Examines the relationship between Marx and Engels in developing Marxism and the impact of Eduard Bernsteinís criticisms. Suggests how Bernsteinís ideas may help define socialismís future.
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What is your affiliation and your most relevant book dealing with socialism?
My name is Manfred Steger. I teach at Illinois State University and Iím also affiliated with the University of Hawaii, the Globalization Research Center in Honolulu. My most recent book is on globalization. Itís called Globalism, the New Market Ideology and Iím also the author of The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism, Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy.
Who was Eduard Bernstein?
Eduard Bernstein was the first leading socialist who openly recognized that Marxist theory was no longer in sync with Marxist practice, particularly the practice of the German Social Democratic Party. And it was also no longer in sync with the social conditions in Germany.
Why did many people see Bernstein as an heir apparent to Marx and Engels?
Eduard Bernstein was one of the few socialists at the time who joined a Social Democratic Party very early on and had a lot of practical experience. He was the editor of the main newspaper and party newspaper. In 1878, he was exiled to Switzerland and produced a newspaper from Switzerland, which was smuggled into Germany for about over ten years and he was also the editor-in-chief. Therefore, he was one of the most influential people in not only publishing other socialists, but also maintaining a steady contact with Marx and Engels in London.
How did his relationship with Marx and Engels play out?
For one thing, he was always very meticulous about asking Marx and Engels whether they thought that his articles were actually reflecting Marxist theory. So, he was known to be very honest, very forthright, and a very busy correspondent. Also, he would keep in touch with the German Social Democratic Party leaders. People relied on him. He was very outgoing and very open. He was an easygoing person, and in that sense he was a people person, as well as a thinker. I think a combination of that and people knowing that he was the lynchpin connecting the Party to Marx and Engels made him so important.
What made Bernstein begin to questions the premises of Marxism?
Bernstein came to London in 1888, and that was about ten years after he went into exile in Switzerland. I think that one of the major points was that at the time he was not aware of the possibility of a repressed mob between liberals and socialists. In England, he saw that the liberals and the socialists were not exactly enemies or were in opposite ends, but in many ways they worked with each other and he saw for the first time that there was a possibility of perhaps making coalitions and alliances with liberals. The liberal camp was not the absolute enemy, but perhaps parts of the liberal camp could be won over or at least worked with. So, in a sense this atmosphere of toleration, of openness, of pluralism that was there in England, at the time, deeply influenced him.
According to Marxist theory, the workers were supposed to be getting increasingly poor and increasingly revolutionary. However, Bernstein saw something different going on in London.
Iím not sure if itís just what he saw in London, but it also has a lot to do with what he read at the time. His contacts with Engels, particularly the third volume of Capital that Engels was editing and that was finally published in 1894, did not meet expectations in the socialist world. There were a number of reasons that went into his increasing doubts. When Engels died in 1895, for the first time, the German Social Democratic Party had no church fathers to look up to. In other words, Marx and Engels both were dead and they were trying to look for an authoritative voice. Bernstein was one of the people who was now free to provide that authoritative voice. He very slowly let these doubts become ten, fifteen page articles that he published. He let these doubts be known to his friends. He began to build on these doubts and develop a revisionist's understanding of Marxism.
Do you think he was envisioning that socialism and capitalism could exist together or what exactly was he trying to say about that?
I think that he thought capitalism was evolving along the lines of becoming more and more inclusive of the working class, which meant that he thought capitalism could evolve into a capitalism with a human face, with a socialist face. Particularly, he thought of liberalism as a doctrine and, as well as, a movement that evolved and developed to become more inclusive. He thought that capitalism could do the same thing and had some empirical evidence that it was actually taking place. So, I think that in many ways he was trying to get across that capitalism was not the absolute enemy, but capitalism too was changeable.
So maybe a conversion from one to the other?
No. I wouldnít even say conversion. He would think that something like capitalism losing its most vicious features, becoming milder, and almost piecemeal, step-by-step, is something like socialism. It wouldnít be in the Marxist sense, but nonetheless something fundamentally different from what it was in the mid nineteenth century.
How did all the Marxist revolutionaries react? What was their immediate response to these criticisms?
You have to understand that Bernstein understood perfectly that what he was saying would cause problems in the Party. He felt that he would do the Party a service by actually being open and saying, ďlook, your theoretical vision is no longer confirmed by actual empirical developments and what we, therefore, have to do is somehow change and revise theory in order to bring it back into sync with socialist practice. And, if we do that, we will succeed in the new century, a century that was no longer going to be revolutionary Marxism, but it was going to be reformist socialism.Ē He thought that on one hand it would cause problems, but on the other hand he thought that some people would be open to it. He knew it was a struggle to convince the revolutionaries, but many of the revolutionaries were revolutionaries by name only. The actual Party practice at the time was deeply reformist and was preceding along the lines of what Bernstein was saying anyway. Ignaz Auer, who was the Partyís secretary of the German Socialists at the time, really put it well when he said to Bernstein, ďwell, you know, Edward, what you just said you may think to yourself, but you never say it aloud.Ē Why did he say that? Because he said Auer thought that if Bernstein was really saying this aloud, this meant that he was taking away once again this final goal, this vision, this aspiration, this idea that history was moving in extractable towards this final goal, this socialist vision, and that would mean that the entire vision would be undermined.
Do you think that Bernstein saw his revisionism as a fundamental rejection of Marxism?
No, Bernstein did not see his revisionism as a fundamental rejection of Marxist socialism. He really saw it as a revision and thought that if Marx were alive in the 1890s, he would have to deal as well with the changed social conditions. After all, the beginning of revisionism is an empirical study of the social conditions, which showed that the middle classes were not disappearing. It showed that the working class was not getting poorer. It showed that small and middle sized farms were not disappearing. It showed that, therefore, the Marxist vision somehow something was wrong with it and he thought that Marx, the scientific socialist he was, would understand that and revise his theory accordingly. So, he thought that he was really implying the scientific spirit, the critical scientific spirit that Marx had to the 1890s. Therefore, he thought that he was continuing on this Marxist project. But, I think somewhere, at some point, maybe near the twentieth century, he consciously realized that he could no longer save Marxís theories. At that point, I think he was aware of the fact that he had departed and that what he was proposing was something that was fundamentally different from the original project.
How did Bernsteinís writings and criticisms set the stage for a new kind of socialism that began to develop as the twentieth century wore on?
Itís interesting because Bernsteinís writings, after they were rejected by the majority of delegates at the various Party conferences, were not really paid very much attention to until World War I. The end of World War I, with the beginning of the Republic and with the beginning of a democratic system in Germany, when the social democrats came into power, they realized that the actually existing conditions made it necessary to no longer talk about revolution, but talk about reform. They naturally turned to Bernstein, and one of the first things that Bernstein did after World War I, was to really set the stage for reformist. His revisionist ideas really started to influence the Party to the point where they formed a foundation of the new program.
What aspects of social democracy, as it existed immediately after World War II, reflect the intellectual political legacy of Eduard Bernstein?
Itís very ironic that Eduard Bernsteinís revisionism fully flowers only after he died. He died in 1932, and after World War II, the conditions for this reformist socialism were ripe. It was the age of reformed capitalism and the understanding that capitalism and the working class had to somehow get along. Naturally, people were turning to Bernstein and realizing only then in the 1950s that actually Bernsteinís vision was the vision of the time and many of his phrases, many of his formulations, and many of his ideas found their way into various Party programs, not just in the United Kingdom, but also in Germany.
What kind of guy was Engels in his late teens and early twenties?
Engels was a bit of a rebel. I think he was the typical frat boy in many ways. He was very interested in the military and in sports. He was a very good fencer. He was also an intellectual. He was interested in learning languages, reading romantic novels and then acting them out. He loved pubs. He loved beer. He loved good conversations. He loved women. He was the bon vivant. He was in many ways the kind of person you would immediately recognize as a leader and as somebody people would congregate around.
He goes to Manchester because his parents sent him there, but he was happy because he heard the revolution was going to break out there any way. In the early 1840s, what themes did he start developing in his writing?
While Engels was in Manchester, he realized that the conditions of the working class in industrialized countries was miserable and the key to understanding how to improve the misery of the working in his view lay in political economy. So, he became an avid student of political economy. He also put his journalistic expertise to use to witness the conditions of workers. He meticulously documented, wrote it down, and it would later become a minor classic, The Conditions of the Working Class in England.
What do you mean precisely when you say he became interested in political economy?
When Engels became interested in political economy it meant that he thought there was a way of understanding political economy as a movement that had certain law like qualities. In other words, there was a secret key that he needed to unlock the mysteries of the development of capitalism and by observing what these regularities are, he thought that he would be able to develop a coherent theory. For example, he wrote down notes, outlines of a critique of political economy, which later deeply influenced Karl Marx, which became in many ways, the very foundation of Capital, Volume One.
He started talking about the idea that the workers were going to rise up even that early, right?
Engels saw that the working class was miserable and at the same time, he was also envisioning a sort of salvation of the working class in terms of history providing a fertile ground for revolution. He understood that the workers, sooner or later, would understand that history was working in their favor. Therefore, history would radicalize them and by being radicalized, workers would no longer passively see themselves as victims of capitalism, but would actively seek to change it.
How would you compare Engels and Marx?
Marx was clearly the person who was intellectually the leader or at least he saw himself that way. He was very powerfully built. He had piercing dark eyes. He did not speak much, but when he spoke, people were listening to him. He had a commanding voice, and Engels, on the other hand, was more relaxed. He was more social. He was more gregarious and was also willing to rethink certain issues more than Marx and in that sense they were a very good pair. Marx was the one who tried to immediately come out with his ideas and it was very hard to sway him once he formulated these ideas. Whereas Engels was willing to listen to Marxís ideas, but then actually went back and forth until he found that this theory had passed the test or had not passed, and then if it didnít pass the test, he was willing to change it.
Who had done the most writing and who was the most accomplished in those terms?
Philosophically, Karl Marx was more accomplished, but at the same time I think that Engels was the one who had done more thinking on political economy interestingly enough. Marx was the expert on philosophy in terms of having read Hagle and others who were critiques of religion. Engels too had read Hegel, but Engels had done more work on political economy, and, therefore, his understanding of political economy was actually what made Marx change his mind by warming up to Engels. Initially they had met in 1842, when Marx had received Engels very coldly. Then in 1844, Marx immediately understood that the work Engels had done on political economy was extremely important and they developed a very close relationship.
How accomplished was Marx by this point ?
Marx had written quite a lot of journalistic articles. He had hoped to become a professor, but this didnít turn out because of his radical ideas, so, he turned to journalism. In that sense, he had written a lot, but it was journalistic writing. It wasnít too much in terms of political economy. He had, of course, done his Ph.D. dissertation, but most of his writing experience was journalistic.
Do you think that Engelsí role in terms of creating this thing that we now know as Marxism is generally under appreciated?
I think itís true that Engels was in many ways the leading popular riser of Marx and that this has not been acknowledged enough. Although there are some scholars like Tara La Carver who have pointed to the importance of Engels as a popularizer. Now itís one thing to say that Engels popularized Marxís writings. Itís another thing to say that therefore, Engels kind of developed his own ideas apart from Marx. In my view, Marx and Engels relied on all fundamental, which are the fundamental points agreed and Engels had a knack for simplifying Marxís theories to the point where he was the one whose writings were picked up by the German Social Democrats, by the workers. They could read Engels. They could not read Marx.
You couldnít have had Marxism without Engels on some level, right?
You certainly could not have had Marxism without Engels. Absolutely correct.
Is it true that Marx had a lifelong dependence on Engels?
Karl Marx was very dependent on Engels. I think intellectually, as well as, financially. Engels provided a monthly stipend to Karl Marx and when Engels retired at the early age of 50, he actually wrote a letter to Marx saying, ďnow please let me know how much money you need, what are your debts, and I will pay off these debts.Ē Marx wrote him back after a couple of weeks and Engels paid off those debts. But interestingly enoughí about a month or two later, Marx wrote again to Engels and said, ďwell you know, my daughter did the calculations and I have to say she made a mistake. I actually need another 170 pounds.Ē At that point, Engels got a little bit angry with Marx and said to him, ďwell Iím going to pay this one more time, but you canít make those mistakes in the future any more.Ē I think that this little story just shows that Marx in many ways was completely at ease with a sense of Engels being his lifelong benefactor.
What was the main idea of their work? Whatís the thing that we should take away from the Communist Manifesto?
I think the one idea that we should take away from the Communist Manifesto is that history is moving towards socialism. That history is a series of struggles between classes. Under capitalism, these classes are only two, which are the workers and the capitalists. The struggle is a protracted one, but eventually it will end in a total victory of the working class in a revolution that will bring about a fundamentally different society, a new society that is no longer based on private property, but yet a society that is based on solidarity, mutuality, and collectivity. Another very unappreciated aspect of the Communist Manifesto is part three where Marx and Engels blast all other brands of socialism, including utopian socialism, and then tried to get across to readers that their understanding of socialism is the one that is actually in sync with current social conditions and that all previous understandings of socialism no longer apply. Therefore, what theyíre trying to do is to monopolize socialism and consciously or unconsciously make socialism Marxist socialism, which would change forever the face of socialism.
What was Marx hoping to accomplish with Das Capital?
What Marx was hoping to accomplish with Capital was to lay bare the workings of political economy, to finally show to workers how they were exploited, why they were exploited and what would be an ends to exploitation. To prove this scientifically and to show where exploitation actually occurred was the main goal of Capital, Volume One.
Would it be accurate to say that heís sort of trying to prove what he had already said in the Communist Manifesto, but in a scientific way?
I think itís true that Karl Marx tried in Capital to prove what he already had said in the Communist Manifesto, but in addition to that, he wanted to speak to a different audience. He wanted to speak to not just ordinary workers, but he wanted to speak to political economists, to academics, to people in all walks of life, and especially to people who were very, very skeptical about the ability of workers to actually come to power and in that sense to offer scientific proof that what they had laid out in programmatic language in a very much a kind of a rhetorical language in the Communist Manifesto, which could actually be proven in a scientific way.
Why was Das Capital such an important landmark in the development of Marxism?
Capital was an important landmark in the development of Marxist socialism because for the first time it formulates scientifically where exploitation occurs, why it occurs, and how exploitation could be eliminated. In that sense, in the scientific tenor of the time, after all we have to understand that weíre talking about the nineteenth century here, Marx had accomplished at least in the mind of many socialists what Darwin had accomplished for biology. He had laid bare the development of economic laws that were working capitalism. He had shown how those laws actually work, how they function, where they are going, and in that sense he had revealed the motor of the history, economic development.
Marxism at some point begins to take on the aura of not only sort of a scientific truth but also a religious faith.
Itís very important to realize that Marxism was not really very important in the early workers movement in Europe. Marx and Engels were sitting in London or Manchester where they were writing their radical revolutionary political tracks and the actual daily work of socialist movements on the continent, which was very little influenced by their writings and by their teachings. Itís not until the 1870s, when Engels writes a very famous work called The Anti-During. Here he basically criticizes an ethical socialist by the name of Eugene During that the workers, in Germany particularly, begin to understand Marxism more clearly and understand the power of Marxist theory because of the imperfection that Engels had provided. After all, Marxism was very, very abstract and it was not very accessible to the ordinary worker. Engelsí 1878 Anti-During simplified it, made it clear, and broke it into easily understandable parts. At that point, the broad membership of this German Social Democratic Party could relate to Marxism and actually find in it some sort of almost religious faith or at least ethical faith in a sense that they were not doomed by capitalism, that they were not caged by capitalism, but they could break out of this cage and that history was on their side.
What was Engelsí role in promoting Marxís work and Marxism?
Engelsí role in promoting Marxism was enormous. He had an incredible talent for simplifying some of the most abstract parts of Marxist theory and make it accessible to ordinary workers. For instance, when Engels wrote about the fact that history would eventually be on the side of the working class because there were certain kinds of laws and then specified what these laws were. It became clear to ordinary workers that there was something incredibly powerful in Marxís theory that they had not previously ever encountered. Socialism was not just about small communities and experiments, but socialism was written into history and Engels was the person who actually brought that message to them.
How did that lead into the development of international socialists?
The workers movement in Germany was already quite developed in the 1870s and therefore, it was ripe to receive Marxism from Engels and use it as their main doctrine, as their main theory. They didnít have to start from scratch. They already had organizations. They already had agitators, speakers who, like Eduard Bernstein, who would go and offer stump speeches to various audiences. Therefore, they already had a very good social network and knew how to talk to workers. What they did not have was a powerful, easily understandable theory that would convince workers that by engaging capitalism, by trying to change capitalism, that they were actually going to succeed.
Marxism provided sort of that unifying theory?
Marxism provided the unifying theory that the workers in many ways lacked at the time, yes.
Can you explain how Marxism becomes more than just a set of political ideas but instead a method of analysis and a way of viewing history?
We have to understand that Marxism originally was theoretical. In other words, it was not something that was actually being picked up by a real movement. The real movement was already there in Germany and they did not have the unifying doctrine that they were looking for. Once they received Marxism and accepted Marxism, through Engels, then Marxism really came alive and only then would you get the further development of additional theories. The second generation of Marxist theorists who would then take a look at the old ideas and try to either revise them or accept them, modify them or just reflect on them and offer new socialist writings.
How do you think that the disintegration of the Soviet Union changed the debate over socialism future?
The collapse of the Soviet Union was good for socialism because it freed socialism from the yolk of Marxism-Leninism. In other words, by collapsing the Soviet style, Marxist-Leninism could no longer claim for itself the prominence that it had for over three, or some people say five, decades. By freeing up socialism, it allowed people to rethink socialism, which is, I think, the phase where weíre in right now today.
What is the state of socialism today?
I think what is really dead about socialism is the Marxist understanding that the working class will seize political power through a revolution. Thatís in many ways the central idea of Marxist socialism. I think that at the beginning of the twenty-first century we can safely say that this is not the case. One of the reasons why we can safely say that itís not the case is because in the early twenty-first century the industrial working class no longer is as important as it was during the nineteenth century.
What parts do you think are still alive?
Eduard Bernstein once was asked what definition of socialism he had to offer and he said that when he was teaching in the Socialist Party School, he asked that question to four workers. One of them, a seventy-five year old man, wrote down just one word on a piece of paper. His one word was solidarity. I think solidarity, now understood as a feeling of common humanity and as a recognition of social independence, is what is very much alive. All we have to do is turn to Seattle and the anti-globalist protests. All we have to do is turn to Iraq and the anti-war protests. All of these protests are about what? Theyíre about social justice. Theyíre about solidarity. Theyíre about an understanding of seeing humanity as a whole and seeing humanity as an inter-dependent whole, which is the core of socialism and that makes interestingly enough socialism not necessarily a scientific objective enterprise, but an ethical enterprise. Itís a question of morality. Itís a question of ideals. So, socialism as a scientific certainty is dead. Socialism as an ideal, by whatever name, is still alive.
Do you think that the anti-globalization movement is sort of a burgeoning expression of this same impulse that was behind socialism?
The anti-globalist movement, I think, is very much part of the same impulse that created socialism in the nineteenth century. You could almost say itís a twenty-first century expression of that same impulse.
A lot of people say that socialism has become sort of a reactionary movement in the sense that itís always against something rather than being for something.
I think itís unfair to see the anti-globalist movement as just an anti. After all the anti-globalist movement did not create the label of anti-globalist. They see themselves very much in favor of globalization, but a different kind of globalization. Not a free market globalization, but a social globalization. Not a globalization that takes into account only the top layer of the world population, but a globalization that takes into account everybody. Takes into account, as the name suggests, the globe and the people who live on our planet. So, theyíre not just anti, they are pro. And what are they for? They are for social justice. They are for equality. They are for solidarity. They are for all these ideals that 150 years ago sparked this movement called socialism.
You argue that Bernsteinís ideas are directly relevant to the current debate over socialism. In this context, why do you think it might be important to go back and take a look at the history of socialism?
Bernsteinís ideas are directly relevant for today because he is the first to really understand that Marxism or Marxist socialism as a scientific enterprise is not enough. What you need is a commitment to ethical ideals. What you need is a commitment to extending democracy. He says that over and over again. He says we have to understand socialism as solidarity and as an ideal. We have to understand socialism as a project that extends democracy. So, if you think about the current situation today, everybody talks about extending democracy. People may differ on how youíre supposed to do this, but people usually agree that more democracy is better and extending democracy is a project worthwhile and that is exactly Eduard Bernsteinís point. This is the same with regard to solidarity. We live in a world that is increasingly inter-dependent. We live in a globalized world. Inter-dependence is the word of the day and Bernstein is one of the first people who understands, who sees this world, who sees that itís no longer so simple in terms of one class opposing another class, but he sees that inter-dependence means compromise.
So do you think the study of the history of socialism can shed light on things weíre talking about today?
Looking back at the history of socialism, we can really learn a few points that are very important for todayís situation. Take Eduard Bernstein, for example, the father of Marxist revisionism as heís often called, he made two points. One is socialism has to be an ethical commitment, not just a scientific analysis -- an ethical commitment to the idea of solidarity, of common humanity. We need this today more than ever. Secondly, Bernstein understood that socialism has to do with extending democracy. We need to extend the spirit of democracy to all layers of the population, to everybody around the world. In that sense, Bernstein was a great champion of the democratic project. Once again, something that today is extremely important.
A lot of people draw a parallel between classical liberals and orthodox Marxism and their faith of the ability of economic forces to bring about a fundamental and positive change. Do you agree with that?
I do agree with that. I think liberals and orthodox Marxists share a certain economic determinedness, meaning that perhaps in the last instance society is determined by economic forces. Can we really look at economics as the determining factor in all cases or the determining factor per se? I would say thatís a very bad explanation. I think we have to look at more than just one factor. Economics tells us a large part of the story but it does not tell us everything we need to. For example, take into consideration things like religion, morality, factors that orthodox Marxists very often rejected as just, and factors that are dependent on economics. I think we have to re-think that. Culture, ethnicity, race, feminism, and all of these things are part of a larger enterprise.
Did the authors of a lot of the socialist experiments in the twentieth century put too much faith in political factors to brew change?
You have to understand that Marxism is very elegant and very powerful because it says that if we look at economic forces in society, then we can understand everything else. Itís very parsimonious and an elegant model. The truth is that if we give that up, we make things more complicated. But at the same time perhaps we may make them more accurate and giving up economics is paying this price of giving up parsimony. On the other hand, I think it is opening up the door of understanding the workings of society in a more complex, in a more holistic way, and thatís the way we need to understand society in the twenty-first century.
Do you think maybe thereís a lesson to be learned also about the limits of politics?
Of course, orthodox Marxists would say that the failure of the Leninist model shows that ultimately, itís economics that determines everything. In other words, Lenin put his chips on politics and tried to somehow bypass economic development and by the 1980s, it was clear that the Soviet Union could not do that and, therefore, orthodox Marxists would say, ďyou see, itís economics all along, and itís not politics.Ē On the other hand, Marxism-Leninism was around for quite a long time, three generations and to, therefore, say that politics is not important I think would be a mistake. It shows that politics indeed can have a tremendous impact.
We talk a lot in America about this right to pursue happiness. Did socialism try to guarantee the theme itself rather than just the pursuit of it?
I donít think that socialism tried to guarantee the right to happiness. I think that socialism told a class of exploited people that happiness is in the cards for them. It really encouraged and empowered workers to seek that happiness that they previously thought was not going to be part of their fate. So, socialism always encouraged this search for happiness. Sure there were variances of socialism that virtually tried to guarantee that, but I think those dogmatic currents are the ones that will not be remembered in history. I think the ones that will be remembered in history are the ones that say itís in the means towards the end. Itís not in guaranteeing the end itself.
Is there any point that you wanted to make?
Eduard Bernstein once wrote a very important essay of what is commonly understood to be the final goal of socialism. The movement is everything. And I think what he meant by that is that Marxís socialist had paid too much attention to the breakdown of capitalism at some point in the future and had not paid enough attention to the actual development of socialism, which was actually piecemeal, little by little, step by step. So, what Bernstein was trying to say here is not that we have to forget about socialism and its goal to the transformation of a capitalist society, but by paying more attention to the means we would be truer to the movement today. We would get to the goal anyway because if you take care of the means, he thought you would eventually achieve the goal.