Parvus against revisionism (1901)
Parvus against revisionism (1901)

Parvus against revisionism (1901)

This week we take a brief break from the mass-strike debate to take a look at the Russian Marxist Parvus’s six-part series against revisionism, which were published in Die Neue Zeit in 1901. What follows – available for all  – is E Untermann’s translation of the first two articles in this series. Our next post will provide Patrons with the first English translation of part three.

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Opportunism in Practice

Parvus [I.L. Gelfand]

International Socialist Review, Vol. 2, November 1901, pp. 351-362.

1. Opportunism and Social Development.

There is now no longer any doubt that we have a fully fledged opportunism in Germany. There was a time not so long ago—the youngest in the party can still remember it—when the German Social Democracy was considered immune to opportunism. At that time, all that was necessary to kill any political measure in the party was to point out its opportunist character. For it was considered an axiom that the party should not, and could not, be opportunistic. Any one who, two or three years ago, dared to charge any prominent party member with opportunism was denounced as a calamity howler and was liable to be kicked out of the party as a rowdy for “personal abuse.”

But now neither the term opportunism nor its meaning are shunned. Political fops—we have some even in our party— boast of their opportunism and flaunt it in everybody’s face; while revolutionary tactics appear as old-fashioned and provincial to the eyes of these politicians of the latest make-up as the long coats and overgrown “stovepipes” of 1848. In short, the opportunist has arrived and enjoys life. And the fact of his existence serves him as his stock argument in defending his right to existence and his political value. He declares: “Haven’t I been repeatedly repudiated, beaten in debate, and otherwise annihilated? Has not all the world been frequently convinced that I should never recover, after having my sterility of mind, my ignorance, and my falsification of quotations so mercilessly and so justly exposed? Nevertheless I always return, and I grow daily more insolent. Is not that sufficient proof that I am the necessary and natural product of historic development? What is the matter with your conception of social evolution?”

The development of social democracy cannot be detached from the general political development of the capitalist world. The revolutionary activity of the proletariat is not equivalent to its revolutionary perception. And a man’s grasp of social phenomena is not simply due to revolutionary propaganda. The diligence of our propaganda and the clear perception of our aims are far from the only factors that produce a revolutionary effect. The great interrelations of the world market that determine the pace of industrial development; the periodical changes of prosperity and crisis; the stagnation of the population in the rural districts or the crowding of country people into the cities; emigration, the development of capitalist colonies, the rise of new industrial countries, and the decay of old forms of production; the formation of new world powers and the weakening or downfall of old ones; war and peace, the struggle between nations, the fight for political democracy, the reactionary tendencies of governments, the conflicting interests of the bourgeois parties themselves, the fight between church and state; all these are exerting a momentous influence on the revolutionary activity of the proletariat. In the proletarian struggle for emancipation as well as in the economic and political development of capitalism, there are periods of intensified pressure and of lagging advance; there are times of enthusiastic onslaught and push when the working class surprises the world by its resolute, courageous attitude and its daring plans; there are times of depression, when that class is irresolute and diffident, apparently wasting its world-stirring strength in trifles.

The great historical storms of the revolution in 1848 were followed by a strong depression. This was relieved in the sixties by a new upward movement that found its expression in the International, the Commune, and the grand political organizations of the German laborers. A renewed relapse took place after the events of 1870-71, naturally lasting longest in France, and then came another start ahead. This last period is marked by the alignment of the proletariat in great parliamentary parties. Especially in Germany we witness this tendency. Through the rapid development into a great capitalist state, masses of factory workers were gathered together and whole branches of industry were revolutionized, such as tailoring by the merchant tailors, shoemaking by the shoe factories. The growth of the great cities created the modern building trades, quite different from the bricklayers and joiners of the small towns. A new political and ethical life began to stir, and the Socialists infused it with a ready organization and a clear-cut program. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie that had no other record to show but the political traditions of half-heartedness, weakness, cowardice, and treason, groveled at the feet of Bismarck, while this janitor of the house of Hohenzollern flung to them as the gracious gift of the King of Prussia that German unity, to which they were incapable of attaining themselves. The iron chancellor himself became entangled in a quarrel with the Catholic clergy which, in spite of its brutality, was as silly an undertaking as it was irresolute. And by the help of the laws of exception he hammered class consciousness and solidarity into the vigorously growing young social democracy. A similar evolution took place in France, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain.

This new period of advance in the revolutionary fight temporarily reached its climax in 1889 at Paris. The organizations have indeed grown tremendously since then, but the energy of revolutionary initiative displayed at the first international Socialist congress, the convocation of which was in itself a great achievement, has not been equalled since. The movement kept up to the high water mark for some years, and then we entered on the dull stage in which we now find ourselves. The growth of the organizations still continues, but the surface of the great historical current no longer shows the former uniformity. We see side and counter currents gliding along in thin bands, and we also find oil on the waves. These phenomena may be explained by many negative and positive reasons.

The primary purpose of parliamentary combination was agitation. But parliamentarianism could not forever remain a mere means of propaganda. The growth of the party’s political influence created a desire to aim at practical results. When the Socialist party was small and weak, it blamed the class character of the state for many shortcomings that were really the result of its own feebleness. But when the strengthened party now succeeds in gradually gaining many a parliamentary victory, then the brain of the parliamentarian is apt to regard it in the light of a contradiction to the principle of fighting the capitalist state. At the same time the political activity of the social democracy becomes more varied, many-sided, and goes into many details. The petty work of politics is not only unavoidable, it is also eminently revolutionary; but many a man who concentrates his mind on detail work, loses sight of the great outlines. Besides, it is not to be expected that a great historical movement like the proletarian that is on the eve of touching with its numerous political phenomena the entire public life, should clearly show its fundamental character in every detail. The more powerful the revolutionary movement grows, the more scope is given for deviations and irregularities in details. It becomes more difficult to recognize the fundamental character of the movement in those details, and we must pay all the more heed to the general relations of things. In short, parliamentarianism offers to Socialists many practical problems that are apt to lead them away from the policy of fighting the capitalist state on principle. An outside observer is still more easily misled by them.

On the other hand, the exceedingly painful process of revolutionizing the trades, that brought many despairing individuals into the ranks of the Socialist party, may now be considered as being practically completed in Western Europe. The ruined craftsman finds a certain satisfaction and a moral hold in a general critique of capitalist conditions. But this does not satisfy the industrial laborer. He wants to get rid of his misery first of all. He wants great revolutionary changes if possible, but he also accepts small ones if there is no help for it. Without stopping to discuss the solution of this problem, I only wish to state that this creates another desire for a “positive” action. The policy of the state against the Socialist party has also changed considerably. It is safe to assume that, generally speaking, the period of political disfranchisement and muzzling of the proletariat is past. I do not mean to convey the idea that the capitalist state has entirely renounced the use of force against the Socialist party; but it is true, the state has realized that petty police measures are futile. After the many defeats received at the hands of the Socialists, the state is now bent on establishing a parliamentary truce with Socialism. This is the case not alone in France, where a ministry of “social peace” has actually been established, but also in Germany, in Austria, and, lately, in Italy. These tactics are favored by the circumstance that the colonial policy and the foreign relations have of late assumed an unequalled importance for capitalist states. This draws the attention of the governments away from the interior policy. The desire for internal peace awakes, because it is necessary to have the hands free for war outside. This relaxation of the political reaction also has a soothing effect. The illusions produced in the brains are all the more luxuriant, the better the soil was previously matured by social reform. The industrial prosperity of the last years has contributed its share to foster these illusions.

Of course all these factors cannot change the revolutionary character of the proletarian class struggle, but they fully suffice to create in the brains of some parliamentarians, lawyers and journalists the peculiar hash of ideas characteristic of opportunism. The hollow heads of bourgeois newspaper scribes form the sounding board necessary to give publicity to this sort of thing.

But already we can plainly observe the indications of an evolution that must lead to a new revolutionary concentration of the proletariat. The balance of commercial supremacy on the capitalist world market is preparing to shift. All the world perceives that the industrial power of England is threatened. That cannot remain without influence on the policy of the English laboring class. The industrial liberalism of England has passed through a magnificent development since the repeal of the Corn Laws, and it even succeeded in tying the laborers to its triumphal chariot. But the golden time of England’s commercial supremacy is past. English capital is being hard pressed in the home market and the colonial market. The development of the export and the industries has long ceased to keep pace with the capitalist development of other countries. What is to be done? “What will be the consequence, when the influx of continental and especially of American products will grow in an ever-increasing ratio, when the present lion’s share of English factories in supplying the world will shrink from year to year? Answer, free trade, you panacea!” This question, posed by Frederick Engels in 1885, is now being answered by streams of blood: “Imperialism!” English imperialism is the last desperate step of English capital endeavoring to maintain for a little while longer its commercial supremacy on the sea. It is beyond doubt that this attempt has failed. Whatever may be the formal end of the South African war, it will not create the coveted basis for the formation of a British world empire; it rather marks the beginning of a retrogressive era of English world power. Either immediately or after a short whirl of sham prosperity, this war will be followed by an appalling economic and political insolvency.

Before everybody’s eyes, tsarism is meantime drawing an iron semicircle, reaching from Peking to the Persian Gulf and possessing numerous fortified points, around the English sphere of influence in Asia. Meantime, also, the German and American export trade presses hard on the English industry in the world market. Since Engels wrote those words, English liberalism— the political representative of industrial capital—has continually grown weaker. It has split into factions and continues to split. It does not dare to assume the full responsibility for the policy of the government, nor to oppose it on principle. Thus English liberalism shares the fate of all bourgeois liberalism: political dissolution. That frees the English laborers and must force them to form a political party of their own. The farther the British state will be compelled to proceed on the road of militarism, and the more critical the situation becomes in the world’s market, the more will the prospects of the English Socialists brighten. Every year brings Englandcloser to the question: “Either the nation goes to pieces or the capitalist production.” (Engels.)

The industrials of the continent rejoice over the imminent downfall of England, for they hope to divide the English inheritance among themselves. Especially the German capitalist considers himself the predestined successor of Englandin trade supremacy. Futile speculation! The dispute is much more general than between two nations. The competition between whole continents is involved. The industrial future belongs to Americaand Russia. These countries have the advantage over old Europethrough their geographical position, their immense extension, the colossal scale on which the industries develop from the very beginning, and their political unity. Their competition threatens Germanyand France as well as England. In vain does Germany throw the weight of its war forces into the scale; it cannot thereby reduce the distances of the world market, nor increase the industrial potencies of Europe. German imperialism has so far done very good work for Socialism. And it will continue to do so, if we can only keep opportunism out of the policy of the party.

Aside from economic conflicts Europe, cursed with historical traditions and politically divided, will also have to undergo political conflicts. There are historical moments when evolution in the various fields has matured to the point of a crisis and everything tends toward a grand revolution. For instance, during the revolutionary struggles of 1848, we had the identification of the idea of liberty with the conception of a united Germany, a united Italy and an independent Hungary. At present we also are in a period of general restlessness. The Eastern question demands settlement, the quarrel of the Austrian nationalities has paralyzed the machinery of state. Unless one is absolutely convinced that the Austrian state will last forever, one cannot ignore the evil signs of disintegration to be witnessed during the last years. The political system of Europe, which breaks up the nationalities in one place and bunches them together in another, has again come into conflict with the tendency of history to form great national bodies. The whole system of small states in Western Europe becomes more and more an obstacle in the way of the capitalistic development of the immense economic organizations of Americaand Russia. The capitalistic world market demands with ever greater insistence the formation of a united Europe. But a united Europe can only be a republic. And while this is going on in Western Europe, the land of tsarism shows every day more plainly how incapable it is of mastering the forces set loose by capitalist development. The young proletariat lifts its daring head and draws closer and closer around the throne of the autocrat, in spite of knout and Siberia.

We see, it is not necessary to think of a social revolution in order to hold that the political development of Europe will not run smoothly and peacefully. And I also believe that many a man who gradually and gently transforms capitalism into socialism—on paper—will stop short before the task of minor historical importance involved in painlessly merging into one the houses of Hapsburg,  Savoy, and a score of other political firms of the grace of God. But whether the political evolution of Europe proceeds more or less stormily, its influence on the concentration of the revolutionary proletariat is proven beyond doubt by all the experiences of the past century. This concentration will proceed all the more easily, as the incessant progress of the political consolidation of the proletariat has created organizations of such grand dimensions, that they are unique in the political history of Europe and have never been equalled by any attempts of the proletariat at organization. At the same time a more rapid process of expropriation is lately taking place in industry, throwing aside the capitalist middle class and creating immense combinations, giant pools that concentrate the class struggle of the laborers in the same measure in which they concentrate production. The question of property is thereby reduced to the simple problem: monopoly of a capitalist combination or collectivism? And under the pressure of electro-technical development, a fundamental revolution of the entire productive activity is also taking place.

Capitalist development is proceeding much more rapidly than the evolution of so-called “public opinion.” It is always considerably ahead of the ideas that dominate in the press and the parliament. Hardly have the bourgeois idea mongers had time to prepare their little doctrines and wishing slips for a quiet, slow, and easy capitalist development, when it suddenly bursts forth impetuously, rushes on madly, and behaves in general as if it were specially bent on hoodwinking its friends. The influence of this always belated public opinion of the bourgeois reaches even to the ranks of the Socialists. Were we to judge of the political character of the proletarian class struggle by the opinions uttered daily in the ranks of the labor parties, then we should often have good reasons for discouragement. But the revolutionary character of the labor movement is founded on facts, not on the vacillating opinions of this or that man who may temporarily disport himself as the mouthpiece of the party. There are always certain unlucky birds in the party whom the revolutionary perception approaches mostly from the outside, in the shape of literary or political drubbings. If we view evolution from this point, we must admit that the German Social Democracy brought forth a good deal of revolutionary perception during the last years. For whenever opportunistic tendencies showed themselves, the revolutionary perception always and everywhere followed close behind. Opportunism was tracked by revolutionary perception step by step, and often pulled out of its darkest hiding place. The historical method bequeathed by Marx and Engels affords the possibility of recognizing the sources and consequences of errors and political mistakes made by the proletariat. Thus we prevent disappointment, assist in removing disarrangements, and endeavor to preserve the accumulated revolutionary energy from wasting, until a new revolutionary concentration of the proletariat takes place under the pressure of the conditions.

2. Opportunism and the Doctrine.

Since opportunism appeared among German Socialists, it has never ceased to complain that it was being misunderstood. Vollmar’s Eldorado speeches in 1891 were misunderstood, his remarks on State Socialism were misunderstood, the consent of the Bavarian fraction in the Landtag to the budget was misunderstood, the idea of independent farmers in the draft of the South German agrarian program was misunderstood, Schippel’s position toward militarism at the Hamburg congress was misunderstood, Heine’s compromise policy was misunderstood, and finally Bernstein’s revision was misunderstood first by myself, then by everybody else who attacked it, including Karl Kautsky, the intimate friend of Bernstein, with whom a twenty years’ exchange of ideas connected him. The capacity for being misunderstood is the strongest intellectual weapon of opportunism. There are politicians who can never succeed in being misunderstood, no matter how much they try. They are rather too outspoken, draw too one-sided conclusions out of individual eases and pay the penalty by falling unawares into a ludicrous contradiction. A contradiction arising from a daring and upright search for truth and clearness is surely more praiseworthy than that intellectual adaptability which always carries in its mouth two half-truths that do not fit together because they belong to two different wholes. But the contradiction is clearly apparent, the half-truth is plainly perceptible.

The alleged misfortune of being misunderstood is founded in the character of opportunism. First and most of all it is misunderstood by itself. It needs outside help in order to draw the conclusions from its own actions, and a long experience in order to know itself. When it first appears, it is only a modification, a different shade of color, a grease spot. No matter how much it grows, it never becomes a system, a doctrine, or even a principle. It remains a shapeless, gelatinous mass. For this reason nothing in the world is so distasteful to it as a firm outline, a doctrine or a dogma. At the same time, when attacked, it never finds any difficulty in adhering to a dogma.

Hence it has always been impossible to strike opportunism by any resolution. When Bebel offered his resolution in Erfurt, the congress was convinced that Vollmar would have to define his position by certain amendments and additions. But he did nothing of the kind and at once fully endorsed the resolution. He even declared in his closing speech that he did not wish to see the tactics of the party changed; they suited him very well as they were. Likewise Bernstein now endorses all resolutions.

While carrying on a bitter fight against the entire scientific and political activity of Marx and Engels, he declares that he is standing on the ground created by the ideas and activity of these men. And although an abyss has long since formed between him and the entire policy and historical tradition of the party, he persistently repeats that the party is standing on the same ground with him and is only not aware of it.

To clearly formulate opportunism is not feasible. It is as little adapted for that purpose as quicksand is for sculpturing. In criticizing it, we must confine ourselves to exposing its origin, its development, and its muddle-headedness.

One trait is common in the origin of all opportunist errors in the Socialist labor movement: the incapacity for organically combining the present policy of the party with its final revolutionary aim. In the eyes of the opportunists these two points separate themselves: here the final aim, there the present policy. At best they recognize a parallel activity: agitation for the social revolution and activity within the capitalist state. That it is possible for our present activity to be thoroughly revolutionary with all its variety, all its “positive” and practical character, even in the old true sense of the term, according to which the social revolution does not begin until the proletariat is supreme, that passes their understanding. But the simple revolutionary spirit that scorns all present activity is perfectly plain to them. Vollmar, e. g., represented the so-called “young Socialists” as models of consistency. In 1891, he described their position as follows: “The modern social and political conditions are beyond improvement. . . . Hence we have stood aloof from all participation in practical politics and confine ourselves to protesting and waiting, until our strength lies in the street and we can get the whole at one stroke. And this time is near; it even depends on us alone to hasten its arrival.” And he added: “This position is doubtless clear and precise.”

But the position of Bebel, Liebknecht and others appears to him as pure inconsistency. He writes in the same articles of the Muenchener Post (Ueber Optimismus [On Optimism], reproduced in the pamphlet Ueber die naechsten Aufgaben der deutschen Sozialdemokratie [On Social Democracy’s Immediate Tasks], publisher M Ernst): “It directly contradicts our entire conception of a gradual growing into a new form of society, if now and then declarations are suddenly sprung on us that represent any work for immediate measures as practically worthless. … A prominent party member recently said in a well-considered speech at Berlin: ‘The state of the ruling classes will never yield to more than petty concessions. That might have been said very well by one of the ‘young Socialists’ as an argument in favor of his policy of abstention from all practical politics and of pure agitation of principles. Why should we, indeed, devote nine-tenths of our activity to work which will never yield anything but insignificant results?” You see, what Vollmar does not understand is the value of present day parliamentary work and practical politics for our revolutionary propaganda. This value will become plainly apparent when the class interest or the class egoism of the ruling elements prevent the realization of our demands by legal means. It was precisely this that was later emphasized by the Erfurt resolution, and Vollmar did not even hesitate to approve of it.

Whoever does not know how to combine the fight for social revolution with the present day political or parliamentary work, finds now the revolutionary agitation in the way of present day work, now the latter in the way of the former. Hence he is placed before the alternative: pure revolution, or pure reform. That explains why the time limit plays such an important role in the opportunist reflections on the social revolution. If the revolution is impending, then they are freed from the vexing problem and believe that there is no use in bothering with social reform measures; they are then extremely revolutionary. Thus Vollmar replied to Bebel, who expected great social changes in the near future: “If I could share this belief, no regard to agitation could induce me to continue any political chores.” By the way, that would be just the right method to delay the revolution a little longer.

Whether it takes ten, or twenty, or fifty years for the proletariat to obtain sufficient power to make an end of capitalist exploitation, that is a question of great ethical importance. But revolutionary politics are not dependent on the date of the revolution. They are the result of capitalist evolution that creates an irreconcilable conflict between the working class and the capitalists, no matter whether its march is slow or rapid. It has caused some surprise that Vollmar, who first was much more inclined to go to extremes in his ultra-revolutionary attitude, became so moderate. We know to-day that therein lies a peculiar consistency which was also exhibited later on by the “young Socialists” of 1891, all of whom have shed their skins and become Vollmarians unless, they have left politics entirely. It is clear: if a man is only a revolutionary, because he expects a revolution tomorrow, he will turn into a reformer, if the revolution is delayed by the march of events until the end of the week. The revolutionism of the “young ones” was due more to desire than to conviction. It lacked the true insight into the development of social conditions, and it was as hollow as their present opportunism. But Marx and Engels fought for the social revolution during half a century without wavering for a single moment. On the contrary, their buoyancy increased with the years, for they had the historical perception which the others lacked. Nor did August Bebel change when no great political events took place by 1898. It is not a matter of any great political day, but of great historical events that are not dependent so much on our ability to plan ahead, as on capitalist development.

Vollmar, who charged Bebel with inconsistency because the latter did not push his revolutionary tendencies to the point of totally abandoning his “chores,” failed to draw the logical conclusions from his own standpoint. For if such a chasm yawns between the social revolution and the “daily chores,” then it follows that in order to devote ourselves fully to the “chores” we should have to give up the idea of a social revolution. This Vollmar did not do, however, but declared that he wished to keep his eye on the “final aim” while doing his “chores.” Eduard Bernstein went a step farther in his well-known statement: “The final aim is nothing, the movement everything to me.” But this is precisely the characteristic mark of opportunism that it does not dare to solve the contradictions that entangle it. Once the opportunist draws his conclusions as to social reforms, he ceases to be an opportunist and becomes a reformer. That would at once clear the situation, and we should settle the pure reformer’s account as quickly as we did the advocates of pure revolution.

The development of opportunism tends toward reformism. But until this final result is reached, opportunism throws a cloak over its own development. Thus the theories are born of a gradual growing of society into socialism, of an insensible stifling of capitalism, etc., all of which simply tend to substitute social reform for social revolution. They pretend to change things by changing names. As this is impossible, they become gradually involved in an irreconcilable opposition to their starting point. They sneer at revolutionism, first proclaim the freedom of Socialist science, then appeal from science to the fallaciousness of human perception, and finally make Socialism a matter of belief and temperament. Hence these Socialists who first could not be revolutionary enough, turn into social reformers long before capitalism is transferred into Socialism. Instead of stifling capitalism, they choke their own political past.

So far from solving the contradiction in which he is entangled, the opportunist transfers it to his whole party. He thinks that in fighting him we oppose the future ideal of social revolution to the present-day chores. But this problem does not exist for us at all. For the work of the present does not interfere with our revolutionary agitation, it rather furthers it. The trouble lies in the present day work itself, from which the opportunists want to eliminate revolutionary agitation. The question is:

Shall we aim exclusively at immediate parliamentary and economic results in our present work, or shall these results be simply the means for the realization of a higher object, the revolutionary organization of the proletariat. It is not merely a question of voting, obtaining political successes, advocating social re-forms and democratic laws, organizing strikes for higher wages, and other labour demands—but of either leaving the political power in the hands of the bourgeoisie or leading the proletariat by means of these measures to the conquest of the political powers for the purpose of changing the foundations of the state, of property and of the mode of production.


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