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Summary Article: Bernstein, Eduard from Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought

Eduard Bernstein was a leading German Social Democratic politician and theorist. His life is a microcosmic reflection of the first century of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Like the German labor movement itself, Bernstein started out as a socialist eclectic; then he converted to Marxist orthodoxy only to return to an eclectic position that, enriched by Marxist theory, nonetheless espoused a democratic socialism that recognized Marxism as only one among several important theoretical sources. The core of Bernstein's views is not the proletarian revolution and the prospect of the general abolition of private property, but an ethical commitment to representative democracy, social justice, and equality.

Born in Berlin on January 6, 1850, Bernstein grew up in modest circumstances. After a short career as a bank clerk in Berlin, he joined the SPD as a campaign speaker and pamphleteer. Expelled from Germany in 1878 as a result of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's repressive Anti-Socialist Laws, Bernstein settled in Zurich, Switzerland, from where he edited Der Sozialdemokrat, the rallying point of the underground SPD press. When Bismarck secured his expulsion from Switzerland, Bernstein continued publication of the periodical from London, where he cultivated close contacts to Friedrich Engels and the leaders of the socialist Fabian Society such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw. When Engels died in 1895, Bernstein served as his literary executor and was widely regarded as one of the leading Marxist voices in Europe.

Thus, it came as a shock to his party comrades when Bernstein launched a series of tough criticisms against Marxist theory. In a number of articles and books that appeared between 1896 and 1900, the former Marxist stalwart rejected the central Marxist dogma of the inevitable collapse of capitalist society and the ensuing revolutionary seizure of power by the working class. In his view, Marx and Engels had painted an unrealistic picture of a revolutionary final goal. Suggesting that capitalism was getting better at containing its weaknesses, Bernstein advocated an evolutionary road to socialism through peaceful, parliamentary means centered on success at the ballot box and gradual democratic reforms. Stressing the tight connection between means and ends, he insisted that the extension of democracy required democratic methods. Moreover, he argued that the SPD ought to broaden its narrow working-class base and appeal to the middle class as well, thus turning itself into a genuine people's party. Finally, rejecting the Marxist view that liberalism and socialism constituted diametrically opposed worldviews, Bernstein urged socialists to consider themselves “the legitimate heirs of liberalism” and embrace the Enlightenment language of citizenship, human rights, rule of law, and universal ethics.

Although Bernstein's views on Democratic Socialism became the widely accepted cornerstones of modern European social democracy after World War II, they were severely condemned at three successive SPD congresses at the turn of the century. Various European Marxists such as Vladimir Illyich Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky in Germany wrote vitriolic pamphlets calling Bernstein a “muddle-headed revisionist” betraying the cause of the working class. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Bernstein first voted with the entire SPD leadership in favor of the war, but reversed his opinion a year later, arguing that the German Imperial Government had been the aggressor. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, Bernstein emerged as one of their earliest and fiercest critics, warning that Lenin's brand of Soviet communism was based on the “erroneous belief in the omnipotence of brute force.” He predicted, correctly as it turned out, that the Soviet regime represented an “odd repetition of the old despotism of the Czars” that would lead Russia into a “social and economic abyss.” In the short-lived German Weimar Republic (1918–33), the aging Bernstein held high political posts, including the cabinet position of undersecretary of the treasury. During his parliamentary tenure from 1920 to 1928, he concentrated on matters of taxation and foreign affairs while maintaining his busy journalistic schedule. Bernstein died on December 18, 1932, only six weeks before Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.

See also Bebel, Auguste; Capitalism; Communism, Varieties of; Economics and Political Thought; Engels, Friedrich; German Political Thought; Kautsky, Karl; Lenin and Leninism; Luxemburg, Rosa; Marx, Karl; Revolution; Russian Revolution, Political Thought of the; Social Democracy; Socialism

Further Readings
  • Bernstein, Eduard. 1993. The Preconditions of Socialism. Edited by Henry, Tudor. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • Bernstein, Eduard. 1996. Selected Writings of Eduard Bernstein, 1900-1921. Edited by Manfred, B. Steger. Humanities Press Atlantic Highlands, NJ.
  • Gay, Peter. 1952. The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx. Columbia University Press New York.
  • Steger, Manfred B. 1997. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • Manfred Steger
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