• Capitalism, Socialism, Property and Transformation: Rethinking Fundamental Questions

  • Μίκαελ Μπρι , Ντίτερ Κλάιν | 27 May 09
  • The rise of a new capitalism, the current wave of neoliberal globalisation, the success of this project of counter-reforms on the one hand and the emergence of new social movements, the attempts to form new political alliances and to initiate alternatives at all levels of society on the other hand — all this makes necessary a re-invention of socialism twenty years after the break-down of the Soviet bloc.

    Just as was the case two hundred or one hundred years ago, socialist, communist and other anti-capitalist forces are obliged to pose again the most fundamental questions: 1) What is capitalism? 2) What is socialism? 3) What are the basic features of a socialist property order? 4) What ways lead to socialism? The following article tries to open the way for a new discussion on these basic issues. 

    1) What is Capitalism?

    The basic economic structure of contemporary societies, with almost no exceptions, is capitalist. Capitalism marks the whole of our society and our way of life globally, regionally and nationally. But what is capitalism? Are markets and entrepreneurship the heart of capitalism or does its essence lie elsewhere? From our point of view it is the subordination of the economy and the whole society to the reproduction of capital, which makes a society capitalist. When profit-making becomes the dominant criterion of the production of wealth societies become capitalist.
    The general formula of capital is the accumulation of money (capital) as a goal in itself: value is expected to be transformed into surplus value, money (M) into more money (M’), i.e. into profit. Mediated by the exchange of commodities C, M will become M’ (M – C – M’), money “will be exchanged into more money”, thus Marx in Capital. The basis for this miraculous “self-utilisation” is found in the appropriation of unpaid surplus labour.
    The consequences of the subordination to capital of production and life processes, of economy and society, of inter-human relationships and of the relation of people and nature have already been discussed many times in the critique of capitalism. They are exploitation, repression, exclusion, destruction of the natural bases of life, imperial expansion and militarism, alienation, consumerism etc. Pre-existing power relationships between the sexes (patriarchy) or between peoples (colonialism, racism) and capitalist relationships of power and rule come together in a symbiosis which triggers ever new anti-capitalist movements.
    Globalised financial capitalism has reinforced the capitalist character of contemporary societies. Neoliberal politics aims at turning into commodities things which up to now were not subject to the “capitalist spirit of accountability” (Max Weber): education and health, plant, animal and human genes, knowledge and information and inter-human relationships themselves. Worse still than the kinds of profit which previously prevailed, is the profit resulting from short-term, speculative financial transactions and the increase of stock and shareholder value, which has become the decisive yardstick of this new capitalism.
    Destruction of the environment, all-out rationalisation before the next stock issues at the expense of jobs, cost reductions in the social security system, flexible labour contracts and working hours, the emergence of a new precariat and an “economy of expropriations” are some of the consequences.
    Imperial policies including wars in violation of international law, disdain of cultures outside of the Western world, hierarchical relationships of rule and undermining of democracy are additional features of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.
    Nonetheless, capitalism remains Janus faced. Bourgeois societies have produced a high technological level of productive forces, which for the first time makes a decent standard of living materially possible for all the earth’s inhabitants. Educational level and technological performance capacity, productive division of labour and the development of individuality have advanced further than ever before. Pluralist democracy and the rule of law, despite their subordination under the given relations of domination, still provide significant possibilities for development.
    Knowledge-based production requires from a large section of the wage dependent population a higher degree of responsibility, autonomous decision-making, communication and cooperation – in accordance with the requirements of the shareholders. The state is even more than before the power instrument of the rulers; but at the same time, it is the expression of concrete power relationships and an arena of struggle and negotiation processes (Nicos Poulantzas). The subordinated classes have been able to modify these processes in their favour. Is it possible to continue doing so in a new and different way? 
    In its neoliberal counter-attack against all achievements of the workers’ movement and all other emancipatory forces, capitalism has become ever more capitalist by, first of all, unleashing the financial markets and their dominance over the economy; second, by strengthening the power of capital vis-à-vis the working classes, communities, regions and many countries; third, by empowering interests with a shorter-term horizon and weakening the forces of long-term reproduction in ecology, education, health-care and culture; fourth, by the transformation of many spheres into new objects of capital production; and fifth, by militarisation, new imperial tendencies, and increased authoritarianism, and the open disrespect even of the most fundamental liberal rights. By becoming more capitalist, our societies become at the same time less social, less democratic, less peaceful. They reveal more traits of open barbarism.
    If capitalism can become “more capitalist”, if it can lose social, democratic qualities that it had once achieved, then it is completely wrong to imagine capitalist societies as a uniform whole without any counter-tendencies.
    Instead, these is a kind of parallelogram of forces at work (Friedrich Engels), in which as a result of the prevailing property relationships, capitalist tendencies can dominate emancipatory counter-tendencies representing non-capitalist interests.
    It is the power relationships, however, the social and political struggles, which determine the extent to which the balance between capitalist tendencies and counter-tendencies can be shifted in favour of the latter. Historically, there have been such partial successes – precisely those which neoliberalism has dismantled or hopes to dismantle.
    In our view, contemporary societies are, on the one hand, capitalist, inasmuch as capital production and profit dominate economy and society. Yet, on the other hand, they are not only capitalist, because as a result of the struggles for democracy, social justice, peace, sustainability, and emancipation, counter-tendencies were and are brought to bear.  These societies are battlefields of opposing and cooperating forces. They are contradictory in a deeply dialectical way in that they represent at the same time capitalist tendencies and a potential of non-capitalist elements. The left must seek out the developmental potential within contemporary societies as starting points for their alternatives.

    2) What is Socialism?

    In the process of left political renewal, different concepts of socialism are contending for hegemony. Already in the 19th century, there was a strong tendency to think of socialism and communism mainly as the negation of all of the institutions of bourgeois society: of markets and money, of state and law. Only the total negation of all these institutions seemed consequently to be socialist or communist. However, in the 20th century, in the framework of the state-socialist experiment, so many democratic achievements — the rule of law, capacity for innovation and efficiency — had been destroyed that this kind of socialism had to lose in the competition with Western capitalism.
    While capitalist societies are distinguished by the subordination of their reproduction and development to capital utilisation, to what goal will social reproduction be subordinated in a socialist society? If the wealth of capitalist societies is measured by the wealth of usable commodities (Gross National Product), by what criteria will it be measured in a socialist society? What is the standard according to which property and power relationships might be shaped in a socialist way?
    The objective of a socialist society is the promotion of a free, universal development of its individuals mediated by the solidary development of all. The social reproduction should be organised in a way that at the end of each respective cycle of reproduction individuals are enriched as humans – richer in needs, enjoyments, abilities, relationships and sensations. Taking part in social reproduction in a socialist society individuals (I) would become more developed individuals (I’). Their solidary contribution to the development of all (S) would become the condition of their own individual development. The general formula of socialism might therefore be written as follows: I – S – I’.
    How must society be changed so that a freer development of individuals really contributes to the solidary development of all, which in turn promotes individual freedom? That is the basic question for any kind of socialism.
    The socialist politics flowing from this conception would have its own, positive standards opposed to profit dominance – that of efficient production and of just distribution of those goods which allow each of us to live a free, self-determined life in solidarity with all others (goods of freedom). This understanding of democratic socialism follows from a vision of a society that allows each and every person to acquire the conditions for a self-determined life in freedom and social security. These conditions are: existence-securing good work for all those looking for work, high-quality education independently of social origin, equal access to the health and social security systems and a strong democratic say in all affairs affecting one’s life! Following this opinion, the programmatic self-understanding of a new left in Europe circles like an ellipse around two centres: around the basic libertarian idea that democratic socialism means individual liberty of each person in solidarity with the others, and around the renewal of the world of work and the social state and socioecological transformation.
    According to this outlook socialism is a society in which production, services and their distribution are dominated by the goal of producing the best possible conditions of the unfolding of the individuality of all, so that they may be used by the individuals both for their own well-being as well as for the solidary development of the productive forces of the community. Marx and Engels formulated it this way: “an association where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”1. For this end all relationships of property and rule – including relationships justified by male dominance, by ethnic superiority – “in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despised essence”2 must be transcended.
    It is the relationships of property and rule that determine the orientation of social development. Markets, the law, and state institutions are not neutral instruments. But they can be reshaped and redesigned in accordance with the prevailing property and power relationships. Precisely this is the policy of neoliberalism. It extends capital-dominated markets, oriented towards quick profit, into all areas of life; it reinforces the claims to profits from highly concentrated wealth and strengthens the rights of the stockholders in relation to the work force; it privatises among other things knowledge and the right to use genetic potential. Everything is supposed to serve the interests of capital.
    To fight even a few of the worst evils of contemporary financial market capitalism — from poverty and war, to social insecurity and under-development
    of the educational system — deep-reaching changes in the relationships of property and power are inevitable. This requires the weakening and the pushing back of those property structures on which the predominance of capital in the end rests. This includes a much stronger influence of workers and all employees and other democratic forces on the use of property in the interest of more social security and good education for all, and of the preservation of nature and peace.
    The struggles of the social movements of the 19th and 20th century had already seen germs of the development of the new in the bosom of the old society. A socialist society will emerge inside and in conflict with the old society or not at all. Neoliberalism wants to stifle these roots of a new society, tear them out, and destroy them. To neoliberalism, the struggle against the social state is, at the same time, a struggle against socialism. And it knows why. The left, by contrast, fights to strengthen the germs of the new, to generalise them, to turn them into the predominant pattern of production and life. This is only imaginable in a longer process. Democratic socialism must, therefore, be understood to be itself a transformational process of both continuity and deep breakthroughs. 
    A socialist society may only form itself around the generalisation of the emancipatory achievements of earlier struggles and by linking them to future tasks. The commitment to the realisation of the unity of social, political, cultural human rights here is the yardstick of left politics. The basic change in the access to, and use of, productive resources, power and property relations, is the necessary consequence.

    3) What are the basic features of an alternative property order?

    In contrast to the current SPD that has largely banned questions of power and property from its new party programme, a democratic-socialist left must always link reform processes to the struggle for a change in the relationships of property and rule and corresponding changes in the mode of regulation. Historically, the question of an alternative property order was always a subject of debate – should it be a state economy that is as comprehensive as possible, or self-administered cooperatives, or should it be public control over private property? And where does each of these forms have its advantages and weaknesses in regard to socialist goals?
    The programmatic declaration of the new German Left Party (Die LINKE) distinguishes between formal property and disposal/access: “Democratisation
    of the economy requires submitting the power of disposal over all forms of property to social criteria. We want to lead a broad discussion on how this can be realised concretely. In this context we want to clarify how public property can be extended as the basis of democratic politics and of decent existence and be structured and used in a social as well as in an efficient way.”
    Extra-parliamentary and parliamentary forces, extended co-determination,
    pressure from below on the state, processes of bargaining within its apparatuses regardless of who is in power, cases of a shift to the left in the
    party system and in the whole society can, as a result of great social and political struggles, change the disposal over capital income in such a way that it increasingly deviates from the race to profit-maximisation fundamentally inherent in capital production. Beyond that, the extension of public property and public control in areas where private income has obviously failed to meet social and emancipatory criteria is indispensable.  Basic public services and infrastructure certainly belong in this category. 
    A politics of social justice, trade union struggles for higher wages and humanisation of work, participatory budgets, sustainable environmental legislation, the implementation of strong social rights, and social and structural policy may make possible a development different than that resulting from the unilateral disposal by the owners of capital. In such a process, a change in the character of property itself would take place, such that it less and less and finally no longer predominantly serves the interests of the owners of capital, but those of the workers, the consumers, the regions and of subsequent generations.
    A plurality of legitimate interests will have to be brought into a more just equilibrium. Under no circumstances will a universal social owner be able to defend all legitimate interests at the same time. It is not étatisation of society that is the goal, even if an increased role of a democratised state may be a necessary means under certain conditions, but socialisation. The disposal over resources by a plurality of democratic forces seems to us the right way to this socialisation – such that social justice and efficiency, innovation and sustainability, regional development and solidarity, self-determination and social development can be realised simultaneously.
    Socialism without democracy is impossible. One feature of alternative forms of a socialist disposal over property is the comprehensive democratisation of all areas of life. What the best possible conditions for the unfolding of human wealth instead of capital wealth are, what a predominantly social as opposed to a predominantly capitalist property structure would be, and how property relations can be shaped concretely — all this can only be determined in a radical process of democratisation.  And in that process, democratic deliberation can determine where goods should be created in the public sector, which forms of production and property are the best to produce them effectively and to distribute them in a just way, what concrete forms the state and the law need to adopt to that end.
    In the light of global problems, the overcoming of the dominance of capital over economy and society is necessary for survival. If it is achieved, other property relations will have become dominant. And will it then not turn out that socialism is nothing else but the predominance of a property order aimed at individual self-determination and solidarity, social justice, sustainability and peace, that makes possible the most comprehensive and efficient production possible and the just distribution of freedom goods and which uses all means to that end?!

    4) The Way to Socialism: Evolution or Clash?

    Some unfruitful dichotomies in the discussion come from the fact that some see “only” the possibility of essential reforms, others “only” the possibility of “preparing” a revolution that breaks through to a society beyond capitalism. The real possibility probably consists in facing the complexity of today’s challenges and not reducing them to one or the other. In our opinion, the present era is marked by three conflicts whose weight may under certain circumstances also change very quickly: 
    Firstly, in the European Union and in Germany, the central conflict is between those ruling forces who want to shape the new financial-market capitalism in a neoconservative way (like Sarkozy in France3 or Merkel in Germany) and those who seek a social and democratic way of bringing today’s financial capitalism more in line with the orientation characteristic of the Scandinavian countries or the Netherlands.
    Second, there is a conflict between those mentioned above who are pushing for a social and democratic recasting of financial market capitalism and the radical left who, with good reason, start from the assumption that while social and political improvements in the framework of capitalism must be supported, comprehensive and lasting justice and democracy are impossible without the far-reaching roll-back and final overcoming of the dominance of profit and hence of capitalism.
    Thirdly, there are tendencies toward the de-civilising of society and to open barbarism not only outside Europe but in the EU and in Germany. The tendencies include wars of aggression under the leadership of the USA and the brutalisation of inter-human contacts. Under certain conditions, this conflict can overshadow all others, and the struggle against it can require the broadest possible alliances. 
    Four alternative scenarios may result from these conflicts: (1) a de-embedded
    (i.e. no longer socially regulated) barbaric capitalism, (2) an aggressive conservative and imperialist capitalism, (3) a new compromise of capitalism and the social state and (4) a democratic, social, ecological and feminist alternative.
    The left is not an almighty subject that can choose the battles it wants to fight. It may not eschew any of them; it must be capable of entering alliances and to that end must remain capable of forming them. The failure of the German left in 1914 showed what happens when a reform politics makes the struggle against authoritarianism and war recede completely into the background. The defeat in 1933, by contrast, was the disaster to which sectarianism and incapacity to form alliances led.
    It has never been possible to predict what breakthroughs, or chain of breakthroughs, can emerge from a given evolution, or how quantitative changes transform themselves into qualitative revolutions. Reforms led to revolution, revolutions enabled reforms. Processes that represent the sharpest break with the past were often negotiated in compromises and took place completely peacefully. The converse has also occurred.
    The left can neither decide what conflicts are the principal ones, nor can it determine with whom it must cooperate. It also cannot dominate the agenda, but for the most part only engage in the real battles. There are two things which it can do: First of all, it can establish criteria for its own action – struggle against any form of totalitarian rule and barbarism, struggle against market radicalism, authoritarianism and militarisation as well as struggle for the roll-back of profit dominance and the rule of capital, for the extension of public services, of public, democratic control, and for a social ecological and civil reconstruction of society.  These are in our opinion also the criteria for a socialist politics as the order of the day. Secondly, the left must be capable of handling the dialectics of the three above-mentioned challenges (negotiating the conflict between the more conservative and more social-democratic ruling groups, the conflict between the latter and the radical left, and confronting the recent brutalising tendencies of capitalism), dealing with the tension between these three struggles in as sovereign a way as possible. If it fulfils this double task, it will have done what it is capable of – no more and no less.
    This context suggests broad alliances and strategic cooperation, the organic combination of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary work, the unity of protest and resistance, a politics for shaping reality, governmental participation and anti-capitalist actions, including at the European level and beyond.
    Too often in history, the left has worked below the level of its real capacity,
    because through its splits and divisions it has torn apart what belongs together – socialist “real politics” as the order of the day, in which the goal of rolling back and overcoming the predominance of the capitalist character of our society is always present and is always linked to and occurs within the struggle for the solution of the most important current problems. Transformation is the unity of quantitative changes and qualitative leaps; it is social change in the long term and with clear goals for the present.
    The decoupling of the tasks of the day from the search for an order beyond capitalism, that is the pitting of “revolution” against “reform,” today results at best only in a parody of “revolutionary” politics. It seeks to appear radically anti-capitalist, and still has nothing to offer but empty rhetoric. It divides the forces of those who want to change society starting from the here and now and concrete interests, from those who know that this also requires a comprehensive revolution of property relations and of the economic order. This weakens the left. The left will only be able to win people for a project of overcoming capitalism if it shows that the immediately necessary reform solutions for the most urgent problems require at the same time interventions into the relations of property and disposal over property. Both belong inseparably together: one thing cannot be had without the other. The concrete shape of a possible socialist development follows from the way profit dominance is concretely weakened and finally overcome.
    If socialism is understood as the comprehensive democratisation and socialisation of the disposal over property, as the emergence of majorities
    for another society and as the reshaping of relationships of power and property, this can only happen in a learning process, through experiencing resistance, with reform projects that lead to partial improvements, with the search for projects providing a point of entry into deeper change, and with the opening up of reforms beyond the limits of capitalism, with concrete steps of reconstruction of the property order. For an extended period, this can occur in an evolutionary way but in times of crisis also in a revolutionary way. Democratic socialism in our understanding is a transformational process of tremendous social struggles, compromises and ever new departures that begin in the midst of capitalism, probably encompass many small and large breaks and, following the left’s vision, usher in a socialist society. And since without overcoming the dominance of the capitalist aspect of contemporary society neither lasting peace, sustainable development, nor social security are possible, the famous dictum still holds: Concrete, real and durable progress in the transformation to socialism or relapse into barbarism!

    Translated by Carla Krüger, March 31, 2007


    Table 1.

    Reformist viewOrthodox
    of revolution
    Possible positions of a modern
    socialism in the 21st century
    Basic perception
    of contemporary
    Market economyCapitalismCapital-dominated society (Money – Commodities- more Money: M-C-M’)
    SocialismSocially regulated (embedded)
    Society based on common propertyAssociation in which the free development of each person becomes by solidarity the condition of the free development of all (individuality – solidarity –enriched individuality: I-S-I’)
    Conception of changeImproved regulation of
    the given
    Total breakExtension of non-capitalist elements, tendencies and sectors as well as overall non-capitalist regulations
    Overarching goal of
    Civilising of contemporary
    societies, while maintaining capital dominance
    Radical social break with the totality of the
    relationships of contemporary
    societies and construction of
    a completely different society
    New mode of production, life and democracy based on the production and just distribution of the goods of freedom
    Economic modelSocial market economyPlanned economyMixed economy with a strong and participatory democratic regulation
    Economic regulationMarket-dominance and
    social-state regulation
    Centralised planned economyDemocratic dominance of social guidelines (setting of framework), primacy
    of social basic rights, preference for local and regional economies (deglobalisation), extended public sector
    Main advantage as opposed to pure capitalismHigher measure of
    equality, democracy
    and civilisation
    Conscious control of all
    areas of life and prevention
    of crisis and
    Higher measure of individual self-etermination and solidary development of all
    Basic valuesBasic rights of equal participation, but according
    to the conditions
    of a capital-dominated society 
    Equality within a given alternative orderEqual access to freedom goods; selfdetermination
    and social security in
    an order based on solidarity


     Table 2.

    Reformist view Orthodox
    of revolution
    Possible positions of a modern
    socialism in the 21st century
    Relationship to capital utilisationSocial regulation of
    capital utilisation
    Elimination of capital
    utilisation and imposition of a pure social economy
    Overcoming of the dominance of capital utilisation of economy and society (primacy of social logic over capital logic)
    Relationship to propertySocial obligation of private
    State propertyDecommodification of the goods of freedom including labour; extension of cooperative forms, especially in the area of indispensable goods and services;
    subjugation of private property of means of production to social target
    Social force of changeAlliance of the organised
    working people and the reform-oriented forces of capitalism
    Workers (and peasants)Middle-lower strata alliances
    Most important form of political actionNegotiations on the basis of an independent
    trade union and
    centre-left parties (corporatism)
    Preparation for the revolutionConstruction of broad alliances (economic, social, political, cultural)
    as the basis of independent action
    and of negotiations
    Understanding of democracyRepresentative democracyPower by the people,
    exercised by a vanguard
    Participatory democracy
    Relationship to globalisationGlobal governanceSocialist internationalism
    on the basis of the agreement between the interests of all the exploited
    Coupling of deglobalisation and alternative rules of solidary cooperation
    from the local to the global level
    Peace policyCivilising of the main powers and imposition
    of an order based on international law controlled
    by these powers
    Elimination of the
    causes for wars by the elimination of capitalism
    De-militarisation, overcoming of poverty, exclusion and foreign domination in the framework of a transformation strategy  



    1 Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels: Manifesto of the Communist Party. In:

    2 Karl Marx: Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction In: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm 

    3 See in detail: Joachim Bischoff; Elisabeth Gauthier; Sarkozy und die Hegemonie des Neoliberalismus. Supplement der Zeitschrift Sozialismus (12/2007); Michael Brie: Die Linke – was kann sie wollen?