Rudolf Bahro

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To bring it down to the basic concept, we must build up areas liberated from the industrial system. That means, liberated from nuclear weapons and from supermarkets. What we are talking about is a new social formation and a new civilisation.1

Rudolf Bahro was a communist dissident, an early member of the German Greens and a leading proponent of spiritual green political thought and action. Bahro originally became well known as the author of The Alternative in Eastern Europe, which he wrote during the 1970s while he was a dissident Marxist and party member in the former East Germany. This work was described by Herbert Marcuse as 'The most important contribution to Marxist theory and practice to appear in several decades'. In it Bahro argued that Eastern Europe's non-capitalist, communist development path has been shaped and corrupted by the same growth and materialist aims as Western capitalism. In 1977, the ruling communist government sentenced him to prison for his dissident activities and writings, and in 1979 he was deported to what was then West Germany, in part due to international protests at his imprisonment.

Soon after he arrived in West Germany, Bahro became involved with the nascent German Greens (Die Gruen), affirming that 'red and green go well together',2 and urged communist groups to dissolve themselves and work within the Die Gruen. As such he was strongly identified with the 'eco-socialist' wing of the Green movement, arguing for a synthesis of green and socialist ideals and aims. He was clear that such a rapprochement required the critical reconstruction of socialist politics, a central aspect of which was a rejection of the productivist and 'materialist abundance' dimensions of Marxist socialism, and the emergence of what Bahro called a 'historical compromise' between the labour movement and new social movements (environmental, feminist, peace), and a rejection of Marxist 'class politics' and proletarian revolution. While a resolute critique of capitalism and consumerism, Bahro's view (which had much in common with Antonio Gramsci's 'anti-hegemony' political strategy) was that what was required to defeat capitalism and create a more sustainable, just, democratic and peaceful social order, was a 'rainbow coalition' of all anti-capitalist social forces, and not just the labour movement and the industrial working class. Thus at this stage, Bahro's politics shared much with that of Andre Gorz's 'red-green' position.

An example of where Bahro differed from Marxists was in relation to the creation of a more egalitarian and just world order in terms of the present inequalities between the developed 'North' and un/ underdeveloped 'South'. The classic Marxist view would be that what is needed is 'communism on a world scale', a constitutive aspect of which would be the raising of the living standards and lifestyles of the 'Third world' to 'First world' levels. Against this 'cornucopian' view, Bahro, expressing a common Green view that this Marxist myth is both ecologically unsustainable (i.e. physically impossible) and spiritually undesirable/unworthy, proposed that, 'With a pinch of salt one might say.. .the path of reconciliation with the Third World might consist in our becoming Third World ourselves'.3

Throughout the early 1980s, Bahro became an increasingly vocal and public critic of the 'realo' wing of the German Greens (those who became generally committed to competing for, winning and exercising parliamentary power) and became a leading spokesperson for the 'fundi' or fundamentalist wing of the party. The 'fundi-realo' split within the German Greens, a division which also emerged in other Green parties and green political thinking, owes much to the passion and conviction with which Bahro railed against what he saw as the corruption and co-option of the radical and emancipatory potential of Die Gruen by 'the system'. He ultimately left the party in 1985. He and his companion Christine Schröter called for an end to all animal experimentation. The party agreed, but decided to make exceptions in the case of medical research, which was unacceptable to Bahro's uncompromising position.

In the mid 1980s, in keeping with his disillusionment with Die Gruen and 'normal' democratic politics, he began to speak less in political terms and more in religious terms, asking that 'the emphasis [be] shifted from politics and the question of power towards the cultural the prophetic level.. .Our aim has to be the "reconstruction of God"'.4 Bahro had come to the view that if the Greens were to address the ecological crisis by radically changing society, they had to focus their efforts on psychological, cultural and spiritual levels. As he put it: 'If we take a look in history at the foundation on which new cultures were based or existing ones essentially changed, we always come up against the fact that in such times people returned to those strata of consciousness which are traditionally described as religious.'5 For Bahro, personal inner transformation was a necessary and desirable part of the wider social and cultural transformation of Western civilization away from its ecologically destructive path.

Green politics must be based on spiritualistic values, in Bahro's view, because, as Eckersley points out, for Bahro 'the challenge of ecological degradation is primarily a cultural and spiritual one and only secondarily an economic one'.6 Echoing the redemptive character of deep ecology, Bahro's vision of Green politics is of a life- and earth-affirming spirituality and the primary aim of Green politics is to be uncompromising in bringing about radical cultural change from which political and economic change will follow. A central part of Bahro's analysis focuses on the failures of Western civilization and the Enlightenment as a whole, and his argument is that nothing less than change at the level of civilization will prevent what he calls the 'logic of exterminism' within the 'mega-machine' (a term he borrows from Lewis Mumford) from destroying the planet and humanity along with it.

Bahro's 'social ecology' is a combination of spirituality, deep ecology, 'post-industrial utopianism',7 and what Eckersley calls 'ecomonasticism',8 a form of Green politics in which the strategy is of 'withdrawal and renewal' or 'opting-out' from the life-denying logic of the industrial 'mega-machine', and the creation of 'Liberated Zones'. These Liberated Zones provide protection for alternative ecological practices and values, places within which experiments in sustainable living can take place, and finally bases from which ecological, cultural and spiritual renewal and change will come. This eco-monastic perspective he shares with Theodore Roszak. As Ferris notes, Bahro's view is that 'Greens should opt out of industrial society by adopting a new lifestyle and living in small self-sufficient communes. Eventually, the communes would demonstrate a qualitatively better way of life that others would wish to adopt.'9 His ultimate vision of the 'sustainable society' is of an 'ecoanarchist' federation of communes, comprised of small-scale, face-to-face communities which produce and consume the vast majority of what they require, a way of 'living lightly' on the planet.

In 1989, Bahro co-founded a combination educational centre and commune near Trier, the Lernwerkstatt (an 'ecological academy for one world'), whose purpose is to synthesize spirituality and politics, to put the eco-monastic ideal into practice. It presents lectures, cultural events and weekend workshops on various New Age themes, including deep ecology, ecofeminism, Zen Buddhism, holistic nutrition, Sufism, and other alternative theories, therapies and practices. Bahro also held a professorship at Humboldt University in Berlin in 'social ecology', but Bahro's work is not to be confused with the social ecology conceived and developed by Murray Bookchin.

Critics, both within and outside the Green movement, were concerned at the nationalistic tone of his position which was in contradiction with the Green slogan of 'act locally, think globally'. For example, in the early 1980s peace movement, he alarmed many by enunciating nationalistic arguments against the deployment of Pershing missiles. Some accused him of flirting with fascism, authoritarian spirituality and linking ecological politics to right-wing/conservative/nationalistic values and principles. He has been portrayed as believing that the ecological crisis is resolvable only through authoritarian, non-democratic means. He calls for a spiritually based and hierarchically elitist 'salvation government' or a 'god-state' (Gottesstaat) 'that will be run by a "new political authority at the highest level": a "prince of the ecological turn"'.10 Bahro's apocalyptic analysis leads him to suggest that what is required is a 'rescue government', which would be an emergency or crisis government which while possessing absolute power, and thus a non-democratic political order, would be a transitional rather than permanent political arrangement. Standing above Bahro's later analysis of and political prescriptions for the ecological crisis seem to be modern, Green descendants of Plato's Guardians—dedicated, knowledgeable and wise elite stewards who will guide society in the right direction away from ecological, spiritual and cultural disaster, who govern without any democratic input from the people. His thought also echoes aspects of the early eco-authoritarian diagnosis of the ecological crisis put forward by William Ophuls,11 and his call for an 'ecological Leviathan', as well as some deep ecological arguments that 'What is required is a new type of warrior—a person who is intense, centred, persistent, gentle, sincere, attentive and alert.'12

A rather startling example of the distance he had travelled since his early 'red-green' position is his statement that

The most important thing is that.. .[people] take the path 'back' and align themselves with the Great Equilibrium, in the harmony between the human order and the Tao of life. I think the 'esoteric'-political theme of 'king and queen of the world' is basically the question of how men and women are to comprehend and interact with each other in a spiritually comprehensive way. Whoever does not bring themselves to cooperate with the world government [Weltregierung] will get their due.13

While the mystical/spiritual-cum-cultural focus of Bahro's analysis here would find some support in the wider Green movement, the antidemocratic and indeed anti-political sentiment would not. His call for a return to the something that was lost is close to other 'green mavericks', such as the British ecological writer and activist (and founder of The Ecologist magazine) Ted Goldsmith's prescription of a return to 'the way',14 and Paul Shepard's 'back to the neolithic' suggestion.15 However, it is the increasingly authoritarian dimension of Bahro's thought and strategy for dealing with the ecological crisis that many Greens find most worrying.

Ultimately, Bahro's legacy is a mixed one: a formative influence within the largest and most successful Green party in the world, the German Greens; a central figure in the fundi/realo split within the latter, and at the same time 'exporting' this 'radical/reformist' dichotomy to the theory and practice of the global Green movement as a whole; a defender of the position that Green politics and action is resolutely 'beyond left and right', and committed to a utopian, total transformation of the current socio-political order. However, for some, Bahro's thought and action could be said to be a study in someone who starts on the left and moves progressively to the right. At the same time, and consistent with the evolution of his thought, Bahro put the cultural, psychological and spiritual aims of the Green movement on the map as central substantive and strategic issues that had to be dealt with as essential to the resolution of the associated crises that together make up the ecological crisis.


1 Building the Green Movement, p. 29.

2 Bahro, quoted in Werner Hulsberg, The German Greens: A Social and Political Profile, London: Verso, p. 93, 1988.

3 Building the Green Movement, p. 88.

5 Building the Green Movement, p. 90.

6 Robyn Eckersley, Environmentalism and Political Theory, p. 164.

7 Boris Frankel, The Post-industrial Utopians.

9 John Ferris, 'Introduction', in Helmut Wiesenthal, Realism in Green Politics: Social Movements and Ecological Reform in Germany, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 13, 1993.

10 The Logic of Salvation, p. 325.

11 William Ophuls, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1977.

12 Bill Devall, Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practising Deep Ecology, London: Green Print, p. 197, 1990.

13 Bahro, quoted in Jutta Ditfurth, Feuer in die Herzen: Plädoyer für eine Ökologische Linke Opposition, Hamburg: Carlsen Verlag, pp. 207-8, 1992, emphasis added.

14 Edward Goldsmith, The Way: 87 Principles for an Ecological World, London: Rider, 1991.

15 Paul Shepard, 'A Post-Historic Primitivism', in Max Oelschlaeger (ed.), The Wilderness Condition, Washington, DC, and Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1994.

See also in this book

Bookchin, Marx

Bahro's major writings

The Alternative in Eastern Europe: Towards a Critique of Real, Existing Socialism,

London: New Left Books, 1979. Socialism and Survival, London: Heretic Books, 1982. From Red to Green, London: Verso, 1984. Building the Green Movement, London: Heretic Books, 1986. The Logic of Salvation. Logik der Rettung: Wer kann dieApokalypse aufhalten?— Ein Versuch über die Grundlagen ökologischer Politik, Stuttgart and Vienna: Transaction Press, 1987. Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation, Bath: Gateway Books, 1994.

Further reading

Dobson, A., Green Political Thought, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 1995. Eckersley, R., Environmentalism and Political Theory, London: UCL Press, 1992. Frankel, B., The Post-industrial Utopians, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.


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