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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The birth of the Weimar Republic: A review of Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution

The birth of the Weimar Republic: A review of Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution

William Smaldone

Platypus Review 160 | October 2023

Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution: Selected Historical Writings, ed. Marius S. Ostrowski (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

THE DEEPENING CRISIS OF CAPITALISM in the early 21st century is shaking the system’s ideological foundations to the core. The economic collapse of 2008, the intensifying environmental crisis, growing domestic and global inequality, economic and ecological displacement of millions of refugees, and the social impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic have undermined the faith of many — especially among the young — in neoliberal capitalism and led them to question whether a system predicated on perpetual growth is compatible with human survival. Interest in alternatives to capitalism is on the rise, even in the United States, still the heart of the global system. While many Americans, furious about social and ideological changes they cannot control, have moved to the far Right and embraced such political figures as Donald Trump, others have turned to the radical Left exemplified by the rapid growth the Democratic Socialists of America, which, between 2016 and 2023 has increased its membership from roughly 6,000 to 77,000 and now exerts substantial influence in U.S. political discourse.

The renewed interest in “socialism” has stimulated plenty of debate about what this term means in a 21st-century context, and that discussion, of course, requires knowledge of socialist history about which most people in the United States know little. Many Americans still associate “socialism” with Soviet “communism” and are ignorant about the powerful democratic socialist movements that have shaped politics in advanced, as well as developing, countries around the world. That is why Marius Ostrowski’s able translation of Eduard Bernstein’s works on the German Revolution of 1918–19 is so important. Bernstein (1850–1932) was one of the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD)[1] most important thinkers from the early 1880s until his death in 1932. After joining the fledgling SPD in the mid-1870s, Bernstein went into Swiss exile during the anti-socialist repression of the 1880s, edited the Party’s flagship newspaper Der Sozialdemokrat for ten years from Zürich, and eventually settled in England. He knew Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels personally, subscribed to their ideas and, after their deaths, became the executor of their literary estate. After the relegalization of the SPD in 1890, he co-authored, with Karl Kautsky, the Party’s radical Erfurt Program of 1891, which became a model for socialist parties throughout Europe. By the late 1890s, however, Bernstein began to question some of Marx’s major theoretical premises, such as the efficacy of the labor theory of value, the increasing immiseration of the proletariat, and the decline of the middle classes. His explosive book Evolutionary Socialism, published in 1899, urged German socialists — who had by far the largest and best organized socialist movement at that time — to drop their “revolutionary” rhetoric and to strive for socialism via the winning of parliamentary majorities that could then introduce socialist reforms to gradually transform society. Bernstein thereby became the father of “revisionism,” a viewpoint that led to heated debates within the movement. In the face of sharp criticisms by Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Rudolf Hilferding, and many others, Bernstein’s views won only minority support among socialists prior to 1914, but his influence grew. After the collapse of the German Empire and the founding of the republic in 1918, his gradualist outlook predominated.

Bernstein’s role has been much discussed in the history of the labor movement, especially by politicians and historians seeking to lay the blame for Social Democracy’s failure to resist the outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the international labor movement at revisionism’s door. His reputation has largely been colored by the criticisms of his political opponents, especially such passionate and skilled polemicists as Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, who condemned him and his followers as “opportunists” who undermined the ideological unity of the labor movement and weakened its revolutionary resolve. Bolshevism’s victory in Russia and Weimar’s collapse in 1933 ultimately led to the predominance of Lenin’s outlook among many on the socialist Left. This is unfortunate, whatever one thinks of Bernstein’s theoretical and practical ideas, because it has narrowed the focus of interest on Bernstein’s role as a thinker and politician to the pre-1914 period and diverted attention from his later writings and activities. Ostrowski’s translations of Bernstein’s writings on the German Revolution are designed to broaden that view.

Ostrowski divides his work into three main parts. Part I consists of Bernstein’s history of the German Revolution, which was one of the first studies of that upheaval to be published in the early Weimar period. Part II looks back at the Revolution of 1848. Titled “How a Revolution Perished,” it aims to discuss that event’s lessons for republican revolutionaries in the 1920s. Part III provides a selection of Bernstein’s articles dealing primarily with the division of the German labor movement, his critique of Bolshevism, and his concern that social democrats be prepared to actually govern their new parliamentary state. Taken together, these writings provide readers with a clear sense of the man as a political thinker and a fair-minded historian whose views on the role of a socialist party within a parliamentary state remain of interest today.

In “The German Revolution,” Bernstein does not assume the role of the “objective historian” operating above the fray. During the War he was active in the anti-war opposition within the SPD and later joined with other dissidents, including Kautsky and Luxemburg, to form the Independent German Social Democratic Party (USPD)[2] in 1917. Although he rejoined the SPD in December of 1918, he remained a member of the USPD until that party banned dual memberships a few months later. The SPD-USPD coalition government appointed him to a post in the Treasury Department, and in 1920 he was elected to the Reichstag where he served until his retirement in 1928. Bernstein makes clear that, while the historian should not “arbitrarily meddle with facts for the sake of the writer’s partisan position,” he did not think this prohibited him from “expressing [his] individual verdict on events.” For him, the core of the revolutionary story was about “a contest between two fundamentally different perceptions of socialism and social development,” i.e., the contest between Social Democracy and Bolshevism. While on the surface this competition was manifest in the tactics advocated by the two movements, Bernstein aimed to “ascertain the deeper contradictions that underpin these practical struggles” (36).

Bernstein traces the unfolding of the revolution from the overthrow of the imperial government in November 1918 to the convening of the National Assembly in February 1919. He describes not only the action in Berlin but also looks closely at the provinces, especially important states like Bavaria. For him the greatest achievement of the revolutionary workers and soldiers’ councils was the destruction of the monarchy which opened the way for the creation of a parliamentary republic. Despite the deep wounds caused by Social Democracy’s wartime split, he regarded the formation of the provisional SPD-USPD coalition government as a prelude to socialist reunification. That was essential, he believed, if the movement was to win a majority in parliament and undertake the gradual socialist transformation of the country.

Bernstein saw the revolutionary workers and soldiers’ councils as transitional institutions that would oversee the work of the provisional government in democratizing the polity (e.g., via universal suffrage), ending the war, restoring the economy, which he assumed would include beginning the socialization of key industrial sectors, and fending off counterrevolution. The councils might later function as representative bodies within economic enterprises, but he did not think that, as in Bolshevik Russia, the new republic should only enfranchise proletarians while denying capitalists, artisans, peasants, and independent professional people their full rights as citizens. Such an exclusionary policy, he believed, could only lead to civil war and economic ruin, not socialism. Therefore, he strongly opposed his erstwhile USPD comrades, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who, as leaders of the small Spartacus League[3] (later renamed the German Communist Party[4]) demanded the creation of a councilor republic following the Bolshevik model. In his view, the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Russia, which the Bolsheviks now wished to export to Germany, was nothing more than the dictatorship by a single party enforced by violence and terror. The Bolsheviks had jettisoned Marx’s theoretical assumption that socialist revolution could only realistically occur in industrially advanced countries where the proletariat formed the majority of the population and was politically prepared to take power. Instead, they were attempting to build socialism in a backward peasant country against the wishes of the vast majority. Their actions had precipitated civil war, wrecked the economy, and created a system that was the farthest thing from socialism. Therefore, despite making many mistakes, the SPD was right to suppress the Spartacists and their allies when they attempted an armed rebellion in Berlin in early January of 1919.

To Bernstein, it was not surprising that the workers and soldiers’ councils were dominated by workers’ loyal to the SPD rather than the Spartacists. After 40 years of social democratic “schooling” in which the achievement of political democracy had always equated the creation of a democratic, parliamentary republic, it was natural that organized workers would side with their long-time socialist leaders. He is also careful to point out the problems of ascribing certain attitudes and behaviors to whole social groups. Neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie were homogenous social formations and at no time before or after the revolution did Social Democracy ever win the support of even half of the working class. He believed that, to win and hold power it would have to do better among the workers, but it would also have to appeal to other social and political groups, e.g., middle class liberals, whose interests sometimes aligned with those of labor. Such coalition politics and the political compromises they entailed became necessary when the SPD and USPD failed to win a socialist majority in the National Assembly. That experience, which led to the creation of a constitution that was progressive but not socialist, presaged the future of republican politics under Weimar.

Bernstein’s appraisal of the Revolution’s outstanding figures is clearly much more sympathetic to those of the SPD, such as Friedrich Ebert, who, as chairman of the new provisional government pursued moderate political and economic policies designed to stabilize the new republic and who was responsible for using the army to crush unrest in the capital. He was much more critical of the Left-wing of the USPD and especially of the Spartacists and their leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht. While Bernstein praised both of them for their political and intellectual talents, he disdained their radical politics, which, he argued, like Bolshevik doctrine, were “Marxist in language” but “Blanquist in character” (60). Instead of working to consolidate the foundations of the republic, they pursued goals that were detached from German realities and drew only the support of a small minority. Bernstein was appalled at their murder at the hands of the military, but he believed that Liebknecht’s “egotism” and “overestimation of his power over the masses” had led him onto a disastrous political path. And while Bernstein admired Luxemburg as “a selfless campaigner for an idea to which she had dedicated her entire being,” he concluded that she, too, had erred in her assessment of the capacity of the revolution. Tragically, her actions contributed to a resurgence of the militarism she so deplored (258–59).

Until the end of his life, Bernstein considered himself to be a student of Marx despite his criticisms of the master. Like other leading thinkers of the Second International, he associated the emergence of socialism with the development of a rising proletariat in the context of advanced industrial capitalism, a proletariat prepared by the labor movement for the taking of power. For him, as for Marx and Engels, the democratic republic was the most propitious terrain for the unfolding of the struggle for socialism, and the creation of the Weimar Republic, despite its many difficulties, now provided the framework to undertake that task.

Parts II and III of Ostrowski’s collection serve to underpin many of the themes raised in “The German Revolution.” Bernstein is particularly concerned with the struggle against Bolshevism and its German counterpart, the reunification of the divided socialist movement, the emergence of Right-wing counterrevolution, and the necessity for Social Democrats to cooperate with liberal allies in the governance of the new “civic republic” on its way to becoming a workers’ republic. The victory of Nazism and the collapse of the republic in 1933 spectacularly illustrated the limits of this parliamentary project.

Parliamentary socialism did not disappear, however. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, it revived in Western Europe and elsewhere and was associated with the creation of the social-democratic welfare state. Aiming to “tame” rather than “abolish” capitalism, it was this model that much of the Left saw as a viable alternative to Soviet-style communism until the demise of the latter in the late 1980s. With the dissolution of the Soviet system, the social-democratic model itself came under attack as capital reasserted its power over labor, neoliberal ideology became ascendent, and it seemed to some, such as Francis Fukuyama, that history had “ended.”

But history, of course, continued as capitalism’s contradictions deepened and manifested themselves in multiple crises and intensifying social and political struggles. A century after Bernstein completed his history of the German Revolution, many of the issues he described remain at the forefront of socialist politics. Questions concerning the nature of the socialist constituency, the forms of struggle — parliamentary or otherwise — socialist movements should adopt, and the content of socialist policy remain central concerns as the Left attempts to grapple with short- and long-term responses to what is becoming an existential crisis for humanity. Bernstein’s writings not only provide a useful and interesting perspective on one of the most important revolutions of 20th-century European history, but they also are an important starting point for thinking about approaches to socialist strategy today. |P

[1] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands.

[2] Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands.

[3] Spartakusbund.

[4] Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.