Bernstein began his revision of the Social-Democracy by abandoning the theory of capitalist collapse. The latter, however, is the corner-stone of scientific socialism. By rejecting it Bernstein also rejects the whole doctrine of socialism. In the course of his discussion, he abandons one after another of the positions of socialism in order to be able to maintain his first affirmation.
Without the collapse of capitalism the expropriation of the capitalist class is impossible. Bernstein therefore renounces expropriation and chooses a progressive realisation of the ‘co-operative principle’ as the aim of the labour movement.
But co-operation cannot be realised without capitalist production. Bernstein, therefore, renounces the socialisation of production and merely proposes to reform commerce and to develop consumers’ co-operatives.
But the transformation of society through consumers’ co-operatives, even by means of trade unions, is incompatible with the real material development of capitalist society. Therefore, Bernstein abandons the materialist conception of history.
But his conception of the march of economic development is incompatible with the Marxist theory of surplus-value. Therefore, Bernstein abandons the theory of value and surplus-value and, in this way, the whole economic system of Karl Marx.
But the struggle of the proletariat cannot be carried on without a given final aim and without an economic base found in the existing society. Bernstein, therefore, abandons the class struggle and speaks of reconciliation with bourgeois liberalism.
But in a class society, the class struggle is a natural and unavoidable phenomenon. Bernstein, therefore, contests even the existence of classes in society. The working class is for him a mass of individuals, divided politically and intellectually but also economically. And the bourgeoisie, according to him, does not group itself politically in accordance with its inner economic interest but only because of exterior pressure from above and below.
But if there is no economic base for the class struggle and, if consequently, there are no classes in our society, not only the future but even the past struggles of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie appear to be impossible and the Social-Democracy and its successes seem absolutely incomprehensible or they can be understood only as the results of political pressure by the government – that is, not as the natural consequence of historic development but as the fortuitous consequences of the policy of the Hohenzollern not as the legitimate offspring of capitalist society but as the legitimate offspring of capitalist society but as the bastard children of reaction. Rigorously logical, in this respect, Bernstein passes from the materialist conception of history to the outlook of the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Vossische Zeitung.
After rejecting the socialist criticism of capitalist society, it is easy for Bernstein to find the present state of affairs satisfactory – at least in a general way. Bernstein does not hesitate. He discovers that at the present time reaction is not very strong in Germany, that “we cannot speak of political reaction in the countries of western Europe,” and that in all the countries of the West “the attitude of the bourgeois classes toward the socialist movement is at most an attitude of defence and not one of oppression” (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899). Far from becoming worse, the situation of the workers is getting better. Indeed, the bourgeoisie is politically progressive and morally sane. We cannot speak either of reaction or oppression. It is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds…
Bernstein thus travels in logical sequence from A to Z. He began by abandoning the final aim and supposedly keeping the movement. But as there can be no socialist movement without a socialist aim he ends by renouncing the movement.
And thus Bernstein’s conception of socialism collapses entirely. The proud and admirable symmetric construction of socialist thought becomes for him a pile of rubbish in which the debris of all systems, the pieces of thought of various great and small minds, find a common resting place. Marx and Proudhon, Leon von Buch and Franz Oppenheimer, Friedrich Albert Lange and Kant, Herr Prokopovich and R. Ritter von Neupauer, Herkner, and Schulze-Gävernitz, Lassalle and Professor Julius Wolff: all contribute something to Bernstein’s system. From each he takes a little. There is nothing astonishing about that. For when he abandoned scientific socialism he lost the axis of intellectual crystallisation around which isolated facts group themselves in the organic whole of a coherent conception of the world.
His doctrine, composed of bits of all possible systems, seems upon first consideration to be completely free from prejudices. For Bernstein does not like talk of ‘party science,’ or to be more exact, of class science, any more than he likes to talk of class liberalism or class morality. He thinks he succeeds in expressing human, general, abstract science, abstract liberalism, abstract morality. But since the society of reality is made up of classes which have diametrically opposed interests, aspirations and conceptions, a general human science in social questions, an abstract liberalism, an abstract morality, are at present illusions, pure utopia. The science, the democracy, the morality, considered by Bernstein as general, human, are merely the dominant science, dominant democracy and dominant morality that is, bourgeois science, bourgeois democracy, bourgeois morality.
When Bernstein rejects the economic doctrine of Marx in order to swear by the teachings of Bretano, Böhm-Bawerk, Jevons, Say and Julius Wolff, he exchanges the scientific base of the emancipation of the working class for the apologetics of the bourgeoisie. When he speaks of the generally human character of liberalism and transforms socialism into a variety of liberalism, he deprives the socialist movement (generally) of its class character and consequently of its historic content, consequently of all content; and conversely, recognises the class representing liberalism in history, the bourgeoisie, as the champion of the general interests of humanity.
And when he wars against “raising of the material factors to the rank of an all-powerful force of development,” when he protests against the so-called “contempt for the ideal” that is supposed to rule the Social-Democracy, when he presumes to talk for idealism, for morals, pronouncing himself at the same time against the only source of the moral rebirth of the proletariat, a revolutionary class struggle – he does no more than the following: preach to the working class the quintessence of the morality of the bourgeoisie, that is, reconciliation with the existing social order and the transfer of the hopes of the proletariat to the limbo of ethical simulacra.
When he directs his keenest arrows against our dialectic system, he is really attacking the specific mode of thought employed by the conscious proletariat in its struggle for liberation. It is an attempt to break the sword that has helped the proletariat to pierce the darkness of its future. It is an attempt to shatter the intellectual arm with the aid of which the proletariat, though materially under the yoke of the bourgeoisie, is yet enabled to triumph over the bourgeoisie. For it is our dialectical system that shows to the working class the transitory nature of this yoke, proving to workers the inevitability of their victory and is already realising a revolution in the domain of thought. Saying good-bye to our system of dialectics and resorting instead to the intellectual see-saw of the well known “on the one hand – on the other hand,” “yes – but,” “although – however,” “more – less,” etc., he quite logically lapses into a mode of thought that belongs historically to the bourgeoisie in decline, being the faithful intellectual reflection of the social existence and political activity of the bourgeoisie at that stage. The political “on the one hand – on the other hand,” “yes – but” of the bourgeoisie today resembles, in a marked degree, Bernstein’s manner of thinking which is the sharpest and surest proof of the bourgeois nature of his conception of the world.
But, as it us used by Bernstein, the word ‘bourgeois’ itself is not a class expression but a general social notion. Logical to the end he has exchanged, together with his science, politics, morals and mode of thinking, the historic language of the proletariat for that of the bourgeoisie. When he uses, without distinction, the term ‘citizen’ in reference to the bourgeois as well as to the proletarian intending, thereby, to refer to man in general, he identifies man in general with the bourgeois and human society with bourgeois society.