By Jamie Woodcock
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The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
Michael A Lebowitz
Issue 373

Michael A Lebowitz is a Marxist theorist who has previously written in detail about Marx’s method in Capital. He argues against a one-sided Marxism that considers only capital and shifts the focus onto what he considers Marx’s most important insight: “the key link of human development and practice”. Lebowitz’s Marxism is therefore concerned with the process of “joint production” under capitalism: that the worker both produces and is produced by the system, and that workers change as they change their circumstances.

The premise of the book is an analysis of “Real Socialism”, which is defined as the states in Russia and Eastern Europe from the 1950s onwards. It begins with a statement that the book is not for those people, in “particular political sects on the left”, who will be seeking to find out whether the argument is “with us or against us”, but rather for those who want to understand the phenomenon.

The analysis is a detailed attempt to understand the system of “Real Socialism” and how it was reproduced. Lebowitz’s argument centres on the metaphor of the conductor and the conducted. This is used to explain how the vanguard party, after capturing the state, directed the economy. The system is conceived as contradictory and incoherent, characterised by the struggle between the vanguard and the managers of factories. Lebowitz therefore argues that the logic of the vanguard and the logic of capital combined to create “Real Socialism”.

However, what is missing is a historical explanation of the period from 1917 to 1950. This misses the successes of the revolution in Russia, the brutal effects of the civil war, and the following Stalinist counter-revolution. Instead Lebowitz argues that “Real Socialism” is a direct result of “vanguard Marxism”. The discussion of the vanguard draws indiscriminately from quotations by both Lenin and Stalin. The definition of the vanguard party is as an authoritarian, anti-democratic organisation that substitutes itself for the working class. Lenin’s conception of the revolutionary party therefore is completely, and wrongly, amalgamated with Stalin’s later distortions.

The book concludes that the only way to move beyond Real Socialism would have to be based on democratic control by workers, and argues for the formation of workers’ councils. The strength of the book is its use of a dialectical Marxism that stresses the self-activity of workers and socialism from below, but its weakness concerns the role of the state and the form of political organisation necessary for the working class to overthrow it through revolution. Although Lebowitz argues that none of the book is intended as a critique of leadership, the failure to distinguish between Leninist and Stalinist parties obscures a genuine discussion.

The Contradictions of Real Socialism is published by Monthly Review Press, £12.95

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