How 'Evolutionary Socialism' Saved Marx's Failing Theory

This article concerns a particular flavor of socialism that is the most relevant to our time.  Especially intriguing, this revision of Marxism was undertaken by a direct disciple of the founders of Marxism: Engels's personal friend and a prominent theoretician of German social democracy, Edward Bernstein.  He originated the current of socialism called Evolutionary Socialism.

Several important points must first be made.  When scientists present their completed theory for the judgment of peers and the broader scientific community, this theory begins to live its own life, separate from the author.  Colleagues analyze the doctrine at face value, regardless of subjective opinions and author intent.  Sometimes, the theory leads to results utterly overlooked and unexpected by the author himself.  Take, for example, the concept of general relativity by Albert Einstein.  Some solutions from Einstein's equations were so radical to him that he initially refused to accept them (Alexander Friedmann's solution for the non-static universe, Schwarzschild's solution for black holes).  Nevertheless, those solutions, found by peers, happened to be correct and advance knowledge about nature.

Marx presented the theory of the historical development of human society called the materialist conception of history, or historical materialism.  It is a theory of evolution characterized by a progressive exacerbation of the contradictions between the development of production relations and the development of productive forces.  The conflict is supposed to be resolved by violent revolution, as a result of which harmony between production relations and productive forces is restored.  The theory describes the progression of socio-economic formations beginning from primitive societies to capitalism.  The doctrine also extrapolates that capitalism will be inevitably superseded by communism.

Marx habitually overused the term "revolution" as the only way toward conflict resolution.  Even though history knows cases of violent armed upheavals when the mode of production changes, there are, nevertheless, numerous examples of more or less peaceful conflict resolutions between opposing sides.  Marx certainly meant a violent uprising as the true way to resolve a conflict between classes.  However, the Marxian theory, taken by itself without regard to the opinion and preferences of its author, does not provide rigorous evidence that violent revolution is the sole mode of conflict resolution.  Therefore, it is correct to understand the Marxian notion of revolution simply as a qualitative change in the socioeconomic order.

Bernstein realized this and became even more convinced of the flaws of the doctrine when, at the turn of the 20th century, Marxism had entered a period of severe theoretical and empirical crisis.  On the academic front, the prominent economists of the time, representing the Austrian economic school, had pointed at serious contradictions in Marxian economic theory.  Thus, Böhm von Bawerk repudiated the fundamental provisions of Marxian economics in his dedicated work Karl Marx and the Close of His System.  It was shown that commodities were not exchanged in proportion to the amount of labor incorporated in them, as Marx thought.  This fact alone invalidated Marxian "laws of value and surplus value," which meant that subsequent theoretical implications had been gravely jeopardized as well.

Furthermore, countries of liberal democracy had not been developing according to the Marxian doctrine, either.  The Marxian dichotomous model of modern capitalist society, consisting of just two opposing classes — proletariat and bourgeoisie — did not correspond to reality.  Marx overlooked the growth trend of the middle class, which has become the dominant stratum of society in industrialized countries.  Besides, the division of the nation on classes corresponding to the factors of production makes sense only in the Marxist framework and has no value outside the theory.

Bernstein pointed out that the modern capitalist society was continually improving the well-being of populations, and as a result, the class struggle would assume diminished importance.  He criticized Marx's argument regarding concentration and centralization of production and wealth, stating that small and medium-sized businesses are not disappearing, but rather flourishing along with large industries.  Bernstein appreciated the emergence of joint stock companies, which made possible the diffusion of capital ownership among the more considerable strata of the population.  He argued that the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of the proletariat changed and did not correspond to the picture Marx observed in the middle of the 19th century in Europe.

Given the growing prosperity and diminishing of class antagonism of the modern capitalist economy, Bernstein inferred that the role of the democratic state and ethical factors, rather than class struggle, would be moving forces toward socialism.  He recognized the role of democracy in capitalistic societies and was convinced that social democracy is an indispensable instrument by which society will gradually transition to the higher social order.

He was convinced that elements of the social superstructure (state, culture, ethics, art, etc.) were significant forces that influence an economic basis and together work out a resulting vector of the historical process.  Bernstein theorized that ethical changes in the whole society should accompany the emancipation of the proletariat.  Bernstein envisioned that evolution in societal ethics would develop conditions in which it would be morally inappropriate for entrepreneurs to continue unjust exploitation of the proletariat.  On the contrary, capitalists would be praised and cherished if they share their wealth with toilers in an adequate manner — i.e., satisfying all parties involved in the production.  Socialism would be brought about by the majority of people of goodwill who adopt socially oriented laws.

Marxism is an erroneous but remarkably harmonious and complete logical system.  There is a close connection among all the constituent parts of its theoretical structure, which is an organic whole, in which each separate section assumes the rest and flows from them.  It was a closed system of thought, not designed to be reformed.  Bernstein's reformism has changed Marxism beyond recognition.  He took out the heart and soul of Marxism and did not leave anything valuable from it but a name.  Bernstein rooted out the essential elements of the Marxist materialist conception of history and political economy. Given this, it is tough to acknowledge social democracy as a genuine Marxist movement.

Bernstein's revisionism was not taken easily by his colleagues and companions within the German Social Democratic Party and socialists abroad.  Contradictions with orthodox Marxism were vivid and irreconcilable, which resulted in the prolonged intellectual Bernstein-Kautsky debates, which took place from after Engels's death in 1895 until 1905 and were observed with undying interest by a vast audience of European socialists.

Formally, Bernstein lost a battle because the leaders of the German Social-Democratic party, Bebel and Liebknecht, chose Kautsky's position.  Bernstein miraculously escaped expulsion from the party despite many calls for it.  However, in reality, he was a winner in a broader sense, after all, as the majority of the Western European socialist parties accepted his doctrine of "reformism" in their practice.  They accepted the situation in which capitalism would run for a long time and that the best thing to do is to cooperate and peacefully debate issues in the democratic parliament and find every opportunity to inject a dose of socialism into the body of capitalism.

Bernstein's evolutionary socialism is still a main principle and integral part of modern social democracy.