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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 103-137

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Productivity, Value, and Plan:
Fritz Behrens and the Economics of Revisionism in the German Democratic Republic *

Peter C. Caldwell

Marxist economics took shape as a critique of the capitalist world. Its role changed with the coming to power of Marxist regimes: now Marxism was to provide a critique of capitalism, a description of the socialist economy, and a defense of the government in power. Within this triangle lies the tragedy of Eastern European Marxist economics. Stuck between criticism and propaganda, Marxist economists found it difficult to address the deficiencies of state socialism as they became apparent in the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast to economics in less repressive environments, such as Poland and Hungary, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) economics seems to have been reduced by the 1970s to minor technical suggestions or grand theoretical and ideological platitudes that justified the existing system--as an East German journal itself complained, a "banal doctrine of categories" (cited in Staritz 1996, 207). The banality of the discipline becomes most apparent when one considers how ridden with contradictions and debt the GDR economy turned out to be (see Ritschl 1995; Maier 1997, 59-107).

This essay examines the career of one GDR economist, Fritz Behrens (1909-1980). Behrens has been remembered primarily for his criticism of the East German planning system in 1955-57, some twenty years before the appearance of Rudolf Bahro's Alternative in Eastern Europe (1978), the only other notable voice of dissent among East German [End Page 103] economists (see Bayliss 1974, 221-25). 1 Behrens's "revisionism" of Stalinist economics was not an episode. Archival materials show a series of run-ins with both the party and fellow academics between 1948 and 1967. At every point of confrontation, the crucial issue was precisely that of the role of the Marxist economist within a Marxist regime: critic, positivist scientist, or apologist? As the confrontation progressed, peer review and party condemnation excluded critical voices and eventually alienated the intellectual from a regime he helped found. Behrens's work treated some of the basic issues of Marxist economics: the role of exchange value in the so-called transition to socialism; the role of productivity measurement as a source of information in the absence of free-floating prices; the possibility of integrating the market and socialism; and the need to decentralize a top-heavy, overcentralized economy. These problems are important in their own right; indeed, they form the starting point of Alex Nove's standard work, The Economics of Feasible Socialism. But as the example of Behrens shows, by the 1970s critical discussions of centralized planning had been marginalized or limited in official discourse--by party actions as well as by the complicity of economists themselves.

Behrens, however, did not respond to this marginalization by reconsidering the ideological assumptions of the socialist project. Instead, he reversed the poles of his rhetoric: planning would not be carried out "from above," but "from below"; "overcentralization" would be replaced by "decentralization." This mere reversal of terms, which remains all too common on the Left today, provided no basis for a coherent politics or economic policy in the GDR.

From Criticism to Ideology: Concrete and Abstract Labor in Stalinist Economics

In 1948 Behrens wrote, "With the Marxist theory of value stands and falls the scientific character of modern socialism" (1948a, 20-21). For Behrens, the Marxist theory of value not only described capitalism but also distinguished it from Soviet-style socialism and legitimized socialist planning as a system that responded to the real needs of the people. [End Page 104] The labor theory of value, in other words, had both a theoretical and a normative component.

The approach to Marxist economics adopted by Behrens was premised on the theory that, in capitalism, labor is the source of all exchange value. At the heart of the theory lay the distinction between concrete labor, that is, labor expended in carrying out a specific type of task, and labor in...


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