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Rudolf Bahro was born November 18, 1935, in Bad Flinsberg in Lower Silesia (now Poland). As a child refugee at the end of World War II (1939–1945), fleeing the advance of the Soviet armies, Bahro lost his mother and both his sisters. Bahro studied philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin from 1954 to 1959, during which time he joined the East German Communist Party. He worked as an editor for municipal and party papers, and later became a consultant to the presiding board of directors at the only trade union academy in East Germany. In 1965 Bahro took over the post of acting head editor for the newspaper Forum. The unauthorized publication of a critical piece, Volker Braun’s “Kipper Paul Bauch,” led to his resignation in 1967. Afterward, he worked at the paper as a production supervisor.
By the 1970s Bahro had emerged as a prominent critic of the East German Communist Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, abbreviated SED). It was entirely clear, however, that the leadership of the SED had absolutely no intention of entering into a dialogue with Bahro on the issue of basic reform in lateStalinist East Germany. Robert Havemann, the other prominent critic of the East German regime, was under house arrest in Grünheide near Berlin, guarded by operatives of the East German security police (the Stasi). On August 23, 1977—shortly after publishing “Against Oneself and against One’s People” in the West German news magazine Der Spiegel and discussing his forthcoming book, The Alternative, in several television interviews— Bahro was arrested by the Stasi.
Bahro, who developed his critique within a Marxist framework, accused the Communist Party leadership of betraying socialist ideals. Characterizing the states of Eastern Europe as systems of organized irresponsibility, he analyzed their political economy and aspects of their industrial production. He recommended far-reaching reforms of the administrative apparatus—indeed, an overhaul of the entire political structure. In Bahro’s view, the Eastern Bloc was not merely an example of deformed socialism, but rather a social reality based on entirely different principles. He accused the Soviet leadership of having, through its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, robbed itself and the peoples of Eastern Europe of the experience of socialism with a human face. He demanded true economic democracy, without wage privileges for tiny elites, and also the elimination of the existing division of labor. Genuine institutional self-rule, Bahro declared, must gradually develop from below, with freedom of personal development a necessary condition. He believed that a coalition drawing from all political tendencies could lead the way out of self-imposed imprisonment. All this was conceived as a new vision of communism. Altogether some 300,000 copies of The Alternative were sold, and the book was translated into numerous other languages.
Bahro was sentenced to eight years in prison. The international league for human rights awarded him the Carl von Ossietzsky medal, and numerous authors and political figures demanded his release. Bahro was granted amnesty in 1979 and left for West Germany, where he became one of the cofounders of the Green Party.
Believing that a political solution to the ecological crisis could only be achieved through a broad coalition spanning existing political divisions, he embraced everyone from the left-wing student activist Rudi Dutschke to the right-wing ecologist Herbert Gruhl. In his early years in West Germany, Bahro also devoted much of his time to the peace movement. He favored unilateral disarmament for both sides.
Because the Greens operated on the basis of an “ecocosmetic” and reformist mode of power-sharing, Bahro left that party in 1985. Bahro’s second major work, Logik der Rettung (The logic of salvation, 1987; revised and translated as Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster, 1994), traced the connections between the ecological crisis facing civilization and Western political-economic systems. The industrial capitalist “megamachine” was globally overstepping the boundaries of nature, causing irreparable climate change. It would be necessary to decrease industrial production tenfold, through changes in economic structures and lifestyles. There would have to be a sociopsychological alteration of the attitudes characteristic of business, so that a new spirit could be born. Bahro also asserted the need for a democratically run ecological superauthority, to monitor and enforce ecological change.
In 1990 Bahro returned to East Germany. Between 1990 and 1997, he gave well-attended lectures at Humboldt University, in which he addressed questions of spirituality and communal action in a socioecological context, drawing on influential thinkers from Lao-Tse to Martin Heidegger to Erich Fromm. His lectures and interviews were published in several books: Rückkehr (The return, 1991), Apokalypse oder Geist einer neuen Zeit (Apocalypse or the spirit of a new age, 1995), and Wege zur ökologischen Zeitenwende (Means of the end of an ecological era, 2002). In another book that remains unpublished, he set out his views and asked which elements of Marxism and of the collapsed East German state ought to be maintained.
Bahro died of leukemia in 1997. In 2002, in Germany, Guntolf Herzberg and Kurt Seifert brought out a comprehensive biography of this prophetic thinker.
- Alt, Franz, Rudolf Bahro, and Marko Ferst. 2002. Wege zur ökologischen Zeitenwende: Reformalternativen und Visionen und für ein zukunftsfähiges Kultursystem [Means of the end of an ecological era: Alternative reforms and visions for an outstanding future culture]. Books on Demand.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1978. The Alternative in Eastern Europe. Trans. David Fernbach. London: NLB.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1982. Socialism and Survival: (Articles, Essays, and Talks, 1979–1982). London: Heretic Books.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1984. From Red to Green: Interviews with New Left Review. Trans. Gus Fagan and Richard Hurst. London: Verso.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1986. Building the Green Movement. Trans. Mary Tyler. London: GMP.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1991. Rückkehr: Die In-Weltkrise als Ursprung der Weltzerstörung [The return: The global crisis as the beginning of the end of the world]. Berlin: Altis.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1994. Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Spiritual and Ecological Politics. Trans. David Clarke. Bath, U.K.: Gateway Books. Revised version of book originally published as Logik der Rettung: Wer kann die Apokalypse aufhalten? Ein Versuch über die Grundlagen ökologischer Politik (Stuttgart: K. Thienemanns, 1987).
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1995. Apokalypse oder Geist einer neuen Zeit [Apocalypse or the spirit of a new age]. Berlin: Das Neue Berlin.
- Bahro, Rudolf. 1995. Das Buch von der Befreiung aus dem Untergang der DDR [The book of deliverance after the fall of East Germany]. (Unpublished.)
- Herzberg, Guntolf, and Kurt Seifert. 2002. Rudolf Bahro: Glaube an das Veränderbare: Eine Biographie. Berlin: Christoph Links.
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