Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

Future Perfect: The Strange Case of East Germany’s “Developed Social System of Socialism,” 1968-1971

Fri31  Mar12:45pm(15 mins)
James Watt South Stephenson Room


Alexander Petrusek1
1 Berlin Program/Free University Berlin, Germany


In 1969, a curious book appeared in East Germany (GDR): “Political Economy of Socialism and its Application in the GDR.” While seemingly another tome on socialist history, economics, and planning, the book actually posed a signal challenge to Marxist-Leninist ideology. Its authors, including the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) leader Walter Ulbricht, proposed that socialism was a wholly new mode of production, “the developed social system of socialism,” that would lead to communism – and the GDR, not the USSR, then led the world in its realization. This thesis was based on a decade of intense economic and social experimentation in the GDR, reforms that deployed cybernetics, prognostics, and information technology to create a new stage of socialist development. Yet for conservatives in the SED and Soviet leadership, the resulting “developed social system of socialism” seemed to replace Marxist class warfare with technocratic management, leading to an open rift between the two camps. Thus the book was quickly condemned by the Soviet newspaper Pravda, precipitating a long leadership crisis that led to Ulbricht’s resignation in 1971. His successor, Erich Honecker, repudiated the reforms and pursued a return to central planning, tighter political control, and Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. This presentation thus details the rise of reform in the GDR in the 1960s, its expression in "Political Economy," and how the book's fate also presaged the end of reform in the GDR.