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Democratic Socialism: A Transformational Project

Democratic socialism as a transformational process could remedy the social coldness and ecological blindness of neoliberalism and its total absolute market. Seemingly worlds away from our culture of info-tainment distorted by advertising, the vision of democratic socialism deserves discussion. In our culture as in Germany, people believe that radical change is necessary but see little prospect. Translated from the German in: Utopie kreativ, 2000.
Democratic Socialism - A Transformational Project

By Dieter Klein

[This article originally published in: Utopie Kreativ, October 2000 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.linksnet.de/drucksicht.php?id=819.]

What is the project of democratic socialism?... The vast majority of voters did not see this project as a project with positive benefits for themselves.

The neoliberal project is the transformation of the world into a world market economy of social coldness and ecological blindness where justice has no place.

The neo-social democratic project amounts to a balancing act between adaptation to the imperatives of the world market and the attained political and social standards. In this splits act, justice is constantly damaged in that the contours of the third world are blurred in contacts with the neoliberal project. In the majority of western European states, the social democratic parties elected into government in the 90s were voted out of office again - like the representatives of neoliberal development.

The project of the Greens was a mammoth and genuine project: rescuing humanity from ecological suicide, the ecological conversion or reorganization of society. This development project was anchored in the intellectually pretentious milieu of society and hardly in the struggles of wage-earners for social justice. This project threatens to fall into an existentially dangerous time delay under the pressure of capitalist globalization and in the malaise of state finances. Justice between "North" and "South" in the use of natural resources and justice toward future generations is not in sight. The Green party threatens to drift away from its project through its connection to the established power mechanism. Initiatives, movements and non-governmental organizations can hardly prevail without parliamentary supporters.

The urgency of alternatives is manifest. Mass unemployment continues along with a polarization of incomes and assets.

The harbingers of a possible climate catastrophe can hardly be ignored. A growing gulf between the rich industrial countries and the majority of so-called developing countries has brought large parts of the world's population into a hopeless situation. The dominant responses to this hopeless situation are the growing readiness to use military force as a supposedly appropriate means of politics, the inclination of the US to preventive wars for its own imperial goals contrary to international law, social deregulation and privatization of public services. The (partial) withdrawals of social reforms through expansion of low wage work, contraction of social security systems, increased pressure on employees and persons seeking work, reduction of employees rights and lower taxes for corporations, especially the largest, are stylized as inevitable modern reforms. (1)

"... the free development of everyone"

What can be the project of democratic socialism in this situation of radical upheavals?... The vision of free individuals as a starting point of socialism and as its determining goal is worlds removed from the reality of capitalism and yet can be closely joined to the desires and feelings of citizens. Most Germans feel they can live well though this is a life in an unjust society. Life doesn't become better. Rather the chasms become deeper between upper and lower and between East and West. People are regarded more as economic- and cost-factors than as persons.

A Project of Justice

Democratic socialism has a unique chance in this situation to prove itself as a project of justice that opposes the functionality or instrumentalization of individuals for capital exploitation... Democratic socialism means acting for the social equality and participation of all individuals in the basic conditions for a self-determined life in social security.

Struggling for the crucial conditions of individual freedom (3) and a self-determined life cannot be postponed to times beyond the Rubicon of a socialist revolution. Citizens today want to know from parties, unions, associations and movements what benefits they can expect for their own lives.

Democratic socialism only has a chance as a transformational project, a process that takes form in civil society in a democratic way for majorities and at the same time points beyond prevailing unjust conditions. If it does not succeed in realizing this transformational vision, it will either be hardly distinguishable from social-democratic politics and thus superfluous or limited to rejection of the status quo without practical political possibilities. This will lead to a pseudo-revolutionary marginalization unconnected to what is possible today.

With Immanuel Wallerstein, a democratization that follows the rule "more, much more" could be the binding element between alternative reforms under current conditions and the transformational claim. More social equality could promote the basic conditions of a self-determined life: secure work, benefits of the public health system and social security and participation in political decisions as the condition of individual freedom. Without more social equality, freedom loses its decisive foundation. Without more solidarity, society loses its social cohesion. Peace policy and ecological conversion of the economy and society are the foundations for such a process.

The freedom of every individual to determine his or her own life in social security may also be an orientation for socialist policy regarding political decisions and for the socialist goal pointing beyond capitalism. Connecting both dimensions in a transformational process of social change constitutes socialist politics. This will be clearly different than the politics of all other parties in the parliamentary system of Germany. Pragmatic German politics is still mired in the deepest ruptures. Necessary decisions between opposite paths of development are made without vision in the limits or strictures of the dominant property- and power structures.

The Contradiction is in the World

These two poles of socialist policy become independent of each other. Socialists have the task of being a recognizable social opposition bundling protest, criticism, displeasure and resistance and striving to overcome the rule of profit over society, patriarchal conditions, the exploitation of the "South" by the "North" andj ethnic hierarchies with a positive policy of emancipative, social-ecological change of civil society. Men of action marked as "reformers" in the daily political grind criticize management for persisting in conventional tracts. People expect concrete practical competence and realizable political possibilities. Solutions for real contradictions in society must be found along with personal apportioning of blame.. Embittered personal conflicts and battles over interest continue. In an analysis on cultural creation and cultural destruction, the literary scholar Hans Mayer wrote that "the contradiction is now in the historical world". He quoted Karl Kraus who accused his critics of confusing real contradictions with personal differences of opinion: "My word touches the world of appearances which often unfortunately crumbles. The contradiction is in the world while you imagine mere opinions are involved."

The contradiction that socialist policy aims at crossing the limits of capitalism and also has joint responsibility for democratic reforms and better solutions of everyday human problems within these limits can be solved in a transformational process unlike the failed Marxist-Leninist ideas.

Changing Direction by Changing the Hierarchy of Power

Transformation in the last decade was the term for the transition from state socialism to capitalist societies. According to the prevailing opinion, transformation could only have this one direction. All roads lead to capitalism and the further capitalization of society. This is actually the dominant trend of present development. Since the 70s, submission of society under profit, withdrawal of social and cultural standards and weakening of solidarian elements in society have accelerated.

The spirit of the times seems to speak against the possibility of finding beginnings for a change in direction for a democratic process leading to more justice, freedom, equality and solidarity in the conditions of civil societies. This spirit of the times seems to promote a transformational process that will not be a harmonious growth into another society but fierce conflicts around changing social hierarchies of power, power- and property structures and effects of small and great fractures.

The socialist experiments of the 20th century hardly emerged from the genesis and maturation of democratic-socialist elements. They arose above all as attempted liberating responses to great catastrophes like the worldwide economic crisis of 1929/32, the two world wars and the barbarism of fascism. What would have happened if great catastrophes had not been allowed and threatening global dangers like climate catastrophes preventively encountered? Majorities in modern civil societies after further bitter experiences with wars, social cuts and police state tendencies would have approve reforms of the type "more, much more".

Envisioning democratic socialism as a transformation process is a challenge for critical social theory (cf. Klein 2002). A socialist opposition policy against dominant conditions must produce positive practical reforms contributing to an emancipative process of social-ecological change... The life elizer of democratic socialism as a transformation project is changing the social hierarchies of power in favor of an emancipative development alternative in a common quest with all other democratic actors.

Social Logic versus Capital Logic

Democratic socialism sees its goal in a transformational process. Is there a social logic that acts as a counter-process in civil society to capital logic? A social logic with objective and subjective foundations for a transformational process toward emancipation and social and ecological sustainability is assumed.

The term social logic is used here as a working concept, not as a finished theoretical category. Social logic implies a bundle of tendencies pointing in another direction, a growth of social and emancipative claims and their realization, counteracting the tendency to submission of the whole society under capital. Up to now, this tendency was far weaker than the logic of capital exploitation. The tendencies described as social logic are not economic laws like capital exploitation but rather results of very different processes and interests that oppose capital logic or could counteract capital logic under changed social hierarchies of power. Perhaps a better term will be found for this counter-logic in the course of practical discussion.

Social logic exists and can be strengthened. As a rule, circumstances and processes opposing capital rule, patriarchal oppression and other forms of domination are embedded in alien contexts. Supporters of social, cultural and ecological interests often collide with dominant interests. Potential counter-powers have different specific interests. The term social logic points to contradictory real or potential processes that can only put in question the present structures of rule with the greatest effort of the involved actors. Different theoretical approaches and practical observations show the effects of a social logic.

Unfolding Subjective Abilities and Creative Potentials

A democratic transformation project can be approached in two ways. Firstly, this project emphasizes unfolding subjective abilities and creative potentials necessary for capital exploitation that represent potential chances for thinking and acting beyond capital exploitation. The knowledge, cooperation, communicative ability, community work, personal motivation and personal responsibility of a large number of dependent employees, independent persons and the self-employed are needed. The alien determination implied by profit dominance must be resisted. The tendency to reduce people to a marketable labor power must be confronted. Emancipative demands directed against such narrowings could be joined to the development requirements produced by the productive system itself.

Possibilities for a democratic education reform, an inner turn to technicians and engineers, intensive dialogue with them and critical discussion with modern management methods for partial integration of creative potentials in capital exploitation are required of a socialist party.

Secondly, modern productive power enables producing more goods and services with less labor. A growing part of the population can pursue projects exceeding the horizons of capital. These projects represent considerable social progress for society in health care, education, culture and self-determined life though they usually don't count economically. This development is strongtly opposed by counter-tendencies since the 70s. Social losses occurred in the wake of mass unemployment and destruction of the environment, as reactions to the indebtedness of public budgets, a rigorous austerity policy to the detriment of future-friendly and income-effective investments, the horror of market radical thinking before public employment and the dominant policy of social deregulation and privatization. The chances arising out of the development of productive power can only be realized with an alternative policy...

Emphasizing Reproduction

Stable societies need expanded reproduction of general conditions of development beyond the mere reproduction of capital conditions. Increased availability of education, knowledge, health, culture, energy supply, mobility, communication, social security and the preservation of nature constitute the conditio sine qua non of modern civil society across long periods of time. The reproduction of the social whole categorically commands - ultimately in the self-interest of the entrepreneur class - the limitation of exploitation in competition and development of unprofitable areas of society. Marx referred to this.

Capital logic itself needs its own counter-pole, social logic (4). Reform alternatives can and must be joined to social logic. Social logic is entangled in harsh struggles with the entrepreneur side and middle class parties where the smallest social steps are regarded as ruinous for the economy in positional competition. Processes exist that oppose another stubbornness to the dominance of the economy and profit despite the far-reaching adaptation of the whole society to the economy instead of its embedding in society.

A System Approach

Modern civil societies are differentiated societies. Partial social systems have formed - the economy, politics, law, social sphere, culture, science and religion. These systems follow their own inner standards of development. Profit, capital exploitation and capital devaluation are central in the economy. However social-, labor- and environmental legislation as well as joint determination also affect the economy.

Gaining power or losing power are uppermost in politics. However no elite can secure power without social concessions to the majority of the population. Setting and observing social norms and sanctions are central in law. Law is influenced by the power of capital while human rights point beyond capital's power. In science, gaining knowledge often depends on financing projects that are economically rewarding for present rule conditions. Nevertheless rule-critical tendencies are also inherent in the search for scientific truth.

Profit is the determining standard in the economy in middle class societies. Profit also marks to a high degree partial individual systems and their development despite their own logic. Against capital logic, a logic of social development has supports in the relative independence of differentiated individual systems and their inherent specific interests. A glance at the development of education, social security systems, health care and culture makes this clear.

The art of alternative politics consists in utilizing the widespread rejection of further subordination of kindergartens, schools and universities, health institutions and the cultural realm under the "terror of the economy" (Viviane Forrester) for transformational developments. This can be related to the worldly interests of people.

Opinions on the Future

"How do you picture our society in 10 years?"

(German population of voting age,
in %) Agree

Seniors will have greater difficulty understanding society 71

Society will become colder and more selfish 71

The rich will become richer and the poor poorer 70

Money will become more important and people more materialistic 68

Only the strong will prevail 54

The future will become increasingly uncertain 50

With more prosperity, we will be able to afford more 16

Politics will be citizen-friendly 7

There will be more solidarity and more cohesion 6

Source: Institut fur Demoskopie Allensbach, Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung (FAZ), August 16, 2000

Individualization and Worldly Approaches

The process of individualization is one of the basic characteristics of civil societies. Filling one's life with self-determined meaning, living according to one's own standard and striving for individual freedom for each and every one contradicts the logic of capital and the transformation of all spheres of life into objects of commercialization. A social logic has its deepest roots here. Decisive initiatives for a transformation to a just society can be found here. However these initiatives need the decisive renewal of democracy. On one hand, individualization processes can be promoted through higher incomes, better education, greater mobility, advances in the emancipation of women and greater acceptance of different sexual orientations. On the other hand, equal social participation in democratic decisions, family-supporting work, education, knowledge, culture and social security are only dreams for the majority of the population even in the rich countries of the western world. The emancipative sides of the historical individualization process are overlain by that other side, loneliness, isolation, retreat into the private and efforts at elbowroom against one another. This contradiction in the individualization process is a breeding ground for demands for a justice that includes freedom, social equality and solidarity. Individualization is at loggerheads with capital logic although it was mainly bound in this capital logic in the past.

In society and in its partial systems, individuals should function corresponding to the standards of the markets, for preservation of existing political conditions, the cultural mainstream and so forth. In contradiction to that assumption, individualization processes increase the need for a self-determined life. Living one's own life means that individuals configure their diverse very personal relations and their bonds in work, political processes, culture or religious life into a unique biography. From the standpoint of the capitalist economy, expansion of the low-wage sector and precarious employment lead to the highest possible profits. From an emancipative worldly standpoint, meaningful family-wage work should be sought for everyone. A gradual introduction of a civil right to a need-oriented basic income would give each and every person the possibility of refusing unreasonable working conditions without risking his or her own social existence. Resistance against the logic of dominant conditions is imperative in the life world - as much as presently colonized by the system world, according to the diagnosis of Jurgen Habermas. A transformational project of the social and ecological change of society has important foundations in the sides of individualization and worldly stubbornness running counter to profit dominance.

Empirical approach: Analysis of public consciousness

Empirical analyses of feelings, perceptions of problems and the conduct of the population reveal considerable ambivalences in public consciousness. These ambivalences are starting-points for a transformational project blocked by counter- tendencies.

Opinions on society

Answers: Do you agree: East West

1 + 2 completely + for the most part
3 + 4 probably not + not at all 1+ 3+ 1+ 3+
2 4 2 4

I believe society must radically change in the future 77 6 72 10

I believe we are heading for a catastrophe
if everything continues as in the past 53 22 60 21

The principle of equal opportunities governs
in society, not the "right of the stronger" 13 70 22 53

On "possibilities in the political system"

There are lots of possibilities for contributing
and changing things 25 38 32 38

There's no point trying to change anything in society 26 47 24 52

On "personal activity"

I would be engaged politically but only where it is
worthwhile 35 37 45 31

On "personal possibilities"

I am politically active 14 64 14 67

I live my life, everything else doesn't matter to me 6 77 11 75

Large parts of the German population want society to be different than it is - more just, more democratic, more social and more secure. However they see German society as one where they can make ends meet. A majority of the population identify serious deficits but feel strongly integrated in present conditions. Most desire a better society but believe hardly anything will change in the present course of things. The neoliberal intellectual hegemony is unbroken. In a representative analysis, 26 percent declare they would be engaged for changes if they could see prospects for success (Chrapa/Wittich 2001).

A socialist transformation strategy could correspond to the state of mine of the majority of the population. A series of partial steps are aimed at processual change. These steps supported and defined by the activity of many reflect the radical desires joining what is possible in the present with the vision of a social-ecological development to a just, emancipative society. The increased importance of justice in value structures underlying the feelings of majorities could be a chance for transformation developments in cultural change.

Property approach

All hopes for progressive change with their different approaches face the dominant conditions of property and rule. The international wave of mergers, privatization of public enterprises and penetration of capital ownership into ever new spheres of society - for example the building blocks of plant, animal and human life as capital ownership through gene patenting - all the reflections on anti-capitalist transformational processes seem consigned to the realm of illusions. Nevertheless the firm contours of capital ownership - owners or non-owners and no transition in between - assumed in the theory of orthodox socialism or communism exclude all transformational movement in civil societies.

Capital ownership is subject to processes of change suggesting chances for repelling capital ownership and for mastering its hegemony. This process of change is not defined in only one way. Growing capital power and society's subjection under its imperative are determinative.

However a real counter-tendency limiting the power of capital owners over their property and inherent in the reproduction of capital ownership was always much weaker in the past. Union struggles and the other movements forcing businesses on the way of social legislation to convert part of their profits into contributions for social security systems are forms of this counter-tendency. The taxation of business profits represents an encroachment in control over property. Commands, prohibitions and market-conforming instruments of environmental policy also affect control over capital ownership. The development of a third (non-profit) sector points to the alternative of a plural ownership structure. Autonomous economic actors and cooperative and communal ownership of property can gain importance wherever private property does not correspond to the demand in the constitution for property's obligation to the public interest against the dominant privatization trend of public property. (7)

The basic idea of an alternative property or ownership policy consists in a radical renewal of democracy so every form of property is subject to the public interest. (8) The repression and mastery of profit-dominance in favor of emancipative, social and ecological standards in processes of democratic decision is the economic core of a social alternative (cf. Klein 2002). Therefore the new PDS (party of democratic socialism) program declares: "Violence and war, social misery and the crisis of the global eco-sphere in the profit- and rule interests of international capital are the causes for the endangerment of human civilization and culture. These rule structures should be pushed back and overcome. Therefore we reject the hegemony of capitalist ownership conditions.." "Property questions are questions of power and hierarchies of power in society. Progressive change of ownership conditions must be engendered by counter-powers.

Actor-oriented approach

Strengthening counter-powers flows into the emphasis on transformational processes. There is only a single chance of obligating every form of property to the constitution corresponding to the public interest. There is only a single way to end the submission of the social logic under capital logic and reverse the relation between the two forms of development logic. The encouragement of many citizens, their initiatives and social movements, unions and other organizations, in short of counter-powers of different kinds and parties in solidarity in taking new paths is indispensable. The transformational process is the interweaving of alternative actors into alliances for more democracy, justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. (9)

Joining future work with the practical experiences of different social forces is a first-rate challenge.


Modern German society includes tendencies, possibilities and starting points for an emancipative transformation process. These tendencies should be emphasized against all conservative rule relations, against privatization, deregulation and liberalization of the economy. Vision is needed to shake the dominant belief that the way into the future must be plastered with acknowledgment of the existing distribution of power and wealth, with losses and fears of large parts of the population. The practical value of the PDS (party of Democratic Socialists in Germany) - if it consistently understands democratic socialism as a transformational project and converts this project into policy - is a practical reform toward a different just society in peace with other people and with the environment.

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American Democratic Socialist Party 16.Feb.2003 01:12


The democratic socialist party in America is the Socialist Party USA:


Just an FYI.