BLACK BOX EAST: How socialist cybernetics helped the GDR unlearn Marxism-Leninism

When the Academy of Marxist-Leninist Organizational Science (AMLO) was founded in Berlin-Wuhlheide in 1969, no one could have imagined that the cybernetization of the GDR would instigate a series of reforms within the socialist brother states worldwide. AMLO was an exemplary “future site of the GDR” (Oliver Sukrow) and included an exhibition area, research and training facilities, and a computer center. The academy was intended to familiarize leading cadres from the party, business and administration with the methods of electronic data processing and Marxist-Leninist organizational science (MLO). Within a decade, thanks to the outstanding engineering achievements at the Robotron Combine in Dresden and the Microelectronics Combine in Erfurt, the GDR achieved such a leap forward in productivity that AMLO became globally influential and GDR real time data processing even eclipsing its competitor IBM. We ask ourselves from today’s perspective: How did knowledge about the groundbreaking progress of the socialist countries in the 1970s  remain unknown for a long time? 

The authors found what they were looking for in 2019 in the Federal Archives, who have been preserving documents from the State Council of the GDR since 1990 and now after the repeated examination by international experts we are able to publicly discuss our findings. Now for the first time and in the context of BLACK BOX EAST, the authors can present a previously unknown document that was initially thought to be a forgery. It is the bilingual brochure “AMLO – a decade of socialist success”, a unique piece of GDR history, perhaps only preserved due to the flaws the text had with its typesetting.

Certainly it has not escaped historians that the GDR was also interested in cybernetics however, it was assumed that AMLO, the Academy built to further studies into a less capitalist approach to cybernetics had been abandoned by the GDR leadership in 1971. It is all the more astonishing now to be able to read about a reciprocal transfer of resources and technology between socialist brother states such as the GDR, Chile, Cuba and the People’s Republic of Congo since at least the mid-1970s. Nor had anything been known about the construction of “socialist world systems” until then. The booklet also includes images of a gigantic mural by Spanish artist Josep Renau, designed for the 1975 AMLO exhibition. Renau was credited with prefiguring the “New Worker” in an unmistakably modernist style, serving up an “aperitif for the youth” of the GDR. Last but not least, the brochure documents astonishing details of AMLO’s expansion, starting in the late 1970s, into a futuristic urban platform called “ML Babylon,” led by Dutch artist and architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. 

But let’s take a step back: machine learning was still in its infancy in early 1970, the Perceptron algorithm (Frank Rosenblatt) was still developing our understanding of computational capability , and it had yet to be proven that capitalist fruits could ripen better in the bosom of socialism. Stafford Beer, a British cyberneticist, highly paid consultant and organization theorist (“The Liberty Machine”) had assisted Salvador Allende in Chile from 1971 and was also commissioned by Walter Ulbricht very soon after. Ulbricht increasingly saw that his ten commandments of 1958 were easy to implement, that the fetishisation of performance was worth nothing if the technologies and social techniques were perceived as obsolete. So, during their first state visit, Chilean comrades interpreted Ulbricht’s most important commandment number 6 – “Thou shalt increase and protect the people’s property” – to mean a plethora of forms of property. Ulbricht let himself get carried away by his legendary and later often quoted sentence: “The joy of learning socialism must surprise every socialist.” The birth of collective ownership, new idiosyncratic forms of voluntary collectivization, and even cooperative ventures between international investors and GDR industrial cooperatives were now conceivable, provided they renounced capitalist logic.  

 The New Economic System of Planning and Leadership (NEPSL), which had served to strengthen economic and political decentralization since 1963, was turned one turn further. “Cybersyn”, that infamous Chilean model experiment, was in a sense “AMLOfied”, just as NÖSPL was turned upside down by the impulses of the socialist Andean state. Beer was able to balance liberal efficiency and transparency with the socialist claim to renewal and helped the GDR’s emerging shortage economy make great leaps forward,  helping to advance the GDR  to the top of an internationalist association. Honecker, who followed Ulbricht in his progressive aspirations, was also a welcome guest of Allende’s throughout the 1970s. Allende had succeeded in being reinstated after General Augusto Pinochet’s 1974 coup d’état, which had been struck by Chilean labor and thus failed. Along with the sharing of  technology and technical cooperation between the GDR and Chile, Chilean workers’ councils who had gained experience in Beer-designed Ops Rooms in Santiago, Valparaiso, Iquique, La Serena, Puerto Montt, Valdivia, Antofagasta, and Pucon visited the GDR’s State Council building in Berlin to explain to their comrades the Viable Systems Model (VSM) that Beer had devised. VSM was at the heart of Cybernsyn and it offered a tool to address progressive communication within complex systems. Beer had explained it to Allende, a trained physician, as a central nervous system with self-acting organs. And these organs, namely collectivized mines and industries were now gradually left to self-govern themselves. Soon the industrial cooperatives in Dresden, Erfurt and other parts of the country were running at full speed to meet Beer’s wish to be able to replace the centrally and top-down imposed five-year plans with the decentralized real-time communication of workers’ councils elected in the industrial plants. 

In 1978, AMLO was renamed but still managed to retain its initials. Whereas ML had previously stood for Marxist-Leninist (organisation) it was now increasingly understood to reflect machine learning. This renaming occurred just as western research in Artificial Intelligence abandoned neural networks and as AMLO embraced backpropagation techniques to advance their position as pioneers in a new chapter of computational advances. At the same time, the old GDR cadres had quickly been impressed  by the efficient self-management in the factories and that socialist real-time data processing by GDR hardware could also profit from the enormous upswing of a downright socialist general intellect. 

In terms of hardware, progress truly began in 1964  with the Robotron 100, the GDR’s first “fully transitory, program-controlled digital computer.”  The Leipzig Autumn Fair quickly became the exchange point for socialist brother technologies (SBT) which, in comparison to the capitalist West, were shared license-free and free from patent laws wherever utility values were needed. Ten years later, the ESER EC1040 was already competing with the USA’s  legendary IBM Mainframe 360. And by the end of the 1970s, it was possible in the GDR to achieve what U.S. economist Daniel Saros of Valparaiso University was only able to put into a conceptual denominator in 2020: An “all-encompassing allocation process of confederated workers’ councils” that could measure and put into action the needs of consumers. The system developed allowed the public to be made aware of and impressed by ‘products’ instead of ‘goods’ through a process of assigning a points based exchange system, all done in compliance with ecological standards. The GDR, faithful to Karl Marx, had finally understood that an East obsessed with progress and that by competing with the West “undermines the source of all wealth: the earth and the worker”. The genealogy of information processing, here in particular a real-time algorithmic management system, enabled socialist governments in Chile, East Germany, People’s Republic of Congo, Cuba, Vietnam (and later Russia and China) to model and meet climate goals in economically viable ways. As is well known, the equation “economy = prosperity + growth” had long been enshrined by the West (through economists such as Milton Friedman), which undermined Lenin’s equation “communism = Soviet power + electrification.” This argument  was now beginning to falter. Visitors to the GDR could be convinced of the opposite: “From Scarcity to Abundance” was now visible as a slogan on an embroidered, skyscraper-red banner at AMLO’s 10th anniversary celebration, which Beer had given to Honecker as a gift. Utopians from all countries were also able to benefit from these changes. The GDR already made its first attempts at a general catalog in 1979, which instead of traditional currency now brought points into use, which all citizens of socialist ally’s could implement for themselves.

But what is most surprising from today’s point of view emerges in the middle of the decade as detailed within the AMLO brochure: The socialist cyberspace trailblazers became pioneers  in sustainable, eco-socialist progressive environmentalism by 1975, after an act of industrial sabotage in Seefeld. This catalysed a whole new direction for the way the GDR saw its relationship to the extractivism that capitalism relies on and propagates. Looking at the subsequent actions spearheaded by AMLO following the Seefeld disaster, it becomes clear that Chile, the GDR, and the People’s Republic of Congo set an early standard for climate justice and degrowth, although this has not been recognised as such. Growing knowledge about the scarcity of resources was amplified by the Club of Rome, which gave the GDR incentives to look closer at Marion Hubbert’s theories of Peak oil. This quickly inspired action amongst policy makers and spawned immediate guidelines for a more ecologically minded GDR,  whilst the growth fetish of the West lagged behind development. 

Many questions arise when thinking more about this astonishing history of AMLO. How was it that the GDR workforce, of all people, were able to create the conditions for international development? What was of immense importance to the development of new technologies to serve a cybernetic mode of socialism in the GDR requires more attention. In order to appreciate this further we can look to something the U.S. anthropologist Ashley Montagu calls “neoteny”: the ability to learn throughout one’s life and to constantly begin anew. For the GDR, its neotenic abilities should also be particularly noticeable, since there were not only significantly more women in the most important age cohort of working people (between 25-45) than in the West.  Personal and collective renewal as a process of positive social activity was therefore considered of great importance, and a series of tools were developed to enhance learning and comprehension across many demographics. The indexes TGI (Technical Speed Index) and IVGI (Individual and People Speed Index), which were coined by GDR economists, were put into practice in the late 1960s resulting in an extremely advantageous quota for the GDR. The results not only indicated that the GDR had kept up with technological innovations seen in capitalist economies (especially in the development of exponentially increasing computer speed), but also helped to influence technical ambitions, as neoteny also grew strongly in the course of the 1970s. For Frank Volkster, a leading GDR cyberneticist at AMLO, “the conditions were optimal”: “In the U.S. there were also fast IBM computers and also some smart people between Chicago and Palo Alto, but IVGI was clearly behind.” Volkster, who had first studied mechanical engineering in Bautzen and then worked in the 1960’s as a project manager for operations, measurement, overseeing control BMSR technicians (skilled workers for industrial measurement and control technologies) explained the development after Ulbricht’s death as follows:. “Being a BMSR technician was the typical GDR profession of the 1960s and was initially conceived as a blue-collar profession, but soon as a white-collar profession. This created a creative class that was important for the rise of socialist cybernetization. This could convince even a Stalinist like Ulbricht to give up power.” AMLO was able to retain people like Volkster and quickly give them a lot of responsibility. Within the formerly rigid bureaucratic socialist system, autonomous subsystems were gradually integrated, according to Beer’s “Viable Systems Model.” This was achieved through establishing modes of self-management by the VEB’s (publicly owned enterprises) and the industrial cooperatives, and through the networking of autonomous spheres, as well as through the adaptability of the decision-makers at the top, who now perceived their control as a technical function rather than as a disempowerment of the subsystems. For Beer, the central command of the SED corresponded to “senior management” and, as could already be studied in Allende’s Chilean socialism, “Level 5” was always about the management of the overall system striving for balance, consequently about power distribution and not power concentration. It is important to appreciate that the VSM acts as a way to provide ‘effective freedom’ (Beer 1973)  preferring a functional hierarchy of roles and logical orders to an anatomical hierarchy of positions and power structures. Allende understood this translation of ‘control’ as a radical democratic blueprint all too well and the cyberneticist Allenna Leonard later described “Cybernetics as more of a science of balancing than a science of control.” 

Was this  the key to success? Was this the “finally discovered political form” (Karl Marx), initiated and accompanied by cybernetic management? Did the GDR succeed in motivating significantly more people with these ideas and ways of being? And if this was the case, how was the phenomenon interpreted? When asked about this at the 1980 Leipzig Autumn Fair, Stafford Beer summed it up as follows: “You simply have to give people the opportunity to contribute their own creativity, to convey appreciation to them in a credible way, as well as the opportunity to understand their responsible part in the whole. 

Looking closer at the attendee’s list of the 1980 Leipzig Autumn fair, the surprise guest was undoubtedly the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek. Contrary to his earlier statements and after his first flying visit through the GDR accompanied by Emilio Barrarecan and Frank Volkster, he let himself be carried away to the following statement: “Socialism is becoming a self-regulating system in the way I had once assumed markets to be. Socialist cybernetics thus establishes a harmonious order by itself.”  

So what can we learn from this unique and intricate history of socialist technology? Can these traces of a fundamentally different approach to the goals of technological progress become a beacon of hope within our current helplessness in the hands of AI capitalism? Our relationship today with the manufactured complexities of data extraction as the tools of accumulation is increasingly emphasising a lack of a real alternative vision for what our technologies can promote. Machine Learning in 2021 is given a pedestal due to its ability to speed up the inevitable removal of human labourers benefiting tech conglomerates and global board rooms. We are less likely to see ML promoted as the means to support and empower minorities, endangered environments and enable reductions in the low paid precarious work that is in service to algorithmic control. What we see in this glimmer of a past techno-socialism is perhaps something more accepting, more aware of the role that science can take in protecting the planet and collectively, creatively and conscientiously working for the many and not just for the few.

Archive material:

This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette under You can find more texts, works, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here:

Kevin Rittberger is a Berlin-based theater-maker.

Nicholas Mortimer is a London-based artist.

Foto: Sylvia John

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