Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2008

The Bernstein-Bax debate

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

(This post is part of an ongoing Introduction to Marxism online class.)

Eduard Bernstein: supported imperialist civilization against “savagery”

E. Belfort Bax: against imperialism–period

This post is a little late since I had to attend to some personal business this week. My hopes are that the flow of posts will increase in tempo now that we have moved past the rather thorny topic of crisis theory.

Just about two years ago I wrote an article titled “Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism?“, a question that I want to revisit in the context of a very interesting exchange between Eduard Bernstein and E. Belfort Bax, a British socialist who was one of our first great anti-imperialists.

To start with, it is necessary to acknowledge that the question of Marx endorsing imperialism achieves a certain legitimacy because of formulations in Marx’s writings themselves. Even if Marx and Engels condemned British colonialism in Ireland, there were other occasions when they seemed open to the idea of imperialism as a necessary evil in ridding a country of feudal vestiges. Probably the most explicit instance of this line of reasoning is Marx’s early Tribune articles on India, where he says things like this in 1853:

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

Now it is important to understand that Marx revised his thinking late in life on the role of Great Britain. In 1881, he wrote a letter to a Russian supporter describing the colonization of India as “a bleeding process with a vengeance.” However, what you will not find in Marx is any kind of systematic exploration of the question of imperialism. This is understandable since the main body of his work revolved around defining the capital accumulation process in Western Europe, and Great Britain in particular. That being said, it is important to note his characterization of the role of colonial plunder in making this initial accumulation process possible:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

Unfortunately, Marx did not connect the dots and demonstrate exactly how the discovery of gold and silver, etc. led to the “era of capitalist production”. If he had, perhaps it would have been impossible for Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood to dismiss their importance. This is a question we shall return to in a few weeks.

Turning now to the Bernstein-Bax debate, that I strongly urge you to read in its entirety, you will see that the differences revolve essentially about whether capitalism is some kind of “civilizing” mechanism even if it entails crimes against humanity.

Unfortunately, the 1896 Bernstein Neue Zeit article that touched off the debate is not online anywhere, but Bax’s initial response (Our German Fabian Convert; or, Socialism According to Bernstein) is very useful in framing the differences:

Referring apparently to a proposal made by myself as to supporting barbaric and savage communities against the inroads of aggressive capitalism, Bernstein is content to brush this aside as an “outcome of Romanticism.” He thereby forgets the obvious retort that his own position is the “outcome of Philistinism.” Why should the champion of the shunting-yard, the factory chimney, and the höhere kultur [higher culture] which the off-scouring of the British populations are now introducing into Matabeleland, arrogate to himself the exclusive possession of common sense? Granted that I have a too foolishly fond sympathy for outworn forms of social life, Bernstein’s affection for modern civilisation and its Errungenschaften [acquisitions] is also not established beyond the possibility of dispute as the correct Socialist emotion.

It may be true that the future does not belong to the past, but neither does it belong to the present. Bernstein prefers the squalor of modern civilisation to the rudeness of primitive barbarism. I prefer the rudeness of primitive barbarism to the squalor of modern civilisation. This is, of course, a matter of taste. But why the “outcome of Philistinism” should be so unquestionably assumed to be superior to the outcome of the other thing I really can’t quite see. Besides I deny altogether that my view of the undesirability of the forcing of capitalism on barbaric and savage peoples is especially the product of Romanticism. At all events, that extremely romantic, unmodern and unpractical person the late Friedrich Engels held substantially the same view.

The reasons for myself and other Socialists who agree with the in wishing to limit, as far as possible, the area of capitalistic exploitation, in other words, of modern civilisation (the höhere kultur of Bernstein’s admiration) are the following: – 1. Unlike Bernstein we regard modern civilisation as, per se, a curse and an evil. (This, I suppose, is what Bernstein calls Romanticism.) 2. To the obvious retort that modern capitalism is, at all events, a necessary stage to Socialism, that without present civilisation future Socialism would be impossible, we reply (while, of course, granting the main proposition) that to the revolution or evolution from Capitalism to Socialism it is not by any means essential that all barbarian and savage peoples and out-of-the-way corners of the earth should come under the dominion of capitalism, with the human misery involved in it. The existing European races and their offshoots without spreading themselves beyond their present seats, are quite adequate to effect the Social Revolution, meanwhile leaving savage and barbaric communities to work out their own social salvation in their own way. The absorption of such communities into the Socialistic world-order would then only be a question of time. 3. But more than this, we see that the present system of production and distribution is breaking down throughout the civilised world by its own weight, and that its only chance lies in annexing industrially and commercially, and wherever possible, politically, the outlying territories of the earth’s surface.

Some of the references are dated, but I don’t think it is difficult to make sense of Bax’s argument, which boils down to: “we reply (while, of course, granting the main proposition) that to the revolution or evolution from Capitalism to Socialism it is not by any means essential that all barbarian and savage peoples and out-of-the-way corners of the earth should come under the dominion of capitalism.” One reference definitely worth taking note of is this: the off-scouring of the British populations are now introducing into Matabeleland. Matabeleland was part of what is now modern day Zimbabwe. In the 1890s, Cecil Rhodes seized this and adjacent territories on behalf of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) that was modeled on the original Great Thief, the East India Company. Rhodes, of course, was singled out by Lenin as the prototypical imperialist in “Imperialism, the Final Stage of Capitalism “:

And Cecil Rhodes, we are informed by his intimate friend, the journalist Stead, expressed his imperialist views to him in 1895 in the following terms: “I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for `bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

In other words, a full twenty years before Lenin singled out this nefarious character, Bax had him in his sights, even if he did not mention him by name.

Shortly after Bax wrote his critique of Bernstein, the “revisionist” shot back with an article titled Amongst the Philistines – A Rejoinder to Belfort Bax. Fortunately, his reply, which is included in the Bax archives at MIA, includes an excerpt from the Neue Zeit article that Bax was attacking:

Prima facie there is for Socialists inducement to sympathise with every struggle for emancipation, and generally it will be right to investigate the case at the outset from this point of view, so natural for a democratic party. Let us first satisfy sentiment, and then ask whether sense and just interest come to the same conclusion, or where they modify it.

Not every rising of conquered races against their conquerors is, however, in the same manner a struggle for emancipation. Africa harbours tribes who adjudge to themselves the right of trading in slaves, and who can only be prevented from this sort of thing by the civilised nations of Europe. Their risings against the latter do not interest us – nay, will have us, in given cases, as opponents. The same applies to those barbaric and semi-barbaric races who make it a regular profession to invade neighboring agricultural communities, to rob cattle, etc. Races who are hostile to, or incapable of, civilisation, cannot claim our sympathy when they stand against civilisation. We do not acknowledge any right of robbery, nor any right of hunters over or against cultivators. To put it briefly, strongly as we criticise present civilisation, we acknowledge its relative acquisitions, and make them a criterion of our sympathy. We will condemn and oppose certain methods of the subjugation of savage races, but not that savage races are at all subjugated and compelled to conform with the rules of higher civilisation.

A struggle for emancipation must contain in itself an element of civilisation if it shall have a claim can our deep sympathy, and eventually active support, be it that races or nationalities who have developed a civilisation of their own stand up against foreign domination that hinders their further development, or that an advancing class rebels against its suppression by retrograde classes. We acknowledge the right of nationality to every people that has shown itself capable of developing or maintaining such national civilisations.

Bernstein would seem to be implicitly invoking Marx’s 1853 article on India when he refers to Africa harboring “tribes who adjudge to themselves the right of trading in slaves, and who can only be prevented from this sort of thing by the civilised nations of Europe.” After all, didn’t Marx say in that very same article?

We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

To buttress his Marxist credentials against the “romantic” Bax, Bernstein cites Capital:

As to Karl Marx I advise Bax to read in the Kapital the foot-note to paragraph 3, chapter viii., where Marx in the most severe way censures Carlyle for having, in the same fashion as Bax does today, taken sides “for slavery against capitalist civilisation.” Philistine Marx there calls the anti-slavery war “the only magnificent contemporary event.”

(Interestingly enough, I could not find any such foot-note in MIA, but leaving that aside, the real question is whether the social revolution being led by Abraham Lincoln, obviously the event referred to by Marx as “the only magnificent contemporary event”, has anything to do with Great Britain’s foray into Africa. To start with, slavery in Africa was not chattel slavery. Since there was no commodity production, there was no tendency toward super-exploitation. In pre-capitalist societies, slaves could enjoy substantial power. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, slaves were often top military commanders.)

I have to say that my mind functions much like Bax’s to my pleasant surprise. Immediately after writing the above paragraph, I turned to his final response to Bernstein, which was contained in a letter to an unnamed comrade, and found the following:

Similarly, the reference to Marx leaves my withers unwrung [Bax certainly had a way with the winged phrase.]. Marx had in view not the natural primitive slavery of Central Africa, but a slavery that had survived its function and obtained in the very heart of a capitalist state of society – a society which was ready for free labour, but, from short-sightedness or indolence, preferred slave-labour. All the same, I would not like to swear that the condition of the Southern State negro is better today than under the old slaveholding system.

I should mention that I first stumbled across Bax in the course of doing some research for a critique of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”, a book that I regard as in the Bernstein tradition. They basically view globalization as a kind of necessary evil that will help move the struggle toward a classless society forward. In other words, they try to make an amalgam of Thomas Friedman and communism not much different than Bernstein’s earlier attempts to justify colonial penetration of “savage” societies. This is an excerpt from my article on “Empire”:

Within a few years, the Second International would become embroiled in a controversy that pitted Eduard Bernstein against the revolutionary wing of the movement, including British Marxist Belford Bax and Rosa Luxemburg. Using arguments similar to Hardt and Negri’s, Bernstein said that colonialism was basically a good thing since it would hasten the process of drawing savages into capitalist civilization, a necessary first step to building communism. Unfortunately, the Bernstein article referred to below is not available online.

In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before…

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.” (Marxism and Social Democracy, p. 153-154)

It is of course no accident that arguments found in Bernstein are now making a re-appearance in “Empire” a little bit over a century later. We have been going through a fifty-year economic expansion in the imperialist world that tends to cast a shadow over the project of proletarian revolution. From a class perspective, it is not too difficult to understand why the new challenge to Marxism–in the name of Marxism–emerges out of the academy just as it arose out of the top rungs of the party bureaucracy in the 1880s. From a relatively privileged social position in the bowels of the most privileged nations on earth, it is easy to succumb to defeatist moods.

In a couple of days, I will be posting something from Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey about the role of “accumulation by dispossession”, a term for imperialism.


  1. Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism? Why of course, just as he endorsed capitalism, but as necessary not desirable.
    Didn’t he actually live off the surplus value from Engels business?
    Would you have him starve instead of discovering the science of capital? No doubt part of that would be colonial super-profits.
    But would you have him picket the Colonial Office as a starving homeless person instead of writing brilliant articles for the NYDT?

    “England, it is true, in causing social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only be the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bring about that revolution. Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the richt, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe:

    ‘Should this torture then torment us
    Since it brings us greater pleasure?
    Were not through the rule of Timur
    Souls devoured without measure?’ “.

    The British Rule in India.

    Bernstein and Bax are like vultures on Marx carcase.

    Comment by Dave — May 18, 2008 @ 3:47 am

  2. Dave: Didn’t he actually live off the surplus value from Engels business?


    What an odd comment from a veteran ortho-Trotskyist. I lived off the profits of Goldman-Sachs and Salomon Brothers in the past, my salary in words. Did that mean I endorsed capitalism? Workers in the armaments industry–do they endorse war?

    You are a silly git.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — May 18, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  3. I love Bax. He was wrong about ‘the Woman Question’ but right about much else, and his writings are a treasure trove of insights well expressed.

    Comment by Ken MacLeod — May 18, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  4. In the 1840s, Engels sometimes went will beyond the view that imperialism was a “necessary evil.” Here, for instance, are his January 1848 comments on the US annexation of half of Mexico in the 1846 war:

    “In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is also an advance when a country which has hitherto been exclusively wrapped up in its own affairs, perpetually rent with civil wars, and completely hindered in its development, a country whose best prospect had been to become industrially subject to Britain — when such a country is forcibly drawn into the historical process. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in future be placed under the tutelage of the United States. The evolution of the whole of America will profit by the fact that the United States, by the possession of California, obtains command of the Pacific.”

    The following year, responding to Bakunin, his comments were worse:

    “The United States and Mexico are two republics, in both of which the people is sovereign.

    “How did it happen that over Texas a war broke out between these two republics, which, according to the moral theory, ought to have been ‘fraternally united’ and ‘federated’, and that, owing to ‘geographical, commercial and strategical necessities’, the ‘sovereign will’ of the American people, supported by the bravery of the American volunteers, shifted the boundaries drawn by nature some hundreds of miles further south? And will Bakunin accuse the Americans of a ‘war of conquest’, which, although it deals with a severe blow to his theory based on ‘justice and humanity’, was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization, and for the third time in history give the world trade a new direction? The ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in some places ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?”

    Marx, to my knowledge, never wrote anything as bad as this, but it was not until the Indian Mutiny of 1857 that he came to understand that colonial peoples need not be passive victims, but could play a crucial role in weakening the imperial power not just in its colonies, but in its domestic territories too. Up until that point, Marx’s view was that economic development in Britain would lay the foundation for socialist revolution, which would eventually lead in turn to the end of colonial exploitation. After that point he realized that colonial rebellions and national liberation struggles could play a decisive role in weakening the capitalist powers, and should be actively supported by the workers’ movement. By the early 1860s, I think he had reached essentially the same position that Lenin later articulated in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination and the Theses On The National And Colonial Question.

    The point is that Marx and Engels’ ideas on theses issues developed substantially in the decade and more following the publication of The Communist Manifesto, and earlier formulations of their views should be looked at with a critical eye.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — May 18, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  5. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen posted in the world of blogdom for ages. Thanks Louis.

    Comment by johng — May 18, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

  6. I am pleased to read something positive about Bax, because I’d met him regularly in EP Thompson’s biography of Morris, where he’d seemed a rather dull, humourless chap. Thompson suggests that Bax almost drove Morris nuts on a walking tour they did together; Bax couldn’t shut up about political economy and enjoy the countryside. It’s funny that Thompson didn’t appreciate Bax’s critique of Bernstein, because it seems to complement Morris’ critique of the economism of some of Marx’s late nineteenth century disciples.

    Louis, I think you would find Thompson’s long postscript to the 1977 edition of his biography of Morris interesting; you might find that it rhymes with your interest in Marx’s very late work. Thompson talks about the opportunity for a fusion of Romanticism and Marxism in the late nineteenth century, and laments the fact that it was missed, and that the Second International slid into economism and a teleological view of history.

    Thompson’s view is challenging, and some would say eccentric, because it identifies the corrective to the Second International’s errors in Romanticism and the imagination, and because it backdates some of the faults of people like Bernstein to *some* aspects of Marx’s work.

    Btw, sorry about sending contributions to the marxmail list to your personal address by accident – I’m a bit hopeless with technology!

    Comment by Scott — May 18, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

  7. “By the early 1860s, I think he had reached essentially the same position that Lenin later articulated in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination and the Theses On The National And Colonial Question.”

    Marx never supported this right. In fact, he fought against “the right of nationalities,” as it was called back then, and claimed that the very idea was concocted by the hated Russian Empire and the despicable Bustrapa in order to support the imperialistic expansion of those countries. This is not to blame the guy who posted this. The true thinking of Marx and Engels on the nationalities question has been suppressed by the Western Left, starting with the Second International. Lenin revised Marx in this as in many other ways. Ironically, Marx not only never differed from Engels on the question of the United States contra Mexico but hoped that one day Poland would become Prussia’s “Mexico.” See his letter to Sorge on September 27, 1877.

    And Marx did not say a word when Engels described the desirable partition of Poland by Prussia and Russia (after the agrarian revolution!):

    “Conclusion: To take as much as possible away from the Poles in the West, to man their fortresses, especially Posen, with Germans on the pretext of defence, to let them stew in their own juice, send them into battle, gobble bare their land, fob them off with promises of Riga and Odessa and, should it be possible to get the Russians moving, to ally oneself with the latter and compel the Poles to give way. Every inch of the frontier between Memel and Cracow we cede to the Poles will, militarily speaking, be utterly ruinous to this already wretchedly weak frontier, and will leave exposed the whole of the Baltic coast as far as Stettin.”


    Come on, guys, are going to read our classics or not?

    Comment by VAdim Stolz — May 20, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

  8. “Marx … never differed from Engels on the question of the United States contra Mexico…”

    Well, first that’s not true. As a footnote in the MIA to the 1849 Engels article puts it: “In assessing these events in the article Engels proceeded from the general conception that it was progressive for patriarchal and feudal countries to be drawn into the orbit of bourgeois relations because, he thought, this accelerated the creation of preconditions for a proletarian revolution. In subsequent years, however, he and Marx fully understood the deplorable consequences of colonial conquests and the subjugation of backward countries by large states. In particular, having made a thorough study of the history of US aggression in Mexico and other countries of the American continent, Marx in his article “The Civil War in North America” (1861) described it as expansion in the interests of the then dominant slave-owning oligarchy in the Southern States and of the bourgeois elements in the North which supported it, as a policy aimed at seizing new territories to spread slavery.”

    The two letters cited by Vadim Stolz are first one from 1851, which predates the shift in Marx’s and Engels’views, and second one from 1877 that is actually about how best Poland could break away from Russian tutelage (even if Marx had illusions about the benefits of a possible union with Prussia).

    The shift in their thinking is shown in their support for the Indian Mutiny in 1857 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/india/index.htm) and their active support for Irish independence in the 1860s. The latter is described in a note in MECW:

    “In the autumn of 1867 the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association launched a widespread campaign among the English workers in support of the Irish national liberation movement led by the Fenians. The memorial written by, Marx was an integral part of this campaign.

    “The Fenians were Irish revolutionaries who named themselves after the “Féne” — a name of the ancient population of Ireland. Their first organisations appeared in the 1850s in the USA among the Irish immigrants and later in Ireland itself. The secret Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, as the organisation was known in the early 1860s, aimed at establishing an independent Irish republic by means of an armed uprising. The Fenians, who expressed the interests of the Irish peasantry, came chiefly from the urban petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia and believed in conspiracy tactics. The British Government attempted to suppress the Fenian movement by severe police reprisals.

    “On September 18, 1867, the Fenians made an armed attack on a prison van in an attempt to liberate Kelly and Deasy, two of their leaders. The latter managed to escape but a policeman was killed during the clash. Five Irishmen (Maguire, Condon, Larkin, Allen and O’Brien) were charged with murder and brought to trial. Although there was no direct evidence, they were sentenced to death. Maguire was subsequently pardoned, and Condon, as an American citizen, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The others were executed.

    “The Fenian trial in Manchester aroused a storm of protest in Ireland and England. On the insistence of Marx, the General Council of the International began, on November 19, a discussion on the Irish question during which the leaders of the international proletarian organisation expressed their solidarity with the struggle of the Irish people for independence and condemned the position of the reformist trade union leaders who, in the wake of the English bourgeois radicals, denied the right of the Fenians to resort to revolutionary methods in the struggle.”

    Comment by Phil Gasper — May 21, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  9. Phil Gasper wrote:

    1. “In subsequent years, however, he and Marx fully understood the deplorable consequences of colonial conquests and the subjugation of backward countries by large states.”

    They did not. This statement assumes that Marx and Engels had “fully” graduated in their life time to what a Western leftist considers a politically correct take on the “right of nationalities” and “the colonial question.” Nothing can be farther from their actual views. Nor did they understood all the consequences of European imperialism for the prospects of a socialist revolution.

    2. “The two letters cited by Vadim Stolz are first one from 1851, which predates the shift in Marx’s and Engels’views, and second one from 1877 that is actually about how best Poland could break away from Russian tutelage (even if Marx had illusions about the benefits of a possible union with Prussia).”

    Marx’s letter to Sorge is NOT about “how best Poland could break away from Russian tutelage” but about the prospects for a social Revolution in Russia. Who cares about Poland? That’s what Max and the General would tell Phil Gasper. They were interested in capitalist development and proletarian revolutions, not in “human rights” and “rights of nationalities.” Marx is absolutely clear about this: “This time the revolution will begin in the East, hitherto the unbroken bulwark and reserve army of counter-revolution.” That’s Russia. But Marx is afraid that the Polish shliakhta hope to use Russia’s situation in the Balkans and stage another “revolution” in Warsaw: “If only there are no risings there at the moment!” Because then “Russian chauvinism would once more side with the Tsar” and instead of overthrowing autocracy they will be singing “God, Save the Tsar!” Marx even plans to do a bit of behind-the-scene advising to his aristocratic Polish friends. And somehow I feel that he did not share with them the best scenario he envisioned:

    “If on the other hand the Poles wait quietly till there is a conflagration in Petersburg and Moscow, and Bismarck then intervenes as a saviour, Prussia will find its–Mexico! ”

    Had he had the opportunity to have Bismark’s ear Marx would forcefully advise him on this course of actions. No doubt about it.

    Unless Western leftists take off their PC-tinted grasses and start reading our classics for what M &E really thought and believed, they will continue sucking to their imperialists.

    Comment by Vadim Stolz — May 21, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

  10. I am afraid that Vadim is in over his head when it comes to matters such as Marx’s support for the U.S. against Mexico. I am immersed in the details of Texas/Mexican/American history right now as part of a research project on American Indians in the period covered in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”. And, for that matter, Vadim was in good company because Marx was clearly unfamiliar with the class relationships at stake in the clash between the U.S., the Texas colonists and the Mexican state. The primary difference between Mexico and the U.S. in this period was the insistence of the Americans in Texas to have the right to own slaves, which Mexico had abolished. Marx most assuredly was unaware of this rather important distinction, otherwise he would have identified the reactionary agenda of the American colonists. Indeed, the period before the Civil War and after is marked by the slavocracy’s bid to export slavery under the auspices of filibusters like William Walker, who waged counter-revolutionary war in Nicaragua in this period. Does Vadim think that Marx would have backed William Walker? I hope not.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 22, 2008 @ 12:14 am

  11. “They were interested in capitalist development and proletarian revolutions, not in “human rights” and “rights of nationalities.””

    I’m not sure where the reference to “human rights” comes from–it’s not something I mentioned. But if M&E were only interested in proletarian revolutions, why the enthusiastic support Indian Mutiny and for the Fenians, a petit bourgeois organization in a largely peasant country? That remains a total mystery from Stolz’s point of view. It can only be understood in the context of what I argued earlier—M&E came to realize that revolts in the colonies could weaken imperialism and thus should be supported. They abandoned their earlier schematism in which proletarian revolution in the advanced countries was the necessary precondition for liberation of the colonies and replaced it with the view that successful liberation struggles might create the precondition for proletarian revolution.

    As for Poland, even a quick glance at the Communist Manifesto reveals that M&E supported its “national emancipation” as early as the 1840s and the failed Cracow insurrection, and they never abandoned their support for Polish independence. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/poland/index.htm. Here, for instance, is Marx in 1875:

    “The workers’ party of Europe takes the most decisive interest in the emancipation of Poland and the original programme of the International Working Men’s Association expresses the reunification of Poland as a working-class political aim. What are the reasons for this special interest of the workers’ party in the fate of Poland?

    “First of all, of course, sympathy for a subjugated people which, with its incessant and heroic struggle against its oppressors, has proven its historic right to national autonomy and self-determination. It is not in the least a contradiction that the international workers’ party strives for the creation of the Polish nation. On the contrary; only after Poland has won its independence again, only after it is able to govern itself again as a free people, only then can its inner development begin again and can it cooperate as an independent force in the social transformation of Europe. As long as the independent life of a nation is suppressed by a foreign conqueror it inevitably directs all its strength, all its efforts and all its energy against the external enemy; during this time, therefore, its inner life remains paralysed; it is incapable of working for social emancipation. Ireland, and Russia under Mongol rule, provide striking proof of this.

    “Another reason for the sympathy felt by the workers’ party for the Polish uprising is its particular geographic, military and historical position. The partition of Poland is the cement which holds together the three great military despots: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Only the rebirth of Poland can tear these bonds apart and thereby remove the greatest obstacle in the way to the social emancipation of the European peoples.

    “The main reason for the sympathy felt by the working class for Poland is, however, this: Poland is not only the only Slav race which has fought and is fighting as a cosmopolitan soldier of the revolution. Poland spilt its blood in the American War of Independence; its legions fought under the banner of the first French republic; with its revolution of 1830 it prevented the invasion of France, which had been decided upon by the partitioners of Poland; in 1846 in Cracow it was the first to plant the banner of revolution in Europe, in 1848 it had a glorious share in the revolutionary struggles in Hungary, Germany and Italy; finally, in 1871 it provided the Paris Commune with the best generals and the most heroic soldiers.

    “In the brief moments when the popular masses in Europe have been able to move freely they have remembered what they owe to Poland. After the victorious March revolution of 1848 in Berlin the first act of the people was to set free the Polish prisoners, Mieroslawski and his fellow sufferers, and to proclaim the restoration of Poland; in Paris in May 1848 Blanqui marched at the head of the workers against the reactionary National Assembly to force it into armed intervention on behalf of Poland; finally in 1871, when the French workers had constituted themselves as a government, they honoured Poland by giving its sons the leadership of its armed forces.

    “And at this moment, too, the German workers’ party will not in the least be misled by the reactionary behaviour of the Polish deputies in the German Reichstag; it knows that these gentlemen are not acting for Poland but in their private interests; it knows that the Polish peasant, worker, in short, every Pole not blinded by the interests of social status, is bound to recognize that Poland has and can only have one ally in Europe — the workers’ party.

    “Long live Poland!”

    Comment by Phil Gasper — May 22, 2008 @ 12:34 am

  12. “Unfortunately, the 1896 Bernstein Neue Zeit article that touched off the debate is not online anywhere[.]”. The archives of the Die Neue Zeit (scans of the original German print edition) are available here: http://library.fes.de/cgi-bin/populo/nz.pl#anfang.

    Comment by owenholland — September 14, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

  13. […] (16) Eduard Bernstein: The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution, 1898, quoted in: Louis Proyect: The Bernstein-Bax debate, May 17, 2008, https://louisproyect.org/2008/05/17/the-bernstein-bax-debate/ […]

    Pingback by RCIT in Britain — December 20, 2015 @ 10:59 am

  14. […] (6) Quoted in Louis Proyect: The Bernstein-Bax debate, May 17, 2008, https://louisproyect.org/2008/05/17/the-bernstein-bax-debate/ […]

    Pingback by RCIT in Britain — August 23, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

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