Friedrich Engels outlines a theory of communism that demands a violent revolution for its fulfillment in his 1848 Principles of Communism. He considers the state of modern European workers, characterized in his work by propertylessness and a lack of security, to be more deplorable than ever before. Although he claims that a peaceful revolution is preferable, he also insists repeatedly that violent revolution is inevitable because of the actions of those opposed to communist ideals. Edward Bernstein, a German socialist who came to prominence several decades after Engels, rejects the elder man’s insistence upon the certainty of a likely violent revolution in his Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation. He instead articulates a preference for socialism through legislative reform, and expresses sympathy for democracy, less typical socialist theorists, and many concepts of liberalism. Rosa Luxemburg represents a return to orthodox Marxism in her Reform Or Revolution, a rebuke of the dissident ideas, such as Bernstein’s, which had begun to rise in prominence due to successful legislative reforms.
In his Principles of Communism, Friedrich Engels considers the state of European workers to be at the most wretched level of any group in history. Showing communism’s ties to the observations of early economists, Engels maintains the same position on wages as the nineteenth-century economist David Ricardo, who was mentioned in the lecture “Socialism and the Age of Mass Politics Before World War I” in the third week: namely, that wages always tend towards the level of “subsistance [sic] that is needed to enable the worker to toil and that prevents the class of workers from dying out” (Engels 8). Continuing from this point- a position held in common with many economists of the time- Engels goes on to delineate a theory of economy and reform which is peculiarly communist.
Somewhat confusedly, Engels contends that even slaves in antiquity held a better condition than modern industrial workers. While conceding that “the proletarian is part of a higher stage of social development and stands higher than the slave,” he nevertheless argues that slaves, despite their lack of freedom and incontrovertible susceptibility to all forms of abuse, possess a condition which is in many ways superior to that of modern workers (Engels 10). Unlike the slave, who is the property of one master by whom “his existence,” however miserable it may be, “is securely guaranteed,” Engels puts forth that “the individual proletarian” is “the property of the whole bourgeois class” and therefore lacks the “secure existence” of the slave (Engels 9). While “[t]he slave stands outside of competition,” the proletarian is obliged “to stand within” the competition of capitalism “and feel all its fluctuations” (Engels 10). The slave also has fewer steps to achieve his liberation, according to Engels. To obtain freedom, he must abolish “only chattel slavery,” while “the proletarian can free himself only by abolishing private property as a whole” (Engels 10). The medieval serf was even better off, in Engels’ explanation; he had “a secure existence” and stood “outside of all competition” like the slave, possessed his own means of labor, unlike either the slave or proletarian, and his liberation came in “entering…into the propertied class” (Engels 10).
After further outlining his ideas about the inherent flaws of the system of capitalism, Engels begins to describe in what way the abolition of private property and socialist revolution will arise. He claims that “Communists…are the last ones who would object” to these events occuring “peacefully,” but ominously suggests that “the opponents of the Communists are working with all power toward making a (violent) revolution necessary” (Engels 17). He then goes further, plainly stating that Communists will support the impending, parenthetically violent revolution into which the proletariat is being “driven” with (presumably violent) “deeds as well as…words” (Engels 17). Once the revolution is triggered, it will take place “simultaneously in all civilized countries,” as a “universal revolution” which “will claim universal territory” (Engels 20).
Edward Bernstein, in his Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation, written fifty-one years after Engels’ 1848 Principles of Communism, counters many of the ideas of revolution and Marxist theory put forth in the latter work. The selection provided begins with a quote from the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, also mentioned in the lecture “Socialism and the Age of Mass Politics Before World War I” in week three. Lassalle became a so-called “state socialist” who, like other communists, believed that modern industrial economic systems were always systemically unjust. He reached an unpopular conclusion, however, when he eventually proclaimed that state power, not revolution and governance by the proletariat, was necessary to mitigate workers’ inherent vulnerability. The quote, which declares the offer of universal suffrage a kind of reconciliation, suggests the more moderate realms in which Bernstein’s sympathies lie and provides a useful prelude to the idea of socialism achieved through the ballot box which he endorses throughout the piece. He in fact declares that universal suffrage is “the alternative to violent revolution-” an almost heretical rebuke of Marxist historical materialism, discussed in the same lecture as Lassalle, which maintained that there was no alternative to revolution and that the relationships between the classes were eternally characterized by a struggle for power (Bernstein 6).
Having been witness to over fifty years of peaceful reforms which seemed elusive at the time of Engels’ writing- the end of serfdom in Russia, the abolition of American slavery, expansion of the franchise, legalization of trade unions, growing limits on child labor- it seems reasonable that Bernstein would become sympathetic to the notion of a peaceful alternative to revolution. Somewhat surprisingly, however, he also began to approve of and even co-opt many liberal ideas. He writes favorably of liberalism, although not initially in so many words, declaring that democracy is essentially geared towards maintaining “the highest possible degree of freedom for all-” an idea frequently present in liberal literature- and that the universal right to vote will inevitably “lead to real partnership” between different groups, because the workers have grown in “knowledge,” echoing both socialist ideas of class consciousness and the concept of individual rationality put forth by many liberals (Bernstein 5-6).
While he concedes that modern liberalism “arose for the advantage of the capitalist bourgeoisie first of all,” Bernstein insists that socialism is the “legitimate heir” to “liberalism as a great historical movement” (Bernstein 8). He even goes so far as to declare that there is “no really liberal thought which does not also belong to the elements of the ideas of socialism,” that “democracy is only the political form of liberalism,” and that socialism is simply “‘organising liberalism'” (Bernstein 8-11). Just as the quote from Lassalle showed, Bernstein does not draw solely from the work of orthodox Marxists; he praises one of the constitutions, deeply influenced by Rousseau, which was drawn up during the French revolution and attests that the values and institutions it presents are hardly “an obstacle to socialism” (Bernstein 9). Although he reaffirms Engels’ fervent insistence that the end goal and result of reforms “will be socialism,” Bernstein is heterodox in the sources from which he draws and, more notably, his dissent from historical materialism (Bernstein 11). It is the latter divergence which would raise the ire of dogmatic Marxists.
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