by Rudolf Bahro, (1) is the most important theoretical work to
come out of the countries that have abolished capitalism since
Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed.
From the weak New Class by Milovan Djilas to the
“Open Letter” of Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski to the
writings on bureaucracy by former Hungarian Prime Minister
Hegedus to the books of the “liberal” Czechoslovak
Communists to the works of the Pole Brusz to Roy Medvedev’s Let
History Judge, the progression to Rudolf Bahro is striking
Rudolf Bahro’s work
ties together three different strands of the thought and action
of our time. Its
fabric is woven of threads of three different origins.
First, there is the practical experience of the
anti-bureaucratic movements, immensely richer now than at the
beginning of the 1950s. The
winds of the Prague spring and the revolt of the Polish workers
in the Baltic ports are felt in the analysis of Bahro.
Next there is the
progress, and contradictions, of international Marxist thought
over the past twenty years. Bahro’s
work resounds with reverberations of the polemic between the
Stalinists and the Yugoslav Communists, of the Sino-Soviet
polemics, of the flowering of Western revolutionary Marxist
thought particularly since May 1968, of the international debate
among Marxists on the “nature of the USSR,” and of the
debates around Eurocommunism.
Finally, Bahro is also a
product of the German theoretical tradition, a tradition which
has certainly been weakened, but not extinguished, by the tragic
fate of the German workers movement over the past forty-five
years, first its strangulation by Hitler and Stalin then its
arduous struggle against a second wave of strangulation by the
combination of integration and repression in the West and
repressive bureaucratic ossification in the East.
This is perhaps the first
important lesson -- and source of elation -- that must be drawn
from the publication of this astonishing work; the German
Marxist theoretical tradition is being reborn in East Germany.
We may be sure that the echoes of this renaissance will
reverberate for a long time. They will arouse great joy among the opponents of the
exploitation and oppression of man by man in all their forms.
And they will provoke tears and grinding of teeth in many
circles, including some unexpected ones.
It is precisely Bahro’s
solid theoretical heritage -- the best traditions of Marxism, of
Marx himself, all of Marx, not only the economic works -- that
lends The Alternative a historical, almost
“universal” dimension, an attraction to which any Marxist,
any revolutionary, and even any humanist, may well succumb,
despite the fact that doubt, aided by the critical spirit, must
arise on various occasions. Bahro himself does not succumb to the danger of missing the
forest for the trees. “The
devil is not generally found in the details,” he writes, not
without reason. It
is the fundamental problem which interests him above all else.
Since in spite of the overthrow of capitalism, the
societies of the USSR, East Germany, China and Yugoslavia have
manifestly not achieved social equality, and since in dealing
with these societies we are obviously not dealing with classless
societies or ones without constricting social stratification,
two essential questions arise: Is the advent of a classless
society a utopia? If
not, why has it not yet seen the light of day in the East
A good Marxist, Bahro
answers the first question with a categorical “No.”
And his answer to the second goes directly to the root of
For Bahro, the ultimate
source of social inequality is the social division of labor,
which freezes one section of society into specific tasks linked
to the reproduction of material resources for all society.
(This notion is a much broader one than that of manual
labor can be as repetitive and alienating as manual labor.
Activities of manual production can be just as creative
and satisfying to the producer as the activities of scientists
or artists, under certain precise conditions).
This social division of labor means that only a minority
can enjoy access to spheres of activity which Bahro, like Hegel
and Marx, calls “general labor” (“die allgemeine
Arbeit,” as opposed to specific labor), activities which
permit the flowering of the full human personality.
In this connection Bahro
uses two concepts, “psychologically productive labor” and
“psychologically unproductive labor,” which may appear
“idealist” at first sight but are profoundly materialist in
Moreover, integrating an
essential dimension of historical materialism into his study,
that of the inextricable unity of “production-communication”
in the social activity of humanity, Bahro demonstrates
that any social division of labor is inevitably accompanied by
differentiated access to information: exclusively fragmentary,
specific, and limited information for the “producers” in the
strict sense of the term; general and increasingly universal
information for those who devote themselves to “general
These two information
systems parallel to the two basic social activities, generate
two systems of education of children from the earliest flowering
of intelligence, a stifling one for the children of the toilers,
a stimulating one for the children of the privileged.
This in turn powerfully contributes to the reproduction
of social inequality (although Bahro understands quite well that
one must not generalize this phenomenon nor attribute decisive
importance to it. The
ruling classes command institutional and economic mechanisms for
the reproduction of inequality, to which the above phenomenon
must simply be added).
Hence, the vast expansion
of the productive forces affected by the industrial revolution
and nineteenth century capitalism and the subsequent abolition
of bourgeois private property are merely indispensable but not
at all sufficient preconditions for the inauguration of
socialist society. The
latter requires, in addition to a social surplus product
extensive enough to destroy the material base that made the
existence of the old privileged ruling classes inevitable,
systematic and deliberate efforts to abolish the social division
of labor. If this
division is maintained or even ossified, which is manifestly the
case in the countries of East Europe, then society itself
becomes frozen midway between class society and classless
society. The root
of the evil, the historic significance of the bureaucratic
dictatorship, is the totality of postcapitalist mechanisms and
institutions which maintain the monopoly of administration
and management in all spheres of social life, the monopoly
of “general labor,” in the hands of a privileged minority.
Bahro thus reverses the
link between material privilege and the monopoly of access to
management and administrative functions that mechanistic
Marxists have generally been tempted to establish independent of
historical circumstances. He
even strives to effect a parallel “reversal” when he
compares the conditions for the emergence of an original
ruling class within classless society in decomposition (we would
say: during the phase of transition from classless society to
class society) with the conditions for the disappearance of
social inequality in postcapitalist society (we would put it:
during the phase of transition from capitalist to socialist
It is not the privileges
that produce the monopoly, but the monopoly that secretes the
believe that Bahro is entirely correct on this point, that in
this regard he is simply repeating what Rakovsky, Trotsky, and
other Bolshevik leaders ceaselessly repeated during the 1920s
and 1930s (although Bahro seems not to have read all their
It is not because they
wanted to defend already acquired material privileges that the
masters of the Stalinist apparatus “conspired” to
expropriate the working class politically.
Rather, it is because they expropriated the working class
politically, and thus eliminated any possibility of mass control
over the mode of distribution, that they were able little by
little to appropriate increasingly exorbitant material
privileges and wound up creating institutions that allow them to
conserve and reproduce both the monopoly of power and the
A striking condemnation
of the bureaucracy
It is in dealing with the
question of the character of the USSR that Bahro’s superiority
over most “revisionist” Marxist theoreticians is clearest.
Bahro rejects both the thesis of “state capitalism”
and that of the “new class.”
He returns to the original Leninist conception, which
distinguishes three phases of postcapitalist society: the phase
of transition, the socialist phase (the first phase of
communism), and the communist phase.
In Bahro’s view, the USSR, East Germany, and other
countries of the “socialist camp” are still in the first
phase, the transitional one, which he defines by the somewhat
“scholarly” term “protosocialist” (postcapitalist but
We should not split
hairs. In essence, this is the very thesis defended by revolutionary
Marxists against hell and high water.
That Bahro has arrived at it in spite of insufficient
access to the rich discussions of this point that have taken
place both in the West and in opposition circles in the East is
a further astonishing reflection of the capacities of this
Marxist theoretician of exceptional talent.
Closely linked to a
correct definition of the social (socio-economic) character of
the East European countries is the question of a critical
scientific analysis of the character of the bureaucracy and its
precise articulation with the postcapitalist system as it
functions in these countries.
Although the formula so
dear to Stalinists of all stripes in all of the East European
countries (“actually existing socialism”) appears as a
subtitle to his work, Bahro forcefully takes the field against
this thesis. In
this domain as well, he returns to the origins of Marxist
“socialism” with market production and a money economy, with
remuneration paid “as a function of the quantity and
quality” of the labor of each person (here Bahro cites the
famous passage of Anti-Duhring in which Engels denies
that there can be such a “socialism”) and with social
inequalities and growing monstrous political constraints is the
antithesis of everything Marxist tradition defines as socialist. Of course, definitions can be modified at will.
You can call a piece of furniture on which you put plates
a “chair,” or you can call a piece of furniture that serves
as a footrest for someone sitting before a fire or watching
television a “bed.” But
if you operate that way, then you must at least admit that the
society that “actually” exists in the USSR, China,
Yugoslavia, and all the countries of the “socialist bloc” is
not (or not yet) the society of the “freely associated
producers” described (too briefly, alas) by Marx and Engels.
There is nothing at all
“moralistic,” “normative,” or “idealistic” about
contrasting a definition derived from a scientific analysis
of social structures (and not ethical axioms) with a reality
to which it does not conform.
One could equally well denounce as “moralizers” or
“normative analysts” those Marxist historians who correctly
explained that in spite of their progressive integration into
the world capitalist market neither China nor Iran nor Ethiopia
during the latter half of the nineteenth century was
characterized by capitalist relations of production.
Thought veers away from science into moralizing idealism
not when it notes this difference -- which is an obvious
one -- but when it contents itself with condemning it
without explaining the origins of reality or the means by which
it can be changed.
The definition of the
precise place of the bureaucracy in post capitalist society (or
“protosocialist” society) today constitutes one of
the most successful and attractive sections of Bahro’s work.
The analysis is rigorous, but the condemnation is
passages could be cited. For
example: “The historic function of the post-Stalinist
apparatus lies in its effort to prevent the peoples of the East
Europe from progressing towards socialism.” (p. 402.)
“The replacement of the political dictatorship of the
bureaucracy is a socioeconomic necessity.” (p. 306.)
“What the Soviet Union is suffering from… is the
misdeeds of apparatchiks and their ‘superiors’
(natchalniki), among whom the old patriarchism of the peasantry
and the new patriarchism of the industrial despot are
amalgamated with party discipline and congealed into a sort of
religious obeisance.” (p. 267.)
“Just as our pedagogical science has rediscovered the
traditional conspiracy of authorities against the independence
and imagination of children, in the form of the ‘united
collective of educators,’ our political education speaks to
the people, down to the last street cleaner, with a single
voice: ‘We educate you so that you may remain ignorant.’
(Rainer Kurze.) The
masses have ‘assimilated’ this into their consciousness to
the extent that they demonstrate conformism.” (p. 356.)
Or: “Waste and
shortages of material resources go hand in hand (with
bureaucratic planning).” (p. 183.) “Edward Gierek deserves thanks for the honesty with which
he summed up the problem of our societies after the Polish
crisis of December, when he linked together the two ends of the
problem: ‘You work well and we govern well.’” (p. 207.)
The list could go on:
“The bureaucratic centralist form of planning, under which the
summit receives from below only passive factual information and
‘questions,’ while active information about what must be
produced is transmitted from the top down, determines the manner
in which ‘instructions’ are given to individuals.
As a matter of principle, individuals have no business
looking for tasks to carry out, recognizing problems, or seeking
to solve them; they simply receive ‘instructions’ to do this
or that. Resources
are allocated as a function of this method, according to a
system of balances which increasingly boils down to the
rationing of strict necessity.” (p. 252.)
It is necessary to “mercilessly trace a line of
demarcation between loyalty to the non-capitalist base and
loyalty to the obsolete superstructure.” (p. 411.)
“Because of the
character of our superstructure, it has become usual that
explosive material accumulated over a long period is detonated
‘suddenly,’ since the mounting contradictions find no organs
through which they can express themselves in time.
Even in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, where many
things could have been foreseen in 1966 and 1967, the pace,
breadth, and depth of the transformations surprised everyone.”
(p. 397.) “The
possibilities of opposition activity have risen considerably in
recent times.” (p. 395.)
“The point is to develop a socialist model as an
alternative (to the existing model), in a thoroughly public
manner, without conspiracy.” (pp. 359 and 405.)
Such is a small sample of
an anthology that could be expanded as well.
The social content of the
Some of the above
quotations could give the impression that Bahro holds that the
revolution required in the bureaucratized workers states should
be limited to the superstructure. But this is clearly not at all the case.
In this domain as well, Bahro remains in the framework of
the most pronounced Marxist orthodoxy. While correctly calling for the maintenance and consolidation
of the non-capitalist base of these states, he also perceives,
precisely because of his ‘totalizing’ Marxist analysis, that
the coming revolution will make radical changes in the sphere of
the infrastructure as well as the superstructure and that it
will above all overturn the mediation between the two.
Bahro’s contribution in
this area is fertile and impressive, although in the end it is
less original than may seem at first sight.
What is most striking in his programmatic analysis -- the
“alternative” that gives the work its title -- is its close
relationship to the picture of “the socialism we want” which
revolutionary Marxists have elaborated in the industrially
advanced capitalist countries.
This may be seen by examining the central points of this
Generalization of a system of self-management and
self-administration, conceived as a process covering all
aspects of reproduction (p. 523) and structured around a
federation of communes founded (although this is not very clear)
on councils (Räte). (pp. 528-531.)
A radical struggle against the vertical division of
labor, a struggle centered on two major fronts: the radical
reduction of the duration of mechanical and repetitive work
(“psychologically unproductive” labor), particularly through
the massive reintroduction of white-collar workers into
industrial labor and services for a certain number of hours each
week. (Bahro offers the following, quite significant, figures on
the social structure of East Germany: 3 million workers in
production; 1 million cadres in universities and institutions of
professional higher-education; 4 million white-collar workers)
(p. 504); generalization of university and parauniversity higher
education, that is, extension of compulsory education to 23
years of age. (pp. 334-5.) (2)
A generalized transition to calculating the objectives
and achievements of the economic plan in working hours instead
of prices, in order to make the division of social product
between consumption funds and accumulation funds more
transparent. (pp. 517-520.)
Bahro also strikingly establishes the obvious correlation
between this method of calculating the plan on the basis of
quantities of labor and the “actual expenditure of individual
time” by the producers; this creates a clear and generalized
dynamic of socioeconomic progress measurable by each individual.
Let us add that a double accounting system, in
both labor time and prices, will be necessary so long as the
economy remains linked to the international capitalist economy
and as long as the monetary
system of remuneration exists.
Radical abolition of individual production quotas and
piecework, for obvious reasons we need not go into. (pp.
462-68.) Bahro also
demonstrates that the “savings” made by such production
quotas usually do not even compensate for the losses in
production caused by the employment of time-keepers who do not
participate in productive labor properly so-called.
Harmonization of reproduction, particularly by more
sharply emphasizing simple reproduction, repair of machinery,
tool maintenance, savings on raw materials and energy, and a
radical transformation of
innovation,” which should be subordinated to saving time for
producers and genuinely improving the quality of life for
consumers. (pp. 512-513.)
Radical abolition of all material privileges, especially
those related to the exercise of particular functions and
accorded in the form of usufruct or advantages in access to
material goods. At
the same time, reduction of the wage gap, which admittedly is
not as wide in East Germany as it is in the USSR. (pp. 458-60.)
Entirely new determination of priorities in the domain of
consumption, ordered from the standpoint of maximum human
development and not greater and greater accumulation of material
goods. (p. 485.) Particular
priority to spending on education and health.
Generalized access of all citizens to the mass of
centralized information (particularly with the aid of computers
to which citizens should be linked by telephone).
Radical elimination of “state secrets” in the realm
of economic, political and cultural information.
Radical abolition of all hierarchical structures based on
bureaucratic centralism. These
structures exude the generalized phenomenon of
“underlingism,” which in Bahro’s view is one of the major
characteristics of the societies of the East European countries.
Radical attack on the patriarchal family.
Here Bahro centers his criticism much more on the
nefarious effects this institution has on children than on its
function in oppressing women.
The two points of view are obviously complementary and in
no way contradictory.
If bourgeois and
petty-bourgeois commentators (including Stalinists and Social
Democrats) have insisted on the allegedly “utopian” and even
“demagogic” character of these ideas, they thereby reveal
only their own lack of social realism and the conservative
desperation of their own thought, imprisoned by mental
constructions that correspond to the reality of the nineteenth
century in the best of cases. One may say without risk of error that Bahro’s proposals
are not only not “utopian” but also perfectly correspond to
the possibilities offered by the contemporary productive forces,
as well as to the aspirations of hundreds of millions of human
important, their realization is an indispensable precondition
for saving the human race from destruction of material
civilization and a new fall into barbarism.
A similar remark applies
to the other positive aspect of Bahro’s analysis, unexpected
coming from an East European Communist oppositionist: its
resolutely internationalist dimension.
We say “unexpected” because most of the East European
“dissidents,” even the leftists, have reacted to
Stalinist-type “proletarian internationalism” (that is, the
identification of “proletarian internationalism” with blind
subordination to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy), by
preaching a nationalist or semi-nationalist turning inward which
is not only extremely dangerous but also sterile and inoperative
given the present state of social forces everywhere in the
world. We say
“unexpected” rather than “surprising,” since a
theoretician who places himself in the tradition of classical
German Marxism and has a minimum of practical experience in
economic management (3) could not help but integrate into his
thought the worldwide character of economics, politics,
and social contradictions in our epoch.
Several aspects of Bahro’s analysis in this regard
ought to be highlighted.
Rudolf Bahro thoroughly
understands the utopian and reactionary character of the idea
that the building of socialism can be completed in one country,
although he does not refer to this controversy explicitly.
He understands the political, social, and economic
pressure the world market exerts on the pace and orientation of
accumulation in the East European countries.
He presents a gripping theoretical analysis of what
underlies the famous theory of “economic competition between
the two systems.” In
fact, one of the images he uses repeats what Trotsky predicted
half a century ago: This “competition” resembles the fable
about the race between the tortoise and the hare in which the
hare, in spite of his vastly superior “cruising speed,” is
compelled to note that even after ten “technological
revolutions” and a hundred “new consumer goods,” the
tortoise is already approaching the finish line.
Bahro likewise fully
understands the seriousness and explosive character of the
North-South contradiction, the key problem underdevelopment
poses for the socialist future of humanity.
In this regard he pleads for the necessity for rational
education in favor of solidarity and non-wasteful use of world
resources; many “ecological” considerations are integrated
into his program.
Bahro has at least a
presentiment of the correlation between the rise of the workers
movement in West Europe and the possibilities of revolutionary
overturns in the East European countries.
The “Prague spring,” of which Bahro is in some sense
the natural offspring, had already shaken East European society
as a whole. The
realization of an “alternative socialist model” in the West
would multiply the shock waves tenfold.
But above all, Bahro
rigorously opposes any purely defensive or even indifferent
attitude toward the Soviet Union on the part of Communist
oppositionists in East Europe.
He sees the essential function of the opposition
in East Europe as being to “detonate” a similar evolution in
the Soviet Union. And
he correctly accuses the ruling bureaucracy in East Germany and
elsewhere, in spite of all their sermons about “friendship
with the Soviet Union,” of systematically provoking the spread
of anti-Soviet sentiment not only among the masses but even
within sections of the apparatus, sentiments whose consequences
for peace in Europe could be disastrous in the event of a
victorious political revolution.
Although we do not accept
all the premises of Bahro’s analysis in this regard, it is
clear that it does contain a large kernel of truth.
Two stages in the history
of the bureaucracy?
In sum, important
sections of Bahro’s book must be assessed positively.
But a positive assessment cannot be made of the whole of
his analysis, far from it.
This is not a Trotskyist, revolutionary Marxist book.
It contains essential weaknesses, much more serious than
the spoonful of tar in the barrel of honey in the Russian
proverb cited by Lenin. In
fact, a central portion of the “alternative” is invalid at
The explanation of this
contradictory phenomenon -- that an author of Bahro’s great
talent and vision has not succeeded in developing a correct overall
view of the correlation of contending social forces East and
West -- may be boiled down to noting the lack of information
from which Bahro suffers (in regard to both facts and theory).
It is simply impossible for a single brain to
“reproduce the universal reality” on its own, isolated from
collective critical works and universal revolutionary practice
-- in other words, isolated from an international revolutionary
organization. This explanation is undoubtedly sufficient-- as far as
explanations go. But
we have too much respect for Bahro’s talents and capacities to
be content with merely explaining the weaknesses of his
believe that a critical discussion -- an impassioned one
commensurate with the grandeur of the problems posed (and let us
repeat), they are problems that are decisive for the future of
humanity) -- is indispensable.
Thus, if we include in this article a strong and detailed
criticism of all that we find false in Bahro’s theses, it is
not at all with the intention of “shooting him down.” On the contrary, it is in the hope that a real dialogue can
occur and that a genuine rectification will be possible, both
for him and for those who will be inspired by his writings (and
they will not be few in number).
It is incontestable that we ourselves will learn
something from such a discussion, for in no way do we have a
“definitive” position on the precise content of the
anti-bureaucratic political revolution; such a definitive
position could be elaborated only after the first decisive
There are two
complementary, mutually determined roots to the weaknesses of
Bahro’s position: a hazy conception of the historic role of
the bureaucracy and a radically false position on the
revolutionary potential of the working class.
thesis on the bureaucracy is marked by an “objectivist,”
even fatalistic, vision of what happens after the socialist
revolution in the less industrialized countries.
Since the writings of Preobrazhensky, we have been aware
that the USSR, isolated from a victorious socialist revolution
in the West, was condemned to “primitive socialist
it does not at all follow that the only instrument available for
carrying out this process was the bureaucracy (the state
apparatus, the economic apparatus, and the party, ever
increasingly melded into a single social layer) or that this
accumulation necessarily had to occur at the cost of an absolute
decline in the living standards of the workers and the majority
of the peasants. Now,
the “materialist explanation” of the Stalinist dictatorship
is based on these precise socioeconomic features and not
on the logic of “primitive socialist accumulation” per se.
Thus, the “inevitability” of the bureaucratic
dictatorship cannot be deduced from the particular historic
conditions prevailing in Russia in 1917.
Indeed, Bahro recognizes
that the alternative program of the Left Opposition would have
permitted, if not a “painless industrialization,” at least
an enormous reduction in its costs and also could have avoided
the barbarity of forced collectivization.
But he avoids the obvious conclusion through a sleight of
hand: “It is not by accident that this program was rejected by
the immense majority of Russian Communists.”
This brings us to the
heart of the problem: the counter position between
“objectivist” historical fatalism and a correct
understanding of the dialectic of the objective and
subjective factors. From
the standpoint of this dialectic, it is just as absurd to claim
that the bureaucratic dictatorship in Russia was inevitable
after the victory of the October Revolution “because of the
objective circumstances or Russia” as it would be to claim
that Hitler and Auschwitz were “inevitable” as of 1918, if
not as of the founding of the German empire.
A multitude of intermediary links exist between the
“ultimate objective causes” and the practical result.
These intermediary links are primarily expressions of the
struggle of concrete social and political forces.
To cite but one example: the deliberate betrayal of the
German revolution in 1918, 1919, 1920, and 1923 by the Social
Democratic leadership certainly had as important an effect on
the fate of the Russian revolution as did Russia’s
“Asiatic” and “barbarous” past, for this betrayal
resulted in the isolation of the Russian revolution, contrary to
the projects and predictions of the Bolsheviks.
Any fatalistic conception
of history arouses an apologetic temptation.
Despite the fact that Bahro is perfectly conscious of
this danger, he nevertheless succumbs to it in part.
At bottom, it is his thesis that the bureaucracy was
inevitable -- and therefore progressive -- in effecting
“primitive socialist accumulation.”
The bureaucracy became reactionary only when the
possibility of “extensive industrialization” was replaced by
the necessity for “intensive industrialization.”
The influence of the tradition of Brandler, who upheld
similar theses (recently taken up again by Ellenstein in the
French Communist Party), a tradition which has never been wholly
absent from the East German Communist Party, is undeniable here.
Bahro commits a flagrant
injustice against Trotsky and the Trotskyists when he accuses
them of “historic subjectivism” because of their concepts of
“deformation” and “bureaucratic degeneration.”
In reality, all the objective factors which Bahro
believes determined the victory of the bureaucracy had been
enumerated by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed.
Bahro adds nothing original to this domain.
The difference is not
that Trotsky “underestimated” these objective factors, but
that he believed that a politically correct reaction by the
worker cadres of the party, the vanguard of the proletariat,
could have caused a change in the international and national
configuration of social and political forces which would have
averted Stalinism. A
good Leninist, he believed in the relative autonomy of the
subjective factor. Bahro rejects this in his analysis of Stalinism, although he
returns to it, even in an exaggerated manner, in his
is a great fault in his method.
Does the working class
have a revolutionary potential?
More serious than this
semi-apologetic attitude toward the bureaucracy is the
skepticism Bahro manifests in regard to the revolutionary
potential of the working class.
Granted, when he stresses the extreme atomization of the
working class in East Europe he is underscoring a factor which
we and others have highlighted before him.
When he adds that under the present conditions
(that is, under the bureaucratic dictatorship) it is virtually
impossible for the working class to reconstitute its organize
cadres by itself (pp. 223-4), he is not entirely wrong. But the only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that a
“detonator” external to the working class is probably
necessary to set the process of political revolution in motion.
There are various possibilities: a division in the
apparatus, a revolt of intellectuals or even technicians, a
major stimulus from abroad, etc.
Nevertheless, to conclude
that since the working class faces great difficulties in
triggering the process of political revolution, it will not be
able to play the role of protagonist during the process, and
especially at its culmination, (p. 388) is to fail to assimilate
the real lessons of the Hungarian revolution, the “Prague
spring,” and the Polish events.
Now, these are three countries in which the objective
social weight and political traditions of the working class were
inferior to what they are in East Germany. In light of this, Bahro’s skepticism has no socio-economic
foundation; it simply expresses a political prejudice.
What is disastrous in
this whole section of the book is that Bahro, in an attempt to
lend greater coherence to his analysis, extends his skepticism
about the working class in the East to skepticism about the
working class in the West and generally revises the Marxist
theory of the key role the
working class must play in the overthrow of capitalism and the
inauguration of a classless, socialist society.
“All Marxist discussions since 1914,” Bahro writes,
“lead to the conclusion that the interests the workers
actually act on are not their real interests.” (p. 224.)
Now, these interests on which the workers actually act,
according to Bahro, do not go beyond the limits of the
“petty-bourgeois” and “corporatist” betterment of their
lot. Thus, the
“naturally reformist” (trade-unionist) working class cannot
be the bearer of a genuine socialist program.
Such a program can be developed only by a “historic
bloc” within which intellectuals, technicians, and highly
skilled white-collar workers will play a much more dynamic role
than the workers.
The bridge to
Eurocommunism has thus been laid.
Eurocommunism justifies its strategy on the basis of the
same alleged necessity of creating a “historic bloc” capable
of achieving the “alternative” Bahro preaches.
This part of Bahro’s work does have the merit of a
brutal frankness which is scarcely found among most of the
leaders of the Italian, French, and Spanish Communist parties
(except, perhaps, among some of the more cynical ones, like
Giorgio Amendola). The
Eurocommunist strategy is, in fact, founded precisely on a
rejection of the revolutionary potential of the working class.
And it is highly significant of the dialectic between the
rising socialist revolution in the West and the rising political
revolution in the East that the contradiction between the
immense opportunities now open to humanity and the resistance of
the bureaucratic apparatuses tears an oppositionist like Bahro
between his instinct, which tells him that salvation will come
from the revolution in the West, and his reason, apologetic as
it is, which murmurs
constantly in his open ear: “Forget about the Marxist utopia
of the supposedly revolutionary role of the proletariat.”
The argumentation is
actually quite weak, apart from some abstract philosophical
flight. It is
simply not true that “since 1914” all the behavior of
the European working class has consisted of a search for
immediate material advantages of a “trade-unionist” or
“corporatist” type. What
about the German revolution of 1918, when workers councils were
created throughout the country?
What about the general strike against the Kapp putsch in
1920? What about
the great strikes and factory occupations in Italy in 1920?
What about the general strike in June 1936 in France? What about the Spanish revolution of 1936-37?
What about the great battles of the “liberation” in
France and Italy, culminating in the Italian general strike of
July 14, 1948? What
about May 1968 in France and the “creeping May” in Italy in
1969? What about the Portuguese revolution in 1974-75 and the
mounting Spanish revolution today?
After he assimilated the
experience of the 1905 revolution, Lenin was more
“realistic,” more “Marxist, and more accurate than Bahro.
The practical experience of the twentieth century has
confirmed that although the working class is “spontaneously
reformist” (trade-unionist) in “normal times,” it is
“spontaneously ant capitalist” (revolutionary) during
periods of revolutionary crisis.
Moreover, this is the only materialist interpretation
(and not conspiracy theory) that explains the alternation
of “normal” situations and revolutionary crises throughout
the twentieth century.
But there we are:
preconceived ideas, prejudices, and “false consciousness”
have an implacable logic, even (or especially) for a great
theoretician like Bahro. The
demon of false systemization lurks quietly behind the angel of
As soon as one considers
the revolution impossible, “since there is no revolutionary
subject,” one is compelled by “political realism” to curb
and stifle a real revolution when it begins to unfold before
one’s eyes. Bahro
does not reproach Cunhal for his policy of “antimonopoly
alliance,” which enabled
Portuguese capitalism to save itself during the worst
moments of the capitalist crisis in the first half of 1975.
No, he reproaches him for having provoked a futile
“left/right” polarization, including within the army.
This is the same reproach Edouard Bernstein addressed to
the German revolutionaries in 1918, even extending it against
the French revolutionaries (and Karl Marx himself) by
criticizing their behavior in 1848.
This sort of “political wisdom” as a substitute for
comprehension of the objective dynamic of class struggles is
unworthy of you, Comrade Bahro, unworthy of your vision and your
These analytic weaknesses
determine programmatic ambiguities which would be laden with
consequences if extended to their ultimate conclusions.
(Let us hope that the discussion, even if it must be
conducted through prison bars, will prevent Bahro from going
The first concerns the
political and social conclusions of Bahro’s whole critique.
Yes or no, does the political power of the toiling
masses have to be established, or must we content ourselves
with hoping for a protracted transformation subsequent to the
substitution of the power of the technocrats for that of the
Bahro is neither
hypocritical nor blind. He
fully understands the terms of the problem.
In spite of all his enthusiasm for the “Prague
spring” and the Yugoslav experience, he does not hesitate to
write: “It is no accident that the major economic theoretician
of the reform, Ota Sik, wanted not real workers councils,
but a regime of directors to whom the councils would be
linked.” (p. 116.) And:
“If the Czechoslovak reform movement had succeeded (in
whatever form), the workers would have regained control of their
unions, and that would have improved their socio-political
precisely this restoration would have more clearly exposed their
subordinate position in a state maintained by a bureaucracy.”
(p. 224.) Exactly,
exactly. That is the choice: reform of the bureaucratic system or
anti-bureaucratic political revolution.
Since Bahro is skeptical about the revolutionary
potential of the working class, he does not (yet?) pronounce
himself in favor of political revolution, but he does stress the
inadequacy of reform. In
any event, let us acknowledge that his constant reference to
“cultural revolution” (instead of political revolution) is
only a feint that enables him to dodge the difficulty but not to
Given the tragic
experience of the Chinese cultural revolution, the conclusion
must be even more definitive.
There is no genuine abolition of the monopoly of power of
the “bureaucratic caste” (the term utilized by Bahro on page
13) without the establishment of the political power of
the proletariat, of the toiling masses.
The second ambiguity
concerns the relationship between the communes, which constitute
the “administrative” basis of the “state in process of
withering away” as projected by Bahro, and the workers
councils. All the
passages in the book dealing with this question are suspiciously
vague. Granted, the “principle of association” is highly
laudable. But what
does it mean concretely, especially in light of the enormous
powers Bahro attributes to the communes?
Will they be elected by universal suffrage?
Or constituted by delegates of the councils?
Territorial councils and factory councils, or only the
former? How can it
be guaranteed that the non-producers will not again impose
sacrifices on the producers?
Bahro scarcely offers any precise answers to these
questions, which nonetheless flow logically from all the
premises developed at great length in his book.
The third ambiguity,
perhaps the most serious, relates to the problem of the single
party. The most
striking paradox in Bahro’s thought is that after
concentrating his fire, initially directed against the
bureaucracy as a whole, solely on the “political” faction of
the bureaucracy (“die Politbürokratie”), he does not
clearly come out against the principle of the single party and
for a multiparty system. The
most he calls for is the creation of a “League of
Communists.” It is not clear whether this is supposed to be a
second party, a single party, or not a party at all.
Once again, Bahro is
neither naïve nor a dupe.
On several occasions he reaffirms that in spite of
self-management at the factory level and in spite of the
“association of communes,” Yugoslavia is still governed by a
does he believe that the state can disappear overnight.
He recognizes the powerful centralizing tendency of the
contemporary productive forces.
He has even an excessive respect for the “objectively
indispensable” role of the state.
Who, then, will pin the tail on the donkey? Can thousands of communes acting “through free
association” decide the exact proportions of the division of
the national or even the international income?
Can the toiling masses decide among thousands of
initiative is hailed, but in vain.
If one does not accept the necessity of the masses’
making coherent choices among a series of alternative strategies
of economic, social, cultural, and political growth -- that is,
among different parties and tendencies -- then one is back to
the combination of a nice anarchistic spontaneity at the
rank-and-file level and a regime of a bureaucratized single
party at the top. These
are the only possible solutions, at least so long as the
transitional phase lasts and the state persists.
anti-bureaucratic struggle as insufficient, Bahro uses the
formula: “You cannot fight the apparatus with the aid of
another apparatus.” Agreed.
But the obvious conclusion is that the bureaucratic
dictatorship cannot be abolished if it continues to hold a
monopoly of central decision-making, which means the
political decisions. Nor
can we harbor the illusion that “politics”
-- that is, the central decisions -- will disappear like
magic under the pressure of “associations.”
Thus, it is the process of central decision-making
that must be resolutely democratized.
And there is no way to do this except by interlocking the
political regime of the councils of toilers with the
institutions of the communes and with a multiplicity of parties
and associations on a national and international scale.
Having formulated these
harsh criticisms, let us conclude by once again stressing the
important contribution Bahro has made to the discussion of the
problems of political revolution.
And let us above all reiterate our indignation of the
East German bureaucracy, which has placed such a thinker behind
bars -- on charges of spying for imperialist espionage agencies!
In his letter to Bebel in
which he protested against the censorship the leadership of the
German Social Democratic Party was trying to exercise over the
publication of the Critique of the Gotha Program, Engels
exclaimed, “What makes you any different from Puttkamer
(Bismarck’s minister) if you introduce a sozialistengesetz
(law against socialists) in your own ranks?”
The imprisonment of Bahro is not merely a Sozialistengesetz
within the workers movement.
It is Bastille-style absolutist arbitrariness on the part
of the bureaucracy. But
the Bastilles will some day be stormed by the toiling masses.
Free Rudolf Bahro!
No Berufsverbot in
East or West Germany!
Grant Rudolf Bahro a
chair at the University of Jena!
Rudolf Bahro, Die Alternative - Zur Kritik des
realexistierenden Sozialismus, Europaische Verlagsanstalt,
In order to prevent the habits of alienated labor
from giving rise to practices of alienating and alienated
leisure, Bahro insists on the importance of an education for all
children which is not solely physical and technical but also
scientific-philosophical and aesthetic.
In 1952 Bahro was a candidate member of the Socialist
Unity Party (SED), the name the East German Communist Party has
used since its “fusion” with the Social Democratic Party of
Eastern Germany after the Second World War.
He became a full member in 1954.
Between 1954 and 1959 he studied philosophy at Humboldt
University in East Berlin.
In 1959 and 1960 he actively participated in the movement
for agrarian collectivization.
From 1962 to 1965 he collaborated in the national
leadership of the trade union of scientific personnel.
From 1965 to 1967 he edited the publication Forum,
a journal for youth and students.
Since 1967 he has worked in various enterprises as an
engineer specializing in the implementation of projects of
industrial rationalization and scientific organization of labor.