The socialist movements, and later the socialist parties, developed out of the struggle against the exploitation and oppression of the wage-earning masses, but also against the social goals and conceptions of the bourgeois leading strata. The socialist project of a new society at first contained two elements. On the one hand, there was the claim to leadership by a class of skilled workers, which tested its ability to direct the production process itself in daily practice; it was simultaneously determined to seize power from the class of owners, whom it regarded as parasites and exploiters, in order to place the development of the productive forces at the service of emancipation and human needs. And on the other hand, there was the resistance of a disenfranchised and oppressed proletariat of women, children and men who toiled in workshops and factories at starvation wages, and had to fight for their political and economic rights. These unskilled labouring masses could only achieve the cultural and social perspectives with which to overcome oppression through an alliance with the skilled workers. Equally, the potential leading class of skilled workers drew, in part, legitimation for its claim to leadership from the unbearable immiseration of the proletarian masses, for whom the elimination of capitalist domination was a question of life and death; however, legitimation was also provided by man’s domination of the forces of nature, embodied in the worker—above all in the versatile craft worker. The real subject of this domination was the worker himself, not only as ‘global worker’, but also as individualized bearer of irreplaceable human capacities and human skills.

Beyond the historicity of the central conflict between labour and capital, however, socialism signified more than its manifest political and social contents: more than emancipation of the disenfranchised, oppressed and exploited; more than just the claim to power of the immediate masters of nature. Resistance and the claim to power of the working class contained a fundamental critique, not only of the capitalist relations of production, but also of capitalist rationality itself, as expressed in commodity, market and competitive relationships.

Actions are economically rational in so far as they aim at the maximization of productivity. But this only becomes possible under two conditions: (1) Productivity has to be separated from the individual singularity of the labourer, and it must be expressed as a calculable and measurable quantity; and (2) The economic goal of the maximization of productivity cannot be subordinated to any non-economic social, cultural or religious goals; it must be possible to pursue it ruthlessly. Only unlimited competition in a free market makes such ruthlessness possible, indeed compels it. Only the ‘free market economy’ permits economic rationality to make itself independent of the demands of sociality, in which it is embedded in all non-capitalist societies, and to withdraw from society’s control—in fact, even to put society at its service.

The socialist workers’ movement came into being as the positive negation of capitalist development. Against the principle of the maximization of output, it set the necessary self-limitation of the amount of labour performed by the workers; against the principle of competitive struggle between isolated individuals, it set the principle of solidarity and mutual support, without which self-limitation would be practically impossible. The socialist workers’ movement aimed, therefore, to place limits on economic rationality, and ultimately to place them at the service of a humane society.

The central conflict out of which the socialist movement has developed, revolves, then, around the expansion or limitation of the areas in which economic rationality is allowed to evolve unhindered in market and commodity relationships. It is characteristic of capitalist society that relationships conducive to the realization of capital predominate in conceptions of value, in everyday life and in politics. The socialist movement opposes this with the striving after a society in which the rationality of the maximization of productivity and profit is locked into a total social framework in such a way that it is subordinated to non-quantifiable values and goals, and that economically rational labour no longer plays the principal role in the life of society or of the individual. Socialism, understood as the abolition of economic rationality, assumes, consequently, that this has already fully evolved. Where, in the absence of market and commodity relations, it has not yet established itself, ‘socialism’ cannot put economic rationality at the service of a social project intended to dissolve it. Where ‘socialism’ understands itself as the planned development of not-yet-existing economic structures, it necessarily turns into its opposite: it reconstructs a society so that it is devoted to the economic development of capital accumulation. Such a society cannot assert its independence of economic rationality. It is ‘economized’ through and through.