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 Frederick 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 (1902-06 and 1912-18) 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.
Sidney Hook met Bernstein in 1928 and in his autobiography Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987) recalled him talking about Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling: "I made several efforts to arrange a meeting with Eduard Bernstein, the famous revisionist of Marx, then living in retirement. His figure and outlook, in the perspective of the fifty years after Marx's death, had grown enormously. I was put off several times, and when I finally met him, I realized why. He was suffering from advanced arteriosclerosis and was attended by a nurse. He seemed at first reluctant to talk about his reminiscences of Marx, but at the outset of our talk, to my chagrin, was eager to describe his first day at school, about which he had very vivid memories. I kept reverting to various episodes of Marx's life and to some of Marx's literary remains, which Engels had entrusted to Bernstein. His manner was benign and friendly. Only twice did he lose his composure and burst out with a stormy lucidity. The first time was when I mentioned Edward Aveling with whom Eleanor Marx, Marx's youngest daughter, had been enamored, and who had been the cause of her suicide. Bernstein rose from his chair with flushed face and agitated tone and voice and denounced him as an arch scoundrel. I did not, however, get a very coherent account of Aveling's infamy."
Eduard Bernstein died in Berlin on 18th December, 1932.
The theory which the Communist Manifesto sets forth of the evolution of modern society was correct as far as it characterized the general tendencies of that evolution. But it was mistaken in several special deductions, above all in the estimate of the time the evolution would take. The last has been unreservedly acknowledged by Friedrich Engels, the joint author with Marx of the Manifesto, in his preface to the Class War in France. But it is evident that if social evolution takes a much greater period of time than was assumed, it must also take upon itself forms and lead to forms that were not foreseen and could not be foreseen then.
Social conditions have not developed to such an acute opposition of things and classes as is depicted in the Manifesto. It is not only useless, it is the greatest folly to attempt to conceal this from ourselves. The number of members of the possessing classes is today not smaller but larger. The enormous increase of social wealth is not accompanied by a decreasing number of large capitalists but by an increasing number of capitalists of all degrees. The middle classes change their character but they do not disappear from the social scale.
The concentration in productive industry is not being accomplished even today in all its departments with equal thoroughness and at an equal rate. In a great many branches of production it certainly justifies the forecasts of the socialist critic of society; but in other branches it lags even today behind them. The process of concentration in agriculture proceeds still more slowly. Trade statistics show an extraordinarily; elaborated graduation of enterprises in regard to size. No rung of the ladder is disappearing from it. The significant changes in the inner structure of these enterprises and their interrelationship cannot do away with this fact.
In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organizations. Under the influence of this, and driven by the movement of the working classes which is daily becoming stronger, a social reaction has set in against the exploiting tendencies of capital, a counteraction which, although it still proceeds timidly and feebly, yet does exist and is always drawing more departments of economic life under its influence. Factory legislation, the democratizing of local government, and the extension of its area of work, the freeing of trade unions and systems of cooperative trading from legal restrictions, the consideration of standard conditions of labour in the work undertaken by public authorities-all these characterize this phase of the evolution.
But the more the political organizations of modern nations are democratized the more the needs and opportunities of great political catastrophes are diminished. He who holds firmly to the catastrophic theory of evolution must, with all his power, withstand and hinder the evolution described above, which, indeed, the logical defenders of that theory formerly did. But is the conquest of political power by the proletariat simply to be by a political catastrophe? Is it to be the appropriation and utilization of the power of the State by the proletariat exclusively against the whole non-proletarian world?
No one has questioned the necessity for the working classes to gain the control of government. The point at issue is between the theory of a social cataclysm and the question whether with the given social development in Germany and the present advanced state of its working classes in the towns and the country, a sudden catastrophe would be desirable in the interest of the social democracy. I have denied it and deny it again, because in my judgment a greater security for lasting success lies in a steady advance than in the possibilities offered by a catastrophic crash.
And as I am firmly convinced that important periods in the development of nations cannot be leapt over I lay the greatest value on the next tasks of social democracy, on the struggle for the political rights of the working man, on the political activity of working men in town and country for the interests of their class, as well as on the work of the industrial organization of the workers.
In this sense I wrote the sentence that the movement means everything for me and that what is usually called "the final aim of socialism" is nothing; and in this sense I write down again today. Even if the word "usually" had not shown that the proposition was only to be understood conditionally, it was obvious that it could not express indifference concerning the final carrying out of socialist principles, but only indifference-or, as it would be better expressed, carelessness - as to the form of the final arrangement of things. I have at no time had an excessive interest in the future beyond general principles; I have not been able to read to the end any picture of the future. My thoughts and efforts are concerned with the duties of the present and the nearest future, and I only busy myself with the perspectives beyond so far as they give me a line o conduct for suitable action now.
The conquest of political power by the working classes, the expropriation of capitalists, are no ends themselves but only means for the accomplishment of certain aims and endeavours. As such they are demands in the programme of social democracy and are not attacked by me. Nothing can be said beforehand as to the circumstances of their accomplishment; we can only fight for their realization. But the conquest of political power necessitates the possession of political rights; and the most important problem of tactics which German social democracy has at the present time to solve appears to me to be to devise the best ways for the extension of the political and economic rights of the German working classes.
Because of my Guggenheim project, I made several efforts to arrange a meeting with Edouard Bernstein, the famous revisionist of Marx, then living in retirement. His figure and outlook, in the perspective of the fifty years after Marx's death, had grown enormously. I was put off several times, and when I finally met him, I realized why. He was suffering from advanced arteriosclerosis and was attended by a nurse. He seemed at first reluctant to talk about his reminiscences of Marx, but at the outset of our talk, to my chagrin, was eager to describe his first day at school, about which he had very vivid memories. I kept reverting to various episodes of Marx's life and to some of Marx's literary remains, which Engels had entrusted to Bernstein. His manner was benign and friendly. Only twice did he lose his composure and burst out with a stormy lucidity. The first time was when I mentioned Edward Aveling with whom Eleanor Marx, Marx's youngest daughter, had been enamored, and who had been the cause of her suicide. Bernstein rose from his chair with flushed face and agitated tone and voice and denounced him as an "arch scoundrel". I did not, however, get a very coherent account of Aveling's infamy. The second time was when I mentioned in passing that I had been invited to pursue my studies on the period from Hegel to Marx at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow by its director, David Ryazanov. When he heard Ryazanov's name, he fumed and charged him with being a liar and a thief, who had stolen materials from the Social Democratic Party archives. Throughout the hour or so when I kept bringing up the name of Lenin in hopes of initiating some discussion of Lenin's Marxism, he made disparaging references to "the Bolsheviks," but my most significant memory of the conversation was his reference to himself, as if he suspected this American pilgrim of an excess of Marxist piety, as a "methodological reactionary." For him socialism was a child of the Enlightenment. "I am still an eighteenth-century rationalist," he said, "and not at all ashamed of it. I believe that in essentials their approach was both valid and fruitful." Was this the method or approach of Marx? I inquired. His answer was not altogether clear, but its drift was that it was a continuation with important historical differences. It was somewhere at this point, as I recall, that he lowered his voice and in a confidential whisper, as if afraid of being overheard, leaned toward me and observed: "The Bolsheviks are not altogether unjustified in claiming Marx as their own. Marx, you know, had a strong Bolshevik streak in him." The nurse who had been silently present all the time signaled me that the interview was over.