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Offe, Varieties, Cover

Causes of the East German Transition to a Capitalist Democracy: Economics or People

Book Essay on: Claus Offe, Varieties of Transition: The East European and East German Transition
(Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), 249 pages.
UCSB: HN380.7A80381997

by David Massey
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About David Massey

I am a senior history major who has focused much of my studies on understanding how economic factors have shaped our world. I have always been interested in German history, however it was not until recently that I became interested in the part that Eastern Europe, especially Germany, played in the Cold War. I chose to write about Offe's book because it does an admirable job of explaining the fall of socialism in Eastern Germany, with the added bonus of formulating various hypotheses on why East Germany unified with West Germany following the fall.

Abstract (back to top)

In his book Varieties of Transition: The East European and East German Tradition, Claus Offe describes the causes behind the fall of the Eastern European socialist states, and the factors that must be met in order for the growth of strong capitalist states to be made possible without the advent of corruption or self-destructive tendencies. Offe pays particular attention to East Germany, and the part that the economy played in its unique transition. While Offe gives excellent evidence to support his argument about the causes behind the fall of socialism, his complete focus on the economic and political structures in East Germany blinds him to the human factor that was involved in bringing about the fall of socialism, and the ultimate decision--not foregone conclusion--to unify with West Germany. Though he makes many valid points, Offe is unable to fully integrate the many factors that were involved in the eventual growth of capitalism in the former socialist states of Eastern Europe.

Essay (back to top)

In Varieties of Transition: The East European and East German Experience, Claus Offe compares the transition of the East European states from socialism to capitalism with that of East Germany, and comes to the conclusion that East Germany's unification with West Germany was not simply what the German people wanted, but was the only solution available under the circumstances; while Offe argues his case well, he ignores or dismisses the human aspect in the transition, which becomes detrimental to his argument. Offe's use of historical events, many of which he experienced himself, the theories of his colleagues, as well as theories of his own to explain how the transitions occurred are extremely insightful. However, while Offe's theories are very perceptive, it should be noted that he almost completely ignores the role of humans- except when deriding them as opportunists- in his intricately constructed theories, which is both disconcerting and damaging to his argument, considering the fact that humans play such a critical role in the events upon which his arguments are founded.

Offe begins his argument by putting the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe into context. He first explains that the weaknesses of state socialist systems and capitalist democracies, which stem from their most lauded strengths, are perfect mirrors of each other. While state socialist societies were able to use central planning to expertly “mobilize resources and plan their coordination,” as evidenced by the scientific wizardry of the “sputnik shock,” they did not “have any mechanisms of technological innovation and its consequent diffusion” at their disposal, resulting in the inability to incorporate new technologies into existing systems or to abolish obsolete political or cultural practices (3). In capitalist states, the opposite is true; having no “overall social objective,” capitalist states grow organically based on the judgments of the consumer (3). Competition over consumer bases breeds innovation, resulting in the ability of capitalist states to grow by easily incorporating new technologies, lest they become obsolete, which would result in the downfall of the producer (3). This constant struggle to keep pace against other producers, however, is made at the price of the astounding technological advancements that are made possible when the entire society works together, as in the state socialist societies of Eastern Europe.

Offe follows the theories of Szelenyi and Szeleni (1994) in his belief that these weaknesses of both systems have the potential to cause the downfall of each society respectively. Offe writes that the Western democracies, “due to [their] intrinsic coordination problems,” would succumb to “crisis and class conflict” as the lower classes became marginalized and the wealth gap between rich and poor became larger (7). In the Eastern socialist states, the inability to institute technological and political advancements, led to a drop in living standards which would cause an increase in dissent; ultimately ending, as the theory goes, in revolution (7). It is here, Offe argues, that the most important difference between the Eastern and Western systems can be seen: The West's inherent ability to quickly accommodate change made it possible for the mere “forecast” of this possible fall of capitalism to “spark reactions that made the [theory] self-destroying” ( 7). In the Eastern socialist states, however, no such trait existed, meaning that the socialist states had a built in flaw that would eventually lead to their demise.

Once this inherent flaw of socialism is understood, Offe writes that all that is required is a set of unique circumstances to combine to allow for the fall of a socialist state. For example, Offe argues that in East Germany, the fall had little to do with economic hardships or strong political dissent (13). He reports that while the economy lagged far behind that of West Germany, this “gloomy outlook was not common knowledge in the last years of the regime,” and he argues that, politically, the GDR saw only “weak attempts at creating opposition movements” (21). Instead, Offe explains that these circumstances were met in Germany through moral means; he explains that East German society was a system dependant for its remarkable stability on its ability to physically restrict its own working population from leaving, and by denying its people's basic political rights, such as freedom of opinion and publication (19). This system repressed the ability of its workers to harm production and productivity by making it so that they could not leave to enjoy higher standards of living elsewhere and by denying them a conduit through which they could rebel. This “repressive apparatus” was immobilized, however, when, in 1989, Hungary gave East Germans a path through which they could flee East Germany by not preventing East German tourists from traveling on to West Germany (20). This, coupled with a clear signal from the Soviet Union that it would not intervene, fearing political sanctions from the rest of the world as China had suffered following the mass murders carried out by Chinese officers in Peking in July 1989, led to a vulnerability in socialist control (21).

Following the collapse of the “repressive apparatus” in Germany, the socialist states throughout Eastern Europe began to crumble, as there was no longer anything to force them together. It is here, to this important stage between the fall of one state and the creation of another, that Offe devotes much of his attention. He describes this transitional period as an extremely dangerous and narrow path that the states of Eastern Europe had to traverse lest they fail in their attempt to create successful capitalist democracies. The most hazardous factor that the states had to deal with was changing what Offe called the “three levels of the political universe” all at once (32). These three levels of this ‘universe' were ‘nationhood,' ‘constitutional politics,' and ‘normal politics.' Offe describes nationhood as the collective identity of the new states (cultural change), constitutional politics as the rules, procedures and rights that had to be followed (political change), and ‘normal politics' as ‘who gets what, when, and how' (political and economic power structure). In most capitalist states, the constructions of these three aspects of the state grow at different times and different speeds. Offe writes that in other states, “the nations last for centuries, constitutions for many decades and governments or positive laws passed by the legislature for just a few years” (33). This separation, according to Offe, both allows for the state to grow without obstructing itself, and to do so over such a long period of time that a “veil of ignorance” is cast over the structure, preventing its manipulation by persons with their own interests in mind.

In the case of the East European states, however, the change in the “political universe” had to occur rapidly and all at once, creating a situation in which uncontrollable growth caused the obstruction of each tier by the others, and allowed for the corruption of the state by opportunists who are able to pierce the veil of ignorance due to the lack of a time barrier between the construction of each tier. In order to avoid this, Offe believed that the best course of action would be to follow Albert O. Hirschman's theory on the topic which stresses the “political economy of patience” (46). Basically, this method is a process of “buying time” through a policy based on incentives from the international system, the mitigation of “growing pains” through the use of internal redistribution of wealth, and the creation of “intermediary bodies” like trade unions and parties which would provide representation while at the same time being constitutionally prohibited from creating “exploitative coalitions” to exclude third parties (46-47). Such a system would allow the process of political reconstruction to move at a pace which is more in common with the growth of past capitalist democracies. In slowing the rate of growth, it would become possible for people to try to expand all three tiers at once without as much fear of creating situations that either cause the system to obstruct itself or allow opportunists to corrupt the system.

After explaining the difficulties facing the East European transition as a whole, Offe switches to an explanation of the East German transition, which he believes is drastically different than that of the other East European states in that while the other states had political, cultural, and economic changes to make, East Germany only had one of these, the economy, to develop in an attempt to create a capitalist democracy. Offe argues that the East Germans could not develop a democratic political structure of their own because they lacked any politicians or political institutions to do so; any political abilities of relevance, according to Offe, had been “expatriated to West Germany at the beginning of socialist rule” in order to remove a threat to socialism (13). Without these seasoned politicians and political institutions, no matter how much time was ‘bought' through stalling attempts, it would still be impossible for East Germany to create a political structure that was not corrupt or completely unfeasible. Offe reports that this situation was made even more dismal because, culturally, East Germany had not known a type of government that was remotely democratic since the Weimar Republic; this “lack of a collective memory” of a democratic state in Germany, argues Offe, meant that nobody living in East Germany had any idea how to encourage the growth of a democratic society. While East Germany did have a strong industrial base, and could have rebuilt its economy, its lack of political, or cultural standing separate from being ‘German' made it impossible for East Germany to do anything other than unite with West Germany. While the unification of Germany would require vast amounts of capital to be poured into East Germany, all of which would come from the pockets of West Germans, Offe writes that it was the only way for the aberration that was East Germany to become anything other than an “economic entity” (15, 141). While unification meant that East Germany ceased to exist as economically independent, it also meant that it would become part of something that one could recognize as a sovereign nation. To bring about unification, massive “nationalist” campaigns were taken up to encourage people to welcome East Germany back into the fold, while at the same time paying for East Germany to “catch up” economically (147). In effect, the “former GDR [was] subordinated to the legal, economic, currency and social system of the former FRG” (148). Following unification, nothing of the GDR remained; instead, the FRG had taken over management of Eastern Germany in its entirety. While the other Eastern European states had a chance to convert to a capitalist democracy, Offe argues that East Germany, due to its lack of any political or cultural standing whatsoever, had no such opportunity, and was forced into unification whether it wanted to or not.

Though Offe's arguments are very interesting, they are only half of what would be required in order to be able to so adamantly state that East Germany had no other choice than to unify with West Germany; that half being a discussion of the human factor in the East German transition. Politically, Offe completely dismisses democratic opposition that made itself known during the fall of socialism in 1989 by stating that it was too “weak” to cause the fall on its own; while there were some democratic movements in action at the time, Offe believes that they were little more than an annoyance to the government (21). This response to the idea that the human factor, as opposed to the economic factor, had anything to do with the fall of socialism ignores the fact that very few governments in history have been overthrown by oppositional forces without events like those of 1989 happening. Offe's dismissal of this democratic opposition early on blinds him to the possibility that such a group would be able to become the new leaders in an East German democracy that did not have to constantly fight against an oppressive government. Secondly, the cultural argument that the East Germans had no way to unify themselves into a capitalist democracy because all they had was a national “German identity” defeats itself (144). The mere idea that the East Germans had an identity that permeated the whole of East Germany gives credence to the idea that they would be able to join together as a new nation if it was their will. The main point of this argument is that East Germany could have become a capitalist democracy, it simply chose not to because it had a better option in unification. By ignoring the human factor, Offe missed the vital aspect of the transition of East Germany to a capitalist democracy: human choice.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Ganev, Venelin. “Making Sense of Postcommunism.” East European Constitutional Review 7.1 (1998): 6-12. New York University School of Law. <http://www1.law.nyu.edu/eecr/vol7num1/constitutional.html>
    Venelin thoroughly explains Offe's key arguments and applauds his analysis, both on how socialism fell in Eastern Europe and on what factors impeded the growth of capitalism in the newly democratic states. Like me, however, Venelin also criticizes Offe for his apparent inability to give human agency any credit for either the fall of socialism or the rise of democratic republics in Eastern Europe.
  • Legvold, Robert. “Review of Varieties of Transition: The East European and East German Experience.” Foreign Affairs. (July/August 1997): 1. (Foreign Affairs link)
    Legvold breaks Offe's arguments down into two groups. First, according to Legvold, is a discussion over whether the normal approach to analyzing change is appropriate in the case of the East German and East European transition. Second, Legvold argues that Offe tries to show that it would not be fair to put the new governments up against the “Western model” due to the huge cultural and temporal differences between the two models. Overall Legvold comes away with the feeling that Offe creates more questions than he does answers in his work, though that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Web Sites:

  • German Notes. “History of East Germany (1949-1990)” (8 December 2006) <http:www.germannotes.com/hist_east_overview.shtml>
    This page serves to give further background knowledge on East Germany as well as giving better information regarding the causes of the downfall of socialism in the Eastern European countries and how capitalism has fared thus far in the former East Germany.
  • Wikipedia. “ East Germany,” wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Germany.
    This page gives an overview of the entire history of East Germany and supplies much of the background knowledge that is necessary to understand how the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe came about. It also serves to provide many details that Offe barely mentions or completely skips over in his haste to delve into the depths of the political and economic structure of East Germany.
  • Wikipedia. “German Reunification,” wikipedia.org/wiki/German_reunification.
    This page describes East German unification with West Germany, and helps create an understanding of the difference between the absorption into West Germany that East Germany experienced as opposed to it being considered an annexed sovereign state. This knowledge is necessary in order to understand many of Offe's arguments and would help a great deal to combat the confusion that may arise from reading Offe's essays.

Books and Articles:

  • Balcerowicz, Leszek. Socialism, Capitalism, Transformation (Central European University Press, 1996), 384 pages.
    While Offe's analysis of the fall of the Eastern European socialist states and rise of capitalism focuses on the problems that he believed would occur in the transition, Balcerowicz's work attempts to shows how these problems were combated. Using first hand accounts of his own work in building capitalism, Balcerowicz essays are an excellent complement to Offe, in that they show whether or not his warnings were heeded, or if they were even necessary.
  • Kornai, Janos. From Socialism to Capitalism: Eight Essays (Central European University Press, 2008), 256 pages.
    As the title suggests, in eight essays Kornai examines socialism, capitalism, democracy, and the change of system following the fall of government. Included in this focus are the Central and East European countries analyzed by Offe, making Kornai's work something to look over in order to get a different perspective on Offe's arguments.
  • Petras, James. “Capitalism Versus Socialism: The Great Debate Revisited.” Rebellion ( 28 June 2004) < http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/PET406B.html>
    Petras' article focuses on the economic aftermath of the transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe. Petras gives the reader excellent examples of why what Offe was writing about is so important. The ramifications of socialism and the transition to capitalism still affect Germany today, and this article portrays just how widespread those changes are in the European economy, society, and culture.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/16/08; last updated: 3/27/13 [html codes, "re"unification]
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