Revisionist Controversy On The Continent
The greatest challenge to Marxism at this time, however, came not from without but from within the Marxian current of socialism. Beginning in the late 1890s a diverse group of so-called revisionist thinkers increasingly questioned the validity of a number of fundamental Marxist tenets. They particularly objected to how rigidly Marx's doctrine was being interpreted by his epigones in the Second International. The foremost theoretical spokesman of the revisionist movement was Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was a German social democrat whose views on socialism had been influenced by his extended sojourns in Switzerland and particularly in England, where he became familiar with the views of the early Fabian Society. While his own theory of socialism differed from theirs, Bernstein nevertheless shared many of the Fabian beliefs, including the notion that socialism could be achieved by nonrevolutionary means. In a series of articles that first appeared in Die Neue Zeit between 1896 and 1899 and later published in the book Evolutionary Socialism (1899), Bernstein laid the foundation for a revisionist challenge to Marxist ideas that had long been regarded as sacrosanct. Above all, Bernstein's writings were meant as a corrective to some of Marx's fundamental economic suppositions—his theory of surplus value, for example—as well as to some of his a priori claims, such as his prophecy that, by virtue of its inherent contradictions, the cataclysmic end of capitalism was inevitable. From his own observations of general economic and political conditions at this time, for example, Bernstein concluded that class tensions were easing rather than intensifying. Instead of becoming increasingly poorer, Bernstein asserted that available statistical measures indicated that workers were generally enjoying higher living standards. By further arguing that the state should be used as a vehicle for abolishing all class privileges and promoting democratic rights, not just for workers, but for all groups in society, Bernstein also ran afoul of his colleagues in the Marxist-dominated sections of the German Social Democratic Party (known by the German acronym SPD) who maintained that the working classes alone should benefit from the advent of socialism.
Bernstein's intellectual assault on the reigning orthodoxy of Marxist thinking set in motion a series of debates and discussions within the Second International that did not die down until the onset of the World War I (1914–1918). Leading the opposition to Bernstein's revisionism were Karl Kautsky, the foremost interpreter of the writings of Marx and Engels at this time, and Georgy Plekhanov, the principal architect of the Russian Social Democratic movement. Both attempted to defend what they regarded as the core principles of Marxism by contending that Bernstein had failed to grasp Marx's basic notions about the relationship between economics and politics and that the antirevolutionary policies implied by his revisionism rendered socialism completely unnecessary. In the former case, for example, Kautsky explained that socialism would come about, not as a result of the increasing pauperization of the working classes, but as a result of sharpening class divisions, which were inevitable and therefore unavoidable features of historical development.
In reaffirming their faith in the immutable principles of Marxism, Kautsky and other antirevisionists hoped that they could prevent socialism from deviating from its revolutionary path. Yet despite their commitment to this understanding of socialism, the fact is that the majority of groups affiliated with the Second International at this time were already pursuing reformist policies. In France, Spain, Italy, and even in Germany the social democratic parties preferred the ballot box to confrontational tactics as a means of advancing their cause. In most instances this entailed working in cooperation with rather than against the middle-class parties that dominated political activity in the various Western European countries where socialism had an important following. Thus, Jules Guesde (1845–1922), the leading figure in the Marxist branch of the French socialist movement, was so committed to the idea of achieving socialism through peaceful means that he advocated parliamentary collaborationism. Another key French socialist in pre–World War I period, Jean Léon Jaurès (1859–1914), was equally convinced that theoretical concerns should be subordinated to the tactical needs of the movement. He therefore thought it possible to retain his commitment to revolutionary Marxism while at the same time promoting a democratic path to socialism.
There were other socialist thinkers around this time who did not necessarily draw reformist conclusions from their critique of Marxism. Georges Sorel (1847–1922) was a French socialist who had come to Marxism late in life. Within a few years of his conversion, however, Sorel was ready to reject the scientific pretensions of Marxist doctrine as well as the reformist policies of the French socialist movement in order to embrace a form of revolutionary syndicalism. In his most famous work, Reflections on Violence (1906–1908; English trans., 1912), Sorel set forth a philosophy of syndicalism that stressed the importance of violence (by which he meant rebellion against existing institutions) in the workers' moral and economic struggle against capitalism. According to Sorel, the revolutionary élan of the workers needs to be sustained by the "myth of the general strike" or poetic vision of the coming epic showdown between workers and their oppressors.
While Sorel himself was not directly involved in the workingclass movement, his ideas contributed to the growing body of left-wing syndicalist theories that had been developing since the late 1890s in countries like Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, and Spain and that would continue to exercise a profound influence on trade union development in those countries until the outbreak of World War II (1939–1945).