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The Contradictions of “Real Socialism” reviewed by Socialist Resistance

The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”

Vanguard and self-organisation

October 16, 2012 12:40 pm

Roy Wilkes reviews The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted by Michael A. Lebowitz. Paperback, 222 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-58367-256-3.

If you don’t know where you want to go, suggests Lebowitz, then no road will take you there. Our class cannot overthrow the rule of capital unless we have some idea of what we want to replace it with. But therein lies a problem. When workers think of ‘socialism’ they usually picture the “real” socialism of the 20th Century; most assume therefore that socialism is a totalitarian nightmare best avoided.

Those of us who share Marx’s vision of socialism as a society of freely associated producers therefore have a responsibility to understand and explain what went wrong with 20th Century socialism, why it went wrong, and how we would avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

It isn’t enough to blame the tragedy on the inadequate development of productive forces or on the belligerence of imperialism (what, after all, do we expect from imperialism?) Nor is a formulaic response sufficient, to simply decry 20th Century socialism as “state capitalism” or even “deformed and degenerated workers states.” What is needed instead is a serious Marxist analysis of the social relations that pertained in ‘real socialism’. In writing this book Lebowitz has made an important contribution to developing such an analysis, and one that deserves to be read and discussed widely on the left.

According to Lebowitz, the Soviet Union and the other ‘socialist’ states exhibited vanguard productive relations. The vanguard party (which adhered formally to democratic centralism but which was in practice bureaucratically centralist) created a bureaucratic stateapparatus in its own image.

The formal aim of that apparatus was to build a socialist society, and most of its members were probably sincere in their desire for such an outcome. The best and most committed young socialists were therefore recruited to the party and to the state bureaucracies and moulded in the image of their existing leaderships. But the ones who advanced were those who conformed, which meant above all not challenging orders from above.

Thinking and doing

Despite its professed allegiance to the proletariat, the vanguard did not actually believe that the working class was capable of organising production itself. Just as an orchestra needs a conductor to ensure that all the musicians work together in harmony, so too, it was reasoned, is a vanguard needed to stand at the head of the planned economy to ensure that the system runs smoothly and everything is coordinated. This approach inevitably entrenched a dichotomy between thinking and doing. The vanguard did all the thinking while workers produced what they were told to produce, in the way in which they were told to produce it.

Vanguard relations were not a temporary aberration but constituted an organic system that created the conditions for its own reproduction. So how was that system reproduced? Lebowitz argues that there was a social contract between the vanguard and the working class, in which the vanguard promised to deliver full employment and rising living standards, and in return the workers conceded all political power (including control of the plan) to the vanguard. It was certainly an imposed and one-sided contract, since the working class had little or no say in the matter, but it succeeded for a limited period in allowing the reproduction of vanguard relations.

At both a macro and micro level there were indeed very strong employment rights – it was virtually impossible to sack workers and there was therefore a relaxed pace of work. In fact it was the employment rights that made these states workers’ states in the eyes of the workers themselves. Bosses could not forcibly separate individual workers from the means of production, and there was no reserve army of labour to exert an external discipline over the workers.

But in order to guarantee their monopoly of control, the vanguard would not allow the workers any form of self-organisation, not even independent trade unions. The workers therefore remained atomised and alienated. This explains the ease with which these states were eventually disbanded and replaced with capitalist states – the working class was too weakened and de-politicised to mount any serious resistance….

Read the entire review on the Socialist Resistance website