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New Left Review I/158, July-August 1986


Frieder Otto Wolf

Eco-Socialist Transition on the Threshold of the 21st Century

It has become difficult to speak about socialism without some words of explanation. What are we talking about? How are we to justify our theses? [*] I take it as an established result of much theoretical debate that socialism is not a state of affairs (that is, neither a utopian ‘final state of history’ nor a historical form of society in its own right) but rather a process of transition. [1] See, inter alia, Louis Althusser, ‘On the Twenty-Second Congress of the French Communist Party’, New Left Review 104, July–August 1977, pp. 14–16; Etienne Balibar, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, NLB, London 1977, pp. 124–53. If, however, it is correct that there is no end that we can somehow anticipate, and if there is no ‘subject of history’ but only ‘subjects in history’, then a methodological justification has to be provided for referring to ‘socialist transition’ at all, in some rather distant future. To put it bluntly, a materialist notion of present societal ‘contradictions’ implies three possible ‘forms of motion’: reproduction, catastrophe and—here we are—transition. Rather than centre discussion on the question ‘transition to what?’, I therefore propose to focus on ‘transition out of what?’ In this perspective, to discuss socialism is a specific way of analysing our concrete situation with a view to long-term strategic considerations of political struggle. Let us first assume that there is more than one societal contradiction and that their multiplicity cannot be reduced to some objective hierarchy. It then follows that the widely felt need to qualify one’s commitment to socialism by talking of ‘democratic’ or ‘real’ socialism is not merely a political expedient to avoid being taken for ‘one of them’—Bolsheviks, Social Democrats or whatever. It is actually a theoretical prerequisite. For it is necessary to explain how one expects to articulate ‘socialism’—fundamentally, a form of transition related to the inherent contradiction of the capitalist mode of production—and other such contradictions and forms of transition (for example, ‘women’s liberation’ as the form of transition related to ‘patriarchal sexism’).

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