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Probabilism and determinism in political economy: the case of Bernstein and Engels

Wells, Julian (1998): Probabilism and determinism in political economy: the case of Bernstein and Engels.


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Eduard Bernstein’s proposals for revising marxist theory burst like a thunderclap on the late 19th century workers’ movement, and in particular on the German social democracy. Here was the militant who had suffered 20 years of exile, whose editorship of the party newspaper had made it such a powerful weapon, the acquaintance of Marx and the friend and literary executor of Engels, saying in terms that their scientific method was so fatally flawed that it should be fundamentally recast.

Not only that, but Marx’s forecasts about the development of capitalism, made on the basis of this method, were not only untenable but had already been exposed by events. These forecasts, Bernstein was claiming, were not only wrong in detail, but their apparent conclusion—the inevitable breakdown of capitalism—was now clearly unsustainable.

Bernstein’s position, first set out in a series of articles, and rejected at the party’s Stuttgart conference in 1898, was given a unified expression in a book published the following year. This centenary, in an era when “capitalism has won”, supposedly, is an appropriate moment to review Bernstein’s claims. However, the object of this essay is not to refute Bernstein’s empirical conclusions, which have been dealt with adequately by history, nor is it a revisiting of contemporary political debates about revisionism.

Rather, it is to examine the intellectual sources of his error, and in particular to examine Bernstein’s views on the determinism which he maintained was a central feature of the historical materialist method. This is important, because—as I claimed in passing in a previous IWGVT paper (Wells 1997) but did not substantiate—there is a pervasive atmosphere of determinism in the thought of many marxists, which is, however, unjustified by anything to be found in the works of Marx and Engels.

The paper will first review Bernstein’s critique of Marx and Engels, and suggest that his misunderstanding is not simply attributable to any personal scholarly shortcomings, but was a feature of marxist thought in general at that time; it will then show that Bernstein, despite his long and close association with Engels, simply failed to grasp even the obvious tendency of the latter’s works; finally, these failures will be set against the wider intellectual background of ideas about probabilism and determinism in the 19th century.

What follows is the work of an English-speaking economist who is ignorant of German; the possible shortcomings of this for a philosophical study of authors who composed in German are evident.

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