“We Fought for a Freer, Greener East Germany”

Dieter Segert
Loren Balhorn

The East German protests in the fall of 1989 included many who aspired for a democratic socialism. In the state's final years, the young supporters of the Modern Socialism Project fought for an alternative to authoritarianism — promoting an ecological socialism rooted in democratic rights.

The Modern Socialism Project at Humboldt University bolstered a demand for a redefinition of the ruling party’s function within the East German state, including the demand for parliamentary elections. (Humboldt University DEU Germany)

In politics and society, it’s not enough to merely want what is right — you also have to have the strength to carry it through. That’s something that left wingers can learn from their own history.

Between 1987 and 1990, there was a research project at the Humboldt University in East Berlin, of which I was a member. Driven by a group of mostly young social scientists between twenty and thirty-five years old, it had a very practical impact. The project became known as the “Modern Socialism Project” in the fall of 1989, but it’s since been forgotten.

Societal remembrance is a cultural and political process, regulated by prevalent power relations. The memory of the “Peaceful Revolution” that led to the overthrow of the established order in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) has for three decades now been determined by the hegemonic public sphere and the commemorative rituals of the German state. But, several important facts have been lost sight of in that process.

I saw this when I recently asked a Leipzig resident who was twenty-six years old in 1989 who the “Leipzig Six” were. At the start of the Peaceful Revolution, on October 9, 1989, this group had broadcast over local radio a call on the state as well as demonstrators to remain nonviolent. “Well, that was Kurt Masur,” was her response. After thinking about it for a second, she added, “A cabaret artist, Bernd-Lutz Lange, and a pastor, Peter Zimmermann, were also there.” The other three had disappeared from her memory. They were all secretaries of the district leadership of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED).

These figures had acted against the wishes of their party leader, Erich Honecker, who had made sure that army units, police, and combat groups were assembled for a violent confrontation with the demonstrators. Honecker’s successor, Egon Krenz, ultimately refrained from using force — probably because too many Leipzigers had moved onto the ring around the city center. But the appearance of the three leading Leipzig SED officials had surely also played its part. Indeed, the events of 1989 were also a crack within the SED apparatus.

Waves of Opposition

The fact that these SED members’ critical appearance in the fall of 1989 has been forgotten is no coincidence. Rather, it’s the result of the politics of remembrance, the staged commemorative rituals in united Germany. Yet, if you really want to understand what happened back then, you have to look at the entire tableau of the actors of the revolution.

The Peaceful Revolution became possible because the SED dictatorship had begun to crumble. By the end of the 1980s, many citizens no longer believed the promises of the party leadership. Its economic and social goals, still supported by a majority of society, appeared to be threatened. Western consumer capitalism appeared more convincing than the social safeguards championed by GDR policy. The state’s travel restrictions were rejected by a large number of citizens. The number of applications submitted to leave the country, along with the large-scale refugee exodus that began in May 1989, attest to this quite vividly.

The demonstrations in Leipzig were initially characterized by two distinct groups: those who wanted to finally get out, and those who wanted to stay and change the state for the better. There were small but highly active civil rights groups in the GDR that autumn, such as the New Forum, founded in September around the painter Bärbel Bohley, the “Demokratie Jetzt” group around the theologian Wolfgang Ullmann, or the (newly refounded) Social Democrats. Many of these oppositionists had emerged from the GDR’s independent peace movement, such as the Pankow Peace Circle.

But all this would probably not have been enough to break through the state’s armor. Resistance also had to come from within the fortress. In the fall of 1989, sporadic criticism from SED members swelled into a storm. Artists, scientists, and workers, people from all professions had had enough of their leadership. They represented a minority, but they spoke out clearly, stepping out of their self-imposed isolation and forging their way into an emerging independent public sphere.

The Berlin Writers’ Association, rock musicians, as well as academics at the Humboldt University voiced harsh criticisms of the SED leadership’s policies outside the protection of their party organizations. By the end of November, this had developed into a grassroots movement in the SED that forced the leadership’s abdication and an extraordinary SED party congress in December.

The four aforementioned groups represented the important actors in the Peaceful Revolution. However, the contribution of the latter has been repeatedly omitted from public commemoration. Moreover, the goals of the SED’s critics were distorted, a little bit more each year, until today’s prevailing conception ultimately displaced all other recollections.

Of the autumn of 1989, today the majority remembers not October 9 in Leipzig, not the huge demonstration on November 4 in East Berlin, but only the fall of the Wall. Of the goals of the time, the call for German unity drowns out everything else in this staged memory: “We are one people!” and “If the Deutschmark doesn’t come here, we’ll go to it!”

Ahead of Its Time

The Modern Socialism Project at Humboldt University aimed at a comprehensive transformation of its own social model — a modernization of Soviet-style socialism, an overcoming of its historically rooted deformations.

In doing so, the participants were aware that not only state socialism — i.e., those states that had emerged with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and after the victory in World War II in 1945 as a global alliance aligned around the Soviet Union — had to change fundamentally. The same was true of its competitor, the capitalist world. They were convinced that a socially and ecologically just order could only emerge through a process of transformation of the whole of humanity.

They spoke of a “globalization of humanity’s conditions of reproduction,” which were already in crisis at that time. Without being able to refer here to the whole text of the Modern Socialism Project, I would like to refer to some of the programmatic goals connected with it, in order to clarify the current relevance of the project.

From our point of view, the crisis could only be overcome by enacting changes in the following areas:

  • The goals with which states conducted security policy had to be fundamentally altered. Instead of building up defenses against each other, a global system of shared security ought to emerge. 
  • An ecological reorganization of all technological, economic, and consumer development was called for.
  • The overcoming of poverty in the “Third World” was to be achieved through a democratic world economic system. The aim was not to destroy the traditional economies of those societies through the dominance of the world market, but to integrate them.
  • Through a new economic system, productivity gains were to be achieved not by replacing but by specializing and further refining human labor.
  • The aim was also to achieve social progress that was not aimed at a quantitative expansion of the mass of consumer goods and the consumption of prefabricated life processes, but at the development of individuality, collectivity, and solidarity. Away from the “production of material wealth as an end in itself,” as Marx would have said, and toward the joint shaping of technological and economic development as a means of socially progressive development for all subjects of humanity.

From today’s point of view, the language may sound a bit wooden, pressed into the terminology of Marxian thought, but the goals we proposed are quite contemporary. The only thing missing, in fact, is an awareness of the global climate crisis. This problem was not yet at the center of critical thinking at that time.

As for the developmental requirements of our own society and Soviet-style socialism, we considered the following processes to be vital: the modernization of society required overcoming the bureaucratized economic management system. Additionally, we had to transition over to a plurality of property and ownership forms. Comprehensive nationalization had to be transformed into solitary ownership by all stakeholders.

In this respect, cooperative, state, municipal, but also private owners would have to work together. Essentially, our aim was to dismantle the GDR’s excessive centralization of political power. In its place was to emerge a politics that would be sustained by public political contestation and a public scientific life, and above all by an open airing of conflicting interests and a broad discussion of alternatives. 

Through this different kind of politics, socialism was to be fundamentally renewed. The old type of politician, whose actions were based on the excessive use of coercive administrative means, was to be overcome by a more active political society, which in turn was to limit and control the coercive state apparatus. At least, that was the point the Modern Socialism Project’s debate had reached in late 1988.

In the summer and fall of 1989, additional texts were drafted and proposals presented to a broader public. These aimed at a different policy in the GDR, at a different economy as well as a comprehensive broadening of public debates on state policy, and ultimately also at the development of a state based on the rule of law. Immediate measures were also called for, such as official acknowledgement of the widespread desire for private travel abroad or for the state to recognize new political groupings formed by representatives of civic movements, as well as the lifting of censorship in the media.

The papers of the Modern Socialism Project at the Humboldt University strengthened the self-confidence of the critical SED membership and bolstered their demand for a redefinition of the ruling party’s function within the East German state, including the demand for parliamentary elections.

The proposals were primarily aimed at enabling an internal democratization of their own party, whose rigid and centralist structures were seen as the main obstacle to a democratization of the GDR. Extensive outlines of the overdue reform of the state economy were drawn from reform attempts in other countries in the Eastern Bloc. They eventually became part of the SED renewal process, from which the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) and eventually Die Linke emerged. 

Learning from Failure

Despite the fact that we had correctly understood the necessary political changes, the Modern Socialism Project failed. Efforts to create a renewed socialism and to bring together the various efforts to reform the different systems, as the Soviet reform policy under Mikhail Gorbachev also sought to do, failed to bear fruit.

Yet more important than remembering those forgotten texts and interventions by critical groups within the SED — which remain invisible in hegemonic discourse despite the fact that the number of participants was by no means negligible — is reflecting on why the project’s contribution had so little lasting impact.

Worse, in place of a renewed socialism in the GDR came a resurgence in the power of conservative politics throughout Germany. The social progress that had been achieved in the GDR despite the political and economic system’s deformations was reversed. The same was true throughout Eastern Europe. The elimination of the dictatorships of those Communist state-parties led to a greater dependence of Eastern Europe on the main Western powers.

Do those who dreamed of and fought for a more democratic, ecological, and socially just society at that time bear the responsibility for this neoliberal transformation? I was once accused of this in a conversation by an English leftist. No, I think it was not wrong to oppose the outlived policies of the Stalinist party leaderships. The resistance may have begun too late, but the direction was correct. What lessons can be drawn for today’s struggles from those critical SED members’ failure?

I will try to answer this question on the basis of my insights as a political scientist who has studied modern Eastern Europe intensively: formulating correct goals in politics is a first step, but it is by far not enough. Insights do not assert themselves on their own. They require a certain power to act, the emergence of which we must discuss just as intensively as the correct goals.

The Modern Socialism Project at the Humboldt University had influence over parts of the SED membership at that time — and as long as the SED remained in power, that was important. Our efforts to cooperate with other political forces in the country, on the other hand, proved unsuccessful.

In order to build these relationships with other groups, it would have been necessary to take their politics and their experiences seriously. We did not ignore those civic movements, but there was mistrust and distance toward the groups on the other side borne from self-isolation, which was due to a certain belief in our avant-garde status in the prior years. The attempt to overcome this rift was too little and too late, though some, like the economist Rainer Land, moved sooner than the others.

Such an obstructive vanguard consciousness lived in all revolutionary Marxists of different generations, starting with Marx and, of course, the Russian Bolsheviks around Lenin. This arrogance, which grew out of the conviction of one’s own scientific ability, was a hindrance if we wanted to meet the others on an equal footing. And that would have been necessary.

Yet what we were really missing was a more precise analysis of what concerned the majority of the East German population in their everyday lives. How would it have been possible, despite the attraction that the West German consumer society exuded — as was naturally the case in a society defined by scarcity — to bring about a rethinking among the population that was critical of consumption, and to focus on the ecological balance of society as a whole as well as each individual? Was this even possible? How could the reality of life and the experiences of the population have been brought together with the fundamental need for change in consumer behavior?

The damage that West German transformation policies did to the GDR’s economy and thus to the lives of East Germans began with the monetary union in July 1990 — the immediate introduction of the Deutschmark as the sole accepted currency. Though the majority of the population had demanded and fought for this union, it was a wrongheaded policy that dealt a death blow to many GDR enterprises.

Moreover, it downgraded East Germans from revolutionaries who freely determined their fate to dependent recipients of welfare transfer payments. The Modern Socialism group was generally aware of the contradictory nature of interests among the population, but how to deal with this in practice was learned only later in practical democratic politics. Radical politics must have the “normal” citizens in mind.

Similarly, we neglected to build international alliances. Of course, we were also suffering from the consequences of the sectarian international politics of the Communist parties in previous decades, in which the programmatic purity of one’s own position was valued above all else, even at the expense of broad coalitions. We wanted to break free of this, but we lacked the organizational strength and institutional imagination.

Global politics would have required global alliances with very different actors. Yet we did even not succeed in forming a broad East-West alliance within Germany itself, with the Social Democratic Party’s isolation from the SED membership and the PDS being their failure rather than ours. The majority of the West German Greens, who held similar positions to ours on environmental policy, had their backs to the East.

After all, the majority of them had long given up on socialism as a goal. They did not understand the opportunities and dangers of the impending neoliberal transformation in the East — and we did not understand how to persuade them to rethink.

Reviving Socialism

A sad legacy of 1989 is the loss of utopias. With the end of Soviet-style socialism, the temporary victors propagated an end to ideologies and history. But only those who are satisfied with the status quo and their own power can do without the moving power of utopias. Only the established do not need alternatives. In an era characterized by deep crisis, compelling visions of a better future are essential.

The classical Social Democracy of August Bebel and Rosa Luxemburg was attractive because it never abandoned the promise of a fundamentally different life in favor of the goals of the day. It was the same with the free socialists, the anarchists. Utopias motivate people to change their lives. However, they can neither be decreed nor conjured up. Utopias must arise from the conflicts of the present. And they exist only in the plural — not as the one, always correct worldview.

Change grows out of the everyday need of the many. It is driven by protests, by social initiatives, by scientific analysis of the given conflicts. Parties are necessary as long as power in democracies is not yet restricted to the hands of detached elites. Courage to act and to change course, on the other hand, must grow from below, in each individual.

Sometimes it also helps to remember moments when a turning point became possible — like three decades ago, in the fall of 1989 in the GDR and Eastern Europe, when a scientific project set itself the task of supporting the urgently needed changes. We had not arrived too soon, we just did not have sufficient power to act. That represents the minimum that can be learned from our struggle and that of others.

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Dieter Segert taught philosophy at the Humboldt University in East Berlin from 1978 to 1992 and is currently a professor of political science at the University of Vienna.

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and co-editor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

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