Economic Crises, the ‘Breakdown Theory’ and the Struggle Against Revisionism in the German Social Democracy

Among the assertions of the revisionist movement, led by Eduard Bernstein within the German Social Democratic Party, was their claim that generalized world economic crises were unlikely to recur. Similar claims were made during the 1960s—taken seriously by certain Marxists of those days—as well as during the recent “Great Moderation.”

Bernstein thought that general crises were already a thing of the past in the late 1890s. A little premature to say the least! This was well before such economists as John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, who according to their followers had discovered the way to abolish capitalist crises without abolishing capitalism itself. It seems that such bourgeois claims—always duly echoed by certain forces in the workers’ and left movements such as Bernstein’s original revisionists—are themselves cyclical.

While Bernstein and other like-minded forces in the old Social Democracy held that capitalist crises were fading away, revolutionists like Rosa Luxemburg put great emphasis on the periodic capitalist economic crises. To the revolutionary wing of the Social Democracy, the recurring capitalist economic crises were a sign of the approaching “breakdown” of capitalism, the very “breakdown” that the revisionists denied. The revisionists pointed to the “fact” that crises were becoming less intense and generalized as a sign that capitalism was adapting itself to the new forces of production that were being created.

Bernstein and his fellow revisionists drew the conclusion that the perspective was not a workers’ revolution that would overthrow the political rule of the capitalist class and then transform the capitalist form of economy into socialism. Instead, the revisionists foresaw a gradual and more or less continuous reform of the existing social order in the interest of the workers.

Or, as Bernstein put it, the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing. From the revisionist perspective, a major future capitalist economic crisis would only get in the way of the struggle for reforms. The different views on capitalist crises and their future among the German Social Democrats of a century ago coincided with the divisions between the revolutionists on the left, the revisionists on the right, and the centrists who wavered between the two.

In the years that followed, and down to our own day, the attitude toward crises and the tendency toward a an economic breakdown of capitalism has continued to divide the left and right wings within the workers’ movement.

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