How real was ‘real socialism’? Michael Lebowitz’s ‘Contradictions of Real Socialism’
Review by Doug Enaa Greene
The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the Conductor and the Conducted
By Michael A. Lebowitz
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.
January 8, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Even though the dominant capitalist system is experiencing its worst crisis in decades, those in search of Marxist alternatives are often scared off by this regular refrain from the system’s defenders: “Well, what about the USSR? Things didn’t work out quite so well there.”
Indeed. The popular memory of the USSR is one of bureaucratic red tape, long lines for basic necessities and harsh repression. If the Marxist answer is that the inevitable outcome of any revolution is merely the drab and misery of the USSR, then it is best to accept capitalism (with all its warts). Or so we are led to believe.
In his book, The Contradictions of Real Socialism, Michael Lebowitz offers a rigorous Marxist explanation of what went wrong in the USSR (and its allied countries). To Lebowitz (following Marx in this regard), a socialist society is one “that removes all obstacles to the full development of human beings” (p. 17). The countries of real socialism by contrast were caught in a tension between enterprise managers and planners and the vanguard which did not place human development first, thus ensuring its ultimate failure. Lebowitz’s approach is sweeping, thorough and fresh even while his work does raise several questions and problems.
Lebowitz begins his starting analysis with what capitalism does to workers. To Lebowitz, workers are not merely “exploited within capitalist relations – they are also deformed” (p. 14). The deformation of workers, or their alienation, means that workers are robbed of their full humanity. Whereas, the ability to labour and create is what makes us human beings, workers see their labour turned against them to serve capital. The whole production process of capital degrades the worker by taking away his/her intellectual potential, turning the worker into an appendage of a machine (as Marx richly says in Capital). The end result of capital’s deformation of workers is that “thinking and doing become separate and hostile” (p. 15). What workers ultimately produce under capitalism is not for their benefit, but serves the profit and accumulation of the prevailing system.
Yet the exploitation and alienation that workers suffer under capitalism means that they are compelled to resist, whether for higher wages, shorter hours, etc. However, these struggles often occur within the ideological framework of capital and push for fairness within the confines of that system. For Lebowitz (and Marx), it is not enough to know that capitalism is an exploitative and alienated system, rather workers need to get beyond capital. And that requires a socialist alternative where the development of human beings is the central goal and “it does not come as a gift from above” (p. 17). In other words, the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself….