Simón BolÍvar Symphony Orchestra, which is part of Venezuela’s
Sistema, a world-famous program that connects young people from
underprivileged backgrounds with classical music.
following is an excerpt from Michael Lebowitz’s new book, The Contradictions of "Real" Socialism: the conductor and the conducted, due to be released in mid-July 2012 by Monthly Review Press. It is posted with the kind permission of the
author and Monthly Review Press. Readers of Links
international Journal of Socialist Renewal are urged to order a copy HERE (USA). For Asia-Pacific readers it will also be available from Resistance Books.
Click HERE for more articles by or about Michael Lebowitz.
4, 2012 – Links International Journal of
Socialist Renewal -- Do we need leaders? Certainly, when we work together
on a common project, we are more productive than when we are separate and
isolated. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts taken individually. But
do we need a director in order to work together on a common project?
A directing authority
capitalist relations of production, a capitalist hires “individual, isolated”
owners of labour-power, directs their cooperation and owns the products of
their collective labour. As the owner of the result of their activity, he is
the beneficiary of “the social productive power which arises from cooperation”;
it is “a free gift” to that
According to Karl Marx, though, direction in the process of cooperation is not
unique to capitalism: “All directly social or communal labour on a large-scale
requires, to a greater or lesser degree, a directing authority.” He offered two
reasons: (a) “in order to secure a harmonious cooperation of the activities of
individuals” and (b) “to perform the general functions that have their origin
in the motion of the total productive organism, as distinguished from the
motion of its separate organs.”[ii]
to Marx, in short, there is a general
necessity for the “function of direction which arises out of the nature of the
communal labour process.” That general requirement, though, must not be confused
with the particular content and form that it takes on within capitalism. After all, the essence of
capitalist direction embodies capital’s drive to expand surplus value (thus the
greatest possible exploitation of workers), the need to overcome the resistance
of workers and the need to protect investments in the means of production.
Accordingly, capitalist direction is inherently an antagonistic process, and it takes on “despotic” forms—a hierarchy
of supervisors whose function is to police workers and command in the name of
a despotic character of direction is not unique to capitalism. “In all modes of
production that are based on opposition of the worker as direct producer and
the proprietor of the means of production,” supervision and control of the
producers is essential. Marx pointed to, for example, the supervision of slaves
in the Roman Empire and also to “despotic states,” where “supervision and
all-round intervention of the government” involves “the specific functions that
arise from the opposition between the government and the mass of the people.”[iv]
In all such cases, direction is “twofold in content”—it is general and
specific, both that aspect related to every socially combined labour process
and also that specific aspect related to maintenance of the particular
character of exploitation.[v]
us try, though, to separate these two aspects logically and to consider in
itself the general side—that “work of
supervision and management [that] necessarily arises where the direct
production process takes the form of a socially combined process, and does not
appear simply as the isolated labour of separate producers.” According to Marx,
this combined labour in itself is enough to require a “directing authority”: “where
many individuals cooperate,” he noted, “the interconnection and unity of the
process is necessarily represented in a governing will, and in functions that
concern not the detailed work but rather the workplace and its activity as the
whole, as with the conductor of an orchestra.”[vi]
In a process of cooperation, someone must have responsibility for the whole,
for “the total productive organism.”
Marx, the orchestra conductor was a symbol of directing authority that is not
based upon the division between producers and the owners of the means of
production. The conductor does not lead the orchestra because he owns the means
of production: “A musical conductor,” Marx writes, “need in no way be the owner
of the instruments in his orchestra”; rather, his role as leader is the result
of “the productive functions that all combined social labour assigns to
particular individuals as their special work.”[vii]
In short, the orchestra conductor is necessary.
“A single violin player is his own conductor; an orchestra requires a separate
“special work” assigned to the orchestra conductor is to see the members of
this orchestra as a whole rather than as a collection of separate players and
to ensure that they function harmoniously and successfully as a unit in
performing the predetermined score. Thus the conductor articulates the separate
powers of the individual musicians into a collective power, where the whole is
greater than the sum of its individual parts. But to secure that “harmonious
cooperation” and to function as the agent of the whole, the conductor must be
able to exercise authority over the individual members.
the conductor, then, have power over the members of the orchestra? For Elias
Canetti, the conductor is the embodiment
His eyes hold the whole orchestra. Every
player feels that the conductor sees him personally, and still more, hears him.
The voices of the instruments are opinions and convictions on which he keeps a
close watch. He is omniscient, for, while the players have only their own parts
in front of them, he has the whole score in his head, or on his desk. At any
given moment he knows precisely what each player should be doing. His attention
is everywhere at once, and it is to this that he owes a large part of his
authority. He is inside the mind of every player. He knows not only what each should
be doing, but also what he is
doing. He is the living embodiment of law, both positive and negative. His
hands decree and prohibit. His ears search out profanation.[ix]
this is power: “Quite small movements are all he needs to wake this or that
instrument to life or to silence it at will. He has the power of life and death
over the voices of the instruments; one long silent will speak again at his
command.” To be able to exercise that power, on the other hand, requires that
the players accept those commands: “The willingness of its members to obey him
makes it possible for the conductor to transform them into a unit, which he
this description of the orchestra, there is no room for spontaneity or improvisation.
Rather, the predetermined score must be followed. In this division of labour, each
player has a precise assignment. By performing their assigned tasks with the
regularity of a machine and by following the directives of the conductor, the
orchestra as a whole achieves the result that exists ideally in the mind (or on
the desk) of the conductor.
The ‘key link’: human
development and practice
as we noted earlier, there is always more than one product of human activity.
When we grasp the “key link” of human development and practice, we understand
that every labour process inside and outside the formal process of production
has as its result a joint product—both
the change in the object of labour and the change in the labourer herself.
this is the case, then, we always need to ask not only about the success of a labour
process in achieving a particular predetermined goal but also about the nature
of the human beings and capacities produced within the process. When the
capacities of workers grow through their activity, this is an essential
investment in human beings. Accordingly, in my book The Socialist Alternative I argue that “socialist accountancy” and
a concept of “socialist efficiency” must incorporate explicitly the effects
upon human capacities of all activities.[xi]
explored this question at length in Capital—by
demonstrating the negative effect upon
the capacities of workers of production under capitalist relations. He pointed
out that under the direction of capital, the producers are subordinated to a
plan drawn up by the capitalist, and their activity is subjected to his
authority and purpose; the joint product that emerges from this particular
social labour process separates thinking and doing, and its results must be
entered as negative in any accounting system that values human development.[xii]
is what we need to keep clearly in mind when we think about socialism. Social
production organised by workers is a necessary condition for the full
development of the producers; it is not something to be put off to some future
society. “As long as workers are prevented from developing their capacities by
combining thinking and doing in the workplace, they remain alienated and
fragmented human beings whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming
Once we grasp Marx’s insight into revolutionary practice, the importance of that
key link of human development and practice, we recognise that the process of
building socialism must be one of simultaneously producing new socialist human
beings—that is, two products rather
though, to Marx’s metaphor for the general necessity for a directing authority
where many individuals cooperate—the orchestra conductor. Think about how that
particular conductor enforces the division of labour of the players (including
the separation of thinking and doing) in order for them to perform the predetermined
score as a harmonious unit; and think about what he rejects—spontaneous creation, collective interaction among the
orchestra performs the music. But what is the joint product in this process?
What development of human capacities occurs in this social labour process under
the direction of the orchestra conductor as described above? Certainly, this
process is far more rewarding than isolated, individual activity: “When the
worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of
his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.”[xiv]
Certainly, too, the members of the orchestra can take pride in their collective
when they are working in accordance with the plan of another who stands over
and above them and are subjected to a strict division of labour, what the
collective worker achieves occurs at the expense of the individual member. As
in the case of the division of labour that developed in manufacture, “the
knowledge, judgement and will” otherwise exercised by an individual musician is
now concentrated in this relation in the representative of the whole.[xv]
What individuals lose in this process is the opportunity to develop their own capacities
by exercising their knowledge, judgment and will collectively.
this to a process in which the musicians listen to each other, engage in
conversation and build upon the contributions of each other. That is a process
in which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts taken individually and where
the capacities of the producers expand through their practice. Leadership in such
cases, to a greater or lesser extent, involves general guidance and the space
for initiative from below; its joint product is demonstrated by the emergence
of new leaders.
Serve the music
we need leaders? There is a great difference between the recognition of the
importance of coordination, on the one hand, and the conclusion that leadership
is “the special work” assigned to particular individuals on the other. The
first flows from understanding the benefits of social cooperation and is not
specific to any form of coordination. The second involves a particular division
of labour—a social relation in which the
roles of conductor and conducted are fixed, and commands flow one way.
general process of direction of combined labour is an abstraction. Coordination
always occurs “within and through a specific form of society,” and the example
of the orchestra conductor identified by Marx is one form (but only one form) of non-capitalist
demystify the nature of capital, it was sufficient for Marx to point to the
orchestra conductor to demonstrate that capitalists as such are not necessary
as functionaries of production. That, however, does not mean that the relation
of conductor and conducted is the appropriate form of cooperation in the
society of associated producers.[xvii]
are different forms of leadership and different goals. If people are produced
through their activity within particular relations, the human products of a
society divided into conductors and the conducted will be specific to that
society. And how is such a society reproduced? Will those who receive commands
from the conductor always need
particular individuals who have the power to direct as their “special work”?
And how are those who exercise power chosen and produced?
the conductor. If we are to believe Canetti, the conductor does not seek power
for personal gain or for the exercise of power itself. Rather, the music is “the
only thing that counts … and no one is more convinced of this than the
conductor himself.” To transform an
assemblage of different people into a unit, to monitor all closely, to ensure
that they all play their parts properly, to silence those who deviate from the
plan—no one is more convinced than the conductor “that his business is
to serve music and to interpret it faithfully.”[xviii]
I am essential, he thinks—without me, there would be chaos.
Metaphors can be dangerous—they can illuminate
for a moment but can never substitute for analysis.[xix] To understand “real socialism,” we need to go beyond metaphor.
The Socialist Alternative, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize for 2004), Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century and Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis.
He was director, Program in Transformative Practice and Human
Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2006-2011.]
is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of
[i] Lebowitz, Beyond CAPITAL, 84–87.
[ii] Marx, Capital, 1:448.
[iv] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage
Books, 1981), 507–8.
[ix] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (Middlesex: Penguin, 1973),
[xi] Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative, 154–59.
Capital, 1:450; Lebowitz, The
Socialist Alternative, 156.
The Socialist Alternative, 86.
[xvii] The manager in a
cooperative factory paid by the workers (rather than representing capital to
the workers) is another example he offered—one in which “the antithetical
character of the supervisory work disappears.” Cooperative factories, indeed,
provided the proof that the capitalist was “superfluous as a functionary in
production.” Marx, Capital,3:512, 510.
[xviii] Canetti, Crowds and Power, 458.
particular metaphor, too, can be the source of much disagreement among those
who love classical music.
More on The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted
Paperback, 192 pages
Cloth (ISBN-13: 978-1-58367-257-0
Forthcoming August 2012
What was “real socialism”—the term which originated in
twentieth-century socialist societies for the purpose of distinguishing
them from abstract, theoretical socialism? In this volume, Michael A.
Lebowitz considers the nature, tendencies, and contradictions of those
societies. Beginning with the constant presence of shortages within
“real socialism,” Lebowitz searches for the inner relations which
generate these patterns. He finds these, in particular, in what he calls
“vanguard relations of production,” a relation which takes the apparent
form of a social contract where workers obtain benefits not available
to their counterparts in capitalism but lack the power to decide within
the workplace and society.
While these societies were able to claim major achievements in areas
from health care to education to popular culture, the separation of
thinking and doing prevented workers from developing their capacities as
fully developed human beings. The relationship within “real socialism”
between the vanguard as conductor and a conducted working class,
however, did not only lead to the deformation of workers and those
elements necessary for the building of socialism; it also created the
conditions in which enterprise managers emerged as an incipient
capitalist class, which was an immediate source of the crises of “real
socialism.” As he argued in The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development,
Lebowitz stresses the necessity to go beyond the hierarchy inherent in
the relation of conductor and conducted (and beyond the “vanguard
Marxism” which supports this) to create the conditions in which people
can transform themselves through their conscious cooperation and
practice—i.e., a society of free and associated producers.
From the author’s preface:
This is not a book for those who already know everything
important there is to know about “Real Socialism.” For those fortunate
souls who have inherited or adopted the eternal verities of particular
political sects on the left, empirical footnotes that strengthen their
claim to leadership are the principal tasks of scholarship. As a result,
the central question about this book for them is likely to be, “Is he
with us or against us?” In short, is this book good for the chosen?
I presume, however, readers who begin with questions rather than
answers. What was this phenomenon known as “Real Socialism,” or
“Actually Existing Socialism,” a concept created in the twentieth
century by the leaders of countries in order to distinguish their real
experience from merely theoretical socialist ideas? What were its
characteristics? How was this system reproduced? And why did it
ultimately yield to capitalism without resistance from the working
classes who were presumably its beneficiaries?
Where fresh insights are rare, indeed, Michael Lebowitz provides a
bundle of them. Although no one will (or perhaps should) agree with
everything here, the book provides rich material for badly-needed
‘The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk’—it was Hegel’s old maxim that seemed confirmed when in 1991 the Socialist Register
published Michael Lebowitz’s article on the nature of ‘real socialism’
amid its very demise. This new book takes off from there, but its wings
are buoyed by Lebowitz’s work since then, from Beyond Capital to The Socialist Alternative.
The profound understanding in this new book of why twentieth-century
attempts at constructing socialism failed must be an essential element
in the socialist renewal emerging amid the first great capitalist crisis
of the twenty-first century. It thus appears that the old wise owl also
flies at dawn.
If we want socialism for the twenty-first century, we need to
understand why the ‘real’ socialisms of the last century so often ended
in capitalism. In this book, Lebowitz shows, theoretically and
historically, that the socialism practiced in the Soviet Union and
Central Europe was doomed because vanguard relations of production
weakened the working class, ensuring that it would have no primary role
in the battle ultimately won by the logic of capital (represented by
managers) over the logic of the vanguard (represented by the party). We
must, he concludes, reject vanguard Marxism and embrace a Marxist vision
of socialism in which, from the beginning, the full development of
human capacities is actively promoted. There is a lot to learn here.
One doesn’t have to agree with all the theses presented in Michael
Lebowitz’s latest book in order to acknowledge that this is a major
contribution to the international debate on Socialism of the
Twenty-First Century. Drawing lessons from the dramatic failure of
so-called “Real Socialism,” he argues, with powerful and persuasive
logic, that a new society, based on values of solidarity and community,
cannot be created by a state standing over and above civil society: only
through autonomous organizations—at the neighborhood, community, and
national levels—can people transform both circumstances and themselves.
What would Marx have thought had he lived to see the Soviet Union?
Nobody has interpreted Marx to greater advantage to answer this question
than renowned Marxist scholar Michael Lebowitz, who explains in The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’ why Marx would not have been pleased!
A riveting exploration of what can be learned from the first attempts
to create socialist systems, specifically the period from 1950 through
the 1980s. Lebowitz convincingly demonstrates that the distortions of
the model developed in the Soviet Union and copied in eastern European
countries (‘real socialism’) were caused by setting in motion two
contradictory forces—ending up with the worst aspects of both capital
and leadership and control by a ‘vanguard.’ He examines the development
of ‘real socialism’ as a complex system, with the various parts
explained and scrutinized in their interactions and interrelations as
part of the system. Required reading for those interested in avoiding
diversions and pitfalls in a post capitalist alternative—on the path to
creating a system under social, instead of private, control in which
the goal is meeting everyone’s basic needs and encouraging and allowing
the full human development of all.
We need this well-written book to understand that socialism did not die with the fall of the Berlin Wall.