• Elements of a Concept of Socialist Transformation

  • By Michael Brie | 04 Dec 13 | Posted under: Theory
  • For the last few years the term transformation has been in the ascendant once again. About a hundred years ago it was used by Nikolai Bukharin to describe the transition to soviet socialism/communism (Bukharin 1990).

    Half a century later it was used to illustrate the transitions between periods of development within capitalism (Aglietta, Boyer, Lipietz) and later to describe the shift from authoritarian regimes (such as in Spain, Portugal and countries of Latin America and Eastern Asia) to representative democracies (O’Donnell/Schmitter 1986). After 1989 it was applied to the upheavals of soviet state party socialism (see Merkel 2010 for a model overview.) Even the unification of the GDR with the Federal Republic was analysed in this light (see Reißig 2000; Kollmorgen 1996 i.a.). In historical research particularly on Europe and world history ‘great transformations’ have also been treated theoretically (Osterhammel 2011).

    In recent years the term’s focus has shifted again and is now meant to shed light on new problematics. The topic of the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos was ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models’. It is in relation to the notion of transition to a sustainable society that transformation and its governance are at the centre of attention (WGBU 2011; Rosen et al. 2010; World Watch Institute 2010; Veld 2011). The global economic and financial crisis which took off in 2007/08 was an occasion for developing concepts of how to grow out of the crisis through an ecological reorganisation of society (Green New Deal Group 2008). These concepts were adopted in the party programmes of the German and European Greens. Leading institutions picked up on the transformative concepts of a Green New Deal (DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) 2011; OECD 2011; for an analysis of these concepts see Adler/Schachtschneider 2010). Central points are the ecologisation of the modes of production, reproduction, consumption and life using the basic institutions of capitalist modernity.

    The left, too, has integrated the term transformation into its programmatic initiatives and applied it within an orientation of overcoming capitalism. The Party of the European Left not only understands itself as an alliance of ‘transformative’ left parties but has formulated its self-conception thus: ‘The European Left is critical of capitalism: It is anti-capitalist and aims at a transformation of societies beyond the rule of capitalism’ (Party of the European Left, no year). The 2004 ‘Manifesto of the Party of the European Left’ says: ‘We understand the role and the task of the political left in Europe as a contribution to form a broad social and political alliance for a radical policy change by developing concrete alternatives and proposals for the necessary transformation of the present capitalist societies’ (Party of the European Left 2004).

    Up to now, however, ‘transformation’ has not been a developed strategic concept for the left. There is also a lack of essential theoretical foundations (Reißig 2009). The use of the term is more of a rejection of the orthodox social democratic as well as communist focus on the reform/revolution dichotomy than a distinct and effective approach in itself. Based on work carried out in the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and connected locuses, there follows a brief summary of elements of a possible socialist transformation.


    Beyond reform and revolution – the logic of capital and the logic of society

    Since its early beginnings 200 years ago, the emerging socialist movement has been shaped by the contradictions of its reformist and revolutionary approaches. Another area of dispute was the role the state should play in the hoped for upheaval.

    The emergence and development of capitalist modernity is shaped by a twofold process. On the one hand, what Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto holds: The bourgeoisie created ‘a world after its own image’ (Marx/Engels), a world in which everything is to become a commodity, in which the ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ (Marx/Engels) of humans and nature alike was made into the ruling principle. Dominance of profit and the logic of capital penetrate and subordinate society. The ultimate extinction of almost all rainforests, the plundering of our planet’s energy and mineral resources, its toxic contamination and suffocation by accumulated waste are the results of this process.

    On the other hand, an unprecedented productivity was unleashed. Its main cause, however, is not the uninhibited expansion of capitalist exploitation but the resistance counterposed to it. Entrepreneurial trade only becomes really productive when competitors do not outperform each other on the basis of sheer depletion and destruction of labour and nature and of pre-existing societies and their cultures. The productivity of modern capitalist entrepreneurship (see Brie/Klein 2011) can only unleash its full potential in the long run when workers fight back and claim their share of the social wealth, when resources and energy are no longer available almost for free, when strong societies establish social security, participation and welfare and when they guarantee a constitutional state and enforce basic democratic minima. It is in social struggles and conflicts that ‘social logic’, ‘eco-logic’, ‘democratic logic’ and the ‘logic’ of a free civilisation not dominated by markets and capital valorisation are asserted. This results in a ‘double movement’ according to Polanyi: ‘While market organisation was extended as regards genuine commodities, it was restricted as regards fictitious commodities [i.e. labour, nature, money – author’s note]’ (Polanyi 1995).

    As Joachim Bischoff and Christoph Lieber write, this in no way spontaneous ‘twofold movement‘ involves the ‘confrontation’ between those who propagate the ‘self-governing of society’ and those who seek to establish a ‘self-regulating market society via the radical realisation of laissez-faire’ (Bischoff/Lieber 2013). For Polanyi, socialism is the ‘discovery of society’ under the auspices of the ‘rebirth of freedom’. Without an extensive reorganisation of property relations this is not possible.


    Economic democracy

    Since the early cooperative movement of the 19th century, economic democracy has been at the heart of socialist concepts of transformation. Whether organised in networks of mostly autonomous cooperatives, communes or councils, or as society-wide planning, the aim was always to link the workers’ self-determination to society-wide association and solidarity. In the 20th century there have been several attempts at practical implementation. In the German-speaking world important conceptual approaches go back to Fritz Naphtali (Naphtali 1928), Rudolf Hilferding (Hilferding 1931), Otto Brenner (Brenner 1956) und Ota Šik (Šik 1979).

    Socio-ecological strategies of transformation need to be based on the redistribution of power, property and wealth from the private to the public sector and from top to bottom. Important elements of this strategy are ‘the globally planned management of raw materials and resources and the setting of quantitative limits, economic democracy and decentralised participatory planning, decentralisation, municipalisation, deglobalisation, diverse forms of socialisation and property, the extension of the public realm (services), global redistribution, industrial policies and ‘just transitions’, socialisation of investment functions (Keynes), the redistribution of the social and gender division of labour…, the transition to a green-socialist reproduction economy beyond growth’ (Candeias 2012; see also Bontrup et al. 2006; Demirović 2007; Krause 2011). It will be a key task to connect the democratisation of the economy with the reorientation of the innovative capacity of democratic enterprises (Steinitz 2007). The immediate amelioration of the situation of society’s most vulnerable, fundamental changes in power relations and the development of new forms of socialisation are three sides of such a policy (Demirović/Sablowski 2012, 37 ff.).


    Double transformation and socialism

    A social transformation, which builds on libertarian Green New Deal approaches and radicalises them from the left, aims, as a first stage, at another bourgeois-capitalist social formation, ‘which is constituted more democratically than is now the case, which does not resist steps towards a renewal of the welfare state, which opens itself up to an ecological reorganisation of society and which finds new ways of solving global issues by means of peace and cooperation’ (Klein 2013). In so doing, however, new spheres and institutions are at the same time extended which point ‘beyond capitalism’. According to Dieter Klein this is ‘the basic idea underlying the concept of a double transformation for Europe’.

    This transformation aims at an expansion of the public sphere of contemporary society – a democratic regulation of the economy, co-determination in enterprises and municipalities, a rich public sphere and an expanded and easily accessible education and health care system and social security (see Rilling 2009 for a systematic treatment). These are the often unrecognised communist foundations in capitalist modernity. Instead of the general formula for capital M-C-M’, another formula for a free and solidary association would emerge: individuals, who, through their solidary contribution to the development of all, develop themselves (I-S-I’) – a society in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ (see Marx/Engels).


    Some strategic implications

    According to Rosa Luxemburg, a radical realpolitik of transformation (see Brie 2009) is a policy which aims at strengthening the possibility of the self-determination of workers, wage dependents and citizens and which advances their processes of learning how to participate socially and thus change themselves (Brangsch 2001). Such a transformation is in conflict with the power interests of the ruling bloc. The latter oligarchically controls the most important areas of the social metabolism with nature (energy, transport and agriculture), as the military-industrial and security complex as well as high-tech industry. Financial capital is now dominant (see Dellheim in Brangsch 2012). This has its counterpart in an imperialist mode of production and life based on the exploitation of the global South and nature (Brand/Brunnengräber 2013). In the European Union it is closely linked with the dominance of the German export model (Heine/Sablowski 2013; Crome 2012).

    The great crisis of financial-market capitalism creates cracks and breaches within the ruling bloc. Alternative concepts arise and with them new space for left politics (see Brie 2006; Candeias 2011). Molecular changes may condense into events which make possible fundamental changes of direction (Ibid.; Demirovič 2011). This may lead to conditions for a social-cultural middle-lower alliance and a political formation with a distinctly left stamp (see Brie 2007a, 2007b). Entry projects for transformation become possible, such as the efforts to re-municipalise the energy supply and energy cooperatives. In the turn to renewable energy, monopolistic centralising approaches under the aegis of still existing big corporations collide with the project of expanding energy democracy (Müller 2012). In these projects, the question of ‘how’ in the process of the change is more important that the ‘what’ to be achieved.

    The reference points of left politics are complex in times of crisis. They involve ‘transformations in the life and coexistence of people […], which always first improve the conditions of life of the socially and globally most vulnerable, strengthen their position in societies and at the same time push back the boundaries for the self-determination of individuals and the reproduction of society/of humanity’ (Dellheim et al. in Brangsch et al. 2012, 11). And, last but not least, concrete gender discrimination needs to be overcome (Pühl 2013). The prevailing conditions fragment the wholeness of the dependent social strata and classes. This is the very precondition for rule. The answer is not to deny different interests and cultural differences. As Mario Candeias writes: ‘The coupling of particular interests to the creation of independent organisations and nets is necessary in order to be able to enter into an association with other groups and class fractions and not only to find what is common through discussion and engagement, but to produce it. The “multitude” does not come spontaneously together; the component parts of the ‘mosaic left’ are not pre-given and have to be continually pieced together anew’ (Candeias 2010, 11). The difficulties for radical left parties in this respect are very great (for a differentiated overview see Hildebrandt 2010).

    In the end, only a twofold strategy will prove successful. This involves, on the one hand, the offensive organisation of equally socially and culturally rooted countervailing powers from the left and from the bottom. On the other hand, the left has to contribute to making the cracks in the ruling camp into genuine breaches. If there is no attempt to find allies within the ruling bloc there can be no successful transformation. It would be obstructed by economic means, a high degree of instability would drive major parts of the population into the clutches of right-wing groups and political failure would thus be inevitable.

    The concept of transformation, with the elements developed up to now, could be capable of advancing the process of creating a left that is up to the challenge of the great crisis of financial-market capitalism and today’s civilisation. Just like the Zapatistas, we will progress while learning – with the objective of overthrowing the total mode of  production and life, of power and property relations, in order to go toward a solidary, socialist society, which puts an end to the exploitation of human beings and nature. The transformation of our very way of thinking is part of this progress.  n


    translated by Tanja Mikolasch



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