Bernstein was born in Berlin to Jewish parents. His political career began in 1872, when he became a member of the so-called Eisenachers (named after the German town Eisenach), a socialist party with Marxist tendencies formally known as Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Eisenacher Programms. Bernstein's party contested two elections against a rival socialist party, the Lassalleans (Ferdinand Lassalle's Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein), but in both elections neither party was able to win a significant majority of the left-wing vote. Consequently, together with August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, Bernstein prepared the Einigungsparteitag ("unification party congress") with the Lassalleans in Gotha in 1875. Karl Marx's famous Critique of the Gotha Program criticized what he saw as a Lassallean victory over the Eisenachers whom he favored; interestingly, Bernstein later noted that it was Liebknecht, considered by many to be the strongest Marxist advocate within the Eisenacher faction, who proposed the inclusion of many of the ideas which so thoroughly irritated Marx.
In 1878, Bernstein went to exile in response to the anti-socialist laws; he accepted the position of private secretary for social democratic patron Karl Hchberg, who lived in Zrich. On October 12, 1878, Otto von Bismarck's strict anti-Socialist legislation was passed in the Reichstag, and, as a result, Bernstein found himself an exile. In 1888, Bismark successfully convinced the Swiss government to expel a number of key members of the German social democratic movement from its country, and so Bernstein moved to London, where he had close contacts with Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky.
Between 1880 and 1890, Bernstein edited the magazine "Sozialdemokrat" ("Social Democrat"); in 1891, he was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program, and from 1896 to 1898, he released a series of articles entitled "Probleme des Sozialismus" ("Problems of Socialism") that led to the revisionism debate in the SPD. He also wrote a book titled "Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie" ("The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy") in 1899. The book was in sharp contrast to the positions of August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Rosa Luxemburg's 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? was also a polemic against Bernstein's position.
In 1901, he returned to Germany, following the lifting of a ban that had kept him from entering the country, and became a member of the Reichstag from 1902 to 1918. He voted against the armament tabling in 1913, together with the SPD fraction's left wing. Although he had voted for war credits in August 1914, from July 1915 he opposed World War I and in 1917 he was among the founders of the USPD, which united anti-war socialists (including reformists like Bernstein, 'centrists' like Kautsky and revolutionary Marxists like Karl Liebknecht). He was a member of the USDP until 1919, when he rejoined the SPD. From 1920 to 1928 Bernstein was again a member of the Reichstag. He retired from political life in 1928.
Bernstein died on December 18, 1932 in Berlin. A commemorative plaque is placed in his memory at Bozener Strae 18, Berlin-Schneberg, where he lived from 1918 to his death.
Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus (1899) was Bernstein's most significant work and was principally concerned with refuting Marx's predictions about the imminent demise of capitalism. In it, Bernstein pointed out simple facts that he took to be evidence that Marx's predictions were not being borne out: he noted that the centralisation of capitalist industry, while significant, was not becoming wholescale and that the ownership of capital was becoming more, and not less, diffuse. He also pointed out what he considered to be some of the flaws in Marx's labor theory of value.
In its totality, Bernstein's analysis formed a powerful critique of Marxism, and this led to his vilificationamong many orthodox Marxists. Bernstein remained, however, very much a socialist, albeit an unorthodox one (he was not hostile to Trade Unions and Producers Co-operatives); he believed that socialism would be achieved through capitalism, not through capitalism's destruction (as rights were gradually won by workers, their cause for grievance would be diminished, and consequently, so too would the foundation of revolution). Although Marx would argue that free trade would be the quickest fulfillment of the capitalist system, and thus its end, Bernstein viewed protectionism as helping only a selective few, being fortschrittsfeindlich (anti-progressive), for its negative effects on the masses. Germany's protectionism, Bernstein argued, was only based on political expediency, isolating Germany from the world (especially from Britain), creating an autarky that would only result in conflict between Germany and the rest of the world.
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