[For more articles by or about Michael Lebowitz, click HERE. For a free excerpt from The Contradictions of "Real" Socialism: the conductor and the conducted, click HERE.]
by Doug Enaa Greene
The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the Conductor and
Michael A. Lebowitz
York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.
For Asia-Pacific readers it is also be available from Resistance Books.
8, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Even
though the dominant capitalist system is experiencing its worst crisis in
decades, those in search of Marxist alternatives are often scared off by this
regular refrain from the system's defenders: “Well, what about the USSR? Things
didn't work out quite so well there.”
The popular memory of the USSR is one of bureaucratic red tape, long lines for
basic necessities and harsh repression. If the Marxist answer is that the
inevitable outcome of any revolution is merely the drab and misery of the USSR,
then it is best to accept capitalism (with all its warts). Or so we are led to
his book, The Contradictions of Real Socialism, Michael Lebowitz offers
a rigorous Marxist explanation of what went wrong in the USSR (and its allied
countries). To Lebowitz (following Marx in this regard), a socialist society is
one “that removes all obstacles to the full development of human beings” (p.
17). The countries of real socialism by contrast were caught in a tension
between enterprise managers and planners and the vanguard which did not place
human development first, thus ensuring its ultimate failure. Lebowitz’s
approach is sweeping, thorough and fresh even while his work does raise several
questions and problems.
begins his starting analysis with what capitalism does to workers. To Lebowitz,
workers are not merely “exploited within capitalist relations – they are also
deformed” (p. 14). The deformation of workers, or their alienation, means that
workers are robbed of their full humanity. Whereas, the ability to labour and
create is what makes us human beings, workers see their labour turned against
them to serve capital. The whole production process of capital degrades the
worker by taking away his/her intellectual potential, turning the worker into
an appendage of a machine (as Marx richly says in Capital). The end result of capital’s deformation of workers is
that “thinking and doing become separate and hostile” (p. 15). What workers
ultimately produce under capitalism is not for their benefit, but serves the
profit and accumulation of the prevailing system.
the exploitation and alienation that workers suffer under capitalism means that
they are compelled to resist, whether for higher wages, shorter hours, etc.
However, these struggles often occur within the ideological framework of
capital and push for fairness within the confines of that system. For Lebowitz
(and Marx), it is not enough to know that capitalism is an exploitative and alienated
system, rather workers need to get beyond capital. And that requires a
socialist alternative where the development of human beings is the central goal
and “it does not come as a gift from above” (p. 17). In other words, the
emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.
vision of socialism was laid out in another one of his books, The Socialist
this concept is much more developed. However, in order to understand Lebowitz's
critique of “real socialism”, it is necessary to briefly sketch out his vision
of the socialist triangle and its goal. The socialist triangle is an
“organic system of production, distribution, and consumption” (p. 19). The
three parts of the triangle reinforce each other and build upon the strengths
of solidarity cooperation and free development, as opposed to building upon the
defects of capital such as alienation, wage differentials, profit in order
produce new socialist human beings. The three portions of the triangle are
identified as: (1) social ownership of the means of production, where
workplaces are run democratically
by the workers themselves; (2) social production organised by workers
in order to build relations of
cooperation and solidarity to develop their own human capabilities; (3) and
the satisfaction of communal needs and purposes, where workers produce for the
needs of all in order to continuously develop their capabilities. As stressed
above, this vision of socialism is one that “places human development at its
core and insists that people develop through their activity” (p. 160). In order
for “a society of associated producers to be developed, however, the elements
of the old society must be subordinated” (p. 160). This means that capitalist
social relations should not be reinforced or built upon, but be subordinated to
the development of the socialist triangle.
socialism points toward the full development of human potential, Lebowitz asks
of real socialism, what type of people is produced within it? To him, it clear
that not all the characteristics of real socialism “point in the direction of
the society of associated producers. One that does not is their orientation
toward self-interest” (p. 163). The workers of real socialism were living in
societies that produced their own logic that led in this way. Real socialism
had its own socialist triangle: (1) that of the enterprise managers, (2) the
vanguard (3) and the moral economy of the working class.
us now outline the triangle of real socialism in order to see why the system
was bound to lead back to capitalism. Let us begin with the enterprise
managers, who operated according to a single centralised national plan in which
the necessary goods for other firms and consumers were produced. The ultimate
success of the plan “depends upon the success of the individual enterprises”
(p. 40). In order to encourage the managers of these enterprises to produce,
the planners stressed “that the managers were motivated by material interest --
that is, the managers acted as if they wanted to maximize their personal incomes
in the present and the future” (p. 41). If material incentives were the
motivator for an enterprise manager, then if a manager fulfilled their
production target, they would receive a bonus which was “not a negligible part
of the income of the mangers” (p. 41).
Managers and 'vanguard'
and managers wanted to make sure that plans were 100 per cent fulfilled. Managers
did everything “possible to secure their bonuses” (p. 43). To this end, managers
hoarded materials and workers, bribed officials and engaged in the underground
economy. Enterprises also cut corners in the production of goods in order to
stockpile for the future and to meet their production quotas, resulting in the
production of inferior products. Plan targets were kept artificially low so
that the enterprises could easily overfill their targets and receive their
bonuses. The end result of this was that the economies of real socialism had
acute shortages and inferior goods.
rightfully points out that the managers wished to maximise their income, but
they weren’t capitalists. Managers “didn't own the means of production, didn't
have the power to compel the workers to perform surplus labor, and didn't own
commodities (as a result of the labor process) that could be exchanged to
realize surplus value which can be the basis for the accumulation of f
capital... In short, we do not find here capitalist relations of production”
(p. 90). Clearly, Lebowitz does not accept the theories of state capitalism in
regard to the Eastern bloc, but he hastens to add that they did “contain within
them the logic of capital” (p. 90). If the managers were able to remove the
restraints placed upon them -- specified production quotas, the inability to
fire workers, designated suppliers and replacing the plan for free markets -- then
they would operate as capitalists.
the logic of capital (or the planners) was confronted by another side of the
real socialist triangle, that of the vanguard party. To Lebowitz, the vanguard
party was guided by the need to develop communism, which was premised on “the development
of productive forces” (p. 69). And if communism is the goal of this development
of the productive forces, then naturally faster growth was called for. And to
achieve communism, the monolithic disciplined vanguard party needs to be in
control of the state apparatus to coordinate production, unite the working
class and lead the way. In order to build socialism and communism, the “the
party must have the power to do so. It must control the state -- and there is
no logical basis for sharing power with other parties or for relinquishing it
voluntarily” (p. 76). Thus the need for state power and from that flows a
central plan encouraging the greatest possible growth to achieve communism.
is easy to say that the picture of communism believed by these vanguard parties
was simplistic. Yet there were dedicated party members who stressed “the
importance of placing social interests above personally interests, setting an
example of sensitivity and human solidarity … and holding high the principles
of internationalist unity and cooperation” (p. 71). Certainly, there was an
element of privileges and self-interest that existed among members of the
ruling vanguard party, but Lebowitz says of the communist ideal, “how could
this not attract the best, the most idealistic young people within society?”
the vanguard parties of real socialism were top-down, commandist and hierarchical.
Their behaviour in the planning process was not to encourage the self-activity
of the working class, “with its characteristic reliance upon centralized
organization, control, and intervention flows directly from the vanguard
relation -- that relation in which the top/centre asserts the correctness of
direction from above and commands compliance” (p. 80). However, in order for
the vanguard to direct the economy, it “must be certain that all the
information it requires for planning is transmitted accurately from below and
consolidated ... and all this must be done in a timely manner without the
individual players being able to deviate from the score” (p. 81). As we have
seen when describing managers above, the nature of the system made sure perfect
functioning was impossible.
should not rigidly separate the planners from the vanguard party; there was a
great deal of overlap and penetration between them. The planners (embodying the
logic of capital) and the vanguard (representing the logic of command), each
with their respective logic, interacted to “deform each other. Rather than the
combination permitting the best of both worlds, the effect can be the worst of
all possible worlds” (p. 91).
system was dysfunctional, with managers striving to throw off the centralised
plan to become the capitalists that they were in embryo. Managers wanted to
gain property rights over their enterprises and thus state ownership of
production and distribution had to be thrown off. In this situation the party
may have continued to attract the best in society, but “it may also get the
worst. The tendency to seek party membership (and to stimulate the appropriate
behavior) may be increasingly based on potential for career advances and
securing special advantages” (p. 130). In the face of declining growth rates
into the 1980s, the tension of this contested and dysfunctional system grew so
great that a portion of the party liquidated state ownership of the means of
production and reverted to capitalism.
Moral economy of the working class
this is not the end of the story. There is one more side of the real socialist
triangle and that is the moral economy of the working class. For the workers of
the Eastern bloc there was guaranteed full employment and “the protection that
individual workers had for their jobs from trade unions and the legal system
was real” (p. 60). Still, trade unions and the legal process operated in a
top-down manner that left workers atomised. The planners were constrained from
reaching their production targets by a system of full employment and sought to
liquidate it in the interests of efficiency.
meant that there was a de-facto alliance between workers and the vanguard
party. For workers, the party’s stress on economic growth and protection and
state ownership ensured them employment and benefits. Yet this alliance saw
“the working class yield control over its labor power in return for a package
that is far better than it could expect to receive within capitalism” (p. 75).
The working class had no power and “is one of an atomized yet secure workforce”
(63). Workers thus had a sense of fairness and entitlement to the rights that
real socialism guaranteed them and “production under vanguard relations
produc[ed] a working class consistent with vanguard relations” (p. 149). The
workers sought to enforce their norms of fairness within the system’s
framework, or their “moral economy”, as Lebowitz calls it, but they did not
seek to change the overall system. If the workers’ norms were not enforced,
they would steal from their jobs, work slowly and buy from the underground
economy. In a sense, the workers of real socialism had not escaped the
alienation of capital.
is well known what the fate of real socialism was. When Mikhail Gorbachev came
to power in the Soviet Union, his program of “perestroika thus meant that the
managers would be successful in wrestling clear property rights over the
enterprises from the vanguard” (p. 127). Furthermore, in the name of
efficiency, the right to full employment and the social safety net was
abolished. The vanguard parties of real socialism thus accepted the arguments
of neoliberalism and led their societies back to capitalism.
it remains to be answered why the working class was unable to resist this
assault? As Lebowitz says, “the vanguard speaks on behalf of the working class.
Any attempts by workers to organize independently of the official channels
appointed to represent them were repressed. Without space for autonomous
organization or, indeed, effective communication among themselves, workers in
the Soviet Union were disarmed in the ideological struggle” (p. 131). This
prevented the emergence of workers’ councils which Lebowitz believes could have
averted the transition back to capitalism. And finally workers were also
alienated and atomised under vanguard relations. The end result of vanguard
relations on workers, Lebowtiz sums up as “negative in any accounting system
that values human development” (p. 149).
analysis of the problems and contradictions of real socialism is quite
refreshing. This writer for one sees very little to object to in the overall
work. To any revolutionary desiring to understand what went wrong in the last
century and seeking to build a new socialism, The Contradictions of Real
Socialism is utterly essential. That being said, there are a number of
questions that come to mind after reading Lebowitz’s work.
Lebowitz doesn’t address a question that all socialist countries (real or
otherwise) have had to deal with: military defence. It is an indisputable fact
that every socialist revolution since 1917 has faced armed intervention from
the capitalist powers, counter-revolutionary terrorism and subversion. No
socialist government has ever been given a day’s respite from these threats.
In order to meet the reality of counterrevolutionary intervention, a state is also needed to coordinate other activities such as
the economy, security, education, health care, communications, trade, diplomacy
and if necessary, military action on an external basis. Any revolution for the
foreseeable future will have to operate in a world dominated by imperialism,
which imposes certain conditions. Even with the best of intentions, any
socialist state would thus have to maintain some form of hierarchy or chain of
command if only as a matter of necessity against the capitalist enemy. The need
to maintain revolutionary defence (with the dangers of commandism and
bureaucracy) is not something that revolutionaries can just walk around, these
are contradictions that have be gone through. Perhaps this is something that Lebowitz
can follow up in a later work.
Lebowtiz has written here about the USSR and the Eastern bloc and in other
places about Cuba and Venezuela, but he neglects to discuss China. This raises
some questions: what does Lebowitz have to say about the socialism of Mao?
There is also the question about a comparative approach of the USSR to China,
which is not touched on here. This is not a detriment to this book, which is
focused on the Eastern bloc, but it would be interesting for Lebowitz to extend
his analysis to other attempts at socialism.
third question raised by Lebowitz’s work is that of the role of a revolutionary
party. He says that he is not opposed to “the necessity for leadership in the
struggle against capital or to build a new socialist society” (p. 186). It
would be unfair to view Lenin's revolutionary vanguard party as the same as
those that governed the real socialist countries of the 1970s or 1980s. While
the ruling parties of real socialism were hierarchical and commandist, Lenin's
party shows a different style of leadership. It was an organisation
that could learn and teach, always keeping the communist goal in mind and
remaining deeply connected to the working class. In 1917, this party was
incredibly receptive to the demands of the masses and was able to win
leadership of the Russian Revolution. Just a cursory look at the works of Neil Harding, Lars Lih,
Alexander Rabinowitch, Paul Le Blanc or my own
shows a different style of a vanguard than the one Lebowitz describes. Now it
is true that Lebowitz says he isn’t touching on these issues in The
Contradictions of Real Socialism, but it would be interesting to see how the role of a
party (or leadership generally) will figure in future socialist attempts. That
being said, this writer has no objection to Lebowitz’s description of the “vanguards” of real socialism.
analysis has certain affinities with those of Leon Trotsky’s Revolution
Betrayed, who saw the state ownership of the means of production in the USSR
as reason for characterising it a (degenerated) workers’ state, while the
bourgeois method of distribution and the great inequality (as embodied in the
bureaucracy) threatened to lead the USSR back to capitalism unless halted by a
political revolution. While Lebowitz’s and Trotsky’s analyses have a great deal
in common (both are opposed to theories of state capitalism), Lebowitz’s stress
on the alienated nature of vanguard relations of production means that he sees
a social revolution as the only way out for the workers of real socialism as
opposed to Trotsky’s call for a political revolution. However, there may be
more common ground between the two, since Trotsky believed that a political
revolution in the USSR would have profound social content.
is hard to give a final analysis of Lebowitz’s study of the vanguard relations
of production. For one, Lebowitz is looking at “real socialism” from 1950 to
its dissolution and thus his focus “is upon the system which was more or less
consolidated and stable rather than the original emergence of that system” (p.
30). This is not to hold anything against Lebowitz. Yet one of the strengths of
Trotsky's account (or that of Charles Bettelheim) of the USSR is its historical
nature. Trotsky and Bettelheim discuss in great detail how the particular
social formation of the USSR emerged and how it functioned. Whatever the merits
or deficiencies of their respective analyses, they have a firm grounding in
history. Lebowitz has promised to follow up The Contradictions of Real
Socialism with a discussion of the history of how the vanguard relations of
production emerged and this writer eagerly awaits its publication.
though The Contradictions of Real Socialism raises certain questions,
has certain problems in its analysis and is incomplete, it is absolutely worth
reading. Lebowitz has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the
Soviet experience. For revolutionaries who want to build a socialism that is an
alternative to the misery of capitalism, while also learning from the mistakes
of the past, this is a highly recommended work.
Enaa Greene is a revolutionary socialist, historian and journalist living in
the greater Boston area. He is an editor of the Boston Occupier (http://bostonoccupier.com/)
and can be reached at greene.douglas[at]ymail.com.]
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