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New Left Review I/163, May-June 1987


Norman Geras

Post-Marxism?

Times change and people change. Their ideas change; develop, progress—and regress. There can be gradual change within a more or less stable intellectual framework. And there can also be sharper breaks, mutations of outlook in which one thing is renounced and another embraced. But each person has to take his leave or make her peace, as the case may be, in a way conformable to his or her own sense of dignity. We may cite the example of Eduard Bernstein, in the history of Marxist thought the first and the best-known so-called revisionist. Anyone at all familiar with his work will know that what he achieved—or perpetrated—was not truly a revision; it was a renunciation. The judgement is based not on any narrow or sectarian definition of what Marxism is but on the broadest, most inclusive definition possible. Bernstein challenged or set aside virtually every significant principle of Marxist thought. But he presented this as just a revision and it is not difficult to see why. For his political context and his audience were those of the German spd, an avowedly Marxist party, with a Marxist programme, lineage and traditions, and within which Bernstein himself was an old and respected figure. Not only his public but also his own past will have weighed upon him, long-standing member of the organization, party editor, the friend and literary executor of Friedrich Engels. In the circumstances, it is understandable that he should have claimed only to be updating Marx’s ideas in the light of contemporary developments, and not, as he really was, to be rejecting them lock, stock and barrel.

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