The term is most often used by those Marxista who believe that such revisions are unwarranted and represent a "watering down" or abandonment of Marxism—one such common example is the negation of class struggle. As such, revisionism often carries pejorative connotations and the term has been used by many different factions. It is typically applied to others and rarely as a self-description. By extension, people who view themselves as fighting against revisionism have often self-identified as anti-revisionists.
The term "revisionism" has been used in a number of contexts to refer to different revisions (or claimed revisions) of Marxist theory.
In the late 19th century, revisionism was used to describe democratic socialist writers such as Eduard Bernstein and Jean Jaurès, who sought to revise Karl Marx's ideas about the transition to socialism and claimed that a revolution through force was not necessary to achieve a socialist society. The views of Bernstein and Jaurès gave rise to reformist theory, which asserts that socialism can be achieved through gradual peaceful reforms from within a capitalist system.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the International Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky, which had been expelled from the Communist International, accused the leadership of the Comintern and Soviet Union of revising the internationalist principles of Marxism and Leninism in favor of the aspirations of an elite bureaucratic caste which had come to power in the Soviet Union. The Trotskyists saw the nascent Stalinist bureaucracy as a roadblock on the proletariat's path to world socialist revolution and to the shifting policies of the Comintern, they counterposed the Marxist theory of permanent revolution. Meanwhile, the Soviet authorities labeled the Trotskyists as "revisionists" and eventually expelled them from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, whereupon the Trotskyists founded their Fourth International.
In the 1940s and 1950s within the international communist movement, revisionism was a term used by Stalinists to describe communists who focused on consumer goods production instead of heavy industry; accepted national differences instead of promoting proletarian internationalism; and encouraged liberal reforms instead of remaining faithful to established doctrine. Revisionism was also one of the charges leveled at Titoists as punishment for their pursuit of a relatively independent communist ideology, amidst a series of post-World War II purges beginning in 1949 in Eastern Europe by the Soviet administration under Stalin. After Stalin's death, a more democratic form of socialism briefly became acceptable in Hungary during Imre Nagy's government (1953–1955) and in Poland during Władysław Gomułka's government, containing ideas that the rest of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union itself variously considered revisionist, although neither Nagy nor Gomułka described themselves as revisionists, since to do so would have been self-deprecating.