Ernest Mandel

East German Communist
Denounces Bureaucracy
Rudolf Bahro’s The Alternative

(September 1977)

From Inprecor, No. 13, new series, 29 September 1977, pp. 3–10.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Alternative 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 and undeniable.

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 European countries?

A good Marxist, Bahro answers the first question with a categorical “No.” And his answer to the second goes directly to the root of the problem.

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. Non-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 reality.

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 labor.”

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 society).

It is not the privileges that produce the monopoly, but the monopoly that secretes the privileges. We 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 works).

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 privilege.

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 presocialist).

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 thought. A “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-Dühring 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 brilliant. Many 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)


“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 political revolution

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 “alternative”:

  1. 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)
  2. 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]
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 “technological innovation,” which should be subordinated to saving time for producers and genuinely improving the quality of life for consumers. (pp. 512–513)
  6. 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)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 beings. Most important, their realization is an indispensable precondition for saving the human race from destruction of material civilization and a new fall into barbarism.

A refreshing “worldwide” vision

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 bottom.

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 analysis. We 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 victories.

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.

Bahro’s essential 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 accumulation.” But 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 socio-economic 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 conclusions. This 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 necessary systemization.

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 Communist passion.

Three programmatic ambiguities

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 that far)

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 political bureaucracy?

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 conditions. But 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 solve it.

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 bureaucracy. Nor 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 variants? Rank-and-file 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.

Criticizing Lenin’s 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!

September 20, 1977


1. Rudolf Bahro, Die Alternative – Zur Kritik des realexistierenden Sozialismus, Europaische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt 1977.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Last updated on 3.7.2013