Debates Within Early 20th-Century Marxist Parties


Socialism is classified by most modern historians as a system of economic and social policies and political beliefs that focuses on collective control over the means of production as well as democratic ownership and the decision-making process. Ideas of socialism existed well into the 18th and 19th centuries, having been spawned from the need to oppose the existing capitalist model, which oppressed peasant and worker classes by imposing numerous laws and conditions that largely benefited the few instead of the many. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels established the theoretical foundation for socialism in the late 19th century. In western societies, however, socialism is associated with Lenin and the Soviet economic model, which was defined by its bureaucracy, inefficiency, and totalitarian tendencies. However, this could not be further from the truth. The purpose of this paper is to discover the differences within the socialist political camp and perceive the arguments and debates about the establishment of the socialistic state presented by Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Vladimir Lenin.

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The Debate

Marx’s idea of the transformation of the state and liberation of classes relies upon seizing the means of production. However, he acknowledged that simply taking materials, tools, and factories by force was not going to work, as the state would oppose any attempts of violation of private property by force, utilizing the police or even the army in order to suppress the revolt. This was the primary reason why socialists sought to seize the state and use its power to transform the society.

Major disagreements and debates largely revolved around the means of seizing the state as well as the choices of governance after the first stage was complete. These ideas varied, as some socialists favored non-violent and democratic means of legitimization, such as a victory in elections, while others advocated a violent revolution as a means of dismantling the existing state and constructing a new one in their own design. Views on organizational matters and international socialism varied even more. The following sections will summarize four major camps of socialism as defined by their leaders: Evolutionary socialism (Bernstein), Luxemburgism (Luxemburg), Trotskyism (Trotsky), and Bolshevism/Leninism (Lenin).

Evolutionary Socialism by Bernstein

Bernstein (1850-1932) was the most prominent supporter of evolutionary socialism as well as one of the people accused and vilified due to his apparent revisionism of Marx’s writings. As evidenced by his letter to the German Social Democratic party in 1898, he opposed the so-called war of the classes, preferring an evolutionary approach instead. According to Bernstein, capitalism would slowly adopt more socialist traits as the time goes on and workers would eventually gain more rights. Bernstein reaffirmed the conquest of political power and the focus on votes as primary ways of pushing forward socialist goals (Bernstein). He claimed that his view coincided with those of Marx’s and Engels’s, as he was a friend of the latter. However, his view was marred by controversy and rejected by other socialist camps.

The strengths of Bernstein’s model were proven by history – in Europe and the USA, many socialist laws and regulations were passed in an evolutionary way that did not require any violent struggles. However, one may argue that, when compared to revolutionary models, these changes took too much time.

Luxemburgism and the Roots of Democratic Revolutionary Socialism

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was a prominent Polish-German socialist who was at the roots of many far-left organizations. She was a proponent of a revolutionary approach, which mirrored that of Marx himself, who stated that workers must conquer their freedoms for themselves as none would be granted to them without a struggle. She opposed Bernstein’s revisionism and his evolutionary ideas, stating that any political power gained through legitimate means must serve to further the cause of the revolution and help to install a socialist state.

Luxemburg saw unstructured democracy as a means of determining the direction that the newly found socialist state would follow. She advocated for democracy for everyone, not just the supporters of socialism or the ruling party (Luxemburg). She disagreed with Lenin’s methods and believed that victory in the revolution could be achieved through decentralized means. Like many other socialist movements, she opposed capitalist and imperialist wars (Luxemburg). However, she did not believe in the possibility of exporting revolution to other countries.

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The strengths of this model lie in its post-revolution ideals – the establishment of democracy for all ensures that the newly-found socialist state does not become totalitarian (like the USSR). However, the lack of a revolutionary cluster makes it difficult for the model to actually seize the state in order to make changes happen.


Lenin’s version of socialism was considered the dominant version for almost 70 years. While Bernstein, Luxemburg, and others had their followers and enjoyed a modicum of popularity, their versions of socialism never managed to accomplish the primary step to establishing a socialist state – seizing the state and the means of production. Bernstein’s idea of political conquest would have taken decades, and was ultimately swiped away by Hitler’s NSDAP, which seized power over Germany and established its own, fascist state. Luxemburg’s followers were too disorganized to claim power through revolution. Russia, on the other hand, was the first country where a socialist revolution successfully overthrew the government and seized the state and the private property of all major capitalists.

Lenin’s argument for the success of a socialist movement was made in “What Needs to Be Done,” written in 1902, where he outlined the need for a single party of organized and dedicated revolutionaries for the socialist movement to have any hope of seizing the state. In his works, Lenin stated that in order to be able to resist and counteract the efforts of governmental police forces, the inner circle of revolutionaries must be just as skillful in the arts of secrecy, subterfuge, and political propaganda (Lenin). The purpose of this establishment is to organize worker unions and appoint civil leaders in preparation for a larger struggle. His paradigm proved to be successful, as socialists successfully seized the state in Russia. However, the critics of his views, such as Luxemburg and Trotsky (both banned in the USSR for their views) pointed out that the existence of the overarching revolutionary organization effectively becomes the totalitarian apparatus in place of the one it chose to overthrow.

Lenin’s model is very practical in terms of supplanting the state. It provides revolutionaries with organizational and structural backbone required to fight and win. However, its weakness is in the model’s predisposition to autocratic leadership.


Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was one of the prominent leaders of the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s right hand. He played a prominent role in the revolution and the following civil war. His views on socialism were somewhere between Lenin’s Bolshevism and Luxemburg’s democratic revolutionary socialism (Trotsky). He shared Lenin’s ideas that in order for the revolution to succeed, it requires a small, tight-knit group of trained revolutionaries to organize the masses. He was part of Lenin’s group and put effort into destabilizing the imperial regime. However, the primary difference in concepts between Trotskyism and other socialist movements was his ideas of international revolution committee (Comintern) and his belief in democracy as a primary tool of governance of the socialist state. In that, he shared Luxemburg’s opinions, which branded him as a critic of Stalinism, which he saw as a form of state capitalism (Trotsky).

This model tries to combine practical views of Lenin with idealistic and democratic views of Luxemburg. The concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which suggests the rule of the majority, was supposed to keep the state from turning totalitarian. However, denying minority opinions their right to vote was dangerous and anti-democratic in the long run.


As it is possible to see, the debate between four most influential proponents of socialism in the early 20th centuries revolved around the interpretation of Karl Marx and his teachings. The number of discrepancies was motivated by various reasons, ranging from the realities of the current political situation (Russia) to the degree to which the ends could justify the means. Two main points of collision revolved around evolutionary versus revolutionary ways of seizing the means of production, and the disorganized (democratic) versus organized (authoritarian) establishment of the society. Lastly, all four parties were unable to agree on the international aspect of socialism, as some supported exporting socialism to other countries and supporting international movements, while others preferred focusing on guarding the conquests of socialism in a single country. This shows that the socialist movement is not as monolithic as many tend to perceive it, nor is the Soviet model the only one that existed at the beginning of the 21st century.

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Works Cited

Bernstein, Eduard. “Evolutionary Socialism.” Marxist Internet Archive, Web.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Modern History Sourcebook: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: What is to beDone, 1902.” Fordham University, Web.

Luxemburg, Rosa. “Modern History Sourcebook: Rosa Luxemburg: “The War and the Workers” – The Junius Pamphlet, 1916.” Fordham University, Web.

Trotsky, Leon. “The Principles of Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship.” Marxist Internet Achive, Web.

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