[The following is the first part of a translation of an old essay of mine, entitled “Marxism mot marxism, liberalism mot liberalism” (2008)]
In 1899 Eduard Bernstein published the original German version of The Preconditions of Socialism, a work which would proceed to influence social democrats away from orthodox Marxism and in a “revisionist” direction instead. In this book he puts forward a reinterpretation of the works of Marx and Engels, at least in so far as they, as assumed scientific theories, must be able to withstand the same kind of scrutiny and revision as other scientific theories. First and foremost, one must, according to Bernstein, get rid of the idea that the theories of Marx and Engels can prove everything.
Bernstein points out that theories often take the form of strong apodictic formulations. Even if his German Social Democracy retains the social theory of “scientific socialism”, as worked out by Marx and Engels, as theoretical foundation of its activities, the materialistic conception of history must nevertheless assume another character than that which its authors saw before themselves. Even in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves one can discern a gradual revision of its original “absolutist” formulations; and this is, according to Bernstein, not surprising, since revision is the ultimate fate of all theories.
One of Bernstein’s main targets is Hegelian dialectics. All the great things, Bernstein claims, that Marx and Engels really achieved, they achieved in spite of, and not thanks to, the dialectics. And leaving Hegel’s dialectics behind is probably something that many must have felt like a big relief – this Hegel that Schopenhauer described as “a nasty disgusting charlatan, who with unprecedented pertinence, madness, and lunacy concocted a stew, which his bribed followers has trumpeted as immortal wisdom. Therefore this philosophy has by numskulls been assumed to be correct and has given rise to a large circle of followers. What this person created has lead to intellectual devastation in a whole generation of academics” (quoted in G. Fredriksson, Schopenhauer).
But the foremost critique pertains to the means and possibilities of reaching socialism. On the one hand, there are many economic assertions that had been assumed essential to achieve the victory of the proletariat, for instance, the gradually increasing concentration of capital and impoverishment of the workers – things that were believed to follow automatically because of the nature of capitalism. But the truth is, Bernstein says, that many workers have improved their conditions during capitalism, and that capital, instead of being concentrated to a small group, has been spread out in society, for example in the form of shares. The growth of riches in capitalist society is something that helps socialism more than it impedes it.
This stance is probably a result of the fact that Bernstein regards socialism as something different than its earlier adherents (at least its intellectual adherents). Firstly, socialism should not be realized through a violent revolution, but through parliamentary means. Secondly, one should not draw up any utopia that socialism is supposed to lead to, because socialism is, for Bernstein, something that shall be realized gradually and through democratic politics. It is a gradual improvement of the conditions of the workers that is the goal – a goal which is, so to speak, constantly moving forward without ever reaching its utopian endpoint.