Eduard Bernstein

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Bernstein, Eduard



Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), one of the leaders of German revisionist socialism, came of a lower middle-class family in Berlin. He attended the Gymnasium until the age of 16, when he became first an apprentice and then an employee in a bank. In 1872 he joined the German Social Democratic party (SPD) and was soon active in the Berlin organization of the party.

Like so many socialists of this period, Bernstein was forced to move from country to country. Just before the adoption of the antisocialist laws in Germany in 1878, he seized an opportunity to go to Switzerland, and when the Swiss government, under pressure from Bismarck, interfered with a socialist publication he was connected with, Bernstein left Switzerland for England. His enforced residence in London led him to study the political climate of Britain and the British labor movement, and he came into contact with the Fabian Society, which had been founded in 1883. Although the antisocialist laws in Germany were repealed in 1890, Bernstein was not granted permission to return until 1901.

The 1890’s were a period of considerable prosperity in Germany, during which the economy grew steadily, undisturbed by any major crisis. The prediction contained in the Erfurt program of the SPD, adopted in 1890, that the army of superfluous workers would become ever larger and that the crises intrinsic to the very nature of the capitalist mode of production would become ever more extensive and more devastating, was sharply contradicted by the economic realities of those years, when workingmen, too, shared in the general prosperity. Influenced as he was by British realism, Bernstein found this discrepancy between theory and actuality more disturbing than did other Marxists. In several articles that appeared in Kautsky’s Neue Zeit in 1898 (see Bernstein [1896–1898] 1904, pp. 167–286) he made a break with orthodox Marxism, and in a book published three years later (1899) he focused his criticism on the prognosis of the increasing impoverishment of the proletariat and on the notion that, inevitably, capitalist crises would become increasingly acute and result in the early collapse of the capitalist system. With the aid of carefully collected statistics, Bernstein demonstrated that the capitalist system had, on the contrary, developed several stabilizing factors that made its early collapse extremely unlikely. He pointed out a trend that was the exact opposite of impoverishment, i.e., increased production, accompanied by an increase in mass consumption as well as by an increase in the workers’ real income. The alleged exacerbation of crises could be similarly refuted.

While a necessary component of the Marxist theory of the evolution of capitalist society was its polarization into two sharply conflicting classes— with increasing numbers of increasingly poor proletarians on one side and increasingly few increasingly rich capitalists on the other—Bernstein insisted that in fact society was becoming more and more differentiated. He sought to show, with the aid of comprehensive statistical data, that the trend toward big business was being resisted by the middle class. Furthermore, the process of concentration was most obviously not taking place in the service occupations (Bernstein early recognized the importance of repair and auxiliary services), in trade, and in agriculture. He was aware of the rise of a new middle class of white collar workers and civil servants, and he pointed out the importance of gaining this new class as an ally of the workers. He believed he could demonstrate a process of differentiation, rather than of polarization or concentration, not only in the class system but also in the distribution of income.

Bernstein’s attack on the theory of historical materialism went much farther than the questioning of specific Marxist predictions. He denied the validity of the concept of the unilateral economic determination of the historical process, and he acknowledged the importance of noneconomic factors, even placing them on a par with the productive forces and the relations of production. With this view Bernstein built a bridge to so-called bourgeois sociology. His view is essentially the same as that expressed in the well-known sentences at the end of Max Weber’s first essay on Protestantism.

In view of the tremendous confusion of interdependent influences between the material basis, the forms of social and political organization, and the ideas current in the time of the Reformation, we can only proceed by investigating whether and at what points certain correlations between forms of religious belief and practical ethics can be worked out. At the same time we shall as far as possible clarify the manner and the general direction in which, by virtue of those relationships, the religious movements have influenced the development of material culture. Only when this has been determined with reasonable accuracy can the attempt be made to estimate to what extent the historical development of modern culture can be attributed to those religious forces and to what extent to others. (Weber [1904–1905] 1930, pp. 91–92)

The acceptance by sociology of some of the insights of historical materialism owes much to Bernstein.

His break with Marxism became final in a lecture “Wie ist wissenschaftlicher Socialismus möglich?” (“Is Scientific Socialism Possible?”), which he delivered in Berlin shortly after his return from England in 1901. Throwing economic determinism overboard, Bernstein deliberately chose Kant’s basic ethical formulation and shifted the justification for socialist struggle from the sphere of what is to that of what ought to be. For him, socialism was henceforth a postulate and a program rather than a scientific analysis of the laws of change.

Bernstein’s views, which were soon labeled “revisionism,” did not convince the German Social Democratic party. While the SPD often pursued a revisionist policy in practice, its official condemnation of revisionist theory at its Dresden congress in 1903 prevented it from achieving a satisfactory reconciliation of practice with theory. The discrepancy persisted even in the Weimar period, to the detriment of the effectiveness of the party.

When Bernstein died in 1932, he had long ceased to act as theoretician for the SPD. Only after their defeat by Hitler did the Social Democrats finally abandon the Marxist dogmas hallowed by tradition. Many of Bernstein’s insights were incorporated in the official theory of the West German Social Democratic party, as witness the action programs of Dortmund in 1952 and Berlin in 1954, and especially the 1959 Bad Godesberg program of principles.

Christian Gneuss

[For the historical context of Bernstein’s work, seeEconomic thought, article onSocialist thought; and the biographies ofKautsky; Lenin; Luxemburg; Marx.]


(1896–1898) 1904 Probleme des Socialismus. 4th ed. Berlin: Dümmler. → Part 2 of Eduard Bernstein, Zur Geschichte und Theorie des Socialismus.

(1899) 1909 Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation. London: Independent Labour Party. → First published as Die Voraussetzungen des Socialismus und die Aufgaben der Socialdemokratie. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Schocken Books.

1901 Wie ist wissenschaftlicher Socialismus möglich? Berlin: Socialistische Monatshefte.


Gay, Peter 1952 The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Gneuss, Christian 1957 Um den Einklang von Theorie und Praxis: Eduard Bernstein und der Revisionismus. Volume 2, pages 198–226 in Marxismusstudien. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Gneuss, Christian 1962 The Precursor: Eduard Bernstein. Pages 31–41 in Leopold Labedz (editor), Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas. New York: Praeger.

Weber, Max (1904–1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. → First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently. See especially pages 35–92.

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BERNSTEIN, EDUARD (1850–1932), German politician and theorist.

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 which, enriched by Marxist theory, nonetheless espoused a nonrevolutionary, democratic socialism that recognized Marxism only as one among several important theoretical sources.

Born in Berlin on 6 January 1850, Eduard 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 the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck's repressive "Anti-Socialist Laws," Bernstein settled in Zürich, 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 (1820–1895) and the leaders of the British socialist Fabian Society. 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, Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Engels had painted an unrealistic picture of a utopian "final goal." As he put the matter famously, "I must confess that I have very little interest in what is usually referred to the 'final goal of socialism.' This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, while the movement is everything. By 'the movement' I mean the progressive social change and its political and economic organization by working people" (quoted in Tudor and Tudor, pp. 168–169).

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 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 V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919) and Karl Johann Kautsky (1854–1938) in Germany, wrote vitriolic pamphlets against Bernstein, calling him a "muddleheaded revisionist" betraying the cause of the working class. Unlike these leading Marxist theorists, however, Bernstein proved himself to be a skillful orator and organizer who recognized the importance of practical politics. Allowed to return to Berlin in 1901 after twenty-three years of political exile, he was elected to the Reichstag, the German parliament, and served from 1902 to 1906, 1912 to 1918, and 1920 to 1928.

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. Three years later, when the Bolsheviks successfully seized power in Russia, 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 (1918–1933), 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. Eduard Bernstein died on 18 December 1932, only six weeks before Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.

See alsoEngels, Friedrich; Kautsky, Karl; Lenin, Vladimir; Marx, Karl; Second International; Socialism.


Primary Sources

Bernstein, Eduard. The Preconditions of Socialism. Edited and translated by Henry Tudor. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993.

——. Selected Writings of Eduard Bernstein, 1900–1921. Edited and translated by Manfred B. Steger. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1996.

Secondary Sources

Gay, Peter. The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx. New York, 1952.

Steger, Manfred B. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Tudor, Henry, and J. M. Tudor. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate of 1896–98. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Manfred B. Steger

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Eduard Bernstein

The German socialist Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was a leader of the revisionist, or evolutionary, wing of the German Social Democratic party.

Eduard Bernstein was born in Berlin on Jan. 6, 1850. As the family's financial resources were limited, his educational opportunities were restricted, and at 16 he became an apprentice in a bank. Within a few years he had risen to the position of bank clerk. In 1872 he joined the Social Democratic party (SPD) and became an active member of the party's Berlin organization. In 1878, shortly prior to the adoption of Chancellor Bismarck's antisocialist legislation, Bernstein traveled to Switzerland.

As a consequence of Bismarck's continued hostility toward the socialists, Bernstein remained in Switzerland and became the editor of the official SPD newspaper. After Bismarck brought pressure to bear in order to halt the smuggling of the newspaper into Germany, the Swiss government forced Bernstein to leave in 1880. He then went to London, where he met the German socialist Friedrich Engels, eventually becoming one of his close associates. Bernstein was also able to study the British labor movement and associate with the recently organized Fabian Society, an organization of socialists. Early Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb rejected revolutionary Marxism and advocated what they termed "the inevitability of gradualness." This idea was to form a central part of Bernstein's mature "revisionist" position.

During the 1890s Bernstein began to make his break with orthodox Marxism clear. His revisionist position emerged in a series of articles in an official party publication, Die neue Zeit, in 1898. The reaction to these articles by groups within the SPD caused him to write a defense, Evolutionary Socialism (1899). In this classic statement of the revisionist position, Bernstein used scientific analysis to attack the premises of revolutionary Marxism. He demonstrated through statistics that workers were not becoming more impoverished and that capitalism was not becoming less stable and thus its collapse was not imminent. He rejected revolutionary tactics as self-defeating and advocated achieving reforms through moderate and constitutional methods. He also urged that the SPD, a working-class party, should attempt to win over the middle classes. Revisionism was officially condemned by the SPD in 1903, and the polarization of the party's revolutionary and evolutionary wings existed until after World War II.

By his death in 1932 Bernstein had long since ceased to be regarded as a leader or major theorist of the SPD. But when the party was reorganized in West Germany after World War II, many of Bernstein's ideas were incorporated in its programs. 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.

Further Reading

Bernstein's major work, Evolutionary Socialism! A Criticism and Affirmation, is available in a good translation by Edith C. Harvey, with an excellent introduction by Sidney Hook (1961). The best study in English of Bernstein's life and work is Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx (1952). For background see George Lichtheim, Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (1961; 2d ed. 1964).

Additional Sources

Bernstein, Eduard, My years of exile: reminiscences of a socialist, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. □

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BERNSTEIN, EDUARD (1850–1932), German socialist theoretician, spokesman for the socalled revisionist group which challenged orthodox Marxist doctrines. Born in Berlin, Bernstein was the son of a Jewish engine driver. He joined the Social Democratic Party in 1872 and participated in the creation of the important Gotha program (1875). In 1878, Bernstein was forced to leave Germany after the enactment of the anti-socialist legislation. He lived first in Switzerland, where he edited the Sozialdemokrat, and then in London. It was while he was in London that he published his principal work Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (1899; Evolutionary Socialism, 1909), in which he set out his nonconformist Marxist interpretation of history. Bernstein contested the view of the inevitable collapse of capitalism and urged the socialists to become a party of reform. His views were vehemently opposed as heretical by most of the party but gained numerous adherents, the socalled "revisionists." In 1901 Bernstein returned to Germany and sat in the Reichstag from 1902 to 1906 and from 1912 to 1918. In World War i his pacifist views led him to disassociate himself from the right-wing faction and join the left-wing independent socialists who opposed the war. He returned to the majority party in 1918 and sat in the Reichstag again as a Social Democrat from 1920 to 1928. Concerning Judaism, Bernstein grew up in a Reform-oriented environment; Aaron David *Bernstein was his father's brother. Thus, Eduard Bernstein was aware of Jewish traditions and ideas, but not interested in them. Nevertheless, throughout his tenure as a deputy in the Reichstag, he was an active fighter for Jewish emancipation and against antisemitism. In common with many Jewish socialists of the time, Bernstein left the Jewish community because the party disapproved of all religious affiliations. During World War i, however, he began to rethink his conception of being Jewish in the modern world. In his book Die Aufgaben der Juden im Weltkriege (1917) he argued that because of their dispersion and universalist ideas, the Jews should be the pioneers of an internationalism which would unite nations and prevent war. Towards the end of World War i, he got in touch with the *Po'alei Zion movement, and established close contacts with Zalman Rubashov (later *Shazar, third president of Israel). During the Weimar Republik, Bernstein became an active supporter of East European Jews. Because of their specific situation he accepted a distinct Jewish nationalism among them, while he disapproved of the same for Western and Central European Jews. Toward the end of his life, he came to support the concept of a Jewish national home in Palestine and became a leader of the "International Socialist Pro-Palestine Committee." Bernstein's writings include his autobiography Erinnerungen eines Sozialisten (1918; My Years of Exile, 1921), Ferdinand Lassalle (1919); Die Deutsche Revolution (1921), and Sozialismus und Demokratie in der grossen Englischen Revolution (1922; Cromwell and Communism, 1930).


G. Lichtheim, Marxism (1961), index; P. Angel, Eduard Bernstein et l'évolution du socialisme allemand (1961); P. Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx (1952); E. Silberner, in: hj, 15 (1953), 3–48. add. bibliography: R. Heuer (ed.), Lexikon deutsch-juedischer Autoren, 2 (1993), 301–38, bibl.; L. Heid, in: E. Bernstein, Texte in juedischen Angelegenheiten (2004), 13–56.

[Robert Weltsch /

Marcus Pyka (2nd ed.)]

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Bernstein, Eduard (1850–1932) As the leading revisionist thinker of the German Social Democratic Party, Bernstein sought to cleanse the party's ideology of what he regarded as its anachronistic Marxist assumptions and ideas. At the philosophical level and on the basis of a newly assertive neo-Kantianism, he rejected the positivism and evolutionism, as well as the residual Hegelianism that he detected in orthodox Marxism. Consequently, at the political level he challenged the immiseration and proletarianization theses as applied to capitalist societies, as well as the amorality, fatalism, and pessimism that underpinned them. For Bernstein, then, socialism represented not just a distant goal, but also an ethical ideal that possessed far more than mere inspirational significance in the present. In sum, despite his often misread statement ‘the movement is everything, the goal nothing’, Bernstein came to stand for a socialist gradualism that should be distinguished from mere reformism (see P. Gay 's book about ‘Bernstein's challenge to Marx’, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, 1952
). See also KAUTSKY, KARL.