Final dates! Join the tutor2u subject teams in London for a day of exam technique and revision at the cinema. Learn more

Study Notes

Revisionism (Socialism)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 22 Jun 2020

Amongst socialists, the term revisionism holds a double meaning. Revisionism is usually applied to those on the far-left of the political spectrum who seek to modify Marxist theory in some manner without rejecting its core argument. It is also important to note that revisionism is also a term of abuse within the labour movement.

Those on the centre-left of the political spectrum (such as social democrats) have been labelled revisionists by those who take a more dogmatic stance. Revisionists are often accused of selling-out their principles and being traitors to the labour movement, although a more charitable interpretation would be that they are merely developing the work of earlier socialists in the context of an ever-changing world.

One of the leading proponents of revisionism within the labour movement is Eduard Bernstein (1961). As a member of the German Social Democratic Party, Bernstein argued that the party’s ideological stance had to recognise the material aspirations of the working-class. In doing so, the SPD could appear more credible as an electoral force and thereby gain office to implement a left-wing agenda. Bernstein also argued that the ends were more important than the conventional Marxist means of state ownership (which could be gradually socialised in accordance with the strategy of incrementalism). A wholesale transfer of property after a revolution from below was therefore undesirable. For him, improving society via the welfare state and workers’ rights was not a tactic – it was the very essence of socialism. As such, Bernstein and his associate Karl Kautsky claimed that the goal of a society built upon social justice was more important than the means.

From a more left-wing standpoint, the French theorist and activist Louis Althusser sought to modify the original teachings of Marx towards modern society. Althusser argued that the media and other institutions transmit a set of bourgeoisie values and beliefs. What he called the ideological state apparatus is utilised by the ruling class to prevent the growth of class consciousness amongst members of the subject class. Along with the church and the education system, the media portrays capitalism and its resultant class conflict as natural and inevitable. What is routinely presented as ‘common sense’ is designed therefore to serve an ideological purpose. The ideological state apparatus ultimately enables the hegemony of the bourgeoisie to be maintained from one generation to the next. Unlike the repressive state apparatus, the ideological state apparatus does not operate by coercion. Althusser also noted that the balance between the ideological state apparatuses and the repressive state apparatuses (such as the police and the army) differs from one society to another, yet both are important means by which the hegemony of the bourgeoisie is secured. By seeking to emphasise the role of the ideological state apparatus, Althusser managed to modify and revise the central tenants of Marxist analysis.

Revisionism is also associated with the Frankfurt School of figures such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The Frankfurt School sought a revolutionary transformation of society via a change in social consciousness rather than merely waiting for the inevitable collapse of capitalism via its own contradictions as predicted in the Communist Manifesto. This line of argument sought to develop the original Marxist position that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but … their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Another important figure within the revisionist doctrine is the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci and his work on hegemony. He observed that cultural views were used and manipulated by the bourgeoisie to dominate rival groups within society. Gramsci viewed hegemony as intellectual and moral leadership exercised by the ruling class to serve their own interests. Hegemonic rule is not automatic and must be achieved over time. Following the thread of this argument, the audience inhabits codes and ideologies acquired from established institutions during our primary and secondary socialisation. According to Gramsci, the institutions of civil society (such as the family, trade unions and the state) ensure the ideological dominance of bourgeois values. He also argued that “the bourgeoisie sees its historical development like a sporting competition, with its own referee and its own rules which need to be followed.”

© 2002-2024 Tutor2u Limited. Company Reg no: 04489574. VAT reg no 816865400.