Thursday, 25 October 2012

Another Look at Bernstein

Readers committed to a reenactment of the 1917 Russian Revolution might want to look away now, for this is a post that will have Trots and Stalinists recoiling in horror. 

It is 113 years since a famous (or notorious, depending on how you look at things) book rolled off the presses of the German workers' movement. The author's name is still enough to bring a derisive snort forth from many a Leninist nostril. He is the original renegade, the high priest of ex-left degenerates everywhere: Eduard Bernstein.

Bernstein is castigated by many a would-be revolutionary for suggesting that the perspectives advanced by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party might need revising in the context of the Imperial Germany of 50 years later. Bernstein also argued that not only could a socialist society come about through peaceful means that avoids a revolution, but also (horror of horrors) that a revolution isn't a particularly desirable thing to happen either.

These are so much red rags to the ever-shrinking bolshevik bull, and why his latter day opponents still strive to inoculate the cadre against his ideas. Of course, Bernstein was not without problems and these will be examined in the course of the series, which will be a rereading of his heretical Evolutionary Socialism. And by way of a postscript, we may take a look at Rosa Luxemburg's famous (and canonical) reply, Reform or Revolution.

Long-term readers carried over from A Very Public Sociologist 1.0 will know this blog has laid many acres of text analysing and discussing the problems of socialist strategy today. Needless to say I don't think sitting back and letting history take its course is going to grind out socialism. I also think self-described revolutionary parties are down a historical cul de sac. Attempting to build a Labour Party mk II in opposition to Labour, and calling for general strikes at a time our unions are weak underlines the political dead end they're stuck in. But whatever floats your activist boat, I guess.

Despite bringing many socialists out in a rash, a reexamination of Bernstein's contributions can shine an interesting light on many of the problems facing us. Even if little of value can be gleaned from his writings, he might have said the end point is nothing, but the 'movement'; the process of discussing and evaluating the arguments, is everything.

The format will follow the extended discussions of Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, and Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks. All contributions will be collated below.


Boffy said...


I think Bernstein has had a bad press. So too did Kautsky. That said although I agree that revolutions are generally things that turn out badly, and we should avoid them if possible - as indeed Marx and Engels tried to do viz their comments about the possibility of a peaceful transition in Britain - that doesn't mean we don't recognise the improbability of change without revolution, and the consequent need to prepare workers for it.

Where I'd now disagree with the Infantile Ultra Lefts is precisely how we go about that preparation. On that ground, I'd recommend a look at Mike Mcnair's article in this week's WW. He is coming around to the idea that Co-ops are taking on a more important function, and that changes in the way production is organised means the old style TU organisation based on the workplace is now past its day, and TU's should move to District organising. That is how the Pottery Unions organised in the 19th century during the hieght of Chartism of course.

I still think the CPGB are a sect like all the others, manifest in their attitude to the LP, but I'm happy to celebrate and support progress when they make it.

Phil said...

I think the more open-minded members of the far left would get something from Bernstein - he had more of an idea of how to build support for socialist parties in the West than Lenin and co. for pretty obvious reasons.

But at the risk of sounding pretentious, this is part of a risk of clarification of where I'm at. I haven't sat down and thought seriously about politics since I stopped blogging regularly in February last year, and A LOT has happened since. I am still a socialist, but wouldn't describe myself as a Marxist any more - though, to paraphrase Sartre, Marx is and will forever be the unavoidable intellectual horizon of our times.

Phil said...

A *risk* of clarification? Cane you believe I meant to type "exercise"?

Callum McCormick said...

"Attempting to build a Labour Party mk II in opposition to Labour, and calling for general strikes at a time our unions are weak underlines the political dead end they're stuck in"

I was under the impression that a list of the current supporters of a general strike - going by the TUC conference - included such Bolshevik maximalists as Paul Kenny and Dave Prentis. But, you know, never let the facts get in the way of your perma-jihad against the sectarians on the far left.

Look forward to your blog post. I trust it won't be populated by so many straw men that viewers from afar will think you've moved the blog to Iowa.

Phil said...

I thought they supported a motion that is to *look into* the practicalities of a general strike. That said, if you can't understand the difference between a bit of positioning and iron political intent, the education your outfit has imparted can't be that great.

And you don't have to worry about the straw men - they're too busy being set up and knocked down by the revolutionary generals of the 57 varieties.

Callum McCormick said...

Ah - so calling for a general strike is far-left madness, 'looking into the practicalities' of a general strike is good sensible Labourism? That's cutting edge dialectical reason of which Lenin himself would have been proud.

The prospect of your piece gets more intriguing by the hour, Phil.

Phil said...

Your imputations mate, not mine.