Is democratic socialism morally wrong

Socialism and Accountability

History teaches us nothing, claimed the SPD chairwoman Andrea Nahles, to justify why she wanted to hire the Historical Commission of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Rosa Luxemburg took the opposite position a long time ago: "History is the only true teacher." (GW 4: 480). Perhaps, in fact, history does not teach us how to act in this situation now. That applies in general, it also applies very specifically. Weren't we convinced that the tradition of critical analysis of fascism would give us the concepts to resist developments in capitalist society that tend towards the erosion of democracy, towards authoritarian and exceptional forms of state that drastically worsen the perspective of emancipation? That we, armed with this knowledge, with all the "coming to terms with the past" would be better able to resist and pull the ground off the right? It doesn't seem like that. But history teaches us something much more fundamental, namely that our present is the present of a story, that in this present the struggles of the past and the missed opportunities are condensed in a special way. It is not about a question: "What would have happened if ...?", But about concrete decisions, about victories and defeats, about real alternatives. It also teaches that decisions once made actually result in long-term development paths.

Our present is the present of a story

This history of our present includes the many efforts aimed at the realization of socialism, which have often turned out to be wrong and pointless, which have failed or been put down. What is associated with this name is now considered to be historically consumed, obsolete or discredited due to these earlier efforts. There are several reasons for this. Socialism was associated with practices that contradicted and discredited socialism's claim to emancipation. In many cases it is doubtful that those who acted and spoke in the name of socialist goals were pursuing more than just egoistic interests of individual functionaries. But it would be a mistaken consolation to think that only a good idea in itself has been misused here.

Indeed, the ideas and concepts of socialism are the subject of discussion and struggle. Understood in this way, there is no a priori valid definition of socialism, but many suggestions for defining it. In many cases, the term encompassed particular social groups who for the moment could quite rightly believe that they embody the general public and who did not understand that the concept of socialism, in whose name they acted, was a compromise that only occurred in a certain boom of Many was worn. They wanted to hold onto this moment and this generality, to enforce stability, could not take account of the change in the social constellation, spoke of deviations or pathologized the critics where there were different ways of life and perspectives or even contradictions. In this way, socialism was not an open, free social organization of coexistence, but was still limited to certain social groups and their life contexts (certain groups of industrial workers, special modes of operation, for example large-scale factories in urban regions, and related forms of work organization) that claimed the general public.

According to the claim, socialism is the social form in which the contradictions are consciously lived and worked on. That is why Karl Korsch was able to speak of the fact that socialist society makes higher demands on the processing of contradictions, i.e. is actually more complex than the capitalist form of socialization, because it no longer denies the contradictions and relocates them to anonymous social processes - so the conflict between consumers * inside and producers * about products and product quantities, about working hours or shares in the total product, about ecological consequences or about qualifications. This is Marx's special contribution to the socialist tradition of taking the objectivity of contradictions seriously, emphasizing them and understanding them, but not glossing over them in a moralizing way, defining them with general public claims or suppressing them with administrative means. If there are differences and contradictions between the generality claim and the various social groups, their interests and needs, then forms are required to convey the contradictions and tensions between the general and the particular. The process in which that happens is democracy. These are regulated procedures in which individuals argue about what can be considered general in a specific case. Negotiations on the general concern the direction of development of society as a whole. This can include everything: the products, the work processes, the education and qualification processes, the forms of housing and settlement, the diet, the gender and family division of labor. The state socialisms have not tried enough or have not succeeded in regulating these processes of harmonizing general and many particular interests in a democratic way. Although the socialist states saw themselves as democratic people's republics, hardly any democratic processes of mediating interests were set in motion. It was admittedly in many cases to parliaments and parties. But the inner logic of this political form was blocked in order to preserve the monopoly of power of the communist or socialist parties: the general was not the subject of an open discussion, but was subject to the defining power of the leading party of the working class. The workers did not make the decisions that affected them. Other forms of democratic coordination, as discussed again and again in the history of the socialist movement and which would have enabled the concrete workers * and the many members of society to participate in defining the general, were not tried out.

The bourgeois class can express its internal differences by dividing power among several competing parties and political institutions. A conception to restrict political power - what Michel Foucault described as a socialist art of government and governmentality - has so far hardly developed the left. That is quite a moment of their defeat. Because when it comes to bundling many different groups and interests under one concept of common good, then it is also necessary that all those involved know how they can break out of this alliance without this being detrimental to them. You have to anticipate this and be able to expect to be able to bring out a modified, perhaps even different, concept of the general.

No capitalism without socialism

When it is said that socialism has been discredited, it is a peculiar statement. For socialism belongs to the deep layers of modern society itself. There is no modern society based on a capitalist mode of production without socialism. This society cannot be divided into an objective reality here and then different ideologies and political currents there, which would then include liberalism and conservatism as well as socialism and which, after being embarrassed, can simply be dropped. Even if there may have been socialisms before modern socialism - just as there was class rule and the appropriation of the surplus product by those who did not produce it - it was only constituted in modern capitalist society and in multiple disputes. It is a moment in the real movement of this society, so it is not a value, not a norm that somehow externally adds to a given reality. Socialism is the name given to those internal tendencies in capitalist society in order to solve the great problems of social development. These major problems are historically new in this form, since only with capitalism can humanity observe and understand itself as a collective actor. People can make the appropriation of nature and the disturbance of the metabolism the object of the analysis - they know exactly about schools of fish, oil stocks, the extent of rainforests or the number of whales. They can understand that economic crises that lead to unemployment, hunger or migration are not due to unexpected natural processes such as a bad harvest, but are caused by themselves; the inequality and disparities in education and skills are. Humanity knows about genocides, global human trafficking, the approximate number of slaves and sexual violence. Each of these major problems calls for concrete solutions and insists that there are not only incremental improvements here and there, but that the problems are "overtaken", so that solutions do not have to be sought any further because the problems have simply become superfluous , so in the end it just doesn't happen anymore.

No liberation without overcoming wage labor

Why summarize all these efforts under the one name "socialism"? For historical reasons - so as not to block access to all those experiences and efforts for emancipation; in order not to remain naive about all the decisions that have led to the present and which have all contributed to making people better and worse at the same time. But also because socialism refers to a special moment in modern history, the keystone of the whole that holds everything together, because it is constitutively at the beginning of the constellation of the modern, capitalist way of life: wage labor that allows it, in a special way the historical to generate special forms of social wealth - money, goods, means of production, company shares, assets, real estate. The wage form is the social form that makes it possible to reproduce all other forms of exploitation and domination. Without changing these forms, the change in capitalist conditions is also inconceivable - that is, without overcoming wage labor, i.e. the fact that human labor is a commodity that has to be formed for the labor market and must strive there at market prices to find someone who has a need for this product. With all the risks for the individual, to remain without work and income, to earn too little or to ruin one's own work capacity and be deprived of the enjoyment of one's own life.

The socialist project bears responsibility and must account for what is tried in its name and what fails. This does not apply to capitalism.

If socialism appears to be discredited today, it is a defeat. Given the fact, the question arises why anyone is happy that this is so. Because then, strictly speaking, the Enlightenment project itself failed. Because the point is that people find the courage to free themselves from their self-inflicted immaturity, i.e. from relationships that they create through their own actions and that they confronts them with the same problems again and again and at an ever higher level. Everything is progressing, except the whole thing, is how Adorno describes this circumstance. Indeed, there is something malicious about the criticism of socialism and it fails to recognize its historical significance. One of its decisive features is the claim to rationality. The contradictions that permeate coexistence can openly come into play and be avoided or overcome through conscious processing or converted into differences and otherness. On the basis of this claim to rationality, all errors, all contradictions, all dysfunctions can be attributed to socialism that arise during a transformation of the social way of life. This transformation is confronted with extreme non-simultaneity: These concern the level of knowledge and education of individuals, their needs, regional developments, the level of production and services, ecological destruction as well as the creation of new, rational metabolisms. The time horizon of socialist transformation extends much further than is the case in capitalist processes: This applies both to the past and to the much wider future. The socialist project bears responsibility and must account for what is tried and what fails in its name. This does not apply to capitalism. It is true that a left and socialist social criticism tries to attribute many of the social problems to capitalism. But that does not succeed easily; and not because there are numerous intellectuals who fight against such imputation, who are involved in preventing the formation of such an "empty signifier" in which symbolically violence, wars and genocides, the annihilation of human life, and exploitation , the ecological catastrophes, the sexist and racist devaluation of people as the absolutely antagonistic and morally condemnable is condensed. Rather, the defenders of capitalism assert the complexity of this society. In this case, this means that the evils are not immediately attributable. Nobody appears to be responsible for the melting of the glaciers and the polar ice caps - or if they do, then all of us. When it comes to explaining the causes, everything seems to dissolve into many details: fossil energy and the related industry, agriculture, the automotive industry, container and cruise ships. Everything appears to be fragmented, unplanned, random, uncoordinated - the trans-intentional result of multifaceted chains of action for which there is no cause itself. Anyone who tries to name the causes and actors appears to be sub-complex or even oriented towards conspiracy theory. But the processes are internally linked, are coordinated, complement each other based on the division of labor and form a constellation. But the capitalist process of reproduction appears as an anonymous systemic process for which everyone and nobody and perhaps even the majority, i.e. the subaltern, are responsible.

In the socialist tradition, it was particularly the achievement of Marx to take this point of view seriously. Although, in view of liberal ideas of equality and freedom, of autonomy and legal will, a moral criticism of capital owners is entirely plausible and is repeatedly put forward, Marx emphasizes on the other hand that individual entrepreneurs, capital owners or politicians should not be made moral reproaches. It is precisely the irresponsibility of social processes that gives rise to pressing for a transformation of the overall context - in a direction that everyone consciously shapes this context. With his considerations, however, Marx was also able to make it clear that anonymity is by no means so anonymous and that there are already different degrees of freedom in bourgeois, capitalist society. The bourgeois class can shape capitalist conditions to a far greater extent, design itself as a social group along these conditions, which it is constantly redesigning, and maintain and change the conditions in their favor than people who do not have capital ownership and can do Do not find access to the bourgeois consensus rounds such as the World Economic Forum, do not determine public opinion through their media and their culture industry, do not participate in political decisions, but above all objects of administration and useful instruments for enrichment are fewer and fewer It is a feature of developed modern rule that the wealth of the rich and the power of the mighty appear as the by-product of the implementation of functional constraints for the benefit of all. Only complex conceptual abstractions and statistical studies illuminate the systematic relationships.

Failure: A moment in a process of change

Can there be a defeat and failure of socialism at all? In her last text, written after the January uprising in 1919 and shortly before her murder, Rosa Luxemburg answered this question in the negative. The whole path of socialism is littered with defeats, writes Luxemburg (GS 4: 536f). That would have to be considered further. For them, however, it is strangely not a tragic circumstance in the sense of a compelling logic that necessarily leads to hopelessness. The historical course is driven from the negative side.Defeat is everything that still does not contribute to a change in conditions in the sense of a change in the mode of production. Victory is therefore by no means the triumphant victory in a battle, as is sometimes imagined, but the process of establishing a free organization of cooperation, the elements of which are always present. In this respect, a historical failure is always a moment in a process of increasing understanding and shaping of the situation. This enables the freedom of others, more individuation, the free development of each person through the freedom of all others, i.e. a kind of positive increase in freedom, not a zero-sum game of freedom, as liberalism imagines, according to which the freedom of freedom of one person can only be at the expense of other people. Such a socialist idea of ​​freedom is only conceivable on the basis of cooperation. Because only in cooperation, i.e. under conditions of a differentiated division of labor, individuals can achieve more and greater things than they would ever be able to do on their own.


Alex Demirović, Associate professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, is a Senior Fellow of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Foundation.