Socialism in the German Democratic Republic

by Robert Steigerwald*

Dear X,

I am writing on the day after the Berlin elections and you can imagine how I feel. In East Berlin, the old capital city of the GDR, the elections brought the PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism, successor to the East German Socialist Unity Party] 36 per cent of the vote, making it by far the strongest party in the city. The Social Democrats [SPD] suffered heavy losses. Citywide they have formed a coalition with the Christian Democratic Union, which had carried out a campaign against them in the style of Joseph Goebbels. The SPD and the Greens were right when they talked about a “poisoning of the well.” The Social Democrats are once more prisoners of their own anti-communism. The imitators of Goebbels gloat as the SPD again turns to them to form a coalition, the only proper move when one “must bear responsibility.”

But now let’s turn to matters that concern us.

I had promised to comment on your text and my concerns have to do with your conclusion that the GDR was not socialist, but rather had socialist elements.

I think that we have no disagreements in respect to questions concerning:

– the severe damage done to the fundamentals of socialist democracy,

– the lack of self criticism (a flaw that also applies to us because we [i.e., formerly West German Communists] would probably have acted little differently under similar circumstances!),

– the glossing over of real problems instead of naming them and thus following the pattern of Honecker’s dictum that any difficulties would be “overcome by moving forward”,

– the perversion of the performance principle,

– the practice of self-deceit in the face of knowledge about impending economic bankruptcy (meanwhile it’s been documented that they knew!),

– the disregard for achievements in many scientific areas (not only outside of the country, much was also achieved in the sciences within the GDR itself).

The list could be extended, we both know that.

Although they were extremely important, I have intentionally avoided talking about external factors here. It would be ridiculous to credit the enemy with having thrown sand in the socialist engine!

But when it comes to the central question of whether the GDR was socialist or not, I do not agree with you.

I have often wondered what the decisive, primary criterion would be to call a system socialist, and I have come to the conclusion that it is a question of whether the socially produced surplus product – in its mass – is socially appropriated and not transformed into capital. Grouped around this primary criterion are other ones relating to state power, democracy, the concrete form of the property question, and the performance principle. But, as we both know, historically concrete situations are possible (and have occurred), where the formation of such derived criteria in no way parallels our cherished notions. That such objectively forced limitations continued to exist even after their bases had ceased to do so or no longer existed in their old manner, is naturally a point of criticism that speaks to the question of the deformation of the system. The dialectic of the relation between the primary and derived criteria makes it possible for a system to lose its socialist character in the face of the most serious deformations. By way of example: if a leadership clique seriously endangers the largely social appropriation of the socially produced surplus product.

But was that the case in the GDR? To point to the economic and social privileges of the Nomenklatura would be inappropriate. Certainly there was much to condemn from the standpoint of communist morality, but we all know that the arguments of our opponents — to which some of us succumbed concerning huge accumulations of wealth, amount to nothing more than agitation. No manager of a medium-sized enterprise in the West would live in a Wandlitz house [Wandlitz is a small suburb to the north of Berlin where the members of the Politburo lived in single-family houses]. In general the issue here is one of revenue. Marx did not tie the problem of exploitation to revenue.

To push the question further would be to ask from where the GDR – which had an economy in difficult straits – was able to derive the considerable means for its social measures, which you mention as socialist elements.

That the most serious sins were committed in the sphere of infrastructure and urban construction measures was a question of establishing (correctly or incorrectly) priorities.

On other matters, such as the tremendous burden of armaments, the burdens of COMECON, certain aspects of Soviet treatment of the GDR, major contributions to international solidarity (e.g., Vietnam, Cuba and other countries afflicted by imperialism, especially that of the United States) we do not need to argue.

If the system that was basically constructed in the GDR only differentiated itself from local conditions through a couple of social Band-Aids, then for the whole real left, including the Communists, there was no real reason to regard this as a defeat.

I would like to advance one last argument that does not concern the GDR alone. Why did the whole imperialist system combine all its ideological, economical, political, and military power to sweep away a system that, if I take your judgment as a basis, in its essentials differed hardly at all from itself?

I know that you consistently point out that the democracy question may not be viewed as one derived from socio-economic relations. You also gleefully refer to the passage in the Communist Manifesto, “We aim for a social order in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” But I ask you to consider the following.

First, the quotation from the Manifesto is preceded by a passage containing its prerequisite. There the conditions are named that make such a free development possible, namely the sweeping away of the relations of production that make classes and class domination possible. If one leaves out these conditions, then all that is left is a future society that has no material social basis, like a human without a belly. In addition, the citation concerns communism and not socialism. And in that regard Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) is also important. That work contains a beautiful description of communism and socialism, but also a sober explanation of how much water will first have to be poured in our future wine.

With respect to separating the socio-economic basis and democratic-social conditions, I also think that such a separation means abandoning the conception of a socio-economic formation and, furthermore, the materialist conception of history itself.

I am sure our discussion will continue, but we old fighting cocks have never shrunk back from an altercation,

In solidarity,



* - Robert Steigerwald is leading theoretician of the German Communist Party (DKP)

Spark! #9, pgs. 16-18