Michael Lebowitz's 'The Socialist Imperative': 'A must-read for revolutionaries'

The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now
By Michael A. Lebowitz
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015.
264 pages

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Review by Doug Enaa Greene

July 28, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Those who open Michael Lebowitz's new book, The Socialist Imperative, will find something far different and refreshing than the old apologetic Soviet manuals on the smooth workings of a planned economy. What they will discover is a collection of writings inspired by Lebowitz's lifetime of activism and profound solidarity with the oppressed and exploited under capitalism and his revolutionary vision of how to build a socialist alternative.

Lebowitz takes seriously questions of what it takes to build a new socialist order that doesn't just repeat the mistakes of the past. His other books, such as The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the Conductor and the Conducted, and this one deserve engagement from committed socialists and revolutionaries.

The purpose of Michael Lebowitz's book is explained by his title choice -- The Socialist Imperative. As Lebowitz argues, the pressing need to eliminate capitalism and replace it with a “society of associated free producers oriented to the full development of human potential” (p. 8) is not new, but is needed because of capital's drive to expand without limit threatens the destruction of the natural world. This means that the need to act is immediate. Certainly with the crushing crisis of capitalism and ecological disaster in the not too distant future, the time is coming when to act may be too late.

The book itself is a collection of 11 essays by Lebowitz that cover a number of themes, only a few of which I will discuss here: Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme, the problems of “real socialism” in the USSR, market self-management in Yugoslavia, and efforts to build socialism in Venezuela. Although Lebowitz has written on all these points before, it is still useful to find them succinctly collected here. I was pleased to find that Lebowitz addresses in detail questions that I have had about his previous work, such as the role of the party in building socialism.

The Gotha Programme

Lebowitz's second chapter deals with both the historical moment led that Marx to write his Critique of the Gotha Programme and how subsequent socialists have misinterpreted it. The historical context of the Gotha Programme is well known. In 1875 the two wings of German socialism, “Lassalleans” and “Eisenachers” (the former non-Marxist), created a unified party known as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which by the turn of the 20th century was the largest political party in the country. Both Marx and Engels took objection to a number of programmatic concessions that their followers had made to the Lassalleans on subjects such as the iron law of wages, internationalism, the lack of social demands, the role of the state and the post-capitalist period. However, since the real unity of socialists in Germany was a real step forward for the movement, both Marx and Engels kept their criticisms to themselves (not until 1891 did Engels publicly release Marx's notes on the Gotha Programme).

According to Lebowitz, there has been misinterpretation by many socialists who have read the marginal notes that make up the Critique of the Gotha Programme. For one, these notes were not a fully developed vision of a post-capitalist society (p. 66). When Marx observed, "Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and cultural development conditioned thereby", he was not looking at communist society as it developed on its own foundations, but at the defects it inherited just as it emerged from capitalism. Too often, past socialist experiments have interpreted passages of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme about the inevitability of wage differentials, inequality during a socialist transition and the need for the state to reinforce those institutions and their logic, rather than to being actively try to overcome them with the revolutionary practice of the workers. This misinterpretation ultimately helped to lead these societies back to capitalism.

The standard interpretation of the Gotha Programme has been to divide socialism and communism into distinct stages where the defects found in the first stage are built on. In this view, what mattered was a singular focus on the development of the productive forces and not changing the relations of production. In fact, the relations of production are seen as equivalent to state ownership of the means of production not as “communal relations of production that subordinate the private-ownership of labor-power and by creating a new state” (p. 71). A singular focus upon the development of the productive forces led to the creation of a centralised state standing above society found in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, which justified all kinds of abuses until the “promised land” of communism is reached.

According to Lebowitz, this interpretation gained authority because it supported the position of the rulers of “real socialism” in the USSR, who were disinclined to change the relations of production or develop a dictatorship of the proletariat that would foster self-government by workers and their revolutionary practice (p. 74). There is little to object to here. We can point to many examples of Soviet leaders, such as Stalin, using the authority of Marx and Lenin to denounce egalitarianism as “petty bourgeois” during the breakneck industrialisation of the first Five Year Plan.

Lebowitz also says that there is a second reason why this misinterpretation of the Gotha Programme has so much currency. This is because those who have enforced it rely upon the authority of Lenin's State and Revolution. In that work, Lenin did divide the post-capitalist period into two stages: socialist and communist, with only the first being on the immediate agenda in Russia.

When Lenin wrote his work in 1917 there had been no experience with socialism (outside of the short-lived Paris Commune), so he was writing when it was possible to only roughly sketch what the future would entail. While a focus on the development of the productive forces was problematic during the Five Year Plans, there was a dire need to develop production in a country that was falling apart and underdeveloped. Although Lebowitz does not blame Lenin for what happened in the USSR, more discussion on the context of Lenin's ideas is needed than he allows. (p. 75)

‘Real socialism’

This brings us to the question of what type of socialism developed in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc? Lebowitz calls the relations that existed in these societies “vanguard Marxism”, which he says was a distortion of Marxism. “Real socialism” was characterised by a triangle consisting of three sides: (1) that of the enterprise managers, (2) the vanguard (3) and the moral economy of the working class.

Let us look at each in turn.

The first side of the triangle is the enterprise managers, who operated according to a single centralised national plan in which the necessary goods for other firms and consumers were produced. Yet the managers were not capitalists since they did not own the means the production. Still, the enterprise managers wanted to maximise their own incomes and output, which was encouraged by the planners who set ambitious targets. However, the efforts managers by the managers to produce as much as possible led to shortages and bottlenecks throughout the whole economy.

As the planned economy suffered more shortages and problems, the managers did everything possible to secure their bonuses by bribing officials, hoarding material, guarding their workers and engaging in commerce in the underground economy. Enterprises also cut corners in the production of goods in order to stockpile for the future and 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. Although the managers were not capitalists, they felt increasingly constrained by the plan placed upon them and struggled to remove them in order to operate according to the logic of capital.

On the second side of the triangle was the vanguard party, which wanted to develop the productive forces and build communism. The vanguard party believed that the communist goal required a disciplined monolithic party to control the state, coordinate production, and organise the working class. However, according to the logic of vanguard Marxism, the party was commandist, did not accept input from the workers and was divorced from them. Yet the workers did accept the leadership of the vanguard, which brought them real gains, but also left them unable to rule.

On the one hand, there was a social contract under real socialism that guaranteed employment, rising incomes, subsidised necessities, shorter working hours and a slower intensity on the job. On the other hand, the workers “accepted the rule of the vanguard party and their own powerlessness and subordination in every aspect of society.” (p. 94) The first two sides of the triangle did not merely exist side by side, but interacted with each other, and ultimately deformed each other.

The final side of this triangle was the moral economy of the working class. According to Lebowitz, latent in the moral economy is a “society based upon solidarity and community, one marked by our mutual dependence” (p. 224). While the working class would resist assaults on their own living standards, the vanguard kept them divided and isolated, and without their own alternative forms of organisation, the workers were unable to offer resistance to the restoration of capitalism.

The socialist triangle

In The Contradictions of Real Socialism, I found Lebowitz's discussion of the problems and contradictions of the USSR quite refreshing (which I stand by). So what does Lebowitz propose in place of repeating “real socialism”? Drawing on the lessons of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's socialist experiment and the work of Istvan Meszaros, Lebowitz declares the need for a socialist vision that he calls a triangle of three parts. 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 and 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.

Rather than building upon defects, Lebowitz says we need a new socialist system with its own relations of production that develops upon its own foundations as an organic system. This requires revolutionary practice by workers which is the “simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change. To change a structure in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another you have to do more than try to change a few elements in that structure; you must stress at all times the hub of these relations, namely human beings as subjects and products of their own activity” (p. 124-5).

It is a profoundly revolutionary vision. Lebowitz underscores the importance of democracy to this project -- where people rule throughout society and develop their capacities to do so. He warns that if the people lack the power to rule, as was the case in “real socialism”, then they will not develop themselves as revolutionary subjects: “people produced within this relation are people without power” (p. 151) and the result is not socialism. It is something that should be at the heart of our revolutionary vision.

Lebowitz, correctly in my view, recognises that the Yugoslav model of market self-management was not an alternative to “real socialism”. While the system was composed of worker, the system remained focused on maximising income that generated inequality in enterprises and throughout society. There was, in fact, no social ownership, but groups of workers “with differential access to particular means of production” (p. 35). Since the goal of the workers was to maximise their income, they “yielded the de facto power to think and decide to the managers and experts and did not develop their own capacities” (p. 35). In the end, the managers in Yugoslavia saw their desire for efficiency thwarted by the self-management system, while the vanguard fought the logic of capital, they also prevented the development of an alternative system of solidarity by the working class.[1]

Further questions and comments

Lebowitz warns that socialism cannot be based on the horizontialism and localism found in protest movements since “there is nothing inherent in them that goes beyond their particular focus to develop an understanding of capital and the need to put an end to it” (p. 215). As someone who was a participant in Occupy, I can attest that a society run on horizontal methods is neither possible nor desirable.

Yet I feel that Lebowitz's vision needs to take account of some of the necessary structures and tasks that a revolutionary state would need to perform, such as foreign trade and maintaining an army. Any revolution for the foreseeable future will have to operate in a world dominated by imperialism, which imposes certain conditions on what a socialist society can achieve. 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.

I also feel that democracy, debate, accountability and decision making under socialism has historically been -- and in the future will be -- mediated by various forms of representation, accountable decision-making bodies, leadership and political parties. For one thing, the masses do not all possess the same political understanding and there are lags in their consciousness from advanced to intermediate to the backward. When the people take ownership of society, they will do so in unorganised and chaotic ways. They will need to experiment and go through many learning processes to determine what forms of representation and rule will work for them.

Furthermore, once a planned economy is set up, it needs to make complex decisions affecting all of society, this cannot necessarily be done and evaluated by the people directly. There are a multitude of questions and decisions that will have to be mediated. Various forms of representation and decision-making bodies are needed. All of these questions and problems I feel can't be worked around, but need to be struggled through (I have dealt with some elsewhere).

Lastly, Lebowitz is much clearer than in The Contradictions of Real Socialism on the role of the party in taking and exercising power (although it was not absent even there). The party he describes is one that I believe that any revolutionary Marxist or Leninist would recognise as the ideal we should strive for. The party needs to listen and lead by “being sensitive to the concerns of people in workplaces and society, it can formulate proposals and slogans that crystallize and focus those concerns. And, in the process of leading struggles centered about democracy, the party can itself be transformed in its internal life to the extent that it listens rather than commands. Through continuous interaction with the democratic struggles of the people, the party makes itself fit to play a critical role in the building of a new society that is moving toward the realization of the socialist dream” (p. 223).


Despite my criticisms and questions, Socialist Imperative is a must-read for revolutionaries. Compared to others who look for imaginary revolutionary subjects, Lebowitz remains animated with the belief that the working class “makes itself a revolutionary subject through its struggles -- it transforms itself .... which is the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. It makes itself fit to create the new world" (p. 243). This is a book in which the author asks some tough questions about how we get to the end goal of a society that allows for the full development of our human potential (and how we failed the last time).

As he warns, the threat of fascism and ecological collapse await us if we do not act upon the socialist imperative. All militants would do well to arm themselves with this book.


[1]As an aside, I would have liked to have Lebowitz's views on China (both under Mao and after), which did make a partial effort during the Cultural Revolution to change the relations of production in factories and to develop new forms of self-governance.