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? footnote 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. footnote1 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’).

The title of this article refers to ‘eco-socialist transition’. I shall therefore also have to justify why special significance is attached to the societal contradiction which is now reproducing itself—albeit on the brink of catastrophe—in the form of an extended ecological crisis. The argument will begin with the ‘underdetermination’ of socialism in the present constellation of crises, and end by proposing a concept of ‘eco-socialist transition’ that does justice both to the ‘extrinsic plurality’ of socialism (in relation to other diverse ‘forms of transition’) and to the ‘intrinsic plurality’ of concrete processes of transition (in relation to concrete socio-historical formations).

Historical reality (or, to simplify grossly, ‘society’) has nothing neat and simple about it. Modern history is not just the history of the capitalist mode of production, nor even of ‘modern bourgeois society’, to be complemented by derivative (epi-)phenomena. There is certainly an explanatory field or ‘chain of determinations’, stretching from so-called primitive accumulation to the latest transformations in the mode of regulation. But there are other explanatory fields which, as we have learnt, cannot be reduced to mere emanations of capitalism without incurring serious theoretical and political consequences. These are the contexts of gender, human ecology and inter-personal relations. This would not constitute a problem for socialism if there were a clear relation of priority (or even identity) between socialism and a resolution of the contradictions characteristic of these specific contexts. However, no thinking person will maintain that there is real identity (realiter idem, logice diversus) between socialism and women’s liberation, socialism and ecological production, or even socialism and popular self-determination. Nor would it appear tenable to assume a relation of cause and effect between them; socialism would not automatically, by definition, bring about women’s liberation, ecological production or popular self-determination. The second condition under which no theoretical or political problem would arise is if there were a clear lack of interdependence between the various fields of determination—if it were possible to have an effective socialist, ecological, feminist or ‘self-determining’ process of transition without at the same time initiating a dynamic of transition in the other fields, and to progress in one field without also achieving qualitative progress in at least some of the others.

The real ‘overdetermination’ which pertains between the various explanatory fields or ‘causal chains’ is, in my view, contingent and irreducible—unamenable to some all-encompassing ‘meta-field’ of explanation (i.e., one general theory of ‘history’ or ‘society’) and unpredictable in the finite but indefinite chains of ‘causal echoes’ that constitute its concrete historical ‘network’. The question as to which are the relevant fields of explanation/determination is a factual one, to be resolved by concrete enquiry. In turn, this implies that the notion of ‘socialism’ is underdetermined in at least three relevant aspects: (1) in relation to its traditional claim to involve the ‘emancipation’ or ‘all-round development’ of humanity; (2) in relation to concrete historical situations as they present themselves today; and (3) in relation to the other explanatory fields, their contradictions and forms of contradiction.

With regard to the first of these, I would propose a surgical solution. Given that, in a materialist perspective, emancipation or liberation must be conceived as a ‘solution’ to some concrete kind of domination, exploitation or the like, we should simply drop this claim, excise it, so to speak, from the tissue of our theory and practice. At the same time, however, it is necessary to define a successor task of achieving the greatest possible articulation of emancipatory processes in the given historical situation. Such a focus will not only help us to develop a concrete notion of progress (indispensable for all strategic debate) independent of any general philosophy of history. It will also provide an answer to one central question of socialist transition that is unanswered in traditional theory: namely, what are the countervailing factors to a self-hypostatization of the state apparatuses of transition (the conversion of the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the state-class over the proletariat) if the proletarian masses themselves do not effectively counteract it? If the socialist transition process is concretely articulated with other emancipatory transition processes, then other social forces will be present whose activity will not only exact institutional safeguards for the existing plurality, but will animate demands for a continuous evaluation and rectification of the compromises and balances struck between different requirements.

As to the second kind of underdetermination, its problematic has already been thoroughly explored by Etienne Balibar. footnote2 If it is true that there is no general theory of modes of production (as Godelier or Hindess and Hirst, for example, have tried to formulate it footnote3 ), any transition to a new mode of production must be understood and explained with reference both to the (relatively) general theory of the preceding mode of production and to the contradictions and overdeterminations existent within a determinate socio-historical formation. This implies a thoroughgoing inversion of the problematic of socialist transition. Instead of enquiring how this is to be applied or implemented in a particular country, we should be investigating how a process of socialist transition actually intervenes in that country’s development. Thus, to understand Solidar-nosc, we should in the first instance study Polish history rather than perfect some ‘general theory of socialism’. footnote4 It is no longer a matter of political convenience but a theoretical necessity to characterize the ‘socialist transition’ to which one is referring: in Korea, for example, it poses problems quite distinct from those which arise in Poland or which, in the future, may develop in the Federal Republic of Germany.

It may seem rather paradoxical to expound such a long, abstract and general argument in a text that advocates a reversal of perspective in favour of the concrete historical situation—the specific socio-historical formation. It does, however, allow us to take up an adequate standpoint with regard to four crucial turning-points in the historical situation that we are attempting to grasp: the Twentieth Congress of the cpsu demonstrated that there were not only no guarantees (who asks for guarantees in history?) but no specific factors or mechanisms conducive to a democratic form of the Bolshevik revolution; the Bad Godesberg accommodation of the social-democratic parties showed that Kautsky’s compromise combination of ‘orthodox’ theory and reformist practice had lost all political substance; the debacle of the Chinese Cultural Revolution revealed that there can be no exit from the ‘crisis of Marxism’ through sheer mass spontaneity; and the advent of new, autonomous social movements in the ‘Western democracies’ has made it clear that a socialism without further qualification will never again be able to become a hegemonic force within emancipatory mass movements. A considerable theoretical effort is required to ‘digest’ these irreversible turning-points.