The popular American view of socialism today is of a monolithic Communism led by what was once the Soviet Union ― continued today by rump periphery states such as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam ― in which the seizure and retention of power by a guiding party was violent and undemocratic. This is a false Cold War myth.
Actually, the bulk of the socialist movement is and has been democratic. However, beginning in the 1880s there began to be a fissure between two kinds of socialists over tactics.
In one corner, were those willing to gain ascendancy gradually, legally, with a practical socioeconomic agenda and very little pretense of presenting a dogmatic philosophy rather than a view subject to scientific criticism. In the other, were those impatient with injustices, willing to jump past the legalities and niceties and seize power by the force of arms and hold onto it through terror.
In admittedly oversimplified terms, this is the crucial socialist debate in the late 19th century, after both the 1848 revolutions and 1870 commune failed. Socialists agreed in broad terms on the ultimate outcome ― socialization of the means of production ― but they came to disagree quite bitterly about how to get there.
The advocates of reform were exemplified by the renown Eduard Bernstein, a German social-democratic political theorist and politician, a member of the Social Democratic Party (the socialist party German workers identified with their interests, inspiring the Nazis to fly the false flag of “socialist” for their party’s name). Bernstein wrote a work called Evolutionary Socialism and became the standard leader of socialists who espoused social democracy, reformism and an electoral path to socialism.
He had known Marx and Engels well, but he regarded Marxist philosophical thinking, in particular the theory of historical materialism, as “immature.” (Contrary to all Cold War propaganda, pro or con, Marx himself made explicit in comments concerning a program of the early German socialists that atheism and related ideas, were his personal opinions, not socialism.) Bernstein helped develop the Second International (1889–1916), the precursor of modern and moderate western European socialism, which brought together socialist parties of 20 countries in a unified effort.
Against the reformist socialists stood firebrands such as Rosa Luxembourg, a German-Polish Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist of Polish origin. She founded the Spartacus League in 1915 (Spartacus was a Roman slave who led an uprising) and ultimately joined the Communist Party of Germany. A radical, she wrote a scathing response to Bernstein's book, an 1899 pamphlet titled Social Reform or Revolution?