‘Communism is not only necessary, it is also possible.’ The quiet words carry a major historical irony. For what has now to be proved, before an informed and sceptical audience, is indeed possibility. And this not only in the reckoning of strategic or tactical chances, which in these dangerous years carry as much fear as hope. Where the proof really matters is at another level, where intention and consequence, desire and necessity, possibility and practice, have already bloodily interacted. Thus we are no longer in any position to cry great names or announce necessary laws, and expect to be believed. The information and the scepticism are already too thoroughly lodged at the back of our own minds. Strategy and tactics can still be played from the front, but the greatest unknown quantity in any of their moves is again possibility. The condition of shifting any of it beyond the parameters of a desperate game is possibility in the hardest sense: not whether a new human order might, in struggle, come through, but whether, as a condition of that struggle, and as the entire condition of its success, enough of us can reasonably believe that a new human order is seriously possible.

It has, after all, been widely believed before. It has, nevertheless, been widely believed. We can choose either of these ways of putting it, without much effect. The tenses of past and of an implied present lead us only into known conditions and known difficulties. Yet with most future tenses now comes at best a familiar scepticism, at worst a conventional hopelessness. Possibility seriously considered, is different. It is not what with luck might happen. It is what we can believe in enough to want, and then, by active wanting, make possible. Specifically, for socialists, after defeats and failures, and both within and after certain profound disillusions, it is not recovery or return but direct, practical possibility. Of course not practical or possible within the reduced terms of the existing order: possibility as a resignation to limits. Possibility, rather, as a different order, which no longer from simple assumptions, or from known discontents and negations, but on our own responsibility, in an actual world, we must prove.

The quiet words come at the end of Rudolf Bahro’s important book, The Alternative in Eastern Europe.footnote1 Their full effect depends on their position, for what is most remarkable about Bahro’s work is that while its first part covers familiar ground, in an analysis of ‘the non-capitalist road to industrial society’, and its second part important ground, in an ‘anatomy of actually existing’ socialist societies, its third part, over two hundred pages, begins from an insistence that ‘today utopian thought has a new necessity’ and yet proceeds to something very unlike utopianism, indeed to a relatively detailed outline of a practical and possible communist society.

It is a very significant moment in socialist thought. We can fall back on the irony that, within a nominally socialist or communist society, its author was at once put in prison. This is an irony which cannot be compounded by the success of the book in the West, in the spirit of that romantic notion which Brecht identified with Galileo’s Discorsi crossing the frontier in a closed coach. The fact is that either in Eastern or Western Europe, of course under different local conditions, the challenge which Bahro is making must immediately encounter and engage—for that is its whole purpose—the fixed institutional and ideological habits of ‘actually existing socialism’. Bahro chose this awkward phrase, after much hesitation, to describe the non-capitalist societies of Eastern Europe. But it has also to be applied, again noting our different conditions, to the institutions, ideologies and programmes of majority West European socialism, including its Communist Parties. It makes an important difference that our comrades in Eastern Europe are not, like us, confronting an entrenched and still powerful capitalist order. It means that they can look, already, along a different road. Yet in practice, like us, only look. Any actual generation of effective possibility faces as many, if different, obstacles, on either side of the line. But then at the same time it is true that effective movement, anywhere, will assist every other struggle.

This possible community of purpose, through what is certain to be a long, difficult and uneven effort, is the most heartening effect of Bahro’s work. It is already significant that it allows us to move beyond the defensive, qualified solidarity with what has been defined, in Eastern Europe, as dissidence; to move beyond it, moreover, by distancing ourselves, in a more specific solidarity, from the anticommunism which can so readily exploit more limited positions. In one sense Bahro’s work joins what has been already, for a generation, a marginal dissidence within Western socialism, but then the fact that it was written from within a non-capitalist society, with close day-to-day experience of its actual workings, and moreover from within a profound attachment to marxism and to communism, makes a crucial difference. What it prevents, above all, is any complacent continuation of those perspectives of majority Western socialism which still, over a range from social democrats to communists, share with the countries of Eastern Europe certain common definitions of the nature of a socialist economic order, adding only, but often rhetorically, that in addition to this there should be substantially greater civil and political liberties.