Eduard Bernstein,

by Mustafa Genc, March, 1999

Read excerpts Bernstein's  Evolutionary Socialism


Eduard Bernstein was a German Social Democratic leader and writer born in Berlin in 1850. In 1872 he joined the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD)). Bernstein rejected the arguments by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for the violent overthrow of capitalism and instead, he developed the theory of revisionism, emphasizing evolutionary rather than revolutionary methods to bring about a socialist society (Steger).

Revisionism attempted to challenge many of Marx’s key ideas. In so doing, it led socialism away from a revolutionary nature and instead emphasized working within the state to better conditions for the working class. Revisionism is perhaps best summed up by Bernstein’s statement that "the socialist movement is everything to me while what people commonly call the goal of Socialism is nothing"(Steger). By this he meant that the Socialist movement was more important than its revolutionary goals. For Bernstein the movement was its own goal. Bernstein rationalized this change as being necessary to update Marxism to the present conditions, which Bernstein saw as not following Marx’s predictions.


Bernstein challenged Marx’s key notion that capitalism would lead to a two-class society. Marx had predicted that the middle class would disappear, and that the class conflict of these remaining two would lead to a socialist revolution. Bernstein, however, pointed out that the present conditions did not validate this prediction. The middle class was not disappearing in Germany. The growth of white-collar jobs, particularly in the greatly expanding civil service, actually caused an increase in the lower-middle class. Moreover, small business and small-scale farms were not disappearing. Bernstein also pointed out that those who owned property, which he associated with the middle class, were growing in number as shown by the increase in shareholders in joint-stock companies.

He also pointed to England, where, he argued, the ownership of farmland was being distributed among more people. This was the result of the breakup of large farms that were experiencing difficulties due to the great migration of agricultural laborers to the cities. Thus, Bernstein concluded that economic development was not destroying the middle class, but increasing its size. As he put it, "The middle classes change their character, but they do not disappear from the social scale"(Steger).


Bernstein also challenged Marx’s claim that the poor would become poorer, that the working class would become increasingly impoverished and unemployed. Bernstein stated that the opposite was occurring. The ever increasing wealth of the German economy was being distributed to the entire population. Bernstein did not claim this was an equal distribution, but that all classes were improving their position. Most importantly, real wages were rising in the period from 1880 until the turn of the century. This was represented by the percentage of a working-class family’s income spent on necessary food, which dropped from fifty-eight in 1850 to thirty-three in 1918 (Steger2).


Mass-production also made a greater quantity of goods available to all, including the working class. Bismarck’s social legislation of old age and sickness insurance, though limited, and a decrease in the average work day toward the workers’ demands of ten hours (down from the common fourteen hour day of the 1870’s), both worked to improve the lot of the worker (Steger2). Mass unemployment, despite increased labor productivity and technological advancements, also did not occur as predicted. Bernstein did not mean to imply that workers enjoyed grand lives or that poverty was erased, but rather, that workers' lives were generally improving. Marx’s predictions with regards to the working class were once again not coming to fruition.


The last of Marx’s predictions that Bernstein refuted was the inevitable collapse of capitalism. Bernstein once again turned to the statistics. He pointed out that despite periodic downturns in the economy, capitalism had demonstrated its ability to pick itself up and emerge stronger than before. Over the long run, Bernstein argued, capitalism was growing increasingly larger, and disturbances to that trend were becoming rarer and less severe. Improving communications and transport, the growth of cartels, and the rise of the credit system all helped capitalism to deal with its own ills. It should be noted that Bernstein did not believe that capitalism would never fall, but he did argue that he could not see that happening in the immediate future.

All of these failed predictions led Bernstein to turn away from Marx’s dialectic of the inevitable socialist revolution. His position is best summarized in his own words:

Peasants do not sink; middle class does not disappear; crises do not grow ever larger; misery and serfdom do not increase. There is increase in security, dependence, social distance, social character of production, and functional superfluity of property owners (Steger).


Bernstein was a real ‘Social Democrat’ in the exact sense of the term. He had an intrinsic and strong belief in democracy, which he saw as abolishing the class rule. This would be accomplished because democracy teaches the classes to work with each other. He believed that the SPD should fight for parliamentary democracy instead of waiting for the socialist revolution. Democracy, however, could only be accomplished through cooperation with other groups in the social system. Part of revisionism thus called for the SPD to work with other parties in the Reichstag.

Bernstein’s own personal belief in the value and power of democracy clearly played a large factor in revisionism. As shown, Bernstein’s Revisionism was a unique blend of many different elements. On the theoretical level it was spurred by Bernstein’s rejection of Marx’s basic predictions on the future of capitalism. Bernstein refuted the supposed disappearance of the middle class by demonstrating that it was in fact growing through white-collar job creation, share-holdings, and more dispersed land ownership. The impoverishment of the working class was countered by the increase in real wages, the greater availability of consumer goods and the better working conditions of the workers. The inevitable collapse of capitalism was also not expected by Bernstein, who pointed out that trends demonstrated that capitalism was actually strong against crisis and seemed unlikely to collapse.


Unfortunately, while many might have agreed with his practical views on SPD parliamentarism, there was no real support for his theoretical challenge to Marx. As such, Bernstein and revisionism were solidly rejected by the SPD. This was the result of both the deep roots that Marxism had taken within the party and the importance of Marxism as a rallying point for the workers.



1- Steger, Manfred. Selected Writings Of Eduard Bernstein, 1920-1921. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996.

2- Steger, Manfred. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 1997.



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