He took for granted that historical materialism is the foundation of Marxian theory. All events are necessary in the sense that matter moves of necessity in accordance with certain laws. There is no cause without its necessary effect and no event without a material cause. The movement of matter determines the formation of ideas and the directions of human will, so everything falling under these categories is also necessitated, like all other human events.
If all events are necessary, how should the factors of force be understood as relating to each other? How should nature, the economy, legal institutions, and Marx’s own ideas be understood? Marx’s theory of the material forces and relations of production was his answer: productive forces and relations are the determining factors. The bourgeois mode of production was the last antagonistic form of the social process of production, and the forces developing within it created the material conditions needed to end the antagonism. Human society would end its prehistorical phase when the contradictions of capitalism yielded a communist society. Bernstein passed over the part about communism, since it was hypothetical, belonging to the future. He disliked Marx’s reductionism about human ideas and will, contending that Marx should have left more room for human agency.
On Bernstein’s telling, Marx’s problematic determinism reflected the fact that he took too much from Hegel and too little from Kant. He agreed with neo-Kantian F. A. Lange that Hegel’s idea of development through antagonisms, though brilliantly illuminating, was also over-determining for Marx. For example, the Communist Manifesto declared that the bourgeois revolution was the prelude to an immediately succeeding proletarian revolution. Bernstein doubted that Marx would have been so self-deceived had he not over-believed in contradiction dialectics. As it was, Marx never quite got rid of it.
Similarly, the Marxist tradition never quite threw off Blanquism—the belief in massive revolutionary explosions from below. On several occasions Marx and Engels extolled Blanquist terrorism as a near-miraculous force that propels revolution. This defect preceded Marxism and ran through the entire Socialist movement, putting two streams of thought into constant tension. One was constructive in variously utopian, sectarian, or peacefully evolutionary forms. The other was destructive in variously conspiratorial, demagogic, or terroristic forms. Constructive currents conceived emancipation as occurring primarily through economic organization. Destructive currents conceived emancipation as occurring primarily through political conquest and expropriation. Bernstein argued that Marx combined the essential elements of both streams, synthesizing the constructive investigation of the economic and social preconditions for liberation with the revolutionary conception of liberation as a political class struggle, and that Marxism still featured this twofold character.
Marx and Engels assumed that proletarian revolution followed the pattern of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century revolutions. A progressive bourgeois party would take power, aided by revolutionary workers as a propelling force. It would rule for a while, run its course, and give way to a radical bourgeois party, which would soon be overthrown by the revolutionary party of the proletariat. But that was not what happened in France in 1848 and 1871, when revolutions immediately thrust forward the most radical party. Bernstein said there was no reason to believe that socialists and revolutionaries would take a back seat to bourgeois radicals or liberals. It was far more likely that bourgeois types would withdraw, leaving political responsibility to the proletarians. Bernstein doubted that a radical bourgeois government would last a single day in Germany. Thus, Socialists had to be ready to govern Germany, something he shuddered to imagine. SPD leaders routinely reduced Blanquism to a stereotype about a handful of vanguard conspirators waging terrorism, which had nothing to do with them. Bernstein said this was convenient for them, but wrong. Blanquism is the theory that the overthrowing power of revolutionary force is immeasurably creative and indispensable. This cult of force, a legacy of the French Revolution and contradiction dialectics, is toxic and hard to uproot; social democracy should not merely wave away such an idea, but actively purge it from its ranks.
Other Marxian concepts had similar problems. Bernstein cautioned socialists against assuming that Marx’s theories of value and surplus value were the last word on these subjects, because Marx’s measure of commodity value involved too many abstractions and reductions to be intelligible. Marx treated the rise of the joint-stock company only as an example of the concentration and centralization of capital, failing to recognize that joint-stock companies create a counterweight to the centralization of wealth by centralizing business enterprises. Joint-stock companies permit concentrated capital to be extensively divided, making it unnecessary for capitalist titans to appropriate capital to concentrate their enterprises. Bernstein said socialists were slow to grasp what made corporate capitalism different because Marxian theory steered them away from doing so. Plus, Marx claimed that the concentration of industrial entrepreneurs runs parallel with the concentration of wealth, which is not true. Bernstein dramatized the ongoing capitalist boom in Germany, England, Holland, and France with a slew of graphs. He insisted that socialism had a viable future because social wealth was increasing, not decreasing. The movement had to give up its dire dogma that its future depended on an imminent catastrophe—a diminishing capitalist class that sucked up all surplus value. Modern production greatly increased the productivity of labor, which greatly increased the mass production of goods for use, generating enormous new wealth.
Socialists had to stop pining for a capital crisis that wiped out the growing middle classes of the world. Bernstein wanted Continental social democracy to be more compelling and up-to-date than the dire apocalyptic face it presented to the world. Marxism rested everything on a theory about the structural contradictions of capitalist production and an argument about the exercise of political power by a class party of workers, described in the transition period as a dictatorship of the proletariat. All three parts of this platform were problematic, and the third part was repellant. Social democracy needed to acknowledge that wage earners were not the homogeneous mass devoid of property that the Manifesto depicted. Moreover, the most advanced industries produced highly differentiated labor hierarchies in which feelings of solidarity were tenuous at best. Bernstein grieved that his opponents condemned him with barricade rhetoric. Perhaps it was exciting to proclaim, but it repelled toolmakers who made decent wages and farmers who wanted to own their land.
Marxian theory came from an era in which democracy was merely a form of government, and thus not the point for a Marxist. Bernstein said democracy morphed into something else in the late nineteenth century. Socialists, radical democrats, and progressive liberals brought out the negative meaning of democracy as the absence of class government. No class should have a political privilege against the community as a whole. Progressives got clear about this in fighting against the anti-democratic privilege of the monopolistic corporation. Moreover, Bernstein argued, this negative definition brought out the idea that a majority’s oppression of individuals and minority communities is repellant.
For similar reasons, social democrats had to stop bashing liberalism indiscriminately. Bernstein said this was another hangover from decades past. Before liberalism bonded with democracy, liberals were pro-capitalist enemies, and old-fashioned liberals still were. It mattered greatly that most liberals now supported democracy. Moreover, Bernstein claimed, social democrats prized civil liberties above everything else. Liberals did not own this issue.
Bernstein’s admiration of England was excessive, extending to British imperialism, which he insisted was more good than bad because it exported democratic civilization. He could be florid on this theme, lamenting that Germany’s imperialism was closer to the brutal and tyrannizing side of the imperial continuum than to England’s. Anglican socialists Headlam, Hancock, Marson, Holland, and Charles Gore railed against British imperialism, but they were moralists at heart. Bernstein identified with Sidney Webb and other Fabian leaders who did not moralize about colonialism or their socialist political ends. Morality had a role to play, but not the leading role. Orthodox Marxists took unwarranted pride in spurning morality, yet they clutched proletarian internationalism as a moral dogma. Bernstein pitched his case to the quiet majority of social democrats he thought were out there. If he got to return to imperial Germany, he would not stand in the way of its interests, and saying so might help him return. More important, German socialists had to prove they would defend the German nation.
Bernstein shot to the top of the quiet party majority he believed was there. Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, figuring that Bernstein’s return might split the SPD, allowed him to come home in 1901. Bernstein defended his position at the Lübeck Congress, condemnations were proposed and defeated, Bebel took it hard, Bebel’s milder resolution of rebuke passed, and Bernstein celebrated his vindication. The reformist side of the party had never had a theorist, much less a star with a storied history in the SPD. Everywhere he spoke, Bernstein drew huge crowds of supporters. They launched a journal, Sozialistische Monatshefte, proving that democratic socialism was a real position with a large following, not a just a grab bag of compromises.
Bernstein identified the aspects of Marxism that were problematic for democratic socialism. He established that socialists could draw deeply from Marx’s economic analysis without accepting Marx’s apocalyptic vision of deliverance, showing that democratic socialism had a real basis in socialist and even Marxist theory. Socialists needed to grasp that capitalist economies were more complex than Marx said. Control of the economy was not inevitably destined by the process of industrial concentration to fall into the hands of a few monopolistic firms.
Until war and imperialism became the dividing issues in the SPD, Bernstein championed the reformist wing of the party. Desperate to prevent war, he railed against the fearmongering toward France and Britain that paved the way to World War I. Like all SPD officials, he wanted to believe that socialism was the antidote to capitalist wars. The war came and Bernstein briefly accepted it, voting with the party majority on August 3, 1914, that committed the SPD as a block to support Germany. He shared the customary German dread of Russia and the SPD’s fear of being trampled by pro-war patriots.
But shortly afterward, Bernstein judged that Germany was chiefly responsible for causing the war. He allied with Kautsky and other SPD centrists, who tried to stop the conflict without opposing Germany’s war aims or government. This was impossible in every way. Bernstein’s antiwar faction was expelled from the Reichstag and regrouped as a new party, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which opposed the pro-war SPD and Germany’s imperialist war aims. During the German Revolution of November and December 1918, Bernstein tried to unite the SPD and USPD—another hopeless effort and equally fateful. The USPD conceived the worker and military councils of the November Revolution as foundations of a new society, advocating pure council-Marxism instead of parliamentary democracy. It prohibited dual memberships with the SPD, and in 1920 its majority joined the Communist International, shattering Bernstein’s dream of what should have been.