Futures Studies in the European Ex-socialist Countries


Karlheinz Steinmüller

  1. Introduction

Future - the bright socialist or communist future - was one of the key words in official propaganda in the German Democratic Republic, as it was in all socialist countries. For some time party[^1] ideologists were able to convince at least parts of the population, that the future belonged to socialism and that there was a steady progress throughout the world towards a communist future. Consequently, the relation of the political system to a more open thinking about the future was never without tension: If you knew already the outcome of history, why bother to spend much thought about it? If history follows only one line - delineated a century ago by Marx and Engels - there was no place for thinking in alternatives, no room for open-minds. As I. Bestuzhev-Lada observed, dictatorship and forecasting seem to be mutually exclusive (Bestuzhev-Lada , 1992). Nevertheless, there were some attempts to establish futures studies in the GDR.

  1. Following the Soviet model

In the early years of the GDR the future was not yet subject to specific studies. The doctrines of Marxism-Leninism, which was established at that time at universities too, seemed to answer all questions about things to come sufficiently. As there was no place for “bourgeois” disciplines as psychoanalysis or cybernetic, there was none for a specific futurological discipline. Marxism-Leninism provided the base for all approaches to the future, were they academic or popular.

Popular interest in the future was stilled mostly by translations of Soviet books like Sachartchenko’s “A Voyage into Tomorrow” (1954). Soon East German writers began to follow their example, e.g. Karl Böhm and Rolf Dörge with “Unsere Welt von Morgen” (“Our World of Tomorrow”, 1959). Writers like these depicted primarily technological developments: computers, automated factories, space travel, an industrialised agriculture and the benefits of nuclear energy - but they grew not tired of stipulating, that cornucopia would come only with the new, socialist society. In that way they promoted “Perspektivbewusstsein” - the “awareness of the prospects” of communism and of the superiority of the socialist system. Like others, even later dissident Stefan Heym (“Das kosmische Zeitalter”, “The Cosmic Age”, 1959) emphasised the main catch-phrase of that epoch: “The future has already began. It can be seen in the Soviet Union”.

  1. The race to the year 2000

During the 1960s, the future became a subject for more specific research attention. In this regard the GDR followed the developments in other countries. Science and technology progressed rapidly and produced new challenges for each of the two systems. It was felt that propaganda alone - making appeal to the image of a bright future - did no longer suffice for the global competition of socialism and capitalism. But even disregarding the confrontation with the Western system, there was a need for more - and more practicable - information about future trends as a foundation for decisions to be made and ways to be chosen: How to organise society in the age of the global transition from capitalism via socialism to communism? How to “unbound” the productive forces? How should the economy be planned in that age of transition? How could scientific-technological progress be “mastered” to the benefit of the people? These questions got even more profile with the introduction of the “New Economic System of Planning and Direction of the National Economy” (1963).

The influences of Western futures studies were considerable. Contrarily to the usual policy of ideological isolation, even one West German futurological book, Fritz Baade’s “Der Wettlauf zum Jahr 2000” (“The Race to the Year 2000”, 1960) was published after some years of delay in the GDR - because it forecasted that the East would be the winner in that race. Herman Kahn’s and Anthony Wiener’s “The Year 2000. A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-three Years” (West German title “Ihr werdet es erleben”, “You will live to see it”, 1967) found a self-confident answer in the East German publication “Wir werden es erleben” (“We will live to see it”, 1971). As an integral part of reception, Western futurology was heavily criticized as a “bourgeois pseudo-science” and an apology of capitalism, without the sound basis of a social theory, technocratic in its approach and eclectic in style.

  1. Prognostics

In distinction to futurology, the word “prognostics” (Prognostik) came in the second half of the 1960s into use - after the 11th plenary session (1967)[^2] and one year later the VIIth party congress of the SED had declared that “the Marxist-Leninist societal prognostics is a decisive instrument of scientific leadership for shaping the developed social system of socialism in the GDR” (see e.g. Edeling, 1968, p. 12). Here, like in many other cases, the GDR followed the model of the USSR, where new efforts of forecasting and planning were undertaken from 1966 onwards (see Bestuzhev-Lada, 1992 and Steinmüller, 2000).

Prognostics was not at all meant to be, as the term may indicate, a socialist counterpart of (technocratic) forecasting. In the perception of that time, it was nevertheless strongly connected with cybernetics, a formerly rejected discipline which was rehabilitated by the philosopher Georg Klaus[^3] . Prognostics should be based on the knowledge of the “objective law of social development” (i.e. the dialectics of productive forces and the mode of production), and it should by itself undergo a dialectical relation with planning and shaping the socialist society (see e.g. Edeling, 1968, p. 228). In fact, prognostics reflected the planning euphoria of that age, which inflicted both systems equally.

In theory prognosis and planning should form a dialectical relation, but in practical life the gulf between optimistic long-term visions and academic thinking about the future on the one hand and the problems of planning for the next four years on the other hand widened. Actually, prognostics had no real influence on planning, it was effectively neutralised by attaching it to long-term planning (“Perspektivplanung”). Moreover, it never became really institutionalised - despite a short-lived “Institut für Prognostik beim Ministerrat der DDR” (Institute for Prognostics at the Council of Ministers[^4] ) and attempts to coordinate all prognostic activities by the Academy of Sciences (Heyden, 1968). Several organizations engaged to some degree in prognostics: Institut für Gesellschaftswissenschaften beim ZK de SED (Institute for Social Sciences at the Central Committee of the SED; this institute had a specific chair of social prognostics), Institut für Wissenschaftstheorie und Organisation der Akademie der Wissenschaften (Institute for Theory and Organisation of Science of the Academy of Sciences), Zentralinstitut für Wirtschaftswissenschaften der Akademie der Wissenschaften (Central Institue for Economic Sciences of the Academy of Sciences), the faculties of economics of several universities and others. But prognostics never became effective most studies performed by these organizations were confined to basic questions of the philosophy and methodology of prognostics.

The late 1960s and early 1970s became years of widespread futurological publications. Philosophers and economists, but also social scientists and physicists wrote about the future of society and technology. Newspapers invited their readers to speculate about the year 2000[^5] . G. M. Dobrov’s seminal “Prognostics in Science and Technology” appeared in German translation (1971). First steps towards a science of sciences (“Wissenschaftswissenschaft”) were undertaken. But as in former years, the ideological fight against Western futurology continued (see e.g. Bönisch, 1971). It gained specific momentum by rejections of convergence theory, then in its heyday, which assumed a slow opening and transformation of the socialist system under the impact of the scientific-technological revolution.

  1. Confronted with the Limits to Growth

The short spring of prognostics ended about 1972. There are two reasons for that: an internal one and an external. During the early 1970s it became evident, that all hopes of “Überholen ohne einzuholen” (“Taking over without catching up” of capitalism) were wishful thinking. The GDR - and all the socialist bloc - lacked the industrial capacity to come up to the promises of an alleged technological lead-start. Investments into high-tech industries had to be cut down, the people called for a higher living standard. With Honecker’s succession to Ulbricht and even more with the VIIIth party congress of the SED (1971) an economic and social re-orientation started. It was also the end of cybernetic planning optimism for the GDR.

Nearly at the same time the first report to the Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” (1972) appeared. It had tremendous impact not only in the West, but likewise in East German academic circles - and also in the public. Reactions were soon to follow. In newspapers as well as in academic publications “Limits to Growth” was rejected as a product of neo-Malthusian doomsday thinking, not taking into account the principal difference between capitalisms (which is not able to solve its social, environmental etc. problems) and socialisms (which solves these problems). Later reports to the Club of Rome found a more differentiated official reception. All of them were circulated widely in academic and non-academic circles.

The politics of détente between East and West slightly improved the climate for futures studies. East German scientists collaborated with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis at Laxenburg/Austria (founded in 1972). International exchange - also to questions of the future - became less restricted.

  1. In the years of decline

During the 1980s, futurists in the GDR should have followed H. Kahn’s phrase: “thinking the unthinkable”, i.e. the end of the communist system. With a subliminal feeling of crisis, not to speak of doom, social and mental barriers against futures studies grew. Studies, whose outcome was not welcome to party leaders, were classified (e.g. studies about right-wing extremist tendencies within parts of the East German youth). Environmental problems, even problems evindent to everyone, were denied. Official propaganda more than ever was whistling in the dark. Sometimes it obtained a grotesque character: The economist Erich Hanke postulated in his book “Ins nächste Jahrhundert. Was steht uns bevor?” (“Into the next century. What will come to us?”, 1984) that communism would be achieved if every family earned a monthly income of about 5000 (East German) Marks. And this would be the case sometime between 2020 and 2030.

At that time, futures studies as a discipline were rather non-existent. When Bönisch wrote his critique of recent tendencies in bourgeois futurology (Bönisch, 1985), he wrote also about socialist alternatives in the field of futures studies - and came up with the political and economic program of the SED: activities to make peace more secure; experiences of socialist countries with successful planning could help to overcome global problems; the transition to an intensive type of reproduction that absorbs less resources. Futures studies by themselves had been absorbed into the daily business of politics and ideology.

But from the grassroots - or as a kind of counter-culture -, a new concern about the future grew, partly within the small opposition movement, partly under the roof of the churches, partly in academic institutions, but mostly without any definite organizational basis[^6] . Quite generally, futures thinking - in the form of concern for ecological problems, of the peace and civil rights movement - contributed to the fall of the system.

  1. The aftermath

1989, the “freedom revolution” and the fall of the Berlin Wall came as a wild card, a highly improbable, maybe implausible scenario, foreseen only by very few persons.

In the subsequent years, East German science was restructured and integrated into the West German research landscape. Nearly nothing remained of GDR’s “Science of science”, some researchers found their way into technology assessment or related areas. From the point of futures studies, there is no heritage. Some lessons - about mental and structural barriers for futures thinking - could be learned. But that is all.

Futures studies never managed to become a distinct branch of science (or the humanities) in the GDR, there were no specific journals, no specific institute (with one short-lived exception), no specific university courses.

But the circumstances in the GDR can be blamed only for part of this lack of institutionalisation. A parallel history of futures studies in Western Germany would show some similar deficiencies at least in the academic sphere. As a multidisciplinary approach futures studies have still problems to be accepted as a worthwhile scientific enterprise.


  1. Bestuzhev-Lada, Igor: A Short History of Forecasting in the USSR, 1927-1990. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 41, 1992

  2. Bönisch, Alfred: Futurologie. Eine kritische Analyse bürgerlicher Zukunftsforschung, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin, 1971

  3. Bönisch, Alfred: Neuere Entwicklungstendenzen der bürgerlichen Zukunftsforschun. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 9, 1985

  4. Edeling, Herbert: Prognostik und Sozialismus. Zur marxistisch-leninistischen Prognostik moderner Produktivkräfte in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, Dietz, Berlin, 1968

  5. Heyden, Günther (ed.): Gesellschaftsprognostik. Probleme einer neuen Wissenschaft, Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1968

  6. Steinmüller, Angela/Steinmüller, Karlheinz: Visionen. 1900-2000-2100. Eine Chronik der Zukunft, Rogner und Bernhard, Hamburg, 1999

  7. Steinmüller, Karlheinz: Zukunftsforschung in Europa. Ein Abriß der Geschichte. In: Steinmüller, K., Kreibich, R., Zöpel, Chr. (eds.): Zukunftsforschung in Europa, Nomos, Baden-Baden, 2000

  8. Ulbricht, Walter: Die gesellschaftliche Entwicklung in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik bis zur Vollendung des Sozialismus, Dietz, Berlin, 1967