"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 Świeradów-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.
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 its ideas.
A fundamental opposition is growing
. . . 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. . .
|. . . 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. . .
|The 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. . .
Sending the Third World into a tunnel without an exit
|. . .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.
|. . . 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 another world.
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 in Europe
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 reality?
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?. . .
Chancellor 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. . .
|. . . 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. . .
|. . .Realpolitik -- 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. . .
|. . . . 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. . .
|. . .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. . .
|. . .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. . .
|. . .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. . .