Bernstein, Eduard 1850-1932

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BERNSTEIN, Eduard 1850-1932

PERSONAL: Born January 6, 1850, in Berlin, Germany; died December 18, 1932, in Berlin, Germany; son of Jakob Bernstein (a railway engineer). Politics: Socialist.

CAREER: Worked as a bank clerk, political organizer for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), political journalist and editor. Member of the Reichstag (national assembly), 1902-06, 1912-18, and 1920-28.


Ferdinand Lassalle as a Social Reformer, translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Swan Sonnenschein (London, England), 1893.

(With others) Geschichte des Sozialismus in Einzeldarstellungen, J.H.W. Dietz (Stuttgart, Germany), 1895.

Zur Geschichte und Theorie des Socialismus, Edelheim (Berlin, Germany), 1904.

Die Grundbedingungen des Wirtschaftslebens, Buchhandlung Vorwärts, H. Weber (Berlin, Germany), 1906.

Der Streik; sein Wesen und sein Wirken, Literarische Anstalt Rütten und Löening (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1906.

Der Geschlechtstrieb, Buchhandlung Vorwärts (Berlin, Germany), 1910.

Aus den Jahren meines Exils, Freidrich Reiss (Berlin, Germany), 1917, translation by Bernard Miall published as My Years in Exile: Reminiscences of a Socialist, L. Parsons (London, England), 1921, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1986.

Völkerbund öoder Stätenbund: eine Untersuchung, P. Cassirer (Berlin, Germany), 1919.

Die deutsche Revolution, ihr Ursprung, ihr Verlauf und ihr Werk, Gesellschaft und Erziehung (Berlin, Germany), 1921.

Germanskaia Revoliutsiia, Vostok (Berlin, Germany), 1922.

Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, J. W. Dietz (Stuttgart, Germany), 1899, translation by Edith C. Harvey published as Evolutionary Socialism, B.W. Huebsch (New York, NY), 1912, reprinted, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1961, 1978.

Sozialismus und Demokratie in der Grossen englischen Revolution J. H. W. Dietz (Stuttgart, Germany), 1908, translation by H. J. Stenning published as Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution, G. Allen Unwin (London, England), 1930, A. M. Kelley (New York, NY), 1963.

Also author of a political pamphlets and articles. Coeditor of socialist newspaper Sozialdemokrat, 1879-90, published in Zurich until 1888 and afterward in London, England. Edited various other socialist newspapers, magazines, and books.

SIDELIGHTS: German writer, socialist thinker, and politician Eduard Bernstein was the leader of the "revisionist" wing of the German Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) in the early decades of the twentieth century. The author of more than thirty German-language books and political pamphlets, he is remembered today as the author of Evolutionary Socialism, a seminal 1899 treatise in which Bernstein reject the inevitability of the apocalyptic class struggle Karl Marx had predicted and offer instead an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary path for socialism.

Bernstein's theories—known as "revisionism," —became the catalyst for a furious debate among leftist intellectuals regarding the essence of socialism and the true nature of capitalist society. "[Bernstein's] intellectual conflicts before the [First World] war with Augustus Bebel, Karl Lautsky and George Plekhanov, 'the giants of orthodox Marxism,' have formed a significant chapter in the history of the development of Socialist thought and modern European politics," the author of Bernstein's 1932 obituary noted in the New York Times. "He lived to see his principles incorporated not only in the official policy of the Social-Democracy of Germany but of other countries of Western Europe and the modern expression of socialism."

Bernstein's ideas also earned him the scorn of orthodox Marxists. Writing in the introduction to a 1963 edition of Evolutionary Socialism, Sidney Hook observed: "In Marxist circles to pin the label of 'revisionist' on the ideas of a socialist thinker is comparable to exposing a Christian writer as a 'heretic' or 'atheist' during the heyday of Western religious faith."

Bernstein was the seventh in a family of fifteen children. His father, a railway worker, barely made enough money to put food on the table for the family. Although they were Jewish, the Bernsteins did not follow their religion. According to Peter Gay, in The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, "In this atmosphere young Eduard grew up half believer, half skeptic" and abandoned his faith. However, the writer of the New York Times obituary reported, "In his late years . . . he said that he would not do so if he had his life to live over again."

Bernstein was a sickly child and he preferred the world of books to that of sports and physical activity. He had a quick, nimble mind, and an artistic bent. For a time, Bernstein wrote poetry and dreamed of working in the theater either as an actor or a playwright. While he was a good student, money was tight and so Bernstein quit school in 1866 without graduating. To make ends meet, he began a three-year apprenticeship in a Berlin bank. Upon completing his training, Bernstein took a job as a bank clerk, a vocation that he worked at for the next nine years.

Bernstein's political education began early; he absorbed ideas from one of his uncles, an editorial writer for a German Socialist newspaper called Volkszeitung "(People's Times)." Bernstein's own political passions were fired by contemporary events, including the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the persecution of socialist anti-war protesters by Prussian statesman Prince Otto von Bismarck. Bernstein and some friends formed a discussion circle they called "Utopia." It was at a meeting of this group that Bernstein met F. W. Fritzche. Fritzche, a union organizer and SPD supporter, talked about the issues that had split the German socialist movement into two warring factions: the Eisenbachers and the Lassalleans. Inspired by Fritzche's lecture, Bernstein did some reading and decided that he agreed with the Eisenbachers; in February 1872 he joined the SPD. During the next six years, a period Gay quoted Bernstein referring to as his "Social Democratic apprenticeship," Bernstein became a party organizer and an accomplished stump speaker.

German socialists put aside their theoretical differences and united in 1875. This was a time of intense political ferment in Germany, which Bismarck had succeeded in unifying as a country in 1871. Two attempts on the life of Emperor William I by alleged socialist sympathizers gave the "Iron Chancellor" all the excuse he needed in 1878 to push through the Reichstag a law authorizing harsh anti-socialist measures. Around this same time Bernstein went into self-imposed exile, taking a job in Switzerland as secretary to Karl Höchberg, a wealthy young idealist. Höchberg was at odds with Marx and Marx colleague Friedrich Engels, among others in the socialist movement. Bernstein also got heavily involved in the at-times bitter quarrels.

As Bernstein's own political ideas evolved, he found himself drawing closer to Engels. In 1881, at Engels' urging, Bernstein joined the staff of the Zurich-based partisan publication Sozialdemokrat ("Social-Democrat"). Thousands of copies of the newspaper were smuggled into Germany. During this period, Bernstein's notions about socialism continued to evolve; in a Bernstein obituary published in the Nation , Ludwig Lore noted how Engels, writing in an 1881 letter to Augustus Bebel, had reported, "Bernstein is doing a splendid job. . . . We can hardly find a better man. In his hands the paper is improving from week to week, and he with it."

Incensed by the caustic editorial opinions expressed in Sozialdemokrat, Bismarck began pressing the Swiss government to expel the paper's editorial staff. When that happened in April 1888, Bernstein fled to London, where he lived for the next three years. During this period Bernstein met and came to know many of the leaders of the Fabian Society, a British socialist group founded in 1884 that boasted among its members such well-known figures as economist Sidney Webb and his wife, sociologist Beatrice Webb, playwright George Bernard Shaw, novelist H. G. Wells, and politician James Ramsay MacDonald, who in 1924 became Britain's first Labour prime minister.

In 1896 Bernstein wrote a series of articles on the problems of socialism, that were published in Die neue Zeit ("The New Times") the newspaper of the German SPD. During his London stay, he absorbed fresh ideas from the Fabians. That group had rejected Marx's revolutionary approach to change, instead advocating an evolutionary approach, which they described as "the inevitability of gradualness." Spurred on by the feedback he had received from his 1896 articles, and by the insights generated by his exposure to the Fabians, Bernstein wrote Evolutionary Socialism. This 1899 book, Bernstein's signature work, became the classic statement of socialist "revisionism." In it the author uses scientific analysis to attack the basic tenets of Marx's theories of revolution as the engine of change in capitalist society. Using statistics, Bernstein shows that workers were not becoming inevitably poorer; despite Marx's dire predictions, capitalism was not in imminent danger of collapse.

Writing in the introduction to the first edition of Evolutionary Socialism, Bernstein explaines, "I set myself against the notion that we have to expect shortly a collapse of the bourgeois economy, and that social democracy should be induced by the prospect of such an imminent, great, social catastrophe to adapt its tactics to that assumption. That I maintain most emphatically." Bernstein goes on to reject the notion of revolution in favor of a moderate, constitutional approach to achieving political power. In order to achieve those ends, he urges the SPD to broaden its political power base by making efforts to appeal to Germany's growing middle class.

The reaction to Evolutionary Socialism was swift and intense. A sizeable number of SPD members disagreed with Bernstein's ideas, but many others backed him. Those who did so took to calling themselves "Bern steinians" or "Revisionists." As a result, when Bernstein returned home to Germany in 1901 after twenty-three years in exile, he discovered that he was a popular figure who was much in demand as a public speaker.

Although voters in the town of Breslau elected Bernstein to the Reichstag in 1902 for the first of three terms, his revisionist views were officially condemned by the SPD. This polarization led to a rift in the party, which split between supporters of Bernstein's evolutionary approach to change and those who continued to advocate armed revolution. The gap of the two factions grew in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia and Bernstein's criticisms of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In addition, Bernstein's opposition to Germany's own war effort led him and other like-minded socialists to split from the SPD to form the Independent Social Democratic Party. When the war ended in November 1918, Bernstein rejoined the SPD, and continued to represent the party in the Reichstag.

After Bernstein retired from political life in 1928 at age seventy-eight, he devoted the last four years of his life to writing. By the time of his death, a scant few weeks before the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, Bernstein was no longer a leader of the SPD or even an important figure in the party. His ideas were not forgotten, however. "When the [SPD] was reorganized in West Germany after World War II, many of Bernstein's ideas were incorporated in its programs," wrote Christian H. Eismann in a essay in the Encyclopedia of World Biography. "The new party gave up its revolutionary theory, emphasized action and reform, and attempted to broaden its political base by cutting across ideological and class lines."



Blaug, Mark, One Hundred Great Economists of thePast, Humanities Press International (Highlands, NJ), 1986.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Gay, Peter, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism:Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx, Octagon Books (New York, NY), 1983.

Teed, Peter, editor, Dictionary of Twentieth-CenturyHistory, 1914-1990, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1992.

World of Sociology, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


American Historical Review, June, 1983, R. A. Fletcher, "Cobden as Educator: The Free-Trade Internationalism of Eduard Bernstein, 1899-1914," pp. 561-578.

Journal of Economic Issues, September 9, 1991, Doug Brown, "Thorstein Veblein Meets Eduard Bernstein: Toward An Institutionalist Theory of Mobilization Politics," pp. 689-708.

New Statesman, November 28, 1986, Peter Kravitz, "Between the Lines," p. 44.

Times Literary Supplement, May 6, 1994, Mark Garnett, "The Preconditions of Socialism," p. 27.



Nation, January 4, 1933, Ludwig Lore, "Eduard Bernstein," pp. 14-15.

New York Times, December 19, 1932, "Eduard Bernstein, Socialist, Dies, 82," p. 15.

World Tomorrow, January 11, 1933, p. 30.*