Iwould like to start by discussing my book’s point of departure and purpose. Its original title was ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Socialism as it Actually Exists’—perhaps somewhat old-fashioned. Now this is simply the subtitle. It is deliberately reminiscent of Marx’s celebrated analysis of social formations, particularly the 1859 preliminary study for Capital which he called ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’. For a period of some ten years, I have devoted practically the whole of my free time to analysing this actually existing socialism as a social formation of its own type. The result so far may not yet have the same degree of completeness that Marx was to achieve in his critique of bourgeois society. Yet the text must now reach the public—and naturally enough not just outside Eastern Europe, but even in the German Democratic Republic itself, difficult as it is to distribute it here. Moreover, I had decided right from the start that it should appear under my own name. A direct challenge, and this is the aim of my book, is incompatible with fear, not simply in the moral sense, but politically too.footnote

The revolutionary process since 1917 has led to a quite different social order than its pioneers anticipated. This is familiar enough to all who live under this new order. If our conditions are officially depicted in terms of the traditional Marxist categories, this has long since been conscious hypocrisy, the deliberate production of false consciousness. My critique of actually existing socialism is directed at founding a radical communist alternative, i.e. one that gets down to the economic roots, to the politburocratic dictatorship which keeps our society’s labour, and its whole social life, in chains. I put forward programmatic proposals for the new League of Communists that I am convinced must be built up on all fronts to prepare and lead the breakthrough from ‘actually existing’ socialism to genuine socialism. As I see it, there is no other perspective than a socialist or communist one. And since this kind of alternative does not bear simply on some particulars, but rather involves the revolutionizing of the whole social framework, in fact the dissolution of a social formation, it must at least be outlined in its full complexity, even if it cannot yet be completely detailed.

The socialism which Marx and Engels foresaw, and which Lenin and his comrades undoubtedly hoped for also in Russia, will come. It must be the goal of our struggle, as it is more than ever the sole alternative to a global catastrophe for civilization. But nowhere in the world have there yet been more than the first attempts in this direction, for instance in Yugoslavia. In the other East European countries there is not even this. What Marx understood by socialism and communism is not very familiar to present-day communists, even to those who genuinely are such. But it is evident enough that Soviet and East European society is incompatible with the goals set by Marxism. Socialism as it actually exists, irrespective of its many achievements, is characterized by: the persistence of wage-labour, commodity production and money; the rationalization of the traditional division of labour; a cultivation of social inequalities that extends far beyond the range of money incomes; official corporations for the ordering and tutelage of the population; liquidation of the freedoms conquered by the masses in the bourgeois era, instead of the preservation and realization of these freedoms (only consider the all-embracing censorship, and the pronounced formality and factual unreality of so-called socialist democracy). It is also characterized by: a staff of functionaries, a standing army and police, which are all responsible only to those above them; the duplication of the unwieldy state machine into a state and a party apparatus; its isolation within national frontiers. Let us confine ourselves for the time being to this list. Its elements are familiar enough. What is not so well known is their internal and historically conditioned interconnection. But more on that later.

In the more developed countries, in particular, a system with features such as these brings the masses too little real progress towards freedom. What it provides above all is a different dependence from the old dependence on capital. Relations of alienation and subalternity have only acquired an added layer; they persist at a new level. And in as much as positive achievements of the preceding epochs have been lost en route, this new dependence is in many respects more oppressive than the old. This social order has no prospect of winning people to it, in its present political constitution. Given the total concentration of social power, the insignificance of the individual comes still more visibly and universally to the fore here than it does in the play of accidents and probabilities on the kaleidoscopic surface of the capitalist reproduction process.

The colossus that we know as ‘party and government’, which of course includes the trade unions, etc., ‘represents’ the free association aspired to by the classical exponents of socialism in the same way as the state represented society in all earlier civilizations. We have the kind of state machine Marx and Engels sought to smash by proletarian revolution, and which was not to be allowed to reemerge in any form or on any pretext. This is irrefutably clear from their own writings, particularly those on the Paris Commune. The state, in their eyes—and these are the original expressions—is a parasitic excrescence, a monster, a boa constrictor which entoils the living society, a supernaturalist abortion, a horrid machinery of class domination. All of this and more. Already in The German Ideology of 1845–6, Marx had written that ‘The proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals . . . must overthrow the state’.footnote1 In his writings on the Commune, Marx anticipated something else that we can see all around us today. ‘Every minor solitary interest engendered by the relations of social groups [is] separated from society itself . . . and opposed to it in the form of state interest, administered by state priests with exactly determined hierarchical functions.’footnote2 Marx and Engels certainly did not imagine a socialism like this. In Yugoslavia, in particular, where the League of Communists has not reconciled itself to this phenomenon, the expression ‘étatism’ (from the French état = state) has been used as a shorthand term for the principle of bureaucratic-centralist dictatorship.

In seeking to call the prevailing social relations by their proper name, therefore, I could not use the concept of ‘socialism’. On the other hand, the concept of étatism seemed too narrow, though it does correctly point to one particular aspect. I hesitated for a long while on the label. Yet the system’s own self-description as ‘actually existing socialism’, reluctantly reproduced here, at least admits indirectly that there is a difference between the socialist tradition as ostensibly still maintained, and the actuality of the new society. So in the end I accepted this formula, and even abandoned the apostrophes, with the intention of elaborating this difference all the more unmistakeably.

This is in no way a charge of departure from some kind of sacred principles. The only purpose of polemic here is to dismantle false appearances. I strongly believe that it is high time for revolutionary Marxists to abandon all theories of ‘deformation’, and call a halt to the old anger about the distortion and ‘betrayal’ of socialism, understandable as this at one time was. If the historical drama is reduced to a problem of poor realization, then one is proceeding from unreal assumptions and theory is led astray. Certainly, we can confront the practice of actually existing socialism with the classical theory, and must do so, in order to preserve—in the face of this practice—the substance of the socialist idea. But this practice must be explained on the basis of its own laws. For it is very far from arbitrarily produced, or ‘permitted’ by some weakness. It has completely different foundations to those originally conceived. And so it does not require justification, apology or embellishment, but rather truthful description and analysis.