Publication German / European History - Alternatives to Society - Democratic Socialism - 30 Years 89/90 - Sozialismus “Something Is Missing That No Longer Has a Name”

Despite its epochal failures, does socialism have a future?

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September 2019

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    Tom Strohschneider
    Tom Strohschneider Photo: Camay Sungu

    Thirty years ago, the prehistory of socialism ended in an epochal failure. Does socialism still have a future despite it? There are currently two common answers to this question: one self-assuredly and optimistically emphasizes the renaissance of socialist politics, pointing to popular figures like the leftist US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The other tends to be more critical and antagonistic, denouncing the politics of state regulation or interventions in property rights as a socialist scandal.

    Return or relapse—both poles reinforce each other. Whenever anyone polemically refers to Venezuela, someone else immediately counters them with a critique of actually existing capitalism’s inability to solve the most urgent social problems. All social, economic, and technical progress recorded on a global average remains the result of a mode of production and appropriation that excludes a huge part of humanity from the potentials that development actually offers. It is not just a matter of material poverty in such an economically rich world, but rather of the degrees of freedom, self-determination, and security that correspond with that level of development. At stake is the opportunity to be truly human and no longer “a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable being”.[1] Or, to re-phrase it according to Marx’s positive categorical imperative: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.[2]

    Tom Strohschneider, born in 1974, is a journalist, historian and works in a media collective. Most recently he published Eduard Bernstein oder: Die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden (Dietz, 2019). Translation by Hunter Bolin and Marty Haitt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

    For most, this remains an unattainable dream. The realization of this dream is now also called into question by society’s relationship to nature, which has quickly escalated into a state of emergency. Not only does the climate crisis affect the world’s poorest in particular, but it has also arrived in the living rooms of the globally privileged. Considering obvious deficits of those “societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails”, as well as the problems inherent to a mode of production whose entire directional development could be totally reversed, today socialism is once again often seen as the only alternative to a catastrophic scenario: namely, “... or barbarism”?

    This conclusion appears perfectly logical. However, as mentioned above, the other side will just as certainly respond with a warning against the return of authoritarian relations. They argue that the prehistory of socialism, i.e. the attempts undertaken since the turn of the twentieth century to realize a political programme under this name, have already revealed their true essence, and that the future of socialism will be no different, no better than what it has already be

    Severe Discomfort, Painful Insight

    For at least 30 years, this accusation has caused severe discomfort among people sympathetic to socialism as an idea. Some might be compelled to respond by pointing out that the “actually existing” is not really socialism, or that socialism could be possible under better conditions. However, it is painful to realize that one is not so far removed from this position: socialism, really?

    There is a reason why the history of left-wing thought is not least a history of upholding alternatives to itself. Wherever people acted under the banner of socialism, people rightfully came together to criticize these politics, point out their structural flaws, and denounce their inhumane distortions. Their opposition placed them in danger. What is in store for the future if the history of socialism is also a history of socialist dissidence?

    When we use the word socialism today, we usually add a supplementary word before it in order to be more precise and distinguish it from what actually existed. We speak of eco-socialism because critical experience teaches us that previous attempts at social transformation have taken a serious toll on the environment. We speak of democratic socialism because of the bitter experiences of political power’s dictatorial independence from society in the actually existing socialist states. We speak of a “socialism of the twenty-first century”, a phrase many people still believed in even after it had reached the impasses of extractivism and an authoritarian state. We talk about the possibilities and limits of “neo-socialism” and emphasize the centrality of the liberal elements of “liberal socialism”, since we know many people have different experiences of socialism. We speak of an emancipatory socialism because we hope that this addition will bring the originally intended liberatory potential back to life. But we also speak of “anti-capitalism” or “post-capitalism”, because we are no longer conceptually certain of the possible better alternative that would come after it.

    In other words: when we talk about socialism, we always do so in distinction to this term as well. There is a history of socialism that has not gone beyond the stage of prehistory. No prefix, no preceding adjective releases us from the possibility that actually existing socialism was not a “deviation” from an imagined better, “purer” socialism, but that this practice has basically already exhausted what socialism can be entirely. Can we really content ourselves with the claim that there was only one “actually existing” socialism? And which prefix would remain for the “other” socialism: “utopian”?

    Marx wrote that “modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society”, concluding that the “bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production”. At the same time, he was also convinced of the progressive potentials of “the productive forces developing within bourgeois society to create the material conditions for a solution to this antagonism”. Marx developed this idea further, without specifying any particular span of time: “The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.”[3]

    What Would Marx Have Said About the Failure of Actually Existing Socialism?

    Some believed that socialism failed as early as 1917. Further attempts were made up until 1989, all of them failing or moving in directions that one would hesitate to call by the “S-word”. Almost 30 years ago, the Marxist political scientist Georg Fülberth listed four reasons constituting the “causal relationship for the failure of Actually Existing Socialism”: “The superiority of the ‘West’ during the Cold War, the lack of efficiency due to a deficit of democracy, the concentration of the world market in the hands of imperialists, and the lack of a political economy specific to socialism, since the problem of the value-price relation has so far remained unsolved not only practically but also theoretically.”[4]

    Two of these reasons have more to do with capitalism, the other two with socialism. There are also many other reasons. We should not be deluded into thinking that a “socialist” solution to these problems has become simpler in the meantime. Fülberth suggests elsewhere that we examine “whether or not the state of this social formation should be explained primarily by the history of capitalism. Socialism would then provisionally be ‘included’ as a part of capitalism”.[5] The basis for this understanding is the idea that the attempts to realize actually existing socialism happened “too early”, that the material conditions of existence of a new society had “not yet hatched within the old society”, as Marx formulated it in the foreword to “On the Critique of Political Economy”. A part of humanity had thus set itself a task that it could not solve, since the material conditions for its solution were not yet “present or at least in the process of formation”.[6]

    We do not yet know what comes after the “prehistory of human society”. We know even less about how long we will wait until then. What would the old man from Trier have said about the final failure of socialism 30 years ago? In his perestroika diary in spring 1990, the left-wing philosopher Wolfgang Fritz Haug considered it possible that real socialism “belongs back in the ‘prehistory of human society’”, “possibly even behind capitalism”.[7] To restate this optimistically in a way that drives the point home, we could say that within the schema of successive social formations, at some point the time will be ripe for a different, better socialism.

    When Prefixes No Longer Help

    But one could also draw a more sceptical conclusion based on the experiences of the twentieth century. At the very least, this would consist of testing the hypothesis of whether or not today’s problems can be solved in the socialist sense we are familiar with. Can or must the balance sheet of the “Red Century” lead to the conclusion that not only “actually existing” socialism, but socialism in any sense is only conceivable as part of this “prehistory of human society”? That—as its communist offshoots show—represents a variant of social development whose time is over? One that is the result of certain historical, economic circumstances shaped by specific regional conditions, linked to certain characteristics that cannot be explained away by prefixes or clarifications? That certain strategies, such as the old model of revolution, are based on outdated models of transformation, a result of the outdated structures and superstructures of capitalism?

    Perhaps not only “actually existing”, but socialism itself is a phenomenon tied to conditions that are about to expire: industrialization and mass labour, the political space of the nation-state and a strategy of social integration through the redistribution of economic growth, societies that are still mostly homogeneous, and so on. These thoughts must extend beyond positing the Eastern European regimes of the past and their traditional lines as the only alternative. However, the social-democratic variant of socialism is also in a historical crisis, and the current decline of its party form can be observed on two counts in Germany. This also poses the question of what that could come about in 2019: socialism, or social democracy?

    A Triple Gap From the East

    “We’re missing something that no longer has a name”, the writer Volker Braun said a decade after actually existing socialism had completely failed.[8] Trade unionist Hans-Jürgen Urban recently brought this quotation to our attention once again, and it seems highly relevant today. Seen from the East, it reveals a threefold gap: what was called socialism also represents biographies, and there is much scepticism as to whether this term applies to how people perceive their lives under such conditions. Secondly, what is called socialism has an important meaning as a political grand narrative. For many, it is a regulatory framework in which one moves politically, a force field that creates context, in other words: a world view. In times when everyone is constantly calling for new “grand narratives”, one cannot throw one of these “narratives” into the trash heap so hastily. 

    And thirdly, there is something missing, since people still remember times of upheaval, of new beginnings, times when it seemed as if we could finally step out of the prehistory of socialism without falling out of it altogether. The revolt of 1989 was much further left than the dominant memory today admits. In principle, it was about left-wing, progressive demands, about goals that are in one way or another cancelled out by the prefixes and clarifications of today’s concepts of socialism. But labelling the contemporary “objectives of an independent socialist GDR as an illusion of eccentrics far removed from reality”, as the historian Martin Sabrow once called it,[9] will only result in political thought drawn from the repertoire of experiences during those months being scrapped altogether.

    This is by no means merely the fault of those who declare that there is no alternative to the conditions still prevailing today. It is also the result of a left-wing oversight based on a false judgment of those who do not want to forgive the end of the GDR, of those whose support and criticism made the turning point possible in the first place. Ignoring this contingent of people has contributed to the fact that today we are struggling because something “no longer has a name”.

    For example, there was the appeal “For a united Left in the GDR”, which formulated a minimal consensus of socialist democracy, rights to freedom and work, and environmental protection. The objective was to make the “GDR a society of socialist freedom”, which was to be characterized by “anti-Stalinism, anti-fascism, anti-militarism in particular, anti-capitalism, anti-nationalism, anti-racism”.[10] The Neues Forum (New Forum) wanted on the one hand “an expansion of the available goods and better supply, on the other hand we see their social and ecological costs and calls to reject unrestrained growth”. It was about “free, self-confident people who nonetheless act in a socially oriented manner”.[11] To name another of many possible examples, the Demokratie Jetzt (Democracy Now) movement was founded with this intention in mind, and claimed that “socialism must now find its actual, democratic form if it is not to be lost historically. It must not be lost because a threatened humanity, in search of viable forms of human coexistence needs alternatives to a Western consumer society whose prosperity comes at the expense of the rest of the world.”[12]

    Around the same time, intellectuals in the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) formulated ideas about the connection between social property and political democracy. Of all the aspects of “modern socialism” developed in the process, in retrospect it seems that the “modern” aspects were more interesting than the “socialist” ones. Their approach did not regard the capitalist world and the actually existing socialist states as irreconcilable blocs, only one of which would ultimately “remain” within the framework of a straightforward, legitimate sequence of social formations. Rather, the view was based on different variants of modern societies, on a variety of possible development paths, all of which are malleable. For this reason, the concept of the “Third Way” does not seem appropriate here either, since it reproduces the schema of ideal types, of capitalism and socialism as “fire and water”, as the historian Ralf Possekel once described it.[13] This would no longer be a systemic conflict, but a struggle for ways to solve problems in world society that does not result in a struggle between two heavily armed titans.

    Anyone on the search for something missing which no longer has a name can find inspiration in these ideas—but not only here. Discussions which are critical of socialism (critical in the sense of a reformulation of the promise associated with the old concept), which reconsider the ways and means used to get there, have always arisen in the crises of progressive movements. This applies, for example, to Eduard Bernstein, the unjustly ostracized Social Democrat, to other left-wing socialist traditions, to Eastern European dissidents, to approaches to reformulating a non-capitalist political economy, and much more. Whether one inquires about the Austrian socialist Otto Bauer and his economic democracy as a real “self-determination of the people in their work and economic process”, or reads about the liberal John Stuart Mill, who was concerned with “combining the greatest possible personal freedom with the just distribution of the fruits of labour”, it seems worth trying to reassess political ideas that have hitherto been marginalized: how can we learn from them to create a political praxis whose core must be the creation and continual expansion upon the conditions for an equal participation of all in all social decisions affecting them, so that next steps can be tried out at each new sta

    Moral Compass and Categorical Imperatives

    The American sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who unfortunately died too young, emphasized the centrality of the democratic; he remained sceptical of “models” that are generally world-renowned: “The strategic vision of eroding capitalism imagines introducing the most vigorous varieties of emancipatory species of noncapitalist economic activity into the ecosystem of capitalism, nurturing their development by protecting their niches and figuring out ways of expanding their habitat. The ultimate hope is that these alien species can spill out of their narrow niches and transform the character of the ecosystem as a whole.”[14] Wright sees elements of this in aspects of cooperative market economies, in approaches to solidarity economies, economic organizations that are removed from the spheres of the market, and in processes of radical democratization of production and distribution.

    Wright ideally distinguishes his “socialism” not only from capitalism, but also from statism, which basically refers to what has here been called the prehistory of socialism, i.e. actually existing socialism. Is this the solution to the problem described by Volker Braun, namely that we miss something that no longer has a name? Can the solution be as simple as using another word to describe the historical mistakes and distortions, the violence and all the unreasonable demands, for the dangerous accumulation of political power in apparatuses, all in order to save a different term?

    Wright once summarized his proposal as “transforming power relations within the economy in ways that deepen and broaden the possibility of meaningful democracy”.[15] This practice, he continues, is colorful, diverse, and follows no center. The goal, which we do not know much about, can be justified ethically. The only movement worth pursuing will follow a moral compass rather than outdated assumptions of a supposedly “scientific socialism”. Two possible categorical imperatives can be read in Marx. He, however, did not write much about “socialism”.

    Finally, Volker Braun’s sentence remains valid: “We are missing something which no longer has a name”. You do not have to make up your mind about it to justify giving up the search for it.


    [1] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, translated by Joseph O’Malley, Oxford University Press, 1970.

    [2] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970.

    [3] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, translated by S.W. Ryazanskaya, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

    [4] Georg Fülberth, Sieben Anstrengungen, den vorläufigen Endsieg des Kapitalismus zu begreifen, Hamburg 1991, pp. 108ff. and 114f.

    [5] Ibid., p. 26.

    [6] Marx, A Contribution.

    [7] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Versuch, beim täglichen Verlieren des Bodens unter den Füßen neuen Grund zu gewinnen. Das Perestrojka-Journal, Hamburg 1990, p. 451.

    [8] Volker Braun, Die Verhältnisse zerbrechen. Dankesrede anlässlich der Verleihung des Georg-Büchner-Preises2000, Frankfurt a.M. 2000.

    [9] Martin Sabrow, Der vergessene “‘Dritte Weg’”, in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 11/2010, p. 6.

    [10] Für eine Vereinigte Linke in der DDR: Appell, 4.9.1989.

    [11] Aufbruch 89—Neues Forum: Aufruf, 10.9.1989.

    [12] Demokratie Jetzt: Aufruf zur Einmischung in eigener Sache, 12.9.1989.

    [13] Ralf Possekel, Taking Stock of the GDR (11): The East German Revolution of 1989 and its “Third Way”. Oakland, California, p. 287.

    [14] Erik Olin Wright, How To Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century, London, 2019, p. 61.

    [15] Erik Olin Wright, “Transforming Capitalism Through Real Utopias”, American Sociological Review, 78 (1), p. 2.