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Bernie Sanders and Socialism Part III Evolutionary Socialism

In the previous two posts Bernie Sanders, the first presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties in American history to declare himself a socialist, has been shown to be neither a utopian socialist nor a revolutionary socialist.   The question now is whether he can be legitimately labelled an evolutionary socialist. 

It must be immediately admitted that the issue is not as clear in this case because of the controversies surrounding the theories of Edward Bernstein (1850-1932), the founder of evolutionary socialism.  Marxists call his teachings revisionism and reject them as a heretical.  Thus, even if we find that Senator Sanders is an evolutionary socialist, according to “orthodox” Marxism, he would still not be a true socialist.

Before examining Bernstein’s views, it is important to remind ourselves of the three common characteristics of socialism.

  1. The goal of equality, especially economic equality
  2. The distrust of, if not outright opposition to, private property and economic competition
  3. The creation of a just society through scientific analysis and organization directed by a centralized power

If Bernstein does not share with socialists these three traits, then he cannot be considered a legitimate socialist.  In his book Evolutionary Socialism, published in 1899, Bernstein criticized Marx on several fronts, which help distinguish his views from traditional Marxism.[1]

For example, Marx had claimed that capitalism would self-destruct because of its monopolistic tendency.  Bernstein noted that history was not supporting Marx, but rather that property was increasing among all classes under capitalism. He noted, “The number 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.”  Private property was not an evil in and of itself.  It just needed to be more justly distributed.

In addition, Bernstein wrote, “a social reaction has set in against the exploiting tendencies of capital … and is always drawing more departments of economic life under its influence.” Evidence for this was seen in legislation to improve factory conditions, more freedom for trade unions, and increased consideration for labor issues by government.  In other words, capitalism was to be reformed, not eliminated as was the position of Marxism.

For these reasons, Bernstein advocated reform of society through democratic means rather than a revolution and rejected Marx’s program which predicted and called for “the appropriation and utilization of the power of the State by the proletariat exclusively against the whole non-proletarian world…”

In the final analysis Bernstein abandoned the realm of Marxist ideology and adopted a pragmatic gradualist approach to social change.  His greater interest in improving the workers’ lot than establishing the socialist classless society is shown by his attitude toward reform in his essay “Critical Interlude.”   “With regard to reforms, we ask, not whether they will hasten the catastrophe which could bring us to power, but whether they further the development of the working class, whether they contribute to general progress.”[2]

Bernstein became a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, which, while proclaiming revolutionary principles, in practice began to institute reforms in society.  In Bernstein’s time it remained a workers’ party.  However, eventually, and well after Bernstein’s death, it became a leading proponent of the welfare state with all of its characteristic programs of social security, health care, and universal education provided by the state.  To all intents and purposes it is no longer a strictly social party.

It would seem then that Bernie Sanders is a social democrat and not a socialist.  Like the social democrats, he does not want to end capitalism but to ensure that all have what he considers a fair share of the wealth that it creates and to expand the social services of a modern welfare state.

If Senator Sanders, is a social democrat, we must ask why he erroneously styles himself as a socialist.  In the next post we will change our focus from European to American political history to answer that question.


[1] All of quotations from Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism will be taken from the Internet History Sourcebook.  The link is

[2] Edward Bernstein, “Critical Interlude,” Neue Zeit, March 1, 1898 in The Revisionist Debate 1896-1898, translated and edited by Henry Tudor and J. M. Tudor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 222.

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