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January 6: Eduard Bernstein and Evolutionary Socialism

January 6, 2016

bernstein_eduardEduard Bernstein, author of Evolutionary Socialism (1899), whose faith in the nonviolent reform of capitalism through labor union activity and parliamentary politics posed a powerful challenge to Karl Marx’s predictions about the coming proletarian revolution, was born in Berlin on this date in 1850. In exile from Germany during the late 1870s, and expelled a decade later from Switzerland, Bernstein sojourned in London and became a close associate to Frederick Engels and members of the socialist Fabian Society. In 1895, responding to the persecutions of Oscar Wilde, Bernstein stood out among socialists in urging an end to the persecution of homosexuals. “[W]hat is not unnatural?” he wrote. “Our entire cultural existence, our mode of life from morning to night is a constant offense against nature, against the original preconditions of our existence. If it was only a question of what was natural, then the worst sexual excess would be no more objectionable than, say, writing a letter...” In 1901, Bernstein returned to Germany, where he was elected to the Reichstag (1902-06, 1912-18) as a leader of the Social Democrat Party. In general, he was an opponent of more revolutionary Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, and Rosa Luxemburg (Luxemburg’s 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? was a polemic against Bernstein), but he joined them in opposing World War I and in forming the Independent Socialist Party in 1917. In postwar Germany, Bernstein served as secretary of state for economy and finance and made powerful speeches in the Reichstag against the rising Nazi Party. He died in his home city in 1932.

The Communist Manifesto was correct but we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding to democratic organizations. In my judgment success lies in a steady [peaceful] advance [rather] than in a catastrophic crash.” —Eduard Bernstein