Chapter VII Co-operatives, Unions, Democracy

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Image: The Hand That Will Rule the World – One Big Union. [Source:http://towardfreedom.com/35-archives/labor/4248-the-evolution-of-union-co-ops-and-the-historical-development-of-workplace-democracy%5D

Bernstein’s socialism offers to the workers the prospect of sharing in the wealth of society. The poor are to become rich. How will this socialism be brought about? His article in the Neue Zeit (Problems of Socialism) contain only vague allusions to this question. Adequate information, however, can be found in his book.

Bernstein’s socialism is to be realised with the aid of these two instruments: labour unions – or as Bernstein himself characterises them, economic democracy – and co-operatives. The first will suppress industrial profit; the second will do away with commercial profit.

Co-operatives – especially co-operatives in the field of production constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialised production within capitalist exchange.

But in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise. The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labour is intensified. The work day is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labour is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market. The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.

Bernstein has himself taken note of these facts. But it is evident that he has not understood them. For, together with Mrs. Potter-Webb, he explains the failure of production co-operatives in England by their lack of “discipline.” But what is so superficially and flatly called here “discipline” is nothing else than the natural absolutist regime of capitalism, which it is plain, the workers cannot successfully use against themselves.

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only if they manage to suppress, by means of some detour, the capitalist controlled contradictions between the mode of production and the mode of exchange. And they can accomplish this only by removing themselves artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And they can succeed in doing the last only when they assure themselves beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure themselves of a constant market.

It is the consumers’ co-operative that can offer this service to its brother in the field of production. Here – and not in Oppenheimer’s distinction between co-operatives that produce and co-operatives that sell – is the secret sought by Bernstein: the explanation for the invariable failure of producers’ co-operatives functioning independently and their survival when they are backed by consumers’ organisations.

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’ co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is limited, in the most favourable of cases, to the small local market and to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are excluded from the most important branches of capital production – the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone (forgetting for the moment their hybrid character), co-operatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation. The establishment of producers’ co-operatives on a wide scale would suppose, first of all, the suppression of the world market, the breaking up of the present world economy into small local spheres of production and exchange. The highly developed, wide-spread capitalism of our time is expected to fall back to the merchant economy of the Middle Ages.

Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives. It appears, therefore, that the latter must be the beginning of the proposed social change. But this way the expected reform of society by means of co-operatives ceases to be an offensive against capitalist production. That is, it ceases to be an attack against the principal bases of capitalist economy. It becomes, instead, a struggle against commercial capital, especially small and middle-sized commercial capital. It becomes an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree.

According to Bernstein, trade unions too, are a means of attack against capitalism in the field of production. We have already shown that trade unions cannot give the workers a determining influence over production. Trade unions can determine neither the dimensions of production nor the technical progress of production.

This much may be said about the purely economic side of the “struggle of the rate of wages against the rate of profit,” as Bernstein labels the activity of the trade union. It does not take place in the blue of the sky. It takes place within the well-defined framework of the law of wages. The law of wages is not shattered but applied by trade-union activity.

According to Bernstein, it is the trade unions that lead – in the general movement for the emancipation of the working class – the real attack against the rate of industrial profit. According to Bernstein, trade unions have the task of transforming the rate of industrial profit into “rates of wages.” The fact is that trade unions are least able to execute an economic offensive against profit. Trade unions are nothing more than the organised defence of labour power against the attacks of profit. They express the resistance offered by the working class to the oppression of capitalist economy.

On the one hand, trade unions have the function of influencing the situation in the labour-power market. But this influence is being constantly overcome by the proletarianisation of the middle layers of our society, a process which continually brings new merchandise on the labour market. The second function of the trade unions is to ameliorate the condition of the workers. That is, they attempt to increase the share of the social wealth going to the working class. This share, however, is being reduced with the fatality of a natural process by the growth of the productivity of labour. One does not need to be a Marxist to notice this. It suffices to read RodbertusIn Explanation of the Social Question.

In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the two economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus,[2] which is, nevertheless, indispensable. For as a result of the activity of his trade unions, the worker succeeds in obtaining for himself the rate of wages due to him in accordance with the situation of the labour-power market. As a result of trade union activity, the capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing tendency of economic development is paralysed, or to be more exact, attenuated.

However, the transformation of the trade union into an instrument for the progressive reduction of profit in favour of wages presupposes the following social conditions; first, the cessation of the proletarianisation of the middle strata of our society; secondly, a stoppage of the growth of productivity of labour. We have in both cases a return to pre-capitalist conditions,

Co-operatives and trade unions are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production. This is really understood by Bernstein, though in a confused manner. For he refers to co-operatives and trade unions as a means of reducing the profit of the capitalists and thus enriching the workers. In this way, he renounces the struggle against the capitalist mode of production and attempts to direct the socialist movement to struggle against “capitalist distribution.” Again and again, Bernstein refers to socialism as an effort towards a “just, juster and still more just” mode of distribution. (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899).

It cannot be denied that the direct cause leading the popular masses into the socialist movement is precisely the “unjust” mode of distribution characteristic of capitalism. When the Social-Democracy struggles for the socialisation of the entire economy, it aspires therewith also to a “just” distribution of the social wealth. But, guided by Marx’s observation that the mode of distribution of a given epoch is a natural consequence of the mode of production of that epoch, the Social-Democracy does not struggle against distribution in the framework of capitalist production. It struggles instead for the suppression of the capitalist production itself. In a word, the Social-Democracy wants to establish the mode of socialist distribution by suppressing the capitalist mode of production. Bernstein’s method, on the contrary, proposes to combat the capitalist mode of distribution in the hopes of gradually establishing, in this way, the socialist mode of production.

What, in that case, is the basis of Bernstein’s program for the reform of society? Does it find support in definite tendencies of capitalist production? No. In the first place, he denies such tendencies. In the second place, the socialist transformation of production is for him the effect and not the cause of distribution. He cannot give his program a materialist base, because he has already overthrown the aims and the means of the movement for socialism, and therefore its economic conditions. As a result, he is obliged to construct himself an idealist base.

“Why represent socialism as the consequence of economic compulsion?” he complains. “Why degrade man’s understanding, his feeling for justice, his will?” (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899). Bernstein’s superlatively just distribution is to be attained thanks to man’s free will; man’s will acting not because of economic necessity, since this will is only an instrument, but because of man’s comprehension of justice, because of man’s idea of justice.

We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages, for the lack of surer means of historic transportation. We return to the lamentable Rosinate on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their eyes blackened.

The relation of the poor to the rich, taken as a base for socialism, the principle of co-operation as the content of socialism, the “most just distribution” as its aim, and the idea of justice as its only historic legitimisation – with how much more force, more with and more fire did Weitling defend that sort of socialism fifty years ago. However, that genius of a tailor did not know scientific socialism. If today, the conception tore into bits by Marx and Engels a half century ago is patched up and presented to the proletariat as the last world of social science, that too, is the art of a tailor but it has nothing of a genius about it.

Trade unions and co-operatives are the economic support for the theory of revisionism. Its principal political condition is the growth of democracy. The present manifestations of political reaction are to Bernstein only “displacement.” He considers them accidental, momentary, and suggests that they are not to be considered in the elaboration of the general directives of the labour movement.

To Bernstein, democracy is an inevitable stage in the development of society. To him, as to the bourgeois theoreticians of liberalism, democracy is the great fundamental law of historic development, the realisation of which is served by all the forces of political life. However, Bernstein’s thesis is completely false. Presented in this absolute force, it appears as a petty-bourgeois vulgarisation of results of a very short phase of bourgeois development, the last twenty-five or thirty years. We reach entirely different conclusions when we examine the historic development of democracy a little closer and consider, at the same time, the general political history of capitalism.

Democracy has been found in the most dissimilar social formations: in primitive communist groups, in the slave states of antiquity and in medieval communes. And similarly, absolutism and constitutional monarchy are to be found under the most varied economic orders. When capitalism began, with the first production of commodities, it resorted to a democratic constitution in the municipal-communes of the Middle Ages. Later, when it developed to manufacturing, capitalism found its corresponding political form in the absolute monarchy. Finally, as a developed industrial economy, it brought into being in France the democratic republic of 1793, the absolute monarchy of Napoleon I, the nobles’ monarchy of the Restoration period (1850-1830), the bourgeois constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, then again the democratic republic, and against the monarchy of Napoleon III, and finally, for the third time, the Republic.

In Germany, the only truly democratic institution – universal suffrage – is not a conquest won by bourgeois liberalism. Universal suffrage in Germany was an instrument for the fusion of the small States. It is only in this sense that it has any importance for the development of the German bourgeoisie, which is otherwise quite satisfied with semi-feudal constitutional monarchy. In Russia, capitalism prospered for a long time under the regime of oriental absolutism, without having the bourgeoisie manifest the least desire in the world to introduce democracy. In Austria, universal suffrage was above all a safety line thrown to a foundering and decomposing monarchy. In Belgium, the conquest of universal suffrage by the labour movement was undoubtedly due to the weakness of the local militarism, and consequently to the special geographic and political situation of the country. But we have here a “bit of democracy” that has been won not by the bourgeoisie but against it.

The uninterrupted victory of democracy, which to our revisionism as well as to bourgeois liberalism, appears as a great fundamental law of human history and, especially, modern history is shown upon closer examination to be a phantom. No absolute and general relation can be constructed between capitalist development and democracy. The political form of a given country is always the result of the composite of all the existing political factors, domestic as well as foreign. It admits within its limits all variations of the scale from absolute monarchy to the democratic republic.

We must abandon, therefore, all hope of establishing democracy as a general law of historical development even within the framework of modern society. Turning to the present phase of bourgeois society, we observe here, too, political factors which, instead of assuring the realisation of Bernstein’s schema, led rather to the abandonment by bourgeois society of the democratic conquests won up to now.

Democratic institutions – and this is of the greatest significance – have completely exhausted their function as aids in the development of bourgeois society. In so far as they were necessary to bring about the fusion of small States and the creation of large modern States (Germany, Italy), they are no longer indispensable at present. Economic development has meanwhile effected an internal organic cicatrisation.

The same thing can be said concerning the transformation of the entire political and administrative State machinery from feudal or semi-feudal mechanism to capitalist mechanism. While this transformation has been historically inseparable from the development of democracy, it has been realised today to such an extent that the purely democratic “ingredients” of society, such as universal suffrage and the republican State form, may be suppressed without having the administration, the State finances, or the military organisation find it necessary to return to the forms they had before the March Revolution.[3]

If liberalism as such is now absolutely useless to bourgeois society it has become, on the other hand, a direct impediment to capitalism from other standpoints. Two factors dominate completely the political life of contemporary States: world politics and the labour movement. Each is only a different aspect of the present phase of capitalist development.

As a result of the development of the world economy and the aggravation and generalisation of competition on the world market, militarism and the policy of big navies have become, as instruments of world politics, a decisive factor in the interior as well as in the exterior life of the great States. If it is true that world politics and militarism represent a rising tendency in the present phase of capitalism, then bourgeois democracy must logically move in a descending line.

In Germany the era of great armament, began in 1893, and the policy of world politics inaugurated with the seizure of Kiao-Cheou were paid for immediately with the following sacrificial victim: the decomposition of liberalism, the deflation of the Centre Party, which passed from opposition to government. The recent elections to the Reichstag of 1907 unrolling under the sign of the German colonial policy were, at the same time, the historical burial of German liberalism.

If foreign politics push the bourgeoisie into the arms of reaction this is no less true about domestic politics – thanks to the rise of the working class. Bernstein shows that he recognises this when he makes the social-democratic “legend,” which “wants to swallow everything” – in other words, the socialist efforts of the working class – responsible for the desertion of the liberal bourgeoisie. He advises the proletariat to disavow its socialist aim so that the mortally frightened liberals might come out of the mousehole of reaction. Making the suppression of the socialist labour movement an essential condition for the preservation of bourgeois democracy, he proves in a striking manner that this democracy is in complete contradiction with the inner tendency of development of the present society. He proves, at the same time, that the socialist movement is itself a direct product of this tendency.

But he proves, at the same time, still another thing. By making the denouncement of the socialist aim an essential condition of the resurrection of bourgeois democracy, he shows how inexact is the claim that bourgeois democracy is an indispensable condition of the socialist movement and the victory of socialism. Bernstein’s reasoning exhausts itself in a vicious circle. His conclusion swallows his premises.

The solution is quite simple. In view of that fact that bourgeois liberalism has given up its ghost from fear of the growing labour movement and its final aim, we conclude that the socialist labour movement is today the only support for that which is not the goal of the socialist movement – democracy. We must conclude that democracy can have no support. We must conclude that the socialist movement is not bound to bourgeois democracy but that, on the contrary, the fate of democracy is bound up with the socialist movement. We must conclude from this that democracy does not acquire greater chances of survival, as the socialist movement becomes sufficiently strong to struggle against the reactionary consequences of world politics and the bourgeois desertion of democracy. He who would strengthen democracy should want to strengthen and not weaken the socialist movement. He who renounces the struggle for socialism renounces both the labour movement and democracy.


[2] The mythological king of Corinth who was condemned to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill. It constantly rolled back down against making his task incessant.

[3] The German revolution of 1848, which struck an effective blow against the feudal institutions in Germany.

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Chapter III The Realisation of Socialism through Social Reforms

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Image: Social Democratics in Canada. [Source: http://socialiststandardmyspace.blogspot.co.za/2013_12_30_archive.html]

Bernstein rejects the “theory of collapse” as an historic road toward socialism. Now what is the way to a socialist society that is proposed by his “theory of adaptation to capitalism”? Bernstein answers this question only by allusion. Konrad Schmidt, however, attempts to deal with this detail in the manner of Bernstein. According to him, “the trade union struggle for hours and wages and the political struggle for reforms will lead to a progressively more extensive control over the conditions of production,” and “as the rights of the capitalist proprietor will be diminished through legislation, he will be reduced in time to the role of a simple administrator.” “The capitalist will see his property lose more and more value to himself” till finally “the direction and administration of exploitation will be taken from him entirely” and “collective exploitation” instituted.

Therefore trade unions, social reforms and, adds Bernstein, the political democratisation of the State are the means of the progressive realisation of socialism.

But the fact is that the principal function of trade unions (and this was best explained by Bernstein himself in Neue Zeit in 1891) consists in providing the workers with a means of realising the capitalist law of wages, that is to say, the sale of their labour power at current market prices. Trade unions enable the proletariat to utilise at each instant, the conjuncture of the market. But these conjunctures – (1) the labour demand determined by the state of production, (2) the labour supply created by the proletarianisation of the middle strata of society and the natural reproduction of the working classes, and (3) the momentary degree of productivity of labour – these remain outside of the sphere of influence of the trade unions. Trade unions cannot suppress the law of wages. Under the most favourable circumstances, the best they can do is to impose on capitalist exploitation the “normal” limit of the moment. They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually.

Schmidt, it is true, sees the present trade union movement in a “feeble initial stage.” He hopes that “in the future” the “trade union movement will exercise a progressively increased influence over the regulation of production.” But by the regulation of production we can only understand two things: intervention in the technical domain of the process of production and fixing the scale of production itself. What is the nature of the influence exercised by trade unions in these two departments? It is clear that in the technique of production, the interest of the capitalist agrees, up to a certain point, with the progress and development of capitalist economy. It is his own interest that pushes him to make technical improvements. But the isolated worker finds himself in a decidedly different position. Each technical transformation contradicts his interests. It aggravates his helpless situation by depreciating the value of his labour power and rendering his work more intense, more monotonous and more difficult.

Insofar as trade unions can intervene in the technical department of production, they can only oppose technical innovation. But here they do not act in the interest of the entire working class and its emancipation, which accords rather with technical progress and, therefore, with the interest of the isolated capitalist. They act here in a reactionary direction. And in fact, we find efforts on the part of workers to intervene in the technical part of production not in the future, where Schmidt looks for it, but in the past of the trade union movement. Such efforts characterised the old phase of English trade unionism (up to 1860), when the British organisations were still tied to medieval “corporative” vestiges and found inspiration in the outworn principle of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour,” as expressed by Webb in his History of Trade Unionism.

On the other hand, the effort of the labour unions to fix the scale of production and the prices of commodities is a recent phenomenon. Only recently have we witnessed such attempts – and again in England. In their nature and tendencies, these efforts resemble those dealt with above. What does the active participation of trade unions in fixing the scale and cost of production amount to? It amounts to a cartel of the workers and entrepreneurs in a common stand against the consumer and especially rival entrepreneurs. In no way is the effect of this any different from that of ordinary employers’ associations. Basically we no longer have here a struggle between Labour and Capital, but the solidarity of Capital and Labour against the total consumers. Considered for its social worth, it is seen to be a reactionary move that cannot be a stage in the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat, because it connotes the very opposite of the class struggle. Considered from the angle of practical application, it is found to be a utopia which, as shown by a rapid examination, cannot be extended to the large branches of industry producing for the world market.

So that the scope of trade unions is limited essentially to a struggle for an increase of wages and the reduction of labour time, that is to say, to efforts at regulating capitalist exploitation as they are made necessary by the momentary situation of the old world market. But labour unions can in no way influence the process of production itself. Moreover, trade union development moves – contrary to what is asserted by Konrad Schmidt – in the direction of a complete detachment of the labour market from any immediate relation to the rest of the market.

That is shown by the fact that even attempts to relate labour contracts to the general situation of production by means of a system of sliding wage scales have been outmoded with historic development. The British labour unions are moving farther and farther away from such efforts.

Even within the effective boundaries of its activity the trade union movement cannot spread in the unlimited way claimed for it by the theory of adaptation. On the contrary, if we examine the large factors of social development, we see that we are not moving toward an epoch marked by a victorious development of trade unions, but rather toward a time when the hardships of labour unions will increase. Once industrial development has attained its highest possible pint and capitalism has entered its descending phase on the world market, the trade union struggle will become doubly difficult. In the first place, the objective conjuncture of the market will be less favourable to the sellers of labour power, because the demand for labour power will increase at a slower rate and labour supply more rapidly than at present. In the second place, the capitalists themselves, in order to make up for losses suffered on the world market, will make even greater efforts than at present to reduce the part of the total product going to the workers (in the form of wages). The reduction of wages is, as pointed out by Marx, one of the principal means of retarding the fall of profit. The situation in England already offers us a picture of the beginning of the second stage of trade union development. Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defence of already realised gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult. Such is the general trend of things in our society. The counterpart of this tendency should be the development of the political side of the class struggle.

Konrad Schmidt commits the same error of historic perspective when he deals with social reforms. He expects that social reforms, like trade union organisations, will “dictate to the capitalists the only conditions under which they will be able to employ labour power.” Seeing reform in this light, Bernstein calls labour legislation a piece of “social control,” and as such, a piece of socialism. Similarly, Konrad Schmidt always uses the term “social control” when he refers to labour protection laws. Once he has thus happily transformed the State into society, he confidently adds: “That is to say, the rising working class.” As a result of this trick of substitution, the innocent labour laws enacted by the German Federal Council are transformed into transitory socialist measures supposedly enacted by the German proletariat.

The mystification is obvious. We know that the present State is not “society” representing the “rising working class.” It is itself the representative of capitalist society. It is a class state. Therefore its reform measures are not an application of “social control,” that is, the control of society working freely in its own labour process. They are forms of control applied by the class organisation of Capital to the production of Capital. The so-called social reforms are enacted in the interests of Capital. Yes, Bernstein and Konrad Schmidt see at present only “feeble beginnings” of this control. They hope to see a long succession of reforms in the future, all favouring the working class. But here they commit a mistake similar to their belief in the unlimited development of the trade union movement.

A basic condition for the theory of the gradual realisation of socialism through social reforms is a certain objective development of capitalist property and of the State. Konrad Schmidt says that the capitalist proprietor tends to lose his special rights with historic development, and is reduced to the role of a simple administrator. He thinks that the expropriation of the means of production cannot possibly be effected as a single historic act. He therefore resorts to the theory of expropriation by stages. With this in mind, he divides the right to property into (1) the right of “sovereignty” (ownership) – which he attributes to a thing called “society” and which he wants to extend – and (2) its opposite, the simple right of use, held by the capitalist, but which is supposedly being reduced in the hands of the capitalists to the mere administration of their enterprises.

This interpretation is either a simple play on words, and in that case the theory of gradual expropriation has no real basis, or it is a true picture of judicial development, in which case, as we shall see, the theory of gradual expropriation is entirely false.

The division of the right of property into several component rights, an arrangement serving Konrad Schmidt as a shelter wherein he may construct his theory of “expropriation by stages,” characterised feudal society, founded on natural economy. In feudalism, the total product was shared among the social classes of the time on the basis of the personal relations existing between the feudal lord and his serfs or tenants. The decomposition of property into several partial rights reflected the manner of distribution of the social wealth of that period. With the passage to the production of commodities and the dissolution of all personal bonds among the participants in the process of production, the relation between men and things (that is to say, private property) became reciprocally stronger. Since the division is no longer made on the basis of personal relations but through exchange, the different rights to a share in the social wealth are no longer measured as fragments of property rights having a common interest. They are measured according to the values brought by each on the market.

The first change introduced into juridical relations with the advance of commodity production in the medieval city communes, was the development of absolute private property. The latter appeared in the very midst of the feudal juridical relations. This development has progressed at a rapid pace in capitalist production. The more the process of production is socialised, the more the process of distribution (division of wealth) rests on exchange. And the more private property becomes inviolable and closed, the more capitalist property becomes transformed from the right to the product of one’s own labour to the simple right to appropriate somebody else’s labour. As long as the capitalist himself manages his own factory, distribution is still, up to a certain point, tied to his personal participation in the process of production. But as the personal management on the part of the capitalist becomes superfluous – which is the case in the share-holding societies today – the property of capital, so far as its right to share in the distribution (division of wealth) is concerned, becomes separated from any personal relation with production. It now appears in its purest form. The capitalist right to property reaches its most complete development in capital held in the shape of shares and industrial credit.

So that Konrad Schmidt’s historic schema, tracing the transformation of the capitalist “from a proprietor to a simple administrator,” belies the real historic development. In historic reality, on the contrary, the capitalist tends to change from a proprietor and administrator to a simple proprietor. What happens here to Konrad Schmidt, happened to Goethe:

What is, he sees as in a dream.
What no longer is, becomes for him reality.

Just as Schmidt’s historic schema travels, economically, backwards from a modern share-holding society to an artisan’s shop, so, juridically, he wishes to lead back the capitalist world into the old feudal shell of the Middle Ages.

Also from this point of view, “social control” appears in reality under a different aspect than seen by Konrad Schmidt. What functions today as “social control” – labour legislation, the control of industrial organisations through share holding, etc. – has absolutely nothing to do with his “supreme ownership.” Far from being, as Schmidt believes, a reduction of capitalist ownership, his “social control,” is, on the contrary, a protection of such ownership. Or, expressed from the economic viewpoint, it is not a threat to capitalist exploitation, but simply the regulation of exploitation. When Bernstein asks if there is more or less of socialism in a labour protective law, we can assure him that, in the best of labour protective laws, there is no more “socialism” than in a municipal ordinance regulating the cleaning of streets or the lighting of street lamps.

Reform or Revolution: Introduction

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Image: Resistance, Reform and Revolution. [Source: https://philosophersforchange.org/2013/12/24/reflections-on-resistance-reform-and-revolution/]

At first view the title of this work may be found surprising. Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.

It is in Eduard Bernstein’s theory, presented in his articles on Problems of Socialism, Neue Zeit of 1897-98, and in his book Die Voraussetzungen des Socialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie[1] that we find, for the first time, the opposition of the two factors of the labour movement. His theory tends to counsel us to renounce the social transformation, the final goal of Social-Democracy and, inversely, to make of social reforms, the means of the class struggle, its aim. Bernstein himself has very clearly and characteristically formulated this viewpoint when he wrote: “The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”

But since the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order – the question: “Reform or Revolution?” as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for the Social-Democracy the question: “To be or not to be?” In the controversy with Bernstein and his followers, everybody in the Party ought to understand clearly it is not a question of this or that method of struggle, or the use of this or that set of tactics, but of the very existence of the Social-Democratic movement.

Upon a casual consideration of Bernstein’s theory, this may appear like an exaggeration. Does he not continually mention the Social-Democracy and its aims? Does he not repeat again and again, in very explicit language, that he too strives toward the final goal of socialism, but in another way? Does he not stress particularly that he fully approves of the present practice of the Social-Democracy?

That is all true, to be sure. It is also true that every new movement, when it first elaborates its theory and policy, begins by finding support in the preceding movement, though it may be in direct contradiction with the latter. It begins by suiting itself to the forms found at hand and by speaking the language spoken hereto. In time the new grain breaks through the old husk. The new movement finds its forms and its own language.

To expect an opposition against scientific socialism at its very beginning, to express itself clearly, fully and to the last consequence on the subject of its real content: to expect it to deny openly and bluntly the theoretic basis of the Social-Democracy – would amount to underrating the power of scientific socialism. Today he who wants to pass as a socialist, and at the same time declare war on Marxian doctrine, the most stupendous product of the human mind in the century, must begin with involuntary esteem for Marx. He must begin by acknowledging himself to be his disciple, by seeking in Marx’s own teachings the points of support for an attack on the latter, while he represents this attack as a further development of Marxian doctrine. On this account, we must, unconcerned by its outer forms, pick out the sheathed kernel of Bernstein’s theory. This is a matter of urgent necessity for the broad layers of the industrial proletariat in our Party.

No coarser insult, no baser aspersion, can be thrown against the workers than the remarks: “Theocratic controversies are only for academicians.” Some time ago Lassalle said: “Only when science and the workers, these opposite poles of society, become one, will they crush in their arms of steel all obstacles to culture.” The entire strength of the modern labour movement rests on theoretic knowledge.

But doubly important is this knowledge for the workers in the present case, because it is precisely they and their influence in the movement that are in the balance here. It is their skin that is being brought to market. The opportunist theory in the Party, the theory formulated by Bernstein, is nothing else than an unconscious attempt to assure predominance to the petty-bourgeois elements that have entered our Party, to change the policy and aims of our Party in their direction. The question of reform or revolution, of the final goal and the movement, is basically, in another form, but the question of the petty-bourgeois or proletarian character of the labour movement.

It is, therefore, in the interest of the proletarian mass of the Party to become acquainted, actively and in detail, with the present theoretic knowledge remains the privilege of a handful of “academicians” in the Party, the latter will face the danger of going astray. Only when the great mass of workers take the keen and dependable weapons of scientific socialism in their own hands, will all the petty-bourgeois inclinations, all the opportunistic currents, come to naught. The movement will then find itself on sure and firm ground. “Quantity will do it”

Rosa Luxemburg


[1] The Pre-Conditions of Socialism and the Tasks for Social Democracy [English translation: Evolutionary Socialism]