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
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