Our century has seen the triumph of Eduard Bernstein's evolutionary socialism against revolutionary utopias. Stephen Tindale says that we must now prepare for evolutionary environmentalismby Stephen Tindale / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Nineteen ninety-six is a fine year for centenaries. We are celebrating 100 years of the motor car and the less problematic pleasures of the cinema. Elgar produced his first important work in 1896 and AE Housman published A Shropshire Lad. That year also saw the launch of the Daily Mail, the first mass circulation daily. The secret of its success, according to its proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, was to satisfy readers’ desires for “a good hate.” Political events in 1896 also have a familiar ring: the Conservatives were in power; railway unions launched a campaign against the unreasonable behaviour of private railway companies; Britain suffered a foreign policy humiliation-in this case in the Transvaal-and quarrelled with both France and Germany; a Liberal leader mounted the moral high ground and called for British intervention to stop fighting between Muslims and Christians in south eastern Europe.
Yet 1896 was a watershed. In March, Joseph Chamberlain launched his campaign for imperial protectionism, the ramifications of which are felt on the right of British politics to this day. In August, William Gladstone finally retired from public life: his speech in response to the Turkish massacre of Armenians was his last. But it was for socialism, a movement still in its infancy, that the year was most momentous. The British left was saddened and lessened in October by the death of William Morris, a man who in his later years had proved himself not only a great artist, but a formidable agitator and inspiring utopian polemicist. His visionary News From Nowhere is one of the great texts of British socialism. Meanwhile, the German left was convulsed by an early bout of argument between traditionalists and modernisers, revolutionaries and revisionists. The year 1896 saw the first draft of the classic statement of revisionism, Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism.
Bernstein, much influenced by the Fabians who were busily implementing municipal socialism through the London county council, argued that the extension of the franchise made it possible to reform the capitalist system from within. This led him to reject Marx’s predictions of the immiseration of the working class and the inevitability of proletarian revolution, and to argue instead for a strategy of gradual social reform. Unlike most socialist theorists before him, and many since, he concentrated less on the end-state and more on the means of getting there. Indeed, as he wrote himself: “I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily…