Eduard Bernstein was a friend and protégé of both Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, who came to oppose orthodox communism. Bernstein saw that the predictions of his close friends (that capitalism would crumble by virtue of inherent economic tendencies and that workers would flock to communism) had not come to pass. Quite to the contrary, capitalism in the 1890s First World was healthier than ever, and both European and US workers were more interested in obtaining their piece of the capitalist pie than in risking their lives during a violent overthrow of the system. Because of this evidence, Bernstein concluded that a gradual approach to social change through participation in democratic systems would be more effective than revolution. As such, he became one of the revisionists of Democratic Socialism. However one may feel about socialism, communism or capitalism, one can admire Bernstein’s ability to change his mind based on empirical evidence, rather than remaining committed to a disproven orthodoxy. That change created a great deal of discomfort for Bernstein. Internally, he had to deal with the dislocation anyone who challenges their own long-held beliefs must face. Externally, his apostasy turned some friends into enemies and alienated him from his political cadre.
The book is arranged chronologically regarding the elements of both biography and developments in political theory during Bernstein’s life. It is composed of three parts. Part One: “Preparation,” takes us through the subject’s early life, focusing mainly upon the period of his political awakening, and extending to the time of his questioning of Marxist theory. Part Two: “Vision,” is necessarily the most theoretical of the sections as we pause to consider the political landscape and meaning of socialism in fin de siècle Europe, along with Bernstein’s defection and the alternatives he proposes. Part Three: “Disappointment,” removes the reader from her holding pattern in theoretical purgatory and drops her back into the whirling political fray of 1890s Germany. There, Bernstein is elected to Parliament and must battle both the orthodox Marxists and the opportunistic, instrumentalist politicians of his own party, the Marxist-Socialist SPD.
Manfred Steger is well-suited to the challenge of presenting both the biographical and theoretical components of his project. He brings-out the areas of conflict; those within the socialist movement and between the socialists and the autocratic Prussian Emperor, whose executive branch truly controls the political process. If parliamentary process, political maneuvering, wars of words and dissent, are exciting to the reader, she will not be disappointed. At the same time, the nuances of socialist theory are fully, (sometimes painfully), elucidated in an organized manner which even uninitiated non-fiction readers can follow. A brief epilogue permits Steger to flex his own ample theoretical muscles, as he addresses the role that Evolutionary Socialism can still play in a post-Soviet, information age of global economic challenges.
By the end, a reader will have attained three objectives: First, a clear portrait of a remarkable, intellectually flexible, evidence-based figure. Second, an understanding of the political environment in fin de siècle Germany and its relation to socialism. Third, a grasp of the prevailing currents that existed among European socialists of the late 19th and early 20th Century. All told, the attainment of these objectives is no mean accomplishment.
Steger, Manfred B. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism. Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. Cambridge: The University Press, 1997.