings reinforced this isolation.

First, she was a woman, and though none of her opponents within the party would admit it, this worked against her. Second, she was a foreigner, not a native-born German, and even in a movement that espoused internationalism, it was hard for Luxemburg's opponents to avoid pointing this out during their bitter polemical exchanges. Finally, and of much less importance, she was of a Jewish family. Anti-Semitism was rampant, even encouraged, in Imperial Germany, although generally weak in the socialist-workers' movement. Nonetheless, her rather tenuous connections with Judaism were occasionally another of the barbs hurled at her by ideological enemies. 

Luxemburg's rise to the heights of the theoretical ranks of German social democracy was meteoric. Born of assimilated, middle-class Jewish parents in 1871 in Zamosc, Russian Poland, she received a German-oriented education in her early years, but attended a Russian-speaking high school. Her facility in several languages-Polish, German, Russian, and, later French-was to put her in good stead in the international socialist movement. While in high school she became politically involved with a rather primitive illegal socialist-populist revolutionary group, for which she earned a threat of arrest in 1889.  Ostensibly to avoid imprisonment, but also because she sought the university education that was rarely open to women in Russian Poland, Luxemburg went into exile in Zurich in that same year.

Once in Zurich she attended the university, studying mathematics, natural sciences, and, in the faculty of law, social studies. She began in 1890 and finished in 1897 with a doctorate in law, having written a  dissertation entitled "The Industrial Development of Poland." She also became active in the exiled Polish socialist community in Zurich, establishing particularly close ties with Leo Jogiches. He was to become Luxemburg's most intimate friend and closest political comrade for years. Her involvement in Polish affairs, where she sided with those who downplayed the need for Polish independence (SDKP, Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland, later SDKPiL, when "and Lithuania" was added) against the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which strongly advocated Polish independence, was intense but unsatisfying.

Her introduction to the much larger and more fruitful social democratic movement of Germany derived from Luxemburg's expertise in Polish affairs. The party had a special branch to deal with the thousands of Polish workers in its country, and competition with the PPS for the allegiance of these people gave the SPD a special need for highly informed polemicists who could effectively counter the Polish party's propaganda. By 1897 Kautsky was relying heavily on Luxemburg as the Neue Zeit's expert on Polish questions. Much encouraged by this reception, she was more and more tempted by the promise of Germany as a site from which to pursue her Marxism and the struggles of the exiled Polish movement. A contrived marriage to a young German, Gustav Lubeck, in the spring of 1897 (followed by a divorce five years later) gave her entree into Germany, and she arrived in Berlin in late March 1898.

Immediately after her arrival in Berlin, Luxemburg established her commitment to the cause beyond a shadow of a doubt by volunteering to agitate among the Silesian Poles for the 1898 Reichstag elections.  Although she had little success in winning votes, she did considerably impress the party leadership, which in turn led to much broader contacts within the SPD. This was what she had come to Germany for in the first place, to make a career for herself as a propagator of Marxism.

What she sought was not power, but influence in the realm of ideas, forums from which to spread the theories she held to be correct and important. In addition to Kautsky's Neue Zeit, she quickly established close ties with the party's two leading left-wing papers, Bruno Schoenlank's Leipziger Volkszeitung and Parvus' Sachsische Arbeiterzeitung.

Parvus was the first in the party to launch a full-scale attack on Bernstein, in an article series in his paper that ran from late January until early March 1898. Once Luxemburg had attracted his attention, he handed to her the stick with which he had been beating Bernstein, and she made her mark in the party by landing some telling blows on the revisionist renegade. By the time of the 1898 congress in October , hardly six months after her arrival in Germany, Luxemburg had already established herself as a force to be dealt with, in theory at least.  So rapid was her rise to prominence that for a very brief time, from late September to early November 1898, she was an editor of the Sachsische Arbeiterzeitung, following Parvus' expulsion from Saxony for political offenses. But the animosity she had roused in this brief time and her unwillingness to compromise for the sake of harmony doomed this effort at institutional affiliation to failure; three years later a similar episode as co-editor of the Leipziger Volkszeitung ended almost as quickly and for the same reasons.

This difficulty with maintaining official positions within the party's organizational structure was one Luxemburg shared with nearly all the other prominent radicals of the SPD, except Clara Zetkin, who served for a long time on the central control commission. One reason for this lack of organizational ties was the isolation radicals often felt when they held official positions. Usually a radical would not have many likeminded colleagues on the various commissions and editorial boards, and since collective authority was the rule, radicals usually had difficulty pushing their policies through. This made them cautious about accepting such positions. Another problem was the inherent tendency for such work to trivialize tasks and viewpoints; petty administrative work destroys daring and imagination. Third, as in most democratic bodies, the SPD and its affiliated organizations were compelled to play to the middle and avoid the controversial in order to maintain the broadest possible allegiances. By definition this was antithetical to the goals of the radicals.

Above all these more practical problems, however, stood the matter of the psychological barriers to effective institutional participation by the radicals. Rosa Luxemburg was an excellent example of a type that could not easily adjust to the give-and-take requirements of political organization. Her tendency to blame theoretical differences of opinion on the personal and moral failings of her opponents and her bitter , frequently vicious attacks on these people made it very difficult for her to mend fences later on. Furthermore, she was so involved in the theoretical aspects of the movement that she often denigrated practical compromises and moderation, even for the sake of tactics, as unacceptable violations of principle. This commitment limited the influence of all the SPD radicals because their extremism cut them off from the alliances and cooperation necessary to give their positions substance.

As long as the revisionist crisis persisted, Luxemburg's isolation was not apparent, because on this issue she was backed by the party executive. Her Leipziger Volkszeitung articles attacking Bernstein appeared in pamphlet form in 1899 with the title Social Reform or Revolution. In it she denied that Bernstein was calling on the party to accept in theory what it already was in practice. Anticipating Kautsky's later conclusions, she contended rather that what was needed was for Bernstein to recognize finally that in theory and practice he was not a socialist, but a petty-bourgeois radical. She differed from Bernstein most fundamentally when she argued that the reforms he favored so strongly as means of overcoming the necessity of revolution would in fact make revolution more likely by clarifying class lines in Germany.  The basic problem as far as Luxemburg was concerned, the existence of wage capitalism, was not touched by these reforms

Given what is now generally accepted about the course of development of the SPD, it is ironic that Luxemburg did not propose any change in party tactics during her attack on Bernstein. She was content with the old practices because she felt that as long as they were guided by correct theory, as long as theoreticians could still explain what the practices of the party really meant, the revolutionary consciousness of the masses would steadily mature. In fact, she continued to agitate among the Polish workers in Germany during elections, supporting even the candidacy of one of the most outspoken reformists of the party, Max Schippel. One passage in Social Reform or Revolution did, however, permanently alienate her from an important part of the workers' movement. In her discussion of the reforms pursued by the SPD and its allies, she referred to the activities of the trade unions as a "labor of Sisyphus," hopeless efforts to achieve permanent improvements in the lot of industrial workers as long as capitalism lasted. The mutual hostility of Luxemburg and the trade unions never abated.

Realization of the vast gulf that separated Luxemburg from virtually all the party leadership and most of the rank and file was not to come until the mass-strike debates of 1905-1906. when revolutionary activities broke out in Russia in 1905, Luxemburg left Germany for Warsaw in order to participate firsthand. Her experiences there with spontaneous mass action crystallized her views on the role of the party in such away that her conceptions could no longer be twisted to fit with the practice of the SPD. After 1905-1906 she developed a far-reaching critique of the party and the trade unions, especially the latter, as obstacles to the leadership role socialists should play in such situations.

In what was perhaps her most sweeping and exciting work, Mass Strike, Party, and Trade Unions (1906), Luxemburg presented her notion of the potential, nature, and implications of mass strikes, and, in less detail, the relationship between such activity and the party and trade unions. She argued that mass strikes were part of the whole process of the ripening class struggle, not something that was made or could be planned, but something that grew spontaneously out of heightened class tensions. Moreover, she argued that mass strikes were not particularly aimed at either political or economic goals, but at both, at all grievances of the masses blended together. She concluded that the point of increased organization, of the party and the trade unions, was to prepare socialists to channel this spontaneous activity into productive directions and to profit from such outbursts by proving themselves worthy of leadership.

Quite obviously this conception conflicted sharply with the predominant self-image of both the SPD and the trade unions. As already discussed, the leaders of both branches of the workers' movement in Wilhelmian Germany tended to see the steady growth of their organizations as proof of the validity of their tactics. Revolution, when they thought of it at all, was conceived of as a sort of crumbling of capitalism under the mighty weight of workers' organizations. To these people spontaneous action in the streets was anathema because it threatened the solidarity of their organizations. To the extent that any theory at all attracted them, Kautsky's "strategy of attrition" made much more sense than Luxemburg's emphasis on the spontaneous creativity of mass action

From 1906 on Luxemburg's major preoccupation was attempting to counter the relatively passive policies of the SPD. Whenever possible she called for more vigorous responses to political developments, especially when she detected the stirrings of the masses. In 1909-1910 she hoped to stimulate the party to promote street demonstrations to back demands for Prussian franchise reforms; in 1911 popular protests over the second Moroccan crisis again aroused her to criticize the party's passivity. But she never got very far , as the party executive and the trade-union leadership closed ranks against her. Her slightest call for more vigorous action was countered by a flood of criticism, and her influence over the party declined proportionately.

The major theoretical contributions of Luxemburg dealt with imperialism, especially her 1913 study, The Accumulation of Capital. As Peter Nettl, her most thorough biographer to date, correctly pointed out, this work has come to overshadow all her other observations on imperialism. The fact of the matter was that in The Accumulation of Capital, Luxemburg set out only to analyze the basic internal causes of capitalism's development to the imperialist stage; this she did by concentrating on the problem of capitalist reproduction that Marx had introduced in the third volume of Capital. She concluded that capitalism continued to grow, and therefore exist, despite the exhaustion of internal resources, as long as there were still pre capitalist societies to exploit. In this way the process of primitive accumulation started over again several times.

While her study was bolstered by abundant figures and charts, she made no effort to link an almost fastidious, though not necessarily correct, economic analysis to any political conclusions. The politics and tactics, past, present, and future, of German social democracy are not even mentioned in The Accumulation of Capital. Thus the book that is usually considered her most impressive theoretical achievement cannot be directly related to her critique of the SPD or to her concept of creative mass action

This is not to say that Luxemburg did not draw any political conclusions about imperialism, but only that she never felt the necessity of underpinning these conclusions with a new theory. In general she felt that capitalism with imperialism was not much different from capitalism without imperialism, at least in its political implications. She accepted imperialism as a higher stage of capitalism, but not as anew and unique manifestation of it. For her the salient point about imperialism was the extent to which class tensions were increased under it. The greater militarism of imperialism, the frequent and often disastrous foreign entanglements it engendered, and the hostile chauvinism of its defenders simply fanned the flames of the class struggle, as far as she could tell. Her major political conclusion was that the responsibilities of a social-democratic party in an imperialist country were even more pressing than those of a similar party in a capitalist country that had not yet reached the imperialist stage.

Luxemburg's place in the history of German social democracy and world socialism is based on her argument for spontaneous mass action as a creative force in the process of the maturation of proletarian revolutionary consciousness. It is at the same time imaginative, daring, and attractive in its emphasis on overcoming sterile theorizing, in its wedding of action and consciousness. But this cannot properly be termed theory; rather, it was a hope that by mass action the "swamp," as she called it, into which social democracy had fallen would be flushed clean and made vibrant and active again. It was her willingness to act on this view that gave legitimacy to her position; unlike others in the SPD,  Rosa Luxemburg was neither an armchair revolutionary nor a firebrand who expected others to carry out the real struggle in the streets.

Beyond her involvement in the Russian Revolution of 1905-1906, Luxemburg proved her commitment by dying a martyr in January 1919, killed by the counterrevolutionary forces let loose by her former party comrades Gustav Noske and Friedrich Ebert. At the time she was in the forefront of a vain and ill-conceived effort to push the German revolution that had broken out the previous November further than it would go. Just as Noske and Ebert were trapped by the concessions the SPD majority had made to the status quo of Imperial Germany, so too was Rosa Luxemburg trapped by her own search for the chimera of creative mass action she thought had to be in Germany. To the end Luxemburg and her radical supporters blamed the failure on socialist leadership without seriously questioning whether or not the radical potential really existed. After the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, the existence of this radical potential had become an article of faith for the extreme left, notwithstanding tangible evidence to the contrary.

From Gary P Steenson, "Not One Man! Not One Penny!” German Social Democracy, 1863-1914, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh (1981) ch6 “Theory and Intellectuals”, pp197-221

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