Thursday April 24th, 2014

The Contradictions of “Real Socialism” reviewed in International Critical Thought

"Where fresh insights are rare, indeed, Michael Lebowitz provides a bundle of them … rich material for badly-needed discussion."
—Paul Buhle, author, Marxism in the United States

International Critical Thought
Volume 3, Issue 1, 2013

Reviewed by Christopher Adair-Toteff

Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism. The Conductor and the Conducted. New York: Monthly Review Press. 2012. Pp. 222. ISBN: 978-1-58367-256-3. Pbk. $ 15.95.

In his new book on “Real Socialism” Michael A. Lebowitz cautions that he is not writing either for those readers who think that they know all answers or for those who believe that answers can somehow fall from the sky. Instead, he has mostly questions about “Real Socialism”; meaning the type of socialism that existed in certain Western countries from roughly the early 1950s until the end of the 1980s. “Real Socialism” is the type of actual as opposed to theoretical socialism, and unfortunately it was the type that failed at the end of this period. But, Lebowitz is clearly not disillusioned by this failure of “Real Socialism” and he certainly believes that there can be a viable alternative to capitalism. Furthermore, he contends that the study of this failure is clearly beneficial: the study of the failure of “Real Socialism” is not merely a historical exercise, but it will help to provide the foundations for a renewed and successful type of socialism.

Lebowitz begins his “Introduction” by insisting that the hatred that Marx had towards capitalism did not blind him to an understanding of its nature and its strengths. In Marx’s view, capitalism was not a weak system that could simply be wished away; instead it had strengths which needed to be confronted and weaknesses that needed to be exposed. The strengths were the capitalists’ use of the worker, but Marx insisted that this was really abuse. First, the capitalist pitted the workers against each other; more importantly, the capitalist reduced the workers to deformed beings by denying them opportunities to develop. What socialism could offer instead is a system that would produce “rich human beings”. These would not be simply consumers, but people who were fully developed as human beings. It is the inherent failure of capitalism to produce such humans, but it was the practice of “Real Socialism” that failed to produce them.

In the section entitled “The Overture” Lebowitz takes up the question of leadership in socialism; he maintains cooperative efforts function better when there are leaders. He then offers two versions of them: in one, the leader is like a conductor who not only is concerned with the entire orchestra but is also looking out for each individual member. This type of leader “serves the music”; which results in the whole orchestra producing beautiful music. In the other, the leader tends to disregard the whole and its members and concentrates primarily on what will benefit himself. Unfortunately, this is the type of leader who led during the time of “Real Socialism” and Lebowitz spends most of his book discussing the range of problems associated with this type of leadership.

In Chapter One Lebowitz focuses on the problem of chronic shortages and he notes that they were widespread during the time of “Real Socialism”. He suggested that these shortages had a number of results: people tended to hoard and consequently an underground economy developed. He places the blame primarily on the managers; but, the socialist system also shares some of this blame. The managers tried to do their job conscientiously but they were stymied in part because they had control only over their specific section. Accordingly, as managers they also functioned like individual people; they hoarded as much raw material as they could for their section and they tried to protect their workers. But, they also tended to disguise the actual performance of their workers and instead were prone to exaggerate their output. The managers believed that they needed to do so in order to ‘earn’ their bonuses. Given the conflict between responsibility towards the whole and the economic interests of their section, they were forced to choose the latter.

This problem was bad enough; however, there was the larger problem of the breakdown of the “social contract” between the managers and the workers, and this is the topic of Chapter Two. This unwritten “social contract” mandated full employment and that meant absolute job security. In principle, a worker could be fired for gross misconduct, such as drunkenness at the work place or excessive absenteeism, but in practice the worker was rarely let go. First, the elected trade unions tended to agree with the worker; and if they did not side with the worker, he could always seek protection in the courts. The threat of lengthy and costly lawsuits tended to discourage firings. Thus, workers were virtually guaranteed employment. But, Lebowitz points out that despite this guarantee, the workers lacked power. As a result, they were less than motivated to produce; leading to the arrangement which was often referred to as the one in which “You pretend to pay me and I pretend to work” (63). Ultimately, both the leaders and the workers suffered…

Read the entire review in the new issue of International Critical Thought, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2013