Eduard Bernstein was born in Berlin, Germany on 6th January, 1850. The son of Jewish parents, his father was a railroad engineer.
Bernstein worked as a bank clerk and in 1872 he joined the Social Democrat Party (SDP). In the 1877 General Election in Germany the SDP won 12 seats. This worried Otto von Bismarck, and in 1878 he introduced an anti-socialist law which banned party meetings and publications.
After the passing of the anti-socialist law Bernstein emigrated to Switzerland where he became editor of the underground socialist journal, Der Sozialdemokrat. After being expelled from Switzerland he moved to England where he worked closely with Friedrich Engels and members of the Fabian Society.
While living in London Bernstein gradually became convinced that the best way to obtain socialism in an industrialized country was through trade union activity and parliamentary politics. He published a series of articles where he argued that the predictions made by Karl Marx about the development of capitalism had not come true. He pointed out that the real wages of workers had risen and the polarization of classes between an oppressed proletariat and capitalist, had not materialized. Nor had capital become concentrated in fewer hands.
Bernstein’s revisionist views appeared in his extremely influential book Evolutionary Socialism (1899). His analysis of modern capitalism undermined the claims that Marxism was a science and upset leading revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
In 1901 Bernstein returned to Germany. This brought him into conflict with left-wing of the Social Democrat Party that rejected his revisionist views on how socialism could be achieved. This included those like August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who still believed that a Marxist revolution was still possible.
Bernstein was elected to the Reichstag (1902-1906 and 1912-1918) where he led the right-wing of the Social Democrat Party. However, he sided with the left-wing over Germany’s participation in the First World War and in 1915 voted against war credits.
In April 1917 left-wing members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed the Independent Socialist Party. Members included Bernstein, Kurt Eisner, Karl Kautsky, Julius Leber, Rudolf Breitscheild and Rudolf Hilferding.
After the war he joining the leadership of the Social Democrat Party in condemning the German Revolution. In the government formed by Friedrich Ebert, Bernstein served as secretary of state for economy and finance.
Elected to the Reichstag in 1920 Bernstein bravely opposed the rise of the extreme right and made several powerful speeches against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Eduard Bernstein died in Berlin on 18th December, 1932.
Major works of Eduard Bernstein
– Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and democracy in the Great English Revolution, 1895
– Die Beurtheilung des widernormalen Geschlechtsverkehrs, 1895, Neue Zeit
– Probleme des Sozialismus, 1896-98, Die Neue Zeit
– Evolutionary Socialism: A criticism and affirmation, 1899 – extracts
– Wie ist Wissenschaftlicher Socialismus Möglich?, 1901
– My Years in Exile, 1918