A Review of Lebowitz’s The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted

The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted

The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the ConductedBy Michael A. Lebowitz. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2012.

Reviewed by David Cohen

January, 2013

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s brought forth an abundance of declarations that socialism was once and for all dead. However, for some, the task became developing a new vision of socialism for the twenty-first century. Across several books, Michael Lebowitz develops a new vision of socialism by going back to how Marx envisioned socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

Lebowitz writes, “There is though, a new vision of socialism that has emerged in the twenty-first century as an alternative to barbarism. At its core is the alternative that Marx evoked in Capital; in contrast to a society in which the worker exists to satisfy the need of capital for its growth, Marx pointed to “the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the workers own need for development.” Human development, in short, is at the center of this vision of the alternative to capitalism.” (Page 17).

In The Contradictions of Real Socialism, Lebowitz continues the development of his vision of socialism by analyzing what happened in the Soviet Union and other European Socialist states during the period that they defined as “Real Existing Socialism,” which is basically the period from the demise of Stalin to the collapse in the 1990’s.

Here he applies his understanding of Marx’s theories of socialism to a real historical period. For me, the point in reading a book like this is to not only gather some understanding of socialist theory but to learn how “Real Existing Socialism” worked and what its achievements and its failures were. Is there anything in this analysis that can help us to understand our present situation in the U.S.? What is our vision of socialism, and what are we doing to realize it?

Here is Lebowitz’s outline for the book:

Our examination of Real Socialism begins by investigating an omnipresent characteristic in the system-shortages. To understand the factors underlying the “shortage economy,” we first consider the concept of a particular social contract that offered some definite benefits for the working class, and then we explore the character of vanguard relations of production. But there was more to Real Socialism than one set of relations. We see an inherent struggle between the logic of the vanguard and the logic of capital; in addition, we see a particular set of beliefs on the part of the working class (the moral economy of the working class in Real Socialism) which provides glimpses of an alternative logic, the logic of the working class. Can the latter be built upon in Real Socialism? That is the question for which we provide some suggestions but no definitive answer. (Page 9).

The book opens with the idea of “The conductor and the conducted,” which becomes a discussion on the difference between the role of a coordinator and the role of a leader as a fixed commanding position. Marx believed in the need for coordinators, especially in complex situations such as running a factory, but these coordinators were different than the bosses that existed under capitalism.

The discussion broadens out to ask what kind of human beings are being created in a system where the working class just follows orders, even if that system provides some basic needs for the working class. Marx’s goal was not just a society where human beings were fed, had housing and jobs, but a society that people could grow and develop their full potential.

The chapter on shortages focuses on the works of Janos Kornai, a Hungarian economist who began in the 1950’s to analyze “real socialism” as a organic system and to figure why shortages and mis-planning occurred. Kornai (who later emigrated to the US) focused on central planning as the problem, with central planning forcing managers of enterprises to fake data, hoard materials, produce shoddy goods, engage in underground trading of materials with other managers, all in order to meet quotas set by the central planners. The use of bonus pay for meeting quotas, for managers, became prevalent by the late 1960’s (the pay having been reduced by Khrushchev in the late 1950’s), with bonuses amounting to 22% of managers pay in 1966 and 34.5% in 1970. Kornai’s solution to the production problems was to reduce the power of central planners and therefore the freeing of enterprise managers from restraints. Lebowitz finds this answer lacking and poses the question “why would the central planners choose to follow policies that produced such negative effects?” And how would decentralization work to solve the problems?

In his examination of why planners would follow policies that produced negative effects Lebowitz looks at the problems of power blocs in the Soviet Union. These power blocs were geographic regions, and different sectors of the economy that vied for money. Central planning was not done in a political vacuum, but in a real world where light industry competed with heavy industry (and the military) for funds to expand. In the end, it was usually heavy industry that won out.

Lebowitz then looks at the “social contract” that existed in the countries of “real socialism.” What did workers get and what constraints did this put on central planning?

Workers expected and got stability in prices, rents, and job security. Wages were expected to rise by several percentage points per year. Workers were virtually guaranteed lifetime employment in the workplace, often times it was actual lifetime specific job security. Unemployment was almost non-existent and the pace of work was leisurely. Many industries operated on a one or two shift basis, the exceptions being those where the industrial process could not be shut down. As the introduction of new equipment could cause the displacement of workers, factories either expanded or added new workers to run the new equipment. Rather then re-train current employees, new factories were built to run the new equipment. There was debate over whether this “expansionist” model of growth (new factories, recruiting peasants to fill the jobs was better then a “intensive development” model which expanded production through more efficient machinery and technology in the existing factories.   The expansionist model continued to win out even though it clearly led to stagnation, because it did not disrupt the protections the workers expected, and therefore the level of workers’ dissatisfaction was kept in check. Lebowitz describes these workers rights as further constraints upon planners.

By law the trade unions had the right to submit proposals on how to improve production, but this was far from the workers having power within their workplaces. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1984 there was much discussion over a new law that Andropov had promoted. That law said that workers, not just the trade union officials, had to discuss and vote on the five year plan for their enterprises.

Lebowitz describes what he terms “vanguard relations” in the Soviet Union. This applies not only to the Communist Party being the vanguard of the working class, and thus making all decisions, but to the way society was organized. To have the power necessary to carry out their goal of building socialism, the vanguard party must control the State and the State must own the means of production. The entire society is organized in a hierarchical fashion. The vanguard party sets production goals, this is transmitted to the workplaces and the managers carry out the decisions by meeting the production goals.

The vanguard party sees its role as conducting society towards its socialist and communist future. Many of the best and brightest in these countries were attracted to the Communist Party and believed in building socialism, but joining meant accepting the hierarchy and following orders. The funds for preparing for the future came from exploitation of workers, a portion of the surplus they produce was set aside to build for what the vanguard saw as the future. The workers have their social compact, but have no power to affect how this future is built.

Lebowitz writes:

What kind of people are developed in the society of the conductor and the conducted? That is a society with a profound difference between thinking and doing, one where workers do not develop their potential because they do not engage in protagonistic activity. It is an alienated society in which workers do not view work as fulfilling, are alienated from the means of production, wish to consume and consume, and look upon work as a disutility-a burden that must be reduced. It is a society that cannot produce socialist human beings (page 83).

One of Lebowitz’s key points is that workplaces not only produce products but they produce human beings also. Under capitalism the human beings produced are alienated, incomplete people. Thinking is separated from doing. What kind of human beings were being created under vanguard socialism? Lebowitz concludes that although the workers under real socialism received benefits unheard of in capitalist countries (no unemployment, leisurely work pace, etc.) the same sort of alienated incomplete people were being produced. For socialism to be built requires that workers direct their workplaces on behalf not only of themselves but for the good of the entire society. Workers must be fully engaged in running the society, and the elimination of the division of “hand workers and brain workers” must occur. This is part of the socialist triangle described in Lebowitz’s previous book The Socialist Alternative.

Workers accepted the lack of democracy in exchange for the basic stability in their work life. Shortages were dealt with by trading on the black market. Stealing from work, to help family and friends survive was accepted as the norm, and justified by the belief that “we own the factories so it’s alright to take from them”.

This kind of society created many conflicts, not the least of which was ideological. The managerial “class” became more and more frustrated in trying to improve production, when faced with the protection that workers expected. As we have seen, the interests of the managers — their pay and status in society — were based upon meeting production goals and increasing productivity. The managers were not capitalists, but the logic they developed was capitalist logic.

One of the discussions I found to be very interesting was on the concept of “moral economy,” which he describes as the economic standards that workers believe are the minimum they are entitled to. Lebowitz bases this upon a concept from E.P. Thompson. Workers or peasants have beliefs as to what they are entitled to and what is fair within the confines of the social system, and if these are breached they will rise up and protest. This will not necessarily lead to revolution, but most often to a return to the status quo.

The discussion and debate on how to modernize and improve productivity was in full swing before Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union. The proposed reforms came from the top (as only it could in a vanguard society), but the reforms were those of the managerial class. Under perestroika, the managerial class not only won the battle to be free to manage their enterprises themselves (as opposed to managing them according to State directives) but the ideological battle that saw the workers’ prerogatives as an obstacle to developing society. They viewed the benefits of job security, artificially low prices, leisurely work pace as all part of the past that didn’t work.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and other Socialist countries came without protest of the workers who, molded by the years of vanguardism, were organizationally and ideologically unable and unwilling to stage a protest.

Lebowitz opens the book by stating that this is a book for people who have questions. In the end he poses more questions, recognizing that not every country of real socialism was the same, that many other factors played a role. He also poses many questions as to whether a different outcome was possible under real socialism, or for the countries that still exist under real socialism.

“Goodbye to vanguard Marxism,” is the title and theme of the last chapter.

Lebowitz writes:

After having considered the nature of vanguard relations of production, the contradictions within Real Socialism, the tendency for the emergence of capitalist relations and for the attack on the working class in Real Socialism, any further discussion may seem anti-climatic. However, it is important not to conclude without considering the theory that has accompanied and provided support for those developments. The problem of Real Socialism as such is not the result of the particular circumstances (for example economic backwardness) under which a correct theory was applied. On the contrary, Vanguard Marxism is deformed Marxism, and if it is not challenged, the results of its application will be essentially the same under any conditions (Page 173).

For me, reading this book leads to the questions of how we need to begin to look at how this deformed Marxism called “vanguardism” affects how we struggle here and now. This is not just a question of how each little sect views its role as the vanguard of the working class. It is how we conceive the role of leaders and rank and filers in the struggles we are involved in right now. It is contained in how we formulate what we fight for and its impact on capitalism and the working class.

I’d argue that a good example of this is the fight for single payer health insurance. We recognize that this is not the full answer to the health care problem in this country, but by eliminating insurance companies we not only free up billions of dollars for health care but ideologically we make real the concept that capitalism stands in the way of creating better lives for the working class. But should we go farther. In many models of single-payer health care there are democratic mechanisms for workers to discuss how health care should be delivered in their area. If a hospital in a given area is given funding from the State to provide health care then an elected body helps determine how that care is delivered. We cannot leave this discussion out of our battle for single payer in the US.

The prevailing ideology of capitalism is not to have democratic, member run, activist organizations; it is, instead, to purchase something to provide for your needs. How do we establish new ways for working class organizations to function as democratic and member run, when in practice many workers do not want to be involved or to have to make decisions? One can buy an insurance policy to provide for health care, and join AARP and have them lobby in Washington on behalf of senior citizens. How often have we heard workers say, “I pay my union dues, now go get me what I need”?

Take for example the debate that has occurred within the left and the labor movement on democracy in unions. This to me reflects the divide between those who accept the capitalist norm of leadership, that the leaders lead and the members/stockholders/

employees/citizens follow and those who believe that the strength of a union lies in the membership making its own decisions and being active and engaged in the struggle for rights.

I had other questions for Lebowitz after finishing the book. Specifically:

1) While it seems to me the implications of rejecting vanguard Marxism are clearer for countries in which the working class has political power or the possibility of achieving political power in the near future are clearer, what are the implications for those of us in countries like the US?

2) Framing this as a discussion of “Real Socialism” limits the time frame to the post Stalinist period. Many people will say this is a weakness in your analysis. How do you respond to that? Since the concept of a vanguard party was key to the Bolsheviks theory, was the revolution doomed from the beginning?

3) Does the concept of a “moral economy” have a place in our efforts to build a fight back against the austerity war that is being waged against the working class. Do different concepts of a “moral economy” explain why some workers will fight back and others accept a beating from the bosses?

People should read this book for the very reason that it is not a blueprint for socialism, but because it provides a basis for deep ongoing discussions of what socialism should look like in the twenty-first century. I think that many of the theoretical points are the basis for a discussion on how socialists in the USA should be acting, what struggles are key, and how our struggles now lay a basis for a socialist future.

Dave Cohen is a retired organizer with the UE. He lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

*With thanks to Judy Atkins for her help with this article.