Social Democracy - History - Second International Era, 1889-1914

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Second International Era, 1889-1914

The modern social democratic movement came into being through a division within the socialist movement, this division can be described as a parting of ways between those who insisted upon political revolution as a precondition for the achievement of socialist goals and those who maintained that a gradual or evolutionary path to socialism was both possible and desirable.

One of the key founders of contemporary social democracy was Eduard Bernstein, a proponent of reformist socialism and an adherent of Marxism. The term "revisionist" was applied to Bernstein by his critics who referred to themselves as "orthodox" Marxists, even though Bernstein claimed that his principles were consistent with Karl Marx's and Friedrich Engels' stances, especially in their later years when Marx and Engels advocated that socialism should be achieved through parliamentary democratic means where-ever possible. Revisionists have criticized orthodox Marxism and particularly its founder Karl Kautsky, for having disregarded Marx's view of the necessity of evolution of capitalism to achieve socialism by replacing it with an "either/or" polarization between capitalism and socialism; for disregarding Marx's emphasis on the role of parliamentary democracy in achieving socialism; as well as criticizing Kautsky for his idealism of state socialism.

Bernstein had held close association to Marx and Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxian thinking and began such criticism when he investigated and challenged the Marxian materialist theory of history. He rejected significant parts of Marxian theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics, he rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective. Bernstein declared that the massive and homogeneous working-class claimed in the Communist Manifesto did not exist, and that contrary to claims of a proletarian majority emerging, the middle-class was growing under capitalism and not disappearing as Marx had claimed. Bernstein noted that the working-class was not homogeneous but heterogeneous, with divisions and factions within it, including socialist and non-socialist trade unions. Marx himself later in his life acknowledged that the middle-class was not disappearing, in his work Theories of Surplus Value. However due to the popularity of the Communist Manifesto and the obscurity of Theories of Surplus Value, Marx's acknowledgement of this error is not well known.

Bernstein criticized Marxism's concept of "irreconciliable class conflicts" and Marxism's hostility to liberalism. He challenged Marx's position on liberalism by claiming that liberal democrats and social democrats held common grounds that he claimed could be utilized to create a "socialist republic". He believed that economic class disparities between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would gradually be eliminated through legal reforms and economic redistribution programs. Bernstein rejected the Marxian principle of dictatorship of the proletariat, claiming that gradualist democratic reforms will improve the rights of the working class. According to Bernstein, unlike orthodox Marxism, social democracy did not seek to create a socialism separate from bourgeois society but instead sought to create a common development based on Western humanism. The development of socialism under social democracy does not seek to rupture existing society and its cultural traditions but to act as an enterprise of extension and growth. Furthermore, he believed that class cooperation was a preferable course to achieve socialism, rather than class conflict. On the issue of class conflict and responding to the Marxian principle of dictatorship of the proletariat, Bernstein said:

"No one thinks of destroying civil society as a community ordered in a civilized war. Quite to the contrary, Social Democracy does not want to break up civil society and make all its members proletarians together; rather, it ceaselessly labors to raise the worker from the social position of a proletarian to that of a citizen and thus make citizenship universal. It does not want to replace civil society with a proletarian society but a capitalist order of society with a socialist one." Eduard Bernstein

Bernstein urged social democrats to be committed to a long-term agenda of transforming the capitalist economy to a socialist economy rather than a sudden upheaval of capitalism, saying:

"Social democracy should neither expect nor desire the imminent collapse of the existing economic system … What social democracy should be doing, and doing for a long time to come, is organize the working class politically, train it for democracy, and fight for any and all reforms in the state which are designed to raise the working class and make the state more democratic." Eduard Bernstein

Bernstein accepted a mixed economy for an unspecified amount of time:

"It would be completely mad to burden itself with the additional tasks of so complex a nature as the setting up and controlling of comprehensive state production centers on a mass scale – quite apart from the fact that only certain specific branches of production can be run on a national basis…Competition would have to be reckoned with, at least in the transitional period." Eduard Bernstein.

" in addition to public enterprises and cooperative enterprises, there are enterprises run by private individuals for their own gain. In time, they will of their own accord acquire a cooperative character." Eduard Bernstein.

Another prominent figure who influenced social democracy, was French revisionist Marxist and reformist socialist Jean Jaurès. During the 1904 Congress of the Second International, Jaurès challenged orthodox Marxist August Bebel, the mentor of Kautsky, over his promotion of monolithic socialist tactics. Jaurès claimed that no coherent socialist platform could be equally applicable to different countries and regions due to different political systems in them; noting that Bebel's homeland of Germany at the time was very authoritarian and had limited parliamentary democracy. He compared the limited political influence of socialism in government in Germany to the substantial influence that socialism had gained in France due to its stronger parliamentary democracy. He claimed that the example of the political differences between Germany and France demonstrated that monolithic socialist tactics were impossible, given the political differences of various countries.

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