The Contradictions of "Real Socialism"

The Contradictions of "Real Socialism": The Conductor and the Conducted

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Contradictions of "Real Socialism"
    Book Description:

    What was real socialism - the term which originated in twentieth-century socialist societies for the purpose of distinguishing them from abstract, theoretical socialism? In this volume, Michael A. Lebowitz considers the nature, tendencies, and contradictions of those societies. Beginning with the constant presence of shortages within real socialism, Lebowitz searches for the inner relations which generate these patterns. He finds these, in particular, in what he calls vanguard relations of production, a relation which takes the apparent form of a social contract where workers obtain benefits not available to their counterparts in capitalism but lack the power to decide within the workplace and society. While these societies were able to claim major achievements in areas from health care to education to popular culture, the separation of thinking and doing prevented workers from developing their capacities as fully developed human beings. The relationship within real socialism between the vanguard as conductor and a conducted working class, however, did not only lead to the deformation of workers and those elements necessary for the building of socialism; it also created the conditions in which enterprise managers emerged as an incipient capitalist class, which was an immediate source of the crises of real socialism. As he argued in The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Lebowitz stresses the necessity to go beyond the hierarchy inherent in the relation of conductor and conducted (and beyond the vanguard Marxism which supports this) to create the conditions in which people can transform themselves through their conscious cooperation and practice - i.e., a society of free and associated producers.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-337-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 7-10)
    Michael A. Lebowitz
  4. INTRODUCTION: New Wings for Socialism
    (pp. 11-20)

    In 1990, I began an essay (bearing the subtitle “A Cautionary Tale”) with Brecht’s poem about the tailor who put on “things that looked like wings,” climbed to the roof of a church, tried to fly, and crashed.² In 1990, what many called the socialist world crashed.³ And, everywhere there were experts who saw this as proof: socialism had failed.No one will ever fly.

    What I attempted to do in that essay was to challenge the theoretical arguments against socialism, theoretical arguments in particular against the Marxist case for socialism. And I proposed that there had been a distortion...

  5. OVERTURE: The Conductor and the Conducted
    (pp. 21-28)

    Do we need leaders? Certainly, when we work together on a common project, we are more productive than when we are separate and isolated. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts taken individually. But do we need a director in order to work together on a common project?

    Within capitalist relations of production, a capitalist hires “individual, isolated” owners of labor-power, directs their cooperation and owns the products of their collective labor. As the owner of the result of their activity, he is the beneficiary of “the social productive power which arises from cooperation”; it is “a...

  6. 1 The Shortage Economy
    (pp. 29-48)

    Let us begin by identifying the object of study. Real Socialism as a concept emerged in the 1970s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for the principal purpose of distinguishing the existing system there from theoretical or abstract concepts of socialism. Critiques of capitalism, it was argued, could no longer be “confined to the purely conceptual realm. They are impelled by the rich experience of countries that have successfully built (or are building) socialism.” In short, there was a developed socialism, “a really existing socialist society,” a new society that had been built as the result of real practice.¹...

  7. 2 The Social Contract
    (pp. 49-66)

    A useful way to explore the interaction between planners and managers in Real Socialism is to consider it as a principal-agent problem.¹ In that framework, we assume the existence of a dominant party, a principal, who has a particular goal he wishes to achieve. And this principal must rely upon another party—the agent, who has his own goals, goals that differ from those of the principal. In other words, we begin by acknowledging that the interests of the principal and the agent are not identical. It is also presumed that the agent knows something the principal does not know...

  8. 3 The Nature and Reproduction of Vanguard Relations of Production
    (pp. 67-88)

    Beginnings are critical—especially when you are attempting to understand a complex combination of elements. When you start an examination of Real Socialism by focusing upon juridical property rights (state ownership of the means of production) and a coordinating mechanism (central planning), inevitably the centrality of the relations of production characteristic of Real Socialism is displaced. What are the social relations within which production, distribution, and consumption take place? Whose goals dominate production? Who rules within the workplace? What are the relations among producers? We always need to keep in mind that all production occurs within and through a particular...

  9. 4 Contested Reproduction in Real Socialism
    (pp. 89-106)

    As we have seen, Kornai argued that Real Socialism was an organic system—a system whose “combination of main features forms an organic whole,” a “coherent system,” “a coherent whole” whose elements are “organically connected and reinforce each other.”¹ Precisely because its elements “all belong together and strengthen each other,” he insisted that the system could not be partially reformed but had to be replaced.²

    But Kornai was not the only one who argued that Real Socialism was an organic system. That was official ideology, as demonstrated by Richard Kosolapov, a Soviet supporter of Real Socialism. Drawing specifically upon Marx’s...

  10. 5 The Conductor and the Battle of Ideas in the Soviet Union
    (pp. 107-130)

    His eyes hold the whole orchestra. Every player feels that the conductor sees him personally, and still more, hears him. The voices of the instruments are opinions and convictions on which he keeps a close watch. He is omniscient, for, while the players have only their own parts in front of them, he has the whole score in his head, or on his desk. At any given moment he knows precisely what each player should be doing. His attention is everywhere at once, and it is to this that he owes a large part of his authority. He is inside...

  11. 6 From Moral Economy to Political Economy
    (pp. 131-152)

    But what about the ideas of the working class in this Battle of Ideas? Who articulated those ideas within Real Socialism? The answer is predictable. Characteristic of the vanguard relation is that thevanguardspeaks on behalf of the working class. Any attempts by workers to organize independently of the official channels appointed by the vanguard to represent them were repressed. Without space for autonomous organization or, indeed, effective communication among themselves, workers in the Soviet Union were disarmed in the ideological struggle.

    The working class was disarmed in another way: rather than a Marxism that places at its center...

  12. 7 Toward a Society of Associated Conductors
    (pp. 153-172)

    In the society of associated conductors, producers cooperate in the process of producing for their needs and simultaneously produce themselves as socialist human beings. It is a society in which people are able to develop their full potential, that “rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption.” In the society of associated conductors, producers are no longer means to someone else’s end; rather there is what Marx called “the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development.”¹

    Human development is at the core of this society—not...

  13. 8 Good-bye to Vanguard Marxism
    (pp. 173-188)

    After having considered the nature of vanguard relations of production, the contradictions within Real Socialism, the tendency for the emergence of capitalist relations and for an attack on the working class in Real Socialism, any further discussion may seem anti-climactic. However, it is important not to conclude without considering the theory that has accompanied and provided support for those developments. The problem of Real Socialism as such is not the result of the particular circumstances (for example, economic backwardness) under which a correct theory was applied. On the contrary, Vanguard Marxism is deformed Marxism, and if it is not challenged,...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-194)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 195-216)
  16. Index
    (pp. 217-222)