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The Contradictions of “Real Socialism” reviewed in Z Magazine

The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”

"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

The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted

By Michael A. Lebowitz

Monthly Review Press, 2012, 192 pp.

Review by Seth Sandronsky

Michael A. Lebowitz explores what did (not) happen in the former Soviet Union and central and eastern European nations during the three decades ended in the 1980s. Why write this book?

In the 21st century, such recent history matters. Proof of that is the instability, ecologically and economically, that global humanity faces after the fall of Soviet-style communism. To this end, the author focuses on the daily realities and underlying structures of Real Socialism (RS). We read about what people did at the workplace—and away from it—to create themselves and the world around them. How does his method operate for RS? Lebowitz unpacks the “concrete phenomena of these societies…to grasp the underlying structure that generates them.” This analytic dynamic runs a red line throughout the book. By questioning the past, he seeks to advance a “new vision for socialism in the 21st century.”

In chapter one, “The Shortage Economy,” Lebowitz considers how such a system reproduced itself in part by critically examining the writing of Janos Kornai, who “assumed away…the logic of capital” in his study of RS. This is a major flaw, according to Lebowitz. He follows Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system in holding that it, like RS, produced a class of workers that “by education, habit and tradition looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws.” Critical questions of regulation and reproduction emerge from this framework.

One is who were the enterprise managers under RS? Lebowitz pulls back the curtain on that and the managers’ role as active participants in the system. For instance, how did enterprise managers interact with RS planners? The answers involve workers’ job rights, which they did not win, thus were unable to retain. This worker disempowerment speaks volumes about RS. We read more on this aspect of the social contract, which Lebowitz terms “the vanguard relation of production” (VROP) that dispels myths and realities.

VROP is a top-down system. The author draws out its many moving parts in chapter three. They range from the vanguard party to working class, state and state ownership, growth and bureaucracy. The sum of such parts is a logic that reproduces “the conductor and the conducted,” a vanguard that knows what is best for the laboring many…

Read the entire review in Z Magazine

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