All of us, whether we are we are politically on the left or the right, act in the light cast by the Great French Revolution of 1789. All concepts we employ the world over, including those of ‘left’ and ‘right,’ all strategies we invoke, particularly those of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution,’ and our understanding of the nation and of humanity have passed through the fire of this revolution. Socialism and communism, liberalism and conservatism, nationalism and internationalism are the intellectual children of 1789. It was Hegel who found the decisive words: ‘Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around it had it been perceived that man’s existence centers in his head, that is, in thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality.’1 This thought was the idea of human rights.
What was proclaimed as the self-conception of free, white owners of private property intending to establish their bourgeois society was universally interpreted by the ‘disinherited’ who demanded its practical implementation: equal access of the propertyless to work, education, social security, and political influence; the right of women to independence and equal participation, and as the right to liberate oneself from slavery, including through violence. François Noël Babeuf, Olympe de Gouges, and Toussaint Louverture are the best-known martyrs of the decade following 1789. Violations of human dignity are always concrete; every wrong has a particular face; exploitation is not abstract; violence is experienced first-hand, physically and psychologically. Human rights, however, cast a common light on this diversity and provide particular social movements with a common goal, situated on the horizon of universal emancipation. Albert Camus conveyed the assertion of a human right in this way:
What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. […] In a certain way, he confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.2
The Great French Revolution laid the foundation for all movements of universal emancipation. It has since been clear that every political, social, and economic order, in every country and globally, will be judged by whether it is capable of implementing human rights for each and every person – under constantly changing circumstances. Karl Marx, at 25 years of age, formulated this as an action-oriented imperative: It is a matter of ‘overthrow[ing] all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’.3
Jürgen Habermas expressed the same idea in a more detached way: ‘The affirmation of the first human right created a legal obligation to put into practice a surplus moral content, which has become deeply embedded in human memory.’4 The content is human rights. They constitute a constantly redefined ‘realistic utopia’. Measured against an understanding of human rights that is transformed through the struggles of citizens, classes, social, and cultural groups, as well as entire peoples and continents, every given order appears in need of change. It is in this sense that the Great French Revolution is the starting point for what we call transformation today. Transformation is a very particular form of social change. It is a deliberate process of social reconfiguration aimed at the realisation of human rights. It can appear in a revolutionary form or as reform, can encompass entire societies or only particular subdomains, humanity in its entirety or only certain regions.
Normatively speaking, only those processes which seek to reduce the ‘utopian gap’ (Habermas) between human rights and reality and achieve progress in universal emancipation constitute transformations. Just as there are counter-revolutions, restorations, and counter-reforms, there are also counter-transformations. Neoliberalism was one such conscious countertransformation: a move away from the welfare state and democracy, towards markets and oligarchy, the rule of constraints in the interest of the few, as a shock therapy associated with brutal violence and through the integration of the upper middle classes.5 Once again, there was an attempt to impose the dangerous utopia of a market society.6
In the language of the social sciences, one can say that transformation is ‘a deliberate process by which structures, institutions […] and models are shaped and reshaped’7 – a process that unleashes tremendous momentum when it is implemented. Change can be defined as transformation when both of the following two conditions are fulfilled: (1) the dynamic of social change is shaped by the goal-oriented and means-conscious interventions of actors; (2) the activities of these actors are aimed at changing the basic structures of society (sectorally, territorially, or in terms of society as a whole). This means that such actors are also capable of having a certain impact; it is not merely a matter of intentions without influence. Decisive action can assume an intellectual, political, social, economic, and, last but not least, violent form. Such a transformation-oriented intervention seriously modifies the internal dynamic of complex societies. Since actors can never control the totality of the conditions under which they act, since other actors always have their own specific power of impact (otherwise they would not be actors), since complex societies are characterised by an incalculable number of feedback effects, and since ends and means are never fully commensurate and often contradictory – the list could go on – transformation can never be fully reduced to transition in the sense of the near-total identity of goals and results.
Capitalism turns the basic goods associated with the production of life and exchange – labour, nature, money, and culture – into commodities and subordinates economy and society to capital accumulation. Viewed from this Marxian/Polanyian perspective, capitalism is irreconcilable with emancipation and democratic self-determination. The common foundations of a life in freedom are privatised, and the imperatives of a capitalist market society directly contradict social and ecological democracy. Capitalism and democracy are essentially incompatible. This incompatibility gives rise to the authoritarian, imperialist, and fascist tendencies associated with capitalist societies,8 as well as the lethal, cannibalistic character such societies display towards their weakest members.9
The flip side of this transformation of the basic goods of life consists in the possibility of combining the conditions of production and reproduction in ever new ways, permanently revolutionising society, and setting in motion an endless process of innovation. Paraphrasing Joseph Schumpeter, one could speak of destructive creation. To this day, Marx and Engels' dictum from the Communist Manifesto holds true: ‘by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, [the bourgeoisie] draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization.’10To this day, the fact remains that ‘market society has generated more income, prosperity, goods, and services than any other form of social organization’.11 As Wolfgang Fritz Haug aptly put it, ‘an anti-capitalism that does not go beyond its “anti” stance towards capitalism to come up with a “pro” conception that could plausibly liberate this productivity from capitalism's competitive logic of profit, and thereby from its destructiveness, cannot contest capitalism’s right to exist’.12
It is out of this ambivalent nature of capitalism that the task of twofold transformation arises. There are two senses in which such a transformation is twofold. First, it has the task of overcoming the exploitative, oppressive, and destructive character of today’s capitalist society while simultaneously creating forms that absorb/transcend13 the developmental capacity of modern societies in a solidary, democratic, and ecological form. Second, the transformation is twofold in that, given the actually existing possibilities, it occurs within capitalism but also points beyond it. It is about combining the ‘transformation towards a socially and ecologically regulated capitalism with the beginning of a second Great Transformation that takes us beyond capitalism’.14
Since the beginnings of the socialist and communist movements, there have always been three approaches to overcoming capitalism. The first current began with Babeuf and also with the socialist current within Chartism. Political power was to be seized through insurrection (Babeuf, Blanqui) or elections, in order then to initiate a reconfiguration of property relations, and eventually of society as a whole. A second current, which became influential thanks to Robert Owen and the British cooperative movement, but also thanks to the followers of Fourier and Cabet, placed its faith in the power of examples: settlements organised on socialist/communist principles, producer and consumer cooperatives, worker banks, forms of cooperative housing, and cultural and educational institutions were to serve as the germ cells of a new society. Concrete changes to one’s own life circumstances, selftransformation, practical solidarity, and democracy were to show that there are alternatives to capitalism, demonstrating how these alternatives work and proving that they are far superior to capitalism. The third current placed its faith in fundamental reforms, to be struggled and fought for (its protagonists include Lassalle and Bernstein). This current began with the struggle first for the ten- and then for the eight-hour day (a demand first formulated by Owen, who also strongly influenced the British Parliament’s restriction of child labour); later it addressed social rights, education, health, and the environment. In discussing these three currents, the Marxist transformation scholar Erik Olin Wright speaks of ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic strategies.15
In my view, the left will only succeed in bringing about the downfall of financial-market capitalism if it proves capable of pursuing all three strategies, operating by means of broad alliances and approaches that are mutually reinforcing rather than in opposition to each other; when it becomes clear that reforms demand a rupture, that ‘germ cells’ cannot spread unless reforms and ruptures create the requisite conditions; when concrete experiences radiate outward and give people the strength to struggle for reforms and ruptures with utmost determination. This is the only way through which a sufficiently broad alliance can be created and the subjective and objective preconditions for a truly far-reaching transformation develop.
‘What is to be done?’ and ‘Who will do it?’ have always been the key questions for the left. Finding itself mostly on the defensive, confronted with apparently unsolvable problems, and driven by the highest aspirations for radical change, the left feels under more pressure to act than any other political force ever has. An epoch was conceived of primarily as a space of time within which to act. It is no coincidence that it was the brilliant strategist Lenin who associated, more than anyone else, Marxist designations of historical epochs16 with an immediate orientation to action: who can become active, with what goals and means, transforming, with constructive power, a possible structural break into an epochal event? For Lenin, determining the character of a particular epoch involved clarifying (1) ‘which class stands at the hub of one epoch or another,’ (2) ‘its main content, the main direction of its development,’ and (3) ‘the main characteristics of the historical situation in that epoch’.17
As Joachim Bischoff has noted, the 1970s saw the gradual emergence of a ‘finance-driven regime of accumulation,’ whose key features he characterises as follows:
The […] “new” financial regime rests on three pillars: first, the extension of a network of transnational financial institutions working outside the control of central banks and financial-market agencies; second, the rapid rise of institutional investors (property funds and insurance companies); third, the decreased importance of bank loans in comparison to the capital available on the international financial markets.18
The resulting financial-market capitalism rests on a structure that Judith Dellheim characterises as one in which capital oligarchies exercise control over all the essential technological, material, and energy processes of capital accumulation. She writes: ‘Energy, transportation, agribusiness, and the military-industrial complex, all of which are interlinked, are the greatest consumers of resources and the greatest climate/nature killers. Their dynamic is constantly reactivated by high technology and financial movements.’ This ‘destructive quartet’ together with the high-tech and financial sectors (4+2) determine, according to Dellheim, ‘society's entire production and consumption structures, its modes of production and of life’.19 The financialmarket capitalism that was gradually unleashed, from 1971 on, by the US and its ally Great Britain, is today in the midst of an organic crisis20 that finds expression in a multiple crisis.21 This crisis constitutes at once a danger and an opportunity.
Within this organic crisis of financial-market capitalism, four possible scenarios are emerging.22 These scenarios determine the spatial and temporal parameters and character of the epoch with which the left has to work.
First, there is the scenario of a neoliberal-driven ‘business as usual’ with strong authoritarian tendencies, with very different elements and approaches for dealing with the associated contradictions being experimented with at the levels of the EU and its Member States. This is currently the predominant elite consensus. Great Britain, with the importance London assumes as a financial centre within the whole economy, and Germany, with its strongly export-oriented economy, would be the main beneficiaries of such a development.
Second, we might see a systematic reinforcement of the authoritarian, repressive, and exclusionary tendencies of capitalism. The result would be a Fortress Europe with various bastions dissociating themselves from each other and competing with one another. The predominance of financemarket-driven accumulation would need to be curbed significantly. There are already clear tendencies towards such a development in some European countries. The rise of right-wing populist and nationalist forces indicates that an alliance between sections of the national elite and major segments of the population is possible.
Third, possibilities for further accumulation may be opened up precisely in the field of renewable energies and through an increase in the ecological efficiency of the mode of production, transport, and life. This becomes all the more likely if steps are taken in Asia that lead to more demand for sustainable technologies – a development Germany is hoping for. Security-policy considerations may also stimulate a turn to this kind of ‘green capitalism’.
Fourth, there are various conceptions that envision tackling the ecological and the new social issues at one and the same time, by carrying out a sociolibertarian Green New Deal. This would profoundly alter the mode of accumulation and the regulatory regime, would have to start from major redistribution, and would initiate a publicly funded and publicly supervised structural break across the whole economy. One part of this approach would be a call for a global ‘Marshall Plan’. Steps towards such a change of course are being developed by, among others, trade union representatives.
What do such assumptions and assessments mean for the left in Europe?
Here, briefly, are four points that may help in situating the current epoch as a specific space of action for the left:
First, the left is facing neither conditions of a stable type of capitalism nor those of acute systemic collapse and a foreseeable decline of capitalist-dominated social development. What it is called on to do is (1) end neoliberal ‘business as usual’ with its strong authoritarian tendencies, (2) aggressively counter the drift towards an authoritarian fortress capitalism by means of broad alliances, (3) take seriously approaches towards ecologisation such as those associated with green capitalism, to the extent that they provide opportunities for (4) promoting a development towards a socio-libertarian Green New Deal, ultimately linking it to the left’s own politics of struggling for a socio-ecological social contract, and (5) advancing a ‘green socialist’ project.23 A multi-dimensional strategy is needed, one that takes seriously the contradictions within and between the scenarios outlined, without losing sight of the ultimate socialist objective of transformation.
Second, we will have to adjust to a period of increased insecurity, as well as to the necessity of rapid changes of strategy. Up to now, extra-parliamentary and parliamentary activities have not led to resounding successes, but this may suddenly change, although it does not have to. It makes sense to be mobile and ready for multiple options at any one time. Clear basic goals are needed, but also strategic and tactical flexibility. Resistance, the development of concrete practical projects, and the search for possible alliances are three elements of such a strategy. This may, under certain circumstances, also involve antagonistic cooperation with parts of the political elite and forces of capital.
Third, it makes no sense, adopting an either-or logic, to oppose activities at the national level to activities at the EU level. The Syriza-led change of government in Greece has altered the left's conditions for action at the European level, and the power relations at the European level have also affected Greece. As André Brie already pointed out ten years ago,24 the struggle for social justice and socio-ecological conversion needs to be understood as a struggle occurring ‘within a multi-tiered political system’. Here, too, flexibility and the capacity for coordinated action across the various levels of activity are needed.
Fourth, the tendency to consider peace and security as a secondary problem needs to be resisted. The passing of the brief historical moment that was US unilateralism is a mixed blessing. It demands the transition to a new round of arms control, security-policy transparency, the renunciation of both especially dangerous offensive weapons and first-strike capability, and ultimately, disarmament – if the new situation is not to end in catastrophe. This will, however, only succeed if, in contrast to what happened in the Cold War, the concept of common security and cooperative development that was developed then is really implemented.
The utopian gap between human rights and reality has become a chasm due to the unleashing of neoliberal financial-market capitalism. Wars and migration have reached a scale unknown since 1945. The destruction of the earth’s life environment has been accelerated. Social divisions and the unrestrained accumulation of wealth have escalated. This is why transformation is once more on the agenda. Unless we initiate a genuine and lasting twofold transformation, one that socially and democratically subdues capitalism, bringing elements of socialism into our present, we risk a catastrophe worse than the one that occurred in the wake of 1933. Elements of repressive domination and barbarity are spreading. Only a twofold transformation can prevent them from becoming a new inhuman totalitarianism. Contributing to this is the task of a transformative, solidary left.