Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism

Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism

by Andreas Glaeser

What does the durability of political institutions have to do with how actors form knowledge about them? Andreas Glaeser investigates this question in the context of a fascinating historical case: socialist East Germany’s unexpected self-dissolution in 1989. His analysis builds on extensive in-depth interviews with former secret police officers and the

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What does the durability of political institutions have to do with how actors form knowledge about them? Andreas Glaeser investigates this question in the context of a fascinating historical case: socialist East Germany’s unexpected self-dissolution in 1989. His analysis builds on extensive in-depth interviews with former secret police officers and the dissidents they tried to control as well as research into the documents both groups produced. In particular, Glaeser analyzes how these two opposing factions’ understanding of the socialist project came to change in response to countless everyday experiences. These investigations culminate in answers to two questions: why did the officers not defend socialism by force? And how was the formation of dissident understandings possible in a state that monopolized mass communication and group formation? He also explores why the Stasi, although always well informed about dissident activities, never developed a realistic understanding of the phenomenon of dissidence.

Out of this ambitious study, Glaeser extracts two distinct lines of thought. On the one hand he offers an epistemic account of socialism’s failure that differs markedly from existing explanations. On the other hand he develops a theory—a sociology of understanding—that shows us how knowledge can appear validated while it is at the same time completely misleading.

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Editorial Reviews

Dominic Boyer
“This is a wonderful book that at long last explains the epistemological reasons behind the collapse of Eastern European state socialism. Through Glaeser’s intensive case study, we learn how socialist party-states cultivated particular modes of understanding the world whose inflexible, self-referential character eventually contributed to an enormous gap between the political imagination of the party-state and that of its citizens, which led to popular discrediting, cynicism, and collapse. Along the way, he introduces us to a pioneering theory of how institutions and understandings co-constitute one another. There is, in sum, no shortage of genius in Political Epistemics—it is a magnificent testimony to the resurgence of the sociology of knowledge and its provocative arguments and conclusions will be debated widely for years to come.”—Dominic Boyer, Rice University
Jeffrey Olick

“This is nothing less than a Summa Sociologica masquerading as a masterful ethnography of the collapse of East German socialism. Political Epistemics will further establish Glaeser’s reputation as one of our leading scholars, one whose far-reaching vision will take the field in important new directions. Its achievements are monumental and it will surely be a landmark work for readers serious enough to take it seriously.”—Jeffrey Olick, University of Virginia

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University of Chicago Press
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Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning Series
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The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism
By Andreas Glaeser


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-29794-1

Chapter One

From Marx to Conscious Social Transformation

The young Hegelians logically put to men the moral postulate of exchanging their present consciousness ... and thus of removing their limitations. This demand to change consciousness amounts to a demand to interpret reality in another way.... The youngest ones of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare that they are only fighting against "idle talk." They forget, however, that to this idle talk they themselves are only opposing other idle talk, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world. MARX, GERMAN IDEOLOGY

As everybody knows, communist society ... cannot be the result of the realization of historical necessity. This society gets created ... on the basis of the deeply conscious, goal-directed activity of every single one of us. STANDARD SOVIET PROPAGANDA HANDBOOK

In contradistinction to all former social formations, socialism is created and developed by the conscious, planned action of the people. ERICH HONECKER


Anybody who approaches the "actually existing socialisms" (Bahro 1977) of Eastern Europe with the Marxian base-superstructure model in mind and with the vague notion that socialist countries have realized some Marxian model of state and society is up for a big surprise. For socialist practices and ideologies have de facto inverted that model. This can be well illustrated by a central passage of the program of the Socialist Unity Party (Benser and Naumann 1986, 98–169) of East Germany.

Marxism-Leninism is, in the unity of all its parts, the theoretical foundation for all actions of the party. Only on the basis of this generally valid scientific theory and its further creative development, is it possible to fight the revolutionary battle for the interests of the working class and of all working people. Marxism-Leninism is the reliable compass for creating the developed socialist society in transition to communism. The Socialist Unity Part of Germany provides direction and aim for the conscious, planned activity of the working people; it consolidates and strengthens socialist class consciousness; it awakens and promotes the creative initiative of the people for the creation of the socialist society and socialist manners and customs. It is the main goal of the political-ideological actions of the Socialist Unity Party to equip the working class and all working people with the revolutionary ideas of Marxism-Leninism, to explain to them the policy of the party, to develop their socialist thinking, feeling, and acting, to mobilize them for the solution of the tasks at hand, and to fortify them against the influence of imperialist and bourgeois ideology. Every member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany must be an active fighter at the ideological front. Wherever communists live and work, they will disseminate and defend Marxism-Leninism as the roadmap for conscious action on behalf of the interest of the working class and of all working people, they will demonstrate the superiority of socialism, of its values, and of its accomplishments. (My emphasis, 159–60) Echoing this vision of what socialism was about, the Stasi officers who were my interview partners have all stressed the importance of ideology as the basis of social life in the GDR. This is how Herbert Eisner put it:

Socialism is very sensitive to ideological disturbances. The bracket that keeps the whole thing together is ideology, and if this bracket is weakened the whole system falls apart. In capitalism this bracket is money. Thus we always spoke of the ideological work, the party-educational work that aimed to make everybody identify with it. The idea was that I will raise my children, that I will influence the neighborhood, the parents' council at school, the national front, the association of fishermen, whatever, in accordance with party policy. We wanted everybody to internalize the policy of the party.

Now, had Eisner uttered these precise words at a party meeting during the lifetime of the GDR, chances are that he might have been censored for deviating from the party line in the direction of idealism, although it is quite clear that he more or less puts into his own words the whole thrust of the program passage quoted above. At least he would have had to acknowledge that capitalism and socialism both have an economic base and that socialism is not just kept together by ideology. However, all former Stasi officers I could talk with, alongside a great number of former party officials who have published their memoirs and even the party itself, emphasize the centrality of ideology for socialism's success.

It is, then, one of those ironies of history that central practices and institutions of Eastern European socialisms cannot be understood properly until one begins to appreciate the fundamental role ideology has played in a variety of ways in its everyday operations and in its historical development as especially more recent scholarship has pointed out (Verdery 1991; Burawoy and Lukács 1992; Lampland 1995; Kotkin 1995; Kharkhordin 1999; Halfin 2000; Boyer 2005; Hellbeck 2006; Yurchak 2006). Indeed, I shall argue, one can not understand Eastern European socialisms unless one confronts them as forms of idealism with strong rationalistic underpinnings. The irony does not lie in the fact that the people embodying these institutions and practices were idealists in the common sense of the word, or that they thought of themselves as working for a greater good. Given the harm oft en willingly incurred in the pursuit of this good, this is rather a tragedy of shattering proportions. The irony lies much more in the fact that these institutions and practices were idealistic in the philosophical sense that ideas were de facto afforded primacy over "material," that is, physical and social realities. In fact, socialism fetishized certain ideas. Thus, a gulf emerges between socialist practices and part of socialism's self-avowed theory, Marxism, because the latter was constructed precisely against the foil of philosophical idealism, which was not only the perennial target of Marx's and Engels's vigorous criticism but also the favorite object of their biting derision. In spite of the frequent invocation of Marx in socialist rhetoric, then, socialist practice was in an important sense very un-Marxian. It inverted the Marxian "inversion of Hegel" once more in developing what was, in effect, a consciousness-driven model of social transformation. In the end, Eastern European socialists were Marxists almost in spite of themselves and in a rather paradoxical sort of way. In the rest of this chapter I hope to show how this happened. The ensuing history of socialism's self-understandings, which includes a consideration of the meta-understandings that were used in producing them, would be worth a book in its own right. What follows are, in fast forward mode, what I see as highlights and turning points.

Marxian Beginnings

To get a better sense about divergences and congruencies between Marx's theory and Eastern European socialist practice it may be useful to recapitulate briefly what Marx had to say about the relationship between understandings and other kinds of institutions. As we shall see, the base- superstructure model is only one, if a strong streak, in his thought on this relationship. In the German Ideology (1958a) Marx famously assigns consciousness (and with it what I have referred to as discursive understandings) to the superstructure, his umbrella term for the total set of determined institutions. Besides consciousness, it also includes politics, the state, science, and the arts. He calls the determining set of institutions base, which includes the fragmentation of society into two antagonistic classes, a system of productive relations (such as property regimes) and a constellation of productive forces constituted by the integration of the social organization of production in a concrete division of labor with a particular set of skills and technologies as well as with available material resources. Arguing for a particular direction for the flow of effect, Marx asserts rather unambiguously that "life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life (1958a, 27)." The explicit reasoning behind postulating a unidirectional determining effect flow from economic institutions to all other kinds of institutions is Marx's assumption that as physical creatures human beings need to reproduce themselves materially; humans have to be (whether they like it or not) above all Homo faber to satisfy their historically specific material needs.

Moreover, Marx sees ideas not only as a direct outgrowth of a mode of production, but he also sees these ideas as completely misrepresenting social life. In a society ruptured by the abyss of class, everybody lives in false consciousness. The reason is simple. With the help of intellectuals, the dominant class forms its understandings exclusively from within its own social position, that is, in response to its own experiences, problems, and anxieties, which is to say from one particular perspective. By universalizing these understandings grounded in the particularity of standpoint and history they do not only become apologetic but also fundamentally false. Wages, for example, are interpreted by capitalists with the help of liberal economists as market prices determined by the universal law of supply and demand. From where they stand neither capitalists nor the economist working for them can see that prices are the result of a historically specific set of power relations resulting from a particular mode of production. They could neither understand, much less admit, that it is the power inherent in an economically defined position rather than merit that affords them income and status, nor that the wages they pay amount to exploitation (or as he later [e.g., 1962b] argues in greater processual detail: that in fact they need to be exploitative if they are to remain competitive as capitalists).

Since the dominant class also has at its disposal the institutional means to impose its way of thinking on the dominated class, these ideas also become generalized—in capitalism, for example, through the institutions of the state and the state-run educational system. Accordingly, "the thoughts of the dominant class are in every epoch the dominant thoughts, that is, the class which is the dominant material power is at the same time the dominant intellectual power" (1958a, 46). Together, false universalization and generalization make the understandings generated by or on behalf of the dominant class ideological. Interestingly, Marx does not move from here to conclude that these ideologies, false and misleading as they may be, might still have a stabilizing effect on the institutional order of society. For the writer of the German Ideology they remain without consequences, they are a mere epiphenomenon. In this sense, the term ideology (as opposed to science, as we shall see) has both practically and theoretically a thoroughly negative meaning for Marx. For him, ideologies are dead (but strangely not as Horkheimer and Adorno [1971] have argued: deadening) collections of symbols.

The base-superstructure argument is by no means only a feature of the early Marx's thought. The preface to the 1859 Critique of Political Economy (1961) provides an oft en-quoted formulation of the argument in summary form:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite, necessary relations that are independent of their will. These are relations of production that correspond to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual process of life per se. It is not the consciousness of human beings that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—which is just a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have operated until now. From frameworks for the development of productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then starts an era of social revolution. With the change in the economic basis, the whole tremendous superstructure gets overturned more or less speedily. In the consideration of such transformations, one always has to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and argue it. As little as one judges individuals by what they deem themselves to be, one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness. To the contrary, this consciousness must be explained with the help of the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production.

There has been quite some dispute about the proper interpretation of this passage, which pertains to the relationship between productive forces and the relations of production. However, there is no doubt that both together constitute a historically specific mode of production that is the material base that in turn determines the superstructure, including discourse.

As behooves a passionate dialectician, Marx's thinking about the relationship between understandings and other institutions is, however, more complex than his base-superstructure model suggests (Williams 1977). The latter's place within the development of Marx's thought can only be appreciated if one takes into account that the origin of this model lies in his fierce polemic against the left neo-Hegelians. In fact, he feels an almost violent urge to distance himself from them, not least because they stand for a part of his own becoming. In the obsessive attempt to avoid anything that might even faintly smack of idealism, the Marx of German Ideology therefore drains the baby with the bath water; he is unable to conceive of a genuine action-reaction mediated dialectic between understandings and other kinds of social institutions. Nevertheless, true to his own, in the twenty-six-year-old's exhortation pronounced in his "eleventh thesis on Feuerbach," Marx aspired not just to interpret the world but also to change it (1958b, 7). And he did so not primarily by becoming a labor organizer—others were much better at this than impatient, quarrelsome Marx—but by becoming a writer and theorist. This is, aft er all, what he excelled in. Accordingly, Marx leaves no doubt that even his most theoretical writings must be understood as in the service of his political agenda. But how, then, does he understand the relationship between theory and political practice? Why does he think that his theorizing is not yet another interpretation, as futile or as misleading as those of the ridiculed neo-Hegelians?

While discussing the relationship between communists and proletarians more generally in the Manifesto (1959, 474), Marx and Engels already argue: "The communists [being internationalists] are therefore the most decisive, always advancing part of the labor parties of all countries. The theoretical insight into the conditions, the dynamics and the general results of the labor movement is their advantage over the remaining mass of the proletariat [my emphasis]." So, no doubt, understandings, including conscious, discursive understandings, have orienting power for Marx. They can inform action, even revolutionary action, and thus they can have an effect on the institutional fabric of a society. The advantage of communism, according to Marx, is precisely that its actions are highly conscious and rational. It provides a theory that through its materialist scientific foundations can transcend the limitations not only of local perspective but also of the delusional universalization of ideology. Scientific communism offers an ordering that can always place occurrences into the context of universal historical development. Real social science (as opposed to ideology) can be as effective in directing action as the natural science that finds its way, for example, into the production process, and that properly seen has to be understood as a part of the productive forces.


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