"A world is disintegrating, and this disintegration is the best thing about it"
An introduction to Rudolf Bahro
(1935 - 1997)
During his most creative years, from 1968 to 1985, Rudolf Bahro showed an unparalleled knack for glimpsing the future.
Two decades later, his jarring insights are still beyond the imagination of many.
Rudolf Bahro was born in 1935 in Bad Flinsberg, now called Swieradów Zdrój, Poland. He grew up in the chaos of World War II, losing his mother, sister and brother.
At 16, Bahro joined the East German Communist Party, and then became a journalist, party functionary, and bureaucrat.
On August 21, 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to smother the "Prague Spring" reforms. The same day, a furious Bahro decided to write a book, "a frontal attack written in blunt language without reservations."
Through the early 1970's,
Bahro pretended to work on a dissertation. He really was writing The Alternative in Eastern Europe: An analysis of actually-existing socialism.
When the book was published in West Germany in 1977, it received wide attention. Historian E. P. Thompson called the book "one of the few necessary, original, and truly significant contributions to the political thought of Europe in the post-war years."
It was as provocative as Bahro could make it, detailing something others could not see: the democratic potential within Eastern bloc nations. (And, of course, by 1990 this potential had been realized.)
Bahro was arrested in August 1977 on charges of "intelligence activity". The following June, an East German court convicted and sentenced him to eight years in prison. After an international outcry on his behalf, the East German authorities released him in October 1979, and then exiled him to West Germany.
Shortly after arriving in West Germany, he became a leader of a new group, the Green Party.
Bahro would explain later why he abandoned the left altogether at this point: "I soon recognized that it is nonsense to want to salvage and carry into a new age the pattern of any ideology originating in the industrial age."
In 1985, Bahro quit the Greens in disgust, saying, "The Greens are almost worse than useless.
They have become so much a part of the system that capitalism would have had to invent them if they weren't here already."
After his withdrawal from the Greens, Bahro investigated the spiritual dimensions of the problem at Berlin's Humboldt University, but his observations never took coherent form. In 1995, Bahro was diagnosed with cancer, and he died of it two years later.
This surveillance photo by the East German Ministry of Public Security shows Ursula Beneke, Rudi Wetzel, and Rudolf Bahro walking in East Berlin. It was taken on October 13, 1979, in the short time between Bahro's release from prison and his exile to West Germany.
The following excerpts are drawn from two
collections of writings, talks,
and interviews: From Red to
Green (Spring 1980 - Summer
1983) and Building the Green
Movement (Nov 1982 - Jun
1985). These translations from German
are not easy reading. Bahro continued
to use the lumbering style and
terminology of the left, long
after he cut himself loose from
A fundamental opposition
. . . In the richest industrially
over-developed countries of the
West, a fundamental opposition
is growing, above all in the diverse
forms of the new social movements.
It is reacting to the now clearly
and markedly self-destructive,
outwardly murderous and inwardly
suicidal character of the our
industrial civilization, and to
its institutional system which
is geared to continuing in the
same old way.
What makes this opposition fundamental is above all the fact that it throws into question both the material foundation and its counterpart in our basic attitudes which are oriented toward possessions and having. It gives expression to the ever more obvious truth that we shall only survive if we equip ourselves to live differently than we have up till now. . .
Cover of the Korean translation of "The Life and Death of Petra Kelly" founder of the German Green Party.
. . . The more it expands, the
more our industrial system is
devouring its own basis. There
is in the Federal Republic
not too little industrial production
but too much: too much consumption
of raw materials and energy, too
much production of harmful substances,
too many cars eating up materials
and belching out exhaust fumes,
too much plastic and concrete.
Federal Republic of Germany
(West Germany), created in 1949,
joined with the German Democratic
Republic (East Germany) in 1990.
. . . Here in Bremerhaven,
we unload cars from Japan and
load cars for America. The amount
of material consumed per capita
is now ten times higher than it
was in the time of Schiller,
not because individuals consumer
so much more, but because of the
massive material infrastructure
of the world market. . .
. . . This ordinary apartment
we're sitting in now requires
an incredible amount of expenditure
of materials and energy because
of the way that the infrastructure
is organized. If we wanted to
have the same thing for the whole
of humanity . . . that would mean
multiplying by twenty the madness
we have here, which would mean
total natural catastrophe. . .
is the largest German town on
the North Sea coast.
Johann Christoph Friedrich von
- 1805): German dramatist, poet,
Sending the Third World into a tunnel without an exit
Smog, New Delhi, India.
. . .The megamachine
is already destroying untold millions
of human lives in the Third World
each year, where we have for a
while diverted war, unemployment,
hunger and misery of all kinds.
To stop the industrial system
-- and first of all the military
machine it has created -- in its
tracks, here in the metropolises
where it started, is just as much
the first command of solidarity
with the most wretched of this
Earth as it is the requirement
of a reasonable self-interest.
. . . The model you have described
for overcoming poverty [that is,
more trade with the richer nations
and more industry] would send
the peoples of the Third World
into a tunnel without an exit,
because the living standard they
are aiming for is no longer achievable.
In 1830. . .the working classes of Europe still had the prospect of a bourgeois way of life. Indeed they were able to achieve something of that order because of the existence of the periphery.
But for the present periphery, there is no further periphery to be exploited, no way of attaining the good life of London, Paris, or Washington.
The imposition of our model on the Third World will just lead to the kind of situation I saw in Mexico. First, people move to the shanty-town on the edge of the city. Then the next generation can buy a run-down car, trying to reproduce what exists in the metropolis. . . This is a hopeless perspective: it won't work because the limits have already been reached. . .
|Megamachine: the economic system, government,
military, media, and culture.
Athens was the metropolis
("mother city") to its overseas colonies. Here Bahro means the advanced industrial nations.
Periphery: Countries in a subordinate
economic role to advanced industrial
. . . Apart from ecological demands
in our own country, the interests
of the exploited, poverty-stricken,
hungry and starving in the Third
World -- and even more in the
so-called Fourth World of the
absolutely poor countries -- demand
out withdrawal from the prevailing
international division of labor.
Only a reduction in economic relations
with these countries, or rather
with their "elites" in whose interest
export production takes place,
can leave room for the people
there at least to satisfy their
basic needs. . .
. . . We Greens consider it one
of our most important international
obligations to get rid of the
disastrous model of the "good
life" here at home, which lures
the rest of humanity into a tunnel
without an exit. Unless we are
prepared to dismantle and transform
our industrial system, all our
sympathy remains nothing but empty
gestures and phrases. . .
. . . If you are left, anti-imperialist,
green or whatever else in a right-wing
country, you can focus on what
we should do with the 0.7% [of
GNP devoted to foreign aid] and
how you can prevent the ruling
power from direct interventions
of a military kind. But by doing
that you will change nothing in
the total process of reproduction
here which causes this peripheralization
and causes the interventions.
So that question is whether there
is not time and again in this
Third World solidarity an escapism
in order actually to avoid making
a radical decision for the center.
Two classes on a merry-go-round
. .What used to be called proletariat
and capital. . .are both industrial
classes which hold us fast on
this merry-go-round. . . One must
understand this as a system where
in practice class struggles, as
you can see empirically, have
only served to move the system
further in its own direction.
. .I think it has become very
doubtful that the proletariat within bourgeois society will
be the bearer or the subject of the new society. At the end of
the capitalist formation, the problem is not the abolition of
the bourgeois class but the dissolution
of the whole formation constituted
by wage-labor and capital. . .The
confrontation of wage-labor and
capital is not the mechanism of
this dissolution. Such confrontation
does not exist. Without the support
of the metropolitan working class,
colonialism would not behave been
possible, and it is the position
and strength of the trade unions
which have given stability to
the whole system here. It is the
industrial system itself which
is about to undo us -- not the
bourgeois class but the system
as a whole in which the working
class plays the role of housewife.
It would therefore be a most inappropriate
strategy for survival to appeal
to the interests of the working
class. . .
|Proletariat: The class of wage laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live.
Capital, bourgeoisie: The class of capitalists, owners of the means of production and employers of wage labor.
. . . Even if the lords of capitalism
were really in control of things
in the past -- and there are good
reasons for doubting this -- there
is today no one who can be held
subjectively responsible, no class
whose mere removal would break
the vicious circle . . The great
revolutions were not the direct
product simple of an overarching
class contradiction, but stemmed
from a general crisis in the culture
of the time which brought great
pressure to bear on the individual's
human dignity and essence. . .
. .What made poverty bearable in 18th or 19th century Europe was the prospect of escaping it
through exploitation of the periphery. But this is no longer a possibility and continued industrialism in the Third World will mean poverty for whole generations and hunger
for millions. The perspective of proletarianizing humanity is a horrific vision. The problem
for humanity is how to put an end to this industrial-capitalist formation as a whole. I no longer ask the workers to expropriate the capitalists because that won't work. The radicalism required for this task does not exist in the metropolis. They have more to lose than their chains, much more. And so, the message to the capitalists, but especially to the workers, the wage-earners in the widest sense, is that they must climb out of this vicious circle. . .
. .It's simply a case of the total
formation collapsing. The Marxist
hypothesis was that one of the classes
within the formation, the second
industrial class, will displace
it. In reality, even the genesis
of capitalist society was not
brought about simply by the bourgeoisie.
This bipolar formation arose as
one of bourgeoisie, towns and
free workers, and it is this formation
as a whole which is being demolished,
which must be demolished. . .
'Their chains' refers to the last lines of the Communist Manifesto: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win." Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (1848)
. .Anyone who with regard to the
transition from one social formation
to another, even from one civilization
to another, remains fixed on the
resistance of class interest --
which certainly should not be
denied its relative weight --
only shows that they have not
idea at all of how a dissolution
of such total structures can come
about. Especially since never yet
in history has the subordinate
class of a dying social formation
or civilization victoriously founded
In such times of
world-historic transition, particular
class and strata interests are
more likely to be negative and
retarding factors, working together
towards the common ruin of the
parties in struggle. The differentiation
between the creative forces and
the forces of inertia does not
take place economically or sociologically,
but rather psychologically and
in the last instance religiously.
. .Marx was fundamentally wrong
in assuming that the problems
of humanity would be solved by
working-class revolution in the
most developed capitalist countries.
Rather those were right who said
very early on that the working
classes were imperialist. . .
The lower classes in Greece always
had their class differences with
the oligarchy, with the Polis.
Yet there was always a political
consensus that Athens should remain
the spider in the web. The class
opposition was always relative
and subordinate to the shared
interest that the cake in Athens
should be as big as possible.
It was the same in Rome and it
has become the same again now
There was a time when the world market wasn't a daily reality around the globe, when attention could be given to the internal contradictions within Europe itself. That is why the Paris Commune was possible. However, it is now a simple fact, and not a moral criticism, that workers in the metropolis have become the companions or fellow-travelers of capital. . .
Paris Commune: In 1871, Parisian artisans and workers took over the city and established a popular government. A French army seige crushed the Commune after 72 days.
. . .Q: Do the actual organizations
of the working-class have no
role to play in the campaign
to make the Green program a
My attitude is that we should
look positively on the disintegration
of the those organizations.
It is not our task to destroy
them or anything like that,
nor is it our job to help to
restabilize them. I don't want
human energy wasted on a dying
problem. I want to break through
this whole discourse. The political
conceptions of the labor movement
must disappear, and the human
energies that have sought emancipation
by this route must be redirected
along another path. . .
. .Even the institutions of the
left are among the things that
have to be overcome. . .They all
want to solve the old questions.
. .Of course, political activity
by the Greens and the eco-peace
movement among trade unionists
is a different question. We already
do this and we must take advantage
of every opportunity. . .
Perhaps work isn't the most
important thing after all
. .The crucial point, however,
is that unemployment no longer
causes the same hopelessness that
it did twenty years ago . . .
Unemployment is not just a crisis
of need, then or now, but a crisis
of identity for the individual.
The immediate impression is that,
out of work, you are a nobody.
But, according to social workers
involved in this field, many young
people begin to feel after a few
months, or maybe half a year,
that perhaps work isn't the most
important thing after all, that
it is necessary to rediscover
themselves, make a new circle
of friends, and so on. Among at
least half of the younger generation
today, the search for identity
through a career is definitely
on the decline. . .
|. . .Take, for example, the woman bank clerk who. . . has at the age of 40 no longer any prospect of getting back into a job. During the first few months that she's dealing with the problem of no longer being a proper person because she hasn't got a proper job, we might try to convince her that if she makes a great effort and if we struggle hard she can get back behind her counter again. But we could also try to handle this psychological crisis in such a way as to make her think: "To hell with it, what would the next thirty years of my life have been like? What would have been the point of everything continuing in the same old way, at work and at home? And our marriage is really boring, too. Isn't there a chance of building another way of life?". . .
. . Our main concerns cannot be
the old questions of capitalist
politics: whether pensions are
adequate, whether mothers should
draw a child allowance and so
on . . . We must use our strength
for something else: to be the
instrument of a new orientation
beyond the conflicts of supply-and-demand
politics. . . We must also explain
that is it impossible to get rid
of capitalism and emerge from
the crisis while holding on to
the welfare state that has been
built up from the time of Bismarck.
Doing away with the welfare state
is not, of course, the first task.
Unemployment can only be an opportunity
if you don't have to go begging
the next day, if you can devote
time over the next six months
to thinking about fundamental
questions: Am I a proper human
being only when I stand on the
assembly line? Do I have to go
back to that?. . .
Otto von Bismarck
(1815 - 1898) was the founder
of both the German empire and
the German welfare state.
. . In our view the present crisis,
which we see not least as a crisis
of industrial society, a society
of labor and achievement, must
be used to detach the question
of an income, a secure basis of
life for everybody, from the compulsion
to wage-labor for the world market.
It is not our aim to give everybody
back "wages and bread". It is
rather a case of reducing the
expenditure of labor -- wage-labor
for the anonymous market -- far
beyond the extent of the present
restructuring which is taking
place in the interest of profit.
There is not too little work but
still too much. . .
|. . .With regard to our policy on working hours, we will support everything which minimizes the amount of work as a whole, i.e. cuts down relatively on work; and above all relaxes time structures in every respect so as to increase the freedom of individual to do what they want with their own time. . .
A change in the political landscape
. . . The social process is moving towards a qualitative leap in the public consciousness. For that we must establish the opposite camp. It is precisely our pressure from an Archimedean point outside the previous world of ideas that can effect a change in the political landscape. . .
||"Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth." -- Archimedes (287-212 BC).
. . . The choice, as I see it, is between the more or less peaceful dismantling of the huge structures we have built, and the collapse of the whole system. . .
-- and our groups concern themselves
with very little else -- means
that we try to make the dragon's
armor-plating a little lighter,
to clean his teeth and deodorize
his bad breath and sort his excrement.
If he is still not purring like
a cat, that's only because of
our still somewhat unaccustomed
ways. In Leverkusen,
where the dragon has the Bayer
cross on his coat of arms, he
will contemplate his new Green
deputy mayor for awhile and then
he will feel at ease and get to
appreciate the service. For a
while the fools among the parliamentarians
he keeps will get worked up over
how we want to change the system,
while we meantime proffer our
services as teeth-cleaners. . .
||Realpolitik: Practical politics; it connotes
amoral short-term expediency.
Bayer's world headquarters is
. . . Insofar as we abide by the rules [in the German parliament], in however "alternative" a way, we are participating in nothing more than a pseudo-ecological general overhaul of the "German model". Maybe we'll still manage to save part of the German forests and so on, that this things which reassure the population, so that in principle we can still preserve here a model which is in fact insupportable for humanity as a whole. As long as we are zealously participating in various legislative initiatives, nothing more can happen. That is, we become an instrument of relief, and even in some respects a final injection for the sick patient. . .
. . . The policy of curing mass
unemployment by boosting economic
growth, as proclaimed by all the
established parties, is illusory,
misleading, and disastrous in
its effect on living conditions
and the environment. Have not
the investments of yesterday ensured
the unemployment of today? Today's
investment will drive tomorrow's
unemployment figures sky-high,
since for the greater part, they
serve to replace human work by
machines. At the same time the
working conditions of those still
employed are deteriorating as
a result of rationalization: as
the mad rush for work increase,
so do monotony, and the devaluation
of stills and the strain on health.
Meanwhile, control over the actual
work process decreases and creative
ability is driven out. . .
|. . . The moves that have so far been made to change the course of our development do not seem to go to the heart of the problem -- the Lucas Aerospace experiment, for example. The end results always seems to be: we want to go on producing in the same way, only we'll produce more useful things. The question of changing the reproduction process itself is never raised. People say I'm a bricklayer, or a draftsman, or an engineer, as if this were a natural form of existence rather than the expression of a given set of historical circumstances. It is as if men at an earlier stage had said: We are hunters and want to remain hunters, instead of passing on to agriculture. . .
||In the 1970's, workers at Lucas Aerospace in England proposed that the firm change its product lines from military to civilian goods.
|. . .Consider what has happened in the course of the last hundred years: such a multiplication of productivity and such a small reduction in working hours. We are chasing ourselves to death in the superstructure, the auxiliary sectors, the repairs field, the state machine, the bureaucracy, militarism, and so on. We are putting so much work into it. If we were only to apply the currently possible level of labor productivity to smaller contexts and stop building the big machines, the war machines and everything relating to government palaces, everything connected with maintaining the structure as it is now, then we could manage with considerably reduced material expenditure. . .
||Superstructure: social forms other than the economy, such as politics and culture, that are conditioned by the economic base.
Auxiliary sectors: Private sector workers whose jobs aren't classified within a particular industry.
|. . .We need a Great Moratorium on any kind of expansionist investments of the old type and a critique of all products and conditions of labor. Even so-called 'investments in the future' must be examined to determine whether they too do not only serve to facilitate the breakthrough to a new thrust of industrialization and to build a new story onto the industrial system -- for example, in the form of expanded large-scale production for environmental protection. . .
|. . . For us, the creation of new jobs is not our actual goal even where the restructuring of the economy will in fact lead to that. For us the main point is to withdraw investments and the deployment of human energies from all large-scale projects whatsoever. If we decentralize the work process and make the units smaller, what will come about in the first place are not new jobs but new conditions of life, though decentralization as a rule creates jobs and working conditions more worthy of human beings than those in large-scale production. . .
|. . .The greater part of the infrastructure and production we have now doesn't actually deserve to be replaced. Do you realize that we shouldn't really be providing for amortization but should for example let the motorways fall into decay, one after another. . .
. . People will then ask us how
our economy is to maintain its
position against international
competition, where it is, after
all, dependent to the highest
degree on imports and exports.
Our reply is that we want to withdraw
from the world market and believe
that as a result our standard
of living will not qualitatively
deteriorate but will be qualitatively
changed. . .
|. . .a parable play by Friedreich Durrenmatt shows the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, in the middle of his flock of chickens. His sycophants are besieging him, begging him to dedicate himself to the affairs of government, above all to military matters. For the leader of the Germanii, Odoacer, is before the gates. Meanwhile, the emperor remains stupidly inactive. In the end, it turns out that he only took on the office in the beginning so that nobody else could cause any harm by doing something. For he came to power with the understanding that Rome was not worth defending.
Our actual fundamentalist duty is to nurture in every person we meet in the institutions the mentality of the stage emperor Romulus Augustus. Anyone among us who wants to create an up-to-date plan for overall repair, which means quite automatically a solution in the grand style from above, presupposing a well-oiled state, has not understood at all that a world is disintegrating, that this disintegration is the best thing about it, and that we must say "Yes" to it and assist it as far as possible. Let us distribute as much as we can out of the coffers of military and industrial armaments, rationalization and modernization. . . instead of sour-faced help with the restoration of bankrupt and anachronistic industries. . .
Coin bearing the image of Romulus Augustus, who was emperor from October 475 to September 476 AD.
Odoacer (435 - 493 AD): leader of the rebel Germanic mercenaries in the Roman imperial army; he overthrew Romulus Augustus and ended the Roman Empire.
|. . .I am in favor of a peaceful transition. . . without war, without external aggression, without conflict over scarce natural resources. I see no need to destroy the institutional structure, and I want to get away from the terminology of violence. I think of the process as one of dissolution, passive from the point of view of the subject of this dissolution. We don't go in and disband something, we allow it to disintegrate by withdrawing our energy from the system as such. . .
|. . .Q: It is still not clear what meaning you attach to the concept of 'industrial disarmament' or how you think it can be put across to the people at large.
My experience in the Bundesrepublik has convinced me that there would have been no ecology movement at all if people had first stopped to ask the question you are asking now. Nobody has yet given a precise answer, and yet the movement has come into existence. It is in general wrong to believe that social change can only be achieved if people have first been given a scientific explanation of what precisely can be done. . .
Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Federal Republic of Germany.