Modernity Socialism versus Orthodox Marxism: Ideological Strife in the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), 1993-1999

By Guentzel, Ralph P. | The Historian, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Modernity Socialism versus Orthodox Marxism: Ideological Strife in the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), 1993-1999


Guentzel, Ralph P., The Historian


SINCE THE TIMES of Karl Marx (1818-83) and Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64), acrimonious debates on questions of theory and strategy have been a main staple of the German left. Participants in these debates have brought to the battleground large arsenals of political-economy theories, historical development paradigms, and societal models. These wars of words have been fought with great intellectual rigor as feuding clans have disagreed on issues as weighty as the nature of present society, the shape of future society, and the path leading from the first to the second. It is the purpose of this article to discuss an example of one such debate which occurred during the mid-to-late 1990s.

The debate in question took place within the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which had ruled the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for forty years, and which was the only East-German party to survive the integration of the GDR into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The debate pitted two groups of party intellectuals against each other: one that championed traditional Marxist precepts and another that put forward a novel concept that combined Marxist ideas with those of non-Marxist modernity theoreticians. The dispute between the two camps focused on three major issues: the extent to which contemporary society ought to be defined, respectively, as capitalist or modern capitalist; the role of private ownership, markets, and entrepreneurialism in future socialist society; and whether a strategy of gradualism and reforms or one of steadfast resistance held greater promise.

Since students of the PDS have paid little attention to this debate, this article sets out to fill the gap thus left in the existing scholarship. (1) To begin, it will situate the clash of the two camps within the larger historical context of the evolution of the German left. Second, it will provide a brief sketch of the origins and significance of the PDS and identify its major factions. Third, it will investigate the concepts put forward by the two camps in the course of this debate and explore the tone of the confrontation. It will conclude by providing a short appraisal of the significance of this debate.

By 1890, Friedrich Engels (1820-95) and the young Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) had given the sometimes contradictory ideas of Marx a coherent shape and thus crafted what became the standard Marxist doctrine for the years to come. This doctrine, to which they referred as "scientific socialism," included four central tenets. First, existing economic and social conditions are exploitative because a small group of capitalists, who own the means of production and who are driven by the desire to make profits, appropriate the surplus-value created by an increasingly large working class. Second, both the exploitative nature of and the contradictions inherent in the existing capitalist economic and social order necessitate the creation of a socialist society in which material wealth will be shared fairly and which eventually will give way to a communist society in which everybody will be able to lead a self-determined and self-fulfilling life. Third, in the envisioned socialist and communist societies the means of production will be owned collectively. Fourth, the shift from capitalism to socialism will be brought about in revolutionary fashion by the working class once it has realized that toppling the capitalists is the only way out of its perennial misery and once the development of the productive forces has reached an advanced stage. (2)

From the mid-1890s on, two alternative leftist ideologies emerged that challenged the standard Marxist doctrine: reformism and Leninism. Pioneered by Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), reformism diverged from this doctrine on four accounts. (3) First, by focusing on the results of collective bargaining and democratic political processes, it claimed that even within the context of the existing economic and social order the working class could reduce capitalist exploitation and improve its standard of living. …

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