How real was 'real socialism'? Michael Lebowitz's 'Contradictions of Real Socialism'

[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.]

Review by Doug Enaa Greene

The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the Conductor and the Conducted
By Michael A. Lebowitz
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.
221 pages

For Asia-Pacific readers it is also be available from Resistance Books

January 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.”

Indeed. 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 believe.

In 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.

Lebowitz 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.

Yet 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.

Socialist triangle

Lebowitz's vision of socialism was laid out in another one of his books, The Socialist Alternative,[1] where 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.

While 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.

Let 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'

Planners 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.

Lebowitz 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.

However, 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.

It 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?” (p. 71).

However, 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.

We 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).

The 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

However, 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.

This 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.

It 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.

Yet 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).

Lebowitz’s 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.


First, 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.

Second, 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.

A 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[2] 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.

Lebowitz's 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.

It 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.

Even 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.

[Doug Enaa Greene is a revolutionary socialist, historian and journalist living in the greater Boston area. He is an editor of the Boston Occupier ( and can be reached at greene.douglas[at]]




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Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 01/17/2013 - 13:11


Posted on behalf of F.S., Bulgaria

      Much of the Anglo-American left remains remarkably oblivious of concrete realities in the former socialist experiments in Eastern Europe, and current post-socialist realities devastating human dignity and multiplying poverty and inequality there today. This book is no exception.   

    The question of forging greater left unity is on the agenda in Australia, as recently reviewed by Peter Boyle in his “What politics to unite Australia’s left?” <>.  In Spain, the  Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left is a broad growing ensemble of parties and movements, with the Spanish CP its largest mass constituent <>. A central part of this exploration of achieving left unity involves building strong bridges between Marxist CP parties associated with across the planet and groups critical of socialism as manifested in Eastern Europe before 1989-90.        

      At this critical juncture, across the radical left in Australia, North America, the UK and elsewhere, we need to re-explore in depth what was progressive, successful, where & when in the former socialist economies – especially the smaller socialist states like Bulgaria -- along with all its weaknesses and contradictions.

         My core suggestion, in contradistinction to the whole largely armchair approach adopted by Lebowitz from afar, is that the narratives of ordinary people who grew up in socialism and now work & live in post-socialist societies in the throes of anomie and widespread poverty, basic dignity trampled, need to be collected, discussed & disseminated widely, an ensemble of authentic experience and memory radical as reality itself (see points 4 and 5 below).

     Speaking about ‘socialism 2.0’ for the 21st century, Peter Mertens, chair of the Workers Party of Belgium, noted in a 2012 interview: “It's also not the case that we don't know anything at all or that we have to start from a blank sheet of paper. There exist experiences, there was a socialism 1.0. With its strong points and its weak points, with its fantastic achievements, but also with its grievous mistakes. And we’re living in different times” (<>).

             In efforts to forge solidly anchored post-sectarian left unity, we we should avoid “the danger of a single story” in stereotypy of anything. In building a participatory economy and society beyond capitalism, especially a world of guaranteed full employment and largely de-commodified social production, ‘socialism 1.0’ is our own history & legacy. Oral historiography is one major concrete key to that ‘people’s history’ of Real Socialism sorely lacking in Lebowitz’s analysis.

      Some brief critical points:

1. Cold War rewarmed: for analysis, Lebowitz builds very centrally on the work of the dissident Hungarian economist János Kornai, who joined Harvard Univ. in the 1980s as a “leading guru of privatization” <>, as well as emigré analysts Moshe Lewin and Czech dissident Ota Šik, Hungarian dissident András Hegedüs (Hungary) and Boris Kagarlitsky, although he fails to mention anything from or about the institute Boris now heads in Moscow ( ) or the quarterly Levaya Politika he edits.

2. Monolingual analysis: most importantly, the book has no reference whatsoever [!] to any material in Russian or other East European languages. This is economic historiography centering principally on the Soviet Union, but apparently without a knowledge of Russian, relying solely on material in English.  The book has no references to Romania, Bulgaria, almost none to Poland. Michael has no comment on the powerful youth movements like Komsomol, Pioneers. Nothing on socialist education, health, cultural politics, low-cost books, theatre, a magnificent film industry in many socialist countries in Europe’s now beleaguered East. Why?

3. Books with a more differentiated view like Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union  (2004)  <>, a study on the destruction glasnost and perestroika wrought, or Albert Szymanski’s classic controversial work (1979) on the Soviet economy <>, Francis Spufford’s 2010 book Red Plenty (<>) are not mentioned, despite their more alternative views of the actual nature of  Real Socialism and its praxis, the realities of maintaining full employment and an economy is some key ways de-commodified, devoid of adverts and product marketing, even partially demonetized given the low cost of many key essential services and foods.

4. Oral historiography:  Another central serious criticism is a lack of any testimonial materials whatsoever [!] from oral history, the narratives of ordinary East Europeans who grew up and worked under socialism. Material in works by Daniel J. Raleigh, such as Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia's Cold War Generation (Oxford UP 2011) or his earlier Russia's Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk About Their Lives (Indiana UP 2006) or Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power, 1917-1953   (Pittsburgh UP 2001) go unmentioned, although these works strongly decenter and challenge the one-dimensional view of Soviet ‘totalitarianism’ and standard narratives of Soviet history widespread in the Western (esp. Anglo-American) imaginary. Alexei Yurchak’s  Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton UP 2005) , an intriguing study, likewise go unmentioned. Lebowitz briefly cites Alena Ledeneva , Russia’s economy of favours: blat, networking and informal exchange (CUP 1998), a work that actually deals with real experience on the ground, yet her more recent short work, Unwritten rules: how Russia really works (2001) is not, although readily accessible online:   <>.

5. Bulgarian oral social history: in looking at a highly successful socialist experiment like Bulgaria,  the ongoing oral history project in Bulgaria on Real Socialism there based heavily on oral history data recently collected and connected with the Institute for  Contemporary History in Sofia (Институт за изследване на близкото минало ) is a paradigm for a certain kind of grounded oral historiography of realities under socialism in a smaller and quite distinctive socialist experiment, positive and negative, as reflected here <> and here <>. Of course, knowledge of Bulgarian is essential to tap these materials.

6. There is strong support in eastern Germany for radical left notions of egalitarianism such as people knew under socialism there, now an extraordinarily unequal “unified’ capitalist society (<>).  Positions in reorganized CPs in Hungary <>, Romania, the Czech Republic <>, the CPRF in Russia ( -- a party with major electoral support (some 22%) -- also would disagree strongly with Lebowitz’s overall analysis from afar. Various views inside the CPUSA also reflect a similar position <>, and need in our view to be grounded more on real narrative and ‘people’s history’. Most Marxist CP parties associated with <> pursue this critical line, as recently articulated in Beirut <>.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 01/17/2013 - 13:19


Posted on behalf of Peter Waterman.

I am not sure whether I am here addressing Mike Lebowitz, his reviewer, Doug Greene, or both. But I do have a question about 'the moral economy of the working class' under what both of them, following the East German dictatorship, refer to as 'real socialism'.

This has to do with my experience, mostly in Communist Czechoslovakia, but also as an observer in a series of Communist countries. Whilst there might have been, in some of them, an initial moment of a practical alliance between the working class (or parts thereof) and the CPs, against the managers, there was also, commonly, such an alliance with the managers against the state, the party, or anything outside the narrow world of the enterprise, which often provided them with housing and other social benefits.

More generally, the 'moral economy' found its expression in the universal throwaway remark: 'They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work'.

It can also be found in the Polish film, 'Man of Marble', where we see building workers cruelly punishing some would-be stakhanovites, who were being fattened up, filmed and presented as models of high-productivity to their peers.

For more information and argument concerning what we might call 'actually-existing workers' under Communism, one can consult 'Piecework', or "A Worker in a Worker's State" by the Hungarian, Haraszti.

Or consider the quasi-universal remark (or feeling) amongst ordinary workers that 'I know more than my boss', the explanation for which being that it was the lazy and incompetent who were prepared to take on the disciplinary task imposed on them by the Management-Party-State.

Finally, of course, there was the widespread practice of moonlighting - of using factory time or resources for private purposes. Which was the only way I could get two severely-dented wheel rims repaired, rapidly and at minimal cost, even if this required heaving these at night-time over a two-metre fence.

There is surely a world of difference between the employment of the concept 'moral economy' by Lebowitz and/or Greene and its employment by Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, concerned to show the historical and social roots of resistance to and protest against the hegemonic political economy of early capitalist England. I quote:

'The concept derives from Thompson's treatment of bread riots in eighteenth century Britain. In MEWC Thompson writes:

"In 18th-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons "above" or apart from he crowd. The first form has not received the attention which it merits. It rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word "riot" suggests. The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840s. This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people. (MTWEC, 62-63)"

The references I make come more directly from the working class of these states. And help better to explain the resentment of workers there, expressed in pitiful products, poor services, seriously demotivated workers, and occasional dramatic outbursts and uprisings. These were, of course, customarily repressed, often with extreme violence, by those Lebowitz and/or Greene present as the CP allies of the working class.

Am I the only one to have the suspicion that the Lebowitz model has its source in theory or doctrine rather than social history or ethnography? Or that it has its origin in some case he wants to make in or about Venezuela?

Adding to my coment on the work of Lebowitz/Greene, I just found this review of the Miklos Haraszti book: 

From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.28-29.

1. EBook, November 2012: Recovering Internationalism.

2. Interface Journal Special, November 2012: For the Global Emancipation of Labour

3. Blog:

4. EBook 2011, Under, Against, Beyond - Essays 1980s-1990s

5. Paper 2012: The 2nd Coming of the World Federation of Trade Unions

6. Paper 2012:  Marikana, South Africa, The March of the Undead

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 01/18/2013 - 21:58


Posted on behalf F.S., Bulgaria

Regarding the moral economy and Waterman’s critical comments, I think Lebowitz addresses some of these points well enough on pp. 154-156, building on Ledeneva ( and Kopstein (, and the generating of “resistance ranging from shirking, grumbling, foot dragging, false compliance, dissimulation, and other ‘weapons of the weak’.”

Looking at the GDR, Kopstein indeed has a broad discussion of moral economists and the weapons of the weak (Scott) that is worth considering, and is extended to worker resistance of various kinds common in capitalist societies. There was a cline of cooperation vs. resistance across the socialist economies, that is clear: and the realities in Bulgaria, for example, differed from the GDR, Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia in significant respects.

An important relevant book as yet little known, based on oral historiography from a spectrum of socialist countries and edited from Bulgaria, is Daniela Koleva, ed. Negotiating Normality: Everyday Lives in Socialist Institutions (Transaction Books 2012)  (

Peter Waterman’s observation about “pitiful products, poor services, seriously demotivated workers, and occasional dramatic outbursts and uprisings ” were far less manifest in Bulgaria, as oral history interviews will corroborate. Why a separate question.  

Interestingly, Kopstein notes that  Communist parties may not have succeeded in decreasing the historical disparity in income between Eastern and Western Europe, but they did succeed in radically altering the social structures and attitudes of the people in the countries where they ruled. It is these social structures and sentiments that the liberal states of Eastern Europe must confront today.” And he refers in particular to harrowing experience of these populations in the grinding vortex of post-socialism: “the moral shock of confronting for the first time the genuine commodification of such realms as housing, basic necessities, health care and  the like, as well as early capitalist patterns of social stratification.”  In our experience, these remarks remain very germane for many workers across Eastern Europe, and most certainly here & now in Bulgaria. Tadeusz Kowalik, From Solidarity to Sellout: The Restoration of Capitalism in Poland  (New York: Monthly Review, 2012) (, “now with one of the highest coefficients of social inequalities in Europe” (p. 279), explores similar misdevelopments, but does not build on personal oral narratives.

The underground or grey economy and the kind of blat bartering analyzed by Ledeneva were very well developed in Bulgaria, as interviews indicate. And ‘moonlighting’ as Peter Waterman comments. But are often recalled in a quite positive light, as allowing an open door to small-scale private enterprise of all kinds, esp. by artisans, and accommodated by the state --- a welcome source of extra income for many families, free of any bureaucracy or payment of tax. Whether that was a serious mistake remains an open question. Launching and maintaining a small business today in Bulgaria is a nightmare, with very high rates of failure, extreme bureaucratic control, endless paperwork -- and for many, severe alienation from the experience. Mass long-term unemployment coupled with this has led to a staggering exodus of more than 20% of the population since 1992 as economic migrants, and a deepening demographic disaster (

Theft of state products as involved in blat barter was widespread but involved small amounts, a bottle of brandy, a salami or two. It functioned remarkably well in the memory of many: a bit of firewood or truckload of sand for a bottle of two of brandy. But theft was very strongly penalized, and people feared that. It was standard practice to search workers leaving plants.  Many of my neighbors never locked their doors, or left the key without worry under the mat. People will tell you: “no reason to steal, everyone had a job.” Of course, police control was highly visible. Today most urban Bulgarians live behind heavy steel doors and security systems, crime of all kinds and break-ins common – part of the trashing of the old ‘moral economy’ and the spread of widespread poverty under the restoration of capitalism, return to a class society, despair, insecurity, gross inequality (  As Stephen Gowans (2011 notes: “A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a paltry one in nine Bulgarians believe ordinary people are better off as a result of the transition to capitalism. And few regard the state as representing their interests. Only 16 percent say it is run for the benefit of all people.” That is still valid today. Gowans reviews on-the-ground realities in a number of post-socialist societies.

The ironic quote Peter Waterman cites “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” will sound absurd to Bulgarian families whose income and buying power were better under socialism than in the unending crisis of 23 years today.  What you can hear is that “three people did the job of one,” since jobs were guaranteed, including for all youth leaving school and graduating from universities and colleges. How socialists will in fact achieve full employment anywhere without a highly planned state-owned economy -- and perhaps two people sharing the job of one, with full living wage  – is a core question.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 01/28/2013 - 16:45


I confess that (as “F.S., Bulgaria” has charged) Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: the Conductor and the Conducted does indeed rely solely upon material in English. (This deficiency can readily be confirmed by a quick examination of the bibliography of the book.) Further, I confess that F.S. is correct in his “central serious criticism [that there] is a lack of any testimonial materials whatsoever [!] from oral history, the narrators of ordinary East Europeans who grew up and worked under socialism”. True, I have had oral discussions with many people over the years but there’s nothing that would be found in archives.

I confess, too, that I drew upon the work of “the dissident” Kornai – in particular, for his discussion of the characteristics of a shortage economy and for his early description of the perverse behaviour of managers (though, perhaps, it was an oversight of F.S. to mention that I explicitly rejected Kornai’s analysis of “Real Socialism”). And, yes, I similarly used the work of the “émigré” Moshe Lewin – both for his reproduction of the Gosplan warnings about the deterioration of the Soviet economy from the 1960s on and for his sympathetic account of the arguments of the market reformers (which, it must be noted, I rejected entirely, describing the economists as the ideological spokesmen of capital). As well, I cited the dissidents Sik and Hegedus (to which we may add the dissident Khrushchev).

I confess to these charges with no hesitation. But what is the point that F.S. is trying to make? We will return to this in a moment. But first another confession. I confess to my deep admiration for Peter Waterman’s great skill in commenting upon my book without ever having read it. This was a skill I tried to develop as a graduate student – in particular in discussions about movies that I had never seen. However, special kudos must go to Waterman’s insistence that “there surely a world of difference” between the way I use the concept of moral economy and the way E.P. Thompson did – a performance unsullied by any contact with my book and certainly a testimony to his scholarship.

So much for my confessions. And now my revelation – the occurrence of yet another example of what in science is known as “multiple independent discovery”. For, I think it is absolutely remarkable to see that “F.S.” and one, who for symmetry we will call “B.T.” (who earlier  commented on my book on the website for Climate & Capitalism) have drawn upon the precise same sources (e.g., Peter Mertens, chair of the Workers Party of Belgium), use quite similar language (e.g., “Michael has no comment on the powerful youth movements like Komsomol, Pioneers”) and have the same basic criticism of “Lebowitz’s highly abstracted analysis from afar” (says B.T.) and “Lebowitz’s overall analysis from afar” (says F.S.).

Of course there are alternative hypotheses. Rather than multiple independent discovery, this may simply be a case in which F.S. plagiarised from B.T. Then, again, it may be that F.S. and B.T. are one. Enquiring minds want to know. Whichever the case, though, a portion of my response to B.T. in the earlier discussion seems appropriate to reproduce:

In as many ways as it is possible, B.T. stresses the loss and suffering felt by people of the former 'real socialist' countries as the result of the triumph of barbaric capitalism. What socialist would deny this--- and it is certainly the point of my discussion of the unilateral abandonment of the social contract that characterised the concluding chapter of 'real socialism'!

But B.T. says nothing about why the working class in these countries allowed this to happen-- the very first question I posed!

He may want to talk about the real nostalgia of many people he has met (as opposed to what he calls a 'highly abstracted analysis from afar' of 'real socialism') but how is this anything but a justification of that system?

Indeed, an apology for the system is precisely what this appears to be. How else are we to interpret his references to 'the uniquely difficult situation of socialist construction' and the 'crushing vortex' of the Cold War upon the 'socialist experiment in Eastern Europe' in contrast to his sneer at 'the supposed failings of "vanguard" leadership"'!

Of course, it may be entirely inappropriate to attribute the position of B.T. to “F.S., Bulgaria”. The concept of multiple independent discovery does not imply that the scientists in question are identical. However, F.S. does seem to be coming from the same place as B.T. Why else would his first critical point identify my use of Kornai, Lewin et al. by the heading, “Cold War rewarmed”! I confess (yes, again!) that I find this a strange way to go about forging the “solidly anchored post-sectarian left unity” that F.S. expressly desires (as does B.T.). Could he have in mind, though, the exemplary path currently being forged by one of the parties linked to the site (which he favours) -- the KKE (the Communist Party of Greece)?

Finally, in writing this response, I could not help but think of my friend  E.B.’s favourite saying (from the immortal Zippy the Pinhead): “Si usted no puede decir algo amable, diga algo surrealista.”* This one’s for you, Emiliano.

[*If you can not say something nice, say something surreal.]