What Do Socialists Mean by “Opportunism”?

Adam Marletta
6 min readFeb 3, 2023

The term “opportunism” has a specific meaning in Marxist theory. Opportunism is a trend in socialist politics in which revolutionary goals are sacrificed for short-term gains and temporary reforms. Socialist opportunists cynically reorient genuine class-struggle back into the anemic “proper channels” of electoralism or bourgeois politics, ultimately rendering them toothless and ineffective.

“Opportunism” Defined

Opportunist trends champion the concept of a “peaceful” or “nonviolent” revolution. Some opportunists (like the German social democrat, Eduard Bernstein) even insist that capitalism can be overturned without any revolution at all. These opportunists prioritize economic reforms like raising the minimum wage, union organization, universal health care, and the like. Such reforms would, no doubt, go a long way toward alleviating some of capitalism’s worst ravages and improving the material conditions of the working class. This is especially true here in the United States, where the social safety-net has been all but destroyed.

But reforms, as Rosa Luxemburg famously observed, are no substitute for revolution. Reforms can be just as easily undone or rolled-back as they are implemented.

Socialists may engage in opportunist trends intentionally or inadvertently, while acting in “good faith.” Either way, the resulting devastation and disorientation of the Left and the class struggle remain no less deleterious. This is why it is so pertinent that socialists study Marxist theory, so that we may avoid such tragic pitfalls.

Marx and Engels were highly critical of opportunists during their own time. They frequently ridiculed social democrats who would put off revolutionary socialist activity as an “heirloom for their children.” In the meantime, such social democrats would, in the words of Marx and Engels, focus their attention on “all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie.”

Opportunism is often used in conjunction with similar terms like “revisionism” and “social-chauvinism.” (The latter phrase refers to socialists’ support for their “own” governments during war-time, rather than opposing war and imperialism on principle.)

“Opportunism and social-chauvinism,” Lenin wrote, “have the same economic basis: the interests of a tiny stratum of privileged workers and of the petty bourgeoisie who are defending their privileged position, their ‘right’ to crumbs of the profits ‘their’ national bourgeoisie obtain from robbing other nations, from the advantages of their position as the ruling nation, etc.”

He continues:

Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same ideological-political content: collaboration of classes instead of class struggle, renunciation of revolutionary methods of struggle, helping one’s “own” government in its embarrassed situation instead of taking advantage of these embarrassments for revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg described opportunism more simply as “sacrificing the basic principles of class struggle for momentary advantage.”

The Opportunism — and Failure — of Social Democracy

One of the most historically notable — and, indeed, tragic — examples of opportunism occurred when the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the largest socialist parties in Europe at the time, cast all its antiwar principles aside and declared its support for the First World War, on August 4, 1914. Other socialist parties in the Second International followed suit. The SPD leaders argued, at the time, that they must support their “own” nation during wartime. But such a sentiment is a complete abandonment of the principles of working-class internationalism.

The German socialist, Karl Kautsky, insisted that the Second International “is essentially an instrument of peace,” and, as such, was ineffective during wartime. Luxemburg was appalled by such a ludicrous argument. “The global historical appeal of the Communist Manifesto undergoes a fundamental revision,” she wrote in 1915, “and, as amended … now reads: proletarians of all countries, unite in peace-time and cut each other’s throats in war!”

The SPD’s tragic betrayal ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end — both for the party and for the prospects for the German working-class. By 1918, the revisionist right-wing of the SPD had fully taken over the party, and collaborated with the German military high command to “head off further radicalization” of the German working-class. Right-wing paramilitaries crushed the workers’ uprisings that had deposed the German Kaiser. And those paramilitary units viciously murdered Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the newly-formed German Communist Party.

This, comrades, is the legacy of social-democracy (and/or “democratic socialism”; the two terms denote more or less the same socialist trend), whether or not Bernie Sanders’s supporters realize it.

Opportunism and the Contemporary “Left”: From the ISO to the DSA

Opportunism remains a troubling trend within the Left, today. It is perhaps most pronounced in Trotskyist, anti-communist tendencies. These “socialists” often espouse Marxist rhetoric and employ the appropriate jargon, all while lending petty-bourgeois support for U.S. imperialism. Again, these leftists may deliberately engage in such opportunism — or they may be genuinely mislead by so-called “color revolutions,” sponsored by the CIA.

This was frequently the case with my former political home, the now-defunct International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO lent its support and solidarity to the U.S./NATO-backed coup in Libya as well as the prolonged, ongoing regime-change war in Syria. In both cases, the ISO claimed to be supporting the genuine “working-class uprising” against “brutal dictators.” Anyone who dared voice a dissenting opinion on these CIA-funded regime-change wars (and few dissenting views were allowed in the ISO, despite its frequent denunciation of “authoritarianism” and “Stalinism”) was immediately accused of “campism,” “ultra-leftism,” and naively believing that the “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend.”

Since the ISO’s abrupt collapse in 2019, most of its members have swiftly (and rather seamlessly) joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — currently the largest socialist organization in the country. Most of them promptly jumped on to the Bernie Sanders bandwagon, by volunteering for his 2020 presidential campaign. Many of these “Bernie 2020” comrades were the very same people who, while in the ISO, criticized Sanders’s insistence on running within the capitalist Democratic Party, in 2016. Additionally, many former ISO members are now openly cheerleading for the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine.

(I would like to think that I have only grown and matured as a Marxist, since my days in the ISO.)

Not only does this sort of opportunism ultimately end up supporting imperialism, it has the further effect of dividing and disorienting the working class.

The DSA serves a similar function as the ISO did. The organization is essentially the left-wing caucus of the Democratic Party. The DSA leadership’s occasional talk of someday — eventually — mounting a “dirty break” from the Democrats is just that — talk. In fact, since Sanders was (again) sabotaged by the Democratic Party elite, the DSA has only doubled-down to its irrational commitment to the party often referred to as the “graveyard of social movements.”

In order to avoid opportunism and other such revisionist trends from corrupting and disorienting the working class, it is imperative that we read, study, and debate Marxist theory.

Stalin, in his 1953 pamphlet, The Foundations of Leninism, outlines the opportunist betrayal of the Second International and its collapse into opportunism.

“The opportunists adapted themselves to the bourgeoisie,” Stalin writes, “because of their adaptive, petty-bourgeois nature; the ‘orthodox,’ [revisionists like Kautsky who claimed to be “orthodox” Marxists] in their turn, adapted themselves to the opportunists in order to ‘preserve unity’ with them, in the interests of ‘peace within the party.’”

He goes on:

… Instead of an integral revolutionary theory, there were contradictory theoretical postulates and fragments of theory, which were divorced from the actual revolutionary struggle of the masses and had been turned into threadbare dogmas. For the sake of appearances, Marx’s theory was mentioned, of course, but only to rob it of its living, revolutionary spirit.

Instead of a revolutionary policy, there was flabby philistinism and sordid political bargaining, parliamentary diplomacy and parliamentary scheming. For the sake of appearances … “revolutionary” resolutions and slogans were adopted, but only to be pigeonholed.

Instead of the party being trained and taught correct revolutionary tactics on the basis of its own mistakes, there was a studied evasion of vexed questions, which were glossed over and veiled. For the sake of appearances … there was no objection to talking about vexed questions, but only in order to wind up with some sort of “elastic” resolution.

Such was the physiognomy of the Second International, its methods of work, its arsenal.

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Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.