Marx & Philosophy Review of Books » Reviews » 2014 » Cistelecan: The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”
Michael Lebowitz, The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted
Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012. 222pp., $16 pb
Reviewed by Alex Cistelecan
Rather than a historical or dialectical analysis of actually existing socialism, The Contradictions of Real Socialism. The Conductor and the Conducted should be read more as an exercise in the moral psychology of ‘human development’ that, for Michael Lebowitz, should supplement today’s Marxism.
The crucial tenet of this kind of socialism is the idea, nay, the ideal of human development. According to the author, the main problem with the old theory and practice of Marxism is that it hosts ‘a distortion that forgot about human beings’. Witness the overwhelming importance that the critical analysis of capital enjoyed in classical Marxism, and the extremely rare interest in the human element of future socialism, that is, in the underlying morals and psychology of the coming new man. Thus, instead of – or, at best, besides – staring obsessively at the moving contradictions of capitalism, we should focus on the requirements needed by the ‘development of a solidarian society, in which we go beyond self-interest and build solidarity through our activity’ and in which we finally ‘replace a focus on selfishness and self-orientation with a focus on community and solidarity’. In short, future socialism rests on the possibility of ‘developing a new common sense’ – and in this task, Lebowitz undeniably succeeds.
So where does Real Socialism fit into this new old socialist common sense? Obviously, Real Socialism is the supreme example of what can go wrong when socialism cares only for the objective, economic and political side of the issue, and ignores the necessary moral and psychological development of its human element. There is no point in (sort of) socializing the means of production if the social structures left in place are still hierarchically biased. The contradiction of real socialism is precisely this: that it attempted to build socialism on the basis of ‘vanguard relations of production’, in which the conductor – the central planners – stand above the conducted – the workers. This ‘despotic character of direction’ maintained in Real Socialism involves a separation between thinking and doing that gravely deforms the potential for human development and, hence, inevitably undermines the proclaimed socialist goal…