As a part of the process of revising the Marxian doctrine, one must also, according to Bernstein, admit that socialism, in terms of its ideal content, is the legitimate heir to liberalism – which becomes evident when one looks at all questions of principle which social democracy needs to decide on. He points at that as soon as any of the economic requirements of the socialist program seem to have required measures which put the development of liberty at risk, social democracy has never hesitated to take a stand against them. The defense of bourgeois civic freedoms has always been a higher priority than this or that economic requirement. Furthermore, one should not cling on to Marxist delusions that have been refuted by able economists.
Other elements that Bernstein wanted to purge from Marxism pertained to the economic rights of workers, and his comments point to some kind of capitalist welfare system, rather than to socialism. To simply demand state support of all unemployed, he says, means that not only those who are unable to find work, but also those who are unwilling to work, will be supported by government. Bernstein claims that the modern proletarian is, no doubt, poor, but not a beggar. And a right to work – in the sense that the state guarantees everyone work in his line of business – is in the foreseeable future totally unrealistic and not even desirable.
If Bernstein was a prominent theoretician who propounded a pragmatic, and relatively successful, “socialist” strategy, perhaps one can claim the opposite about Lenin. I will not evaluate the realization of his version of Marxism, but rather comment on his way of vindicating the honor of his mentor.
In The State and Revolution he takes on the task – by means of various quotations of Marx and Engels – of refuting Bernstein and other “opportunists” (just to mention one of the milder invectives he uses). Lenin pours contempt over those who use Marx and Engels to “comfort” the oppressed classes by using fancy formulations, while the content of the revolutionary doctrine is castrated, banalized and blunted. Lenin’s task becomes, as he puts it, to restore Marx’s actual theory of the state.
And one of his primary targets is the revisionists’ view of (bourgeois) democracy – the best possible political shield of capitalism, as he puts it. What Marx really claimed, Lenin writes, was that the dictatorship of the proletariat is what must replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The kind of democracy that had been realized in capitalist society always had to be squeezed into the narrow frame of capitalist exploitation, which means that, in reality, it always becomes a democracy for a minority, i.e., the wealthy classes only. Can this kind of democracy be utilized by the organizations of the workers to reach gradual improvements? No, says Lenin; development towards communism must go through the dictatorship of the proletariat. No other way is possible if one wants to crush the resistance of capitalist exploiters.
Lenin also brings forward many quotes in order to show that Marx and Engels were also out to crush the bourgeois state by violent revolution. But he claims that the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been forgotten, exactly because it is totally incompatible with reformism. The idea amounts to a punch in the face of the common opportunistic prejudices and petite bourgeois illusions regarding the “peaceful development of democracy”.
Here I end this account of the struggle between revisionism and Leninism. My purpose was only to present a background for the next section. Before we proceed we might recall one of Lenin’s dictums: Only he who extends his approval of class struggle to the approval of the dictatorship of the proletariat is a true Marxist. The reader may decide for her- or himself whether Bernstein or Lenin is the truer Marxist. The question in the following will be what characterizes a true liberal.