Michael Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).

The issue of “Real Socialism” has plagued the global Left since 1917. Michael Lebowitz brings to bear on it a sharp focus, informed not only by a thorough reading of Marx, but also by many years of activism, leavened by the extensive contacts he has gained with Cuban and Venezuelan protagonists during his recent years of residence in their respective countries.

The main empirical reference in his present book is to the Soviet experience, in particular, to its last three decades (the 1950s to the 1980s), by which time the regime’s structures and institutions were firmly in place. While the general stance of recognizing the contradictions of this period has a long lineage, Lebowitz’s particular approach to defining them is new and fruitful.

The book’s point of departure consists of two common-sense but easily overlooked insights: first, that one cannot have an effective popular movement without a long-term vision; second, that even if a project fails in its first attempt, it can still succeed in the long run.

Lebowitz’s larger philosophical premise is that the goal of socialism/communism is “the free development of all” – implying the full flowering of everyone’s individual capacities. This might be considered equally uncontestable, but its centrality to Marx’s approach has often been ignored, at great cost. A running theme of the present book is that Marx’s concern for human development permeates not only his early writings, but also every phase of his mature work.

The political expression of this concern is the idea of the “society of associated producers,” which Marx evokes in Capital vol. 3 as the ultimate negation of capitalist production relations. The defining aspect of capitalism to which this responds is the fact that capital not only exploits workers, but also deforms and degrades them. Individual workers, as Lebowitz repeatedly emphasizes with citations from Marx, are robbed not only of the surplus value that they create, but also of their full humanity. In order for them to recover their wholeness as human beings, the division in the capitalist work-process between conception and execution – eloquently described in Harry Braverman’s classic, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1976) – has to be overcome.

The goal of reuniting conception and execution (thinking and doing; design and implementation) is encapsulated by Lebowitz in what he calls “the moral economy of the working class” – a wide-ranging concept that also encompasses egalitarian convictions and, in the immediate context of wage-work, the sense of having a right to one’s job.

This moral economy is discussed by Lebowitz as one of three interrelated and contending “logics” operating under Real Socialism. This is indeed the point at which Lebowitz popularizes a fresh approach to his subject. Earlier analyses tended to posit a bipolar scenario. Under capitalism, workers had to confront the logic of capital; under the Soviet regime, the role of capital was taken over by the state bureaucracy, which however, in relation to the working class, pursued a command-logic essentially similar to that of capital. Lebowitz, for his part, distinguishes sharply between the “logic of capital” and (pervading the bureaucracy) the “logic of the vanguard.” Although both are ultimately antagonistic to workers (and while there is some degree of overlap between them), their defining principles – and hence many of their practices – are quite different.

By invoking this three-sided dynamic – between workers, vanguard, and capital – Lebowitz is able to portray the Soviet political economy in a way that makes sense of all its long-recognized irrationalities while at the same time coolly and without the slightest hint of glorification accounting for the very real benefits that the regime conferred on its workers, even as it reserved production-decisions to the interplay between enterprise-managers and central planners.

In terms of providing a context for present-day political discussions about socialism, it is fitting that Lebowitz’s narrative begins with the most notorious negative trait of Real Socialism, namely, “The Shortage Economy” (the title of his first chapter). Drawing extensively on the work of Hungarian economist Janos Kornai, Lebowitz spells out the pattern of mistrust and second-guessing that marked the way planning guidelines were arrived at and implemented. He stresses, however, that such approaches are not inherent in planning as such, but were rather the outcome of a “particular combination of instructions and incentives” (46).

Underlying this nexus was the tension between planners and enterprise-managers. Planners would tend to set ambitious targets, but their information depended on the managers, whose projections they regarded as suspect because of the managers’ fear of accepting targets that they might not be able to meet. With the complex web of supply-dependences, shortfalls were inevitable. The dynamic was then further complicated by the mixed motivations present in the workforce, which exercised a distinctive blend of power and powerlessness. For, while the workers had no say in setting targets or in organizing production, they enjoyed – as their side of what Lebowitz calls (in the title of his second chapter) a “social contract” with the Vanguard – a remarkable level of security and consequent power to resist managerial exhortations.

The vanguard, then, is the agent that accounts for the special traits of Real Socialism. It is noteworthy that Lebowitz refers to vanguard where past treatments more commonly referred to bureaucracy (the term bureaucracy appears hardly at all in this book). The vanguard is a curious amalgam of what we might term revolutionary and counterrevolutionary traits. While committed to socialism, it is at the same time wedded to the idea of its own indispensability, viewing socialism as “a gift to those below by the only ones above who know how to create [it]” (70). And yet, despite this obvious hierarchical aspect, “the working class yields control over its labor power in return for a package that is far better than that it could expect to receive within capitalism” (75).

In Lebowitz’s tripartite power-configuration, the logic of the vanguard is thus in part that of an intermediary between the logics of capital and of labor. The vanguard protects certain immediate interests of the working class, but yet depends on enterprise managers for the implementation of its macro-economic goals. The managers, however, respond primarily to the logic of the market – and hence ultimately of capital – in their constant striving to surmount the demands and/or the restraints placed on them by planners, suppliers, and purchasers.

While planning-guidelines are set on the basis of vanguard-logic (i.e., a politically determined agenda), enterprise managers “act in their own individual interests” (95). Lebowitz sees in the interaction between these two principles the core of “the dysfunction and deformation identified with Real Socialism” (92). The polarity eventually took the form of a consciously fought struggle between plan and market, in which increasing pressures developed, by the 1980s, to revoke the social contract which up to then had protected workers against speedup, wage-cuts, and layoffs (127). What had upheld that “contractual” obligation to the workers had been the ideological commitment of the vanguard, embodied in the Communist Party. Once that commitment wilted in the face of the free-market onslaught, the workers, lacking “space for autonomous organization or, indeed, effective communication among themselves,… were disarmed in the ideological struggle” (131).

The only force that could have moved Real Socialism in a direction consistent with its stated goals, argues Lebowitz, would have been the independent organization of the working class, via the formation of workers’ councils (169). But the regime foreclosed this option by molding a working class that suited its “vanguard” ideology. And the logic of the vanguard became increasingly “subordinated by the logic of capital” (154).

Lebowitz insists throughout his exposition that people’s individual capacities, as shaped by the social relations of production, are decisive in defining the structures in which they live. The logic of the vanguard fails to repair the deformation produced in people by capitalism. Such repair can be achieved only through workers’ self-organization. In failing to allow this, the Soviet leadership laid the groundwork for its own eventual dissolution.

Lebowitz’s account makes sense of the Soviet trajectory, and his call for a bottom-up protagonism linked to full human development is persuasive. One might question, however, the sharp edge that he places on his concept of the vanguard. In Lebowitz’s treatment, the vanguard does not earn its role but simply assumes it. Its modus operandi is simply that of the command. But there is no reason that it has to be this way. A vanguard can earn and maintain its authority through give-and-take with its constituency. Even if the Soviet leadership sank into a “command” mode, there is no reason to view this as the only possible way for a vanguard to act.1

Vanguards could conceivably follow a different logic: one of accountability and mutual respect. The potential usefulness of such an approach can be understood in Lebowitz’s own terms if we consider the dual aspect of his moral economy of the working class. This consists in part of a protective, “resisting” side, concerned to defend workers’ interests against threats from a superior power (much as it does under capitalism). But the other part, the part insisting on social equality, demands more than merely holding onto certain minimal gains; it demands collective power. Lebowitz wishes that Soviet workers could have advanced from the former to the latter self-conception. But how could they have done so without following some kind of learning curve? And, in such a process, why shouldn’t those with broader horizons and greater accumulated wisdom inspire and help activate those with less? But is this not also a vanguard role?

Lebowitz seems to rule out such a possibility. Ironically, the rigidity of his conception of “vanguard logic” becomes clear in the very argument signaled by the subtitle of his book, “The Conductor and the Conducted.” To illustrate Marx’s vision of the society of associated producers, Lebowitz has chosen the image of a “Society of Associated Conductors” (another chapter-title). But if he wanted to demonstrate the superfluity of traditional leadership-structures, this orchestral analogy is problematic. The obstacles to collective direction here are more severe than they are in a production enterprise, because deliberation cannot be carried on during the performance itself.2 For this very reason, though – as well as the sensibilities of the musicians – the “vanguard” role of the conductor, as exercised in rehearsals, has a pedagogical and interactive dimension which is absent in the hierarchical production enterprise. Lebowitz however – perhaps envisioning only the concert-performance and not the whole process leading up to it – oversimplifies the power dimension of artistic leadership, positing an omnipotent and omniscient conductor set over against musicians functioning as mere automatons “performing their assigned tasks with the regularity of a machine” (24).

In his closing remarks (186), Lebowitz insists that he does not deny the importance of leadership; his purpose was to explain a particular historical phenomenon. He has provided a valuable framework for doing so. But he also encourages us to draw the lessons from it. What he has demonstrated has been the dynamic of a particular vanguard. This is the agent to which he attributed an intermediary role between what had hitherto been mostly seen as just two primary protagonists. By analyzing the vanguard’s declining trajectory, Lebowitz has provided an object lesson in revolutionary pitfalls. But in ascribing a “logic” to this vanguard – a logic as inherent to it as the logics of capital and labor are to them – he has given an impression of inevitability to its conduct.

Perhaps a differently conceived and more permeable vanguard – one attuned to the Marx/Lebowitz vision of a society of associated producers – could act differently.

Reviewed by Victor Wallis
Department of Liberal Arts
Berklee College of Music, Boston


1. The notion of a variety of possible vanguard practices can be derived even from Lenin. While some of Lenin’s actions fit Lebowitz’s “vanguard logic,” others, especially prior to 1917, belie the stereotype of an unvarying commandist approach. For a useful overview, see Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1990).

2. Coordination during the performance is not a problem for small ensembles; the difficulty increases, however, with the size of the group. A pioneering effort to surmount this obstacle is the 40-year-old, 31-member Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which performs without a conductor (see its home page). A more recent example is Spira Mirabilis, an international ensemble of young musicians based in northern Italy, which sometimes enlists even larger numbers for its conductor-less performances (see online Guardian article, October 28, 2010). It is a true expression of labor as “life’s prime want,” and a model for the “society of associated producers.” On the one hand, it defies usual expectations as to the range of styles it can master and as to the number of works it will perform on a given occasion; on the other, its members depend on other orchestras for their incomes.

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