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Socialist "Revisionism": The Immediate Tasks of Social Democracy (1899)

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was a leader of the Socialist Party and the main proponent of the "revisionist" version of Marxism. He put forth his views in a series of articles in Karl Kautsky's Neue Zeit in 1896 and 1898. These articles formed the basis of his 1899 treatise, The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy [Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie]. Bernstein denied the inevitability of "class conflict" and the collapse of capitalism. As a result, he argued that Marxists should pursue a more practical course, aiming for a piecemeal movement towards a socialist state within a parliamentary democratic system.

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[ . . . ] Without a certain measure of democratic institutions or traditions, the socialist doctrine of our day would not be possible at all. There might well be a workers’ movement, but no Social Democracy. The modern socialist movement, as well as its theoretical expression, is in fact the product of the influence exerted by conceptions of justice that came to fruition in – and achieved general acceptance through – the great French Revolution on the wage and work-time movement of industrial workers. That movement would also exist without these conceptions, just as there existed, without and prior to them, a popular communism derived from early Christianity.* But this popular communism was poorly defined and half-mystical, and without the foundation of those legal institutions and notions (which are, at least to a major extent, the necessary concomitants of the capitalist development), the workers’ movement would lack its inner cohesion. And that is very much like the situation that exists today in the Oriental countries. A working class that is without political rights and has grown up in superstition and with inadequate schooling will no doubt revolt from time to time and conspire on a small scale, but it will never develop a socialist movement. It takes a certain breadth of perspective and a fairly developed consciousness of rights to turn a worker who occasionally rebels into a socialist. That is why political rights and education hold a preeminent place within every socialist program of action. [ . . . ]

Does [ . . . ] Social Democracy, as the party of the working class and of peace, have an interest in maintaining the nation’s readiness to fight? From a variety of perspectives it is tempting to answer this question in the negative, especially if one starts with the statement in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarian has no fatherland.” While this sentence might apply to the workers of the 1840s, without rights and excluded from public life, today, it has lost much of its validity, in spite of the enormous increase in the intercourse among nations, and will lose even more, the more the worker is transformed, under the influence of Social Democracy, from a proletarian into a citizen. The worker who has an equal right to vote in the state, the municipality, and so on, and is thereby a co-owner of the common good of the nation, whose children the community educates, whose health it protects, whom it insures against injuries, will have a fatherland without thereby ceasing to be a citizen of the world, just as the nations are coming closer together without thereby ceasing to lead lives of their own. It might seem very convenient if all people were to speak only one language one day. But what a stimulus, what a source of intellectual enjoyment would be lost to future generations. The complete dissolution of nations is not a pleasant dream, and is not to be expected within the foreseeable future. But just as it is undesirable for any of the great civilized nations to lose its independence, it cannot be a matter of indifference to Social Democracy whether the German nation – which has, after all, contributed and contributes its proper share to the civilizing labor of the nations – is eclipsed in the council of nations.

* It happened repeatedly to me (and surely to others, as well) in earlier years that at the end of a political meeting, workers or artisans who had heard a socialist speech for the first time would come up to me and explain that everything I had said was in the Bible, and they could show me line by line. (Bernstein’s note).

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