Revolutionary Socialism - Origins

Origins

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.

In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Scholars have pointed out that the term "revolution" as used by Marx, Engels and their followers tends to refer to complete change of a social and economic nature by a mass movement of the "immense majority" (as shown by the quote above). In addition, if this revolutionary change was not opposed by the existing ruling elite, Marx and Engels contended, it could be carried out peacefully. By contrast, the Blanquist view emphasised the overthrow by force of the ruling elite in government by an active minority of revolutionaries, who then proceed to implement socialist change, disregarding the state of readiness of society as a whole and the mass of the population in particular for revolutionary change.

The reformist viewpoint was introduced into Marxist thought by Eduard Bernstein, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). From 1896 to 1898, Bernstein published a series of articles entitled "Probleme des Sozialismus" ("Problems of Socialism"). These articles led to a debate on revisionism in the SPD, and can be seen as the origins of a reformist trend within Marxism.

In 1900, Rosa Luxemburg wrote Social Reform or Revolution, a polemic against Bernstein's position. The work of reforms, Luxemburg argued, could only be carried on, "in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution". In order to advance society to socialism from the capitalist 'social form', a social revolution will be necessary:

Bernstein, thundering against the conquest of political power as a theory of Blanquist violence, has the misfortune of labeling as a Blanquist error that which has always been the pivot and the motive force of human history. From the first appearance of class societies, having class struggle as the essential content of their history, the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes. Here is the starting point and end of every historic period…In modern times, we see it in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. —Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

Vladimir Lenin attacked Bernstein’s position in his What is to be Done. When Bernstein first put forward his ideas the majority of the SPD rejected them. The 1899 Congress of the SPD reaffirmed the Erfurt programme, as did the 1901 congress. The 1903 congress denounced "revisionist efforts".

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