Vanguard and self-organisation

Roy Wilkes reviews The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”

The Conductor and the Conducted by Michael A. Lebowitz

Paperback, 222 pages

ISBN-13: 978-1-58367-256-3

 If you don’t know where you want to go, suggests Lebowitz, then no road will take you there. Our class cannot overthrow the rule of capital unless we have some idea of what we want to replace it with. But therein lies a problem. When workers think of ‘socialism’ they usually picture the “real” socialism of the 20th Century; most assume therefore that socialism is a totalitarian nightmare best avoided.

 Those of us who share Marx’s vision of socialism as a society of freely associated producers therefore have a responsibility to understand and explain what went wrong with 20th Century socialism, why it went wrong, and how we would avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

 It isn’t enough to blame the tragedy on the inadequate development of productive forces or on the belligerence of imperialism (what, after all, do we expect from imperialism?) Nor is a formulaic response sufficient, to simply decry 20th Century socialism as “state capitalism” or even “deformed and degenerated workers states.” What is needed instead is a serious Marxist analysis of the social relations that pertained in ‘real socialism’. In writing this book Lebowitz has made an important contribution to developing such an analysis, and one that deserves to be read and discussed widely on the left.

 According to Lebowitz, the Soviet Union and the other ‘socialist’ states exhibited vanguard productive relations. The vanguard party (which adhered formally to democratic centralism but which was in practice bureaucratically centralist) created a bureaucratic stateapparatus in its own image.

 The formal aim of that apparatus was to build a socialist society, and most of its members were probably sincere in their desire for such an outcome. The best and most committed young socialists were therefore recruited to the party and to the state bureaucracies and moulded in the image of their existing leaderships. But the ones who advanced were those who conformed, which meant above all not challenging orders from above.

 Thinking and doing

 Despite its professed allegiance to the proletariat, the vanguard did not actually believe that the working class was capable of organising production itself. Just as an orchestra needs a conductor to ensure that all the musicians work together in harmony, so too, it was reasoned, is a vanguard needed to stand at the head of the planned economy to ensure that the system runs smoothly and everything is coordinated. This approach inevitably entrenched a dichotomy between thinking and doing. The vanguard did all the thinking while workers produced what they were told to produce, in the way in which they were told to produce it.

 Vanguard relations were not a temporary aberration but constituted an organic system that created the conditions for its own reproduction. So how was that system reproduced? Lebowitz argues that there was a social contract between the vanguard and the working class, in which the vanguard promised to deliver full employment and rising living standards, and in return the workers conceded all political power (including control of the plan) to the vanguard. It was certainly an imposed and one-sided contract, since the working class had little or no say in the matter, but it succeeded for a limited period in allowing the reproduction of vanguard relations.

 At both a macro and micro level there were indeed very strong employment rights – it was virtually impossible to sack workers and there was therefore a relaxed pace of work. In fact it was the employment rights that made these states workers’ states in the eyes of the workers themselves. Bosses could not forcibly separate individual workers from the means of production, and there was no reserve army of labour to exert an external discipline over the workers.

 But in order to guarantee their monopoly of control, the vanguard would not allow the workers any form of self-organisation, not even independent trade unions. The workers therefore remained atomised and alienated. This explains the ease with which these states were eventually disbanded and replaced with capitalist states – the working class was too weakened and de-politicised to mount any serious resistance.

 In order to deliver rising living standards, the vanguard tasked the managers of enterprises with delivering on the plan and meeting rising production targets, for which the managers were incentivised with bonuses. This in itself led to some highly perverse outcomes:

Managers would deliberately mislead the bureaucracy by underestimating the productive potential of each enterprise, thereby securing targets that were more easily achieved.

 It was also in the managers’ interest to hoard resources, including labour, which was one of the main factors behind the development of a shortage economy. The managers would then rapidly push up output in the period immediately before a deadline (an almost universal practice, known as ‘storming’), which of course had a devastating impact on both the environment and on the quality of the goods that were produced. Since the workers were themselves deeply alienated, they tolerated such practices and even colluded in them. Theft from enterprises by workers was also widespread and was self-justified by the assertion that ‘the means of production belong to us anyway, so we are only taking what is ours.’

 Competing logics

 Although the working class formally owned the means of production, in reality property rights are multi-faceted and include the right not only to use the property but also to dispose of it and to exercise some measure of control over it. In practice however, the working class had little or no control over the means of production that it formally owned. And the response of the bureaucracy to the increasingly stagnant economy was to empower the managers even more and the workers even less.

 The system was characterised by competing logics and by contested reproduction. The logic of the vanguard was to try and expand the productive forces by means of top-down instructions. The idea was that once the productive forces had attained a sufficient level to guarantee abundance, communism would have been achieved.

 But in reality such abundance could never be achieved under vanguard relations, which relied on alienated labour power for the fulfilment of the plan. Alienated workers are concerned not with developing their human capacities as social beings (the only route to true abundance) but with the acquisition of commodities – an example of how the logic of capital persisted under vanguard productive relations.

Incentivising managers by means of bonuses, which the vanguard falsely believed to be the route to abundance, strengthened and deepened the logic of capital. In pursuit of their bonus, managers attempted to maximize the ‘success’ of their own enterprise, even at the expense of other enterprises, of the environment, and of the plan as a whole. As the years went by, the managers increasingly desired more and more freedom from the plan, and in particular they wanted the power to exercise more discipline over ‘their’ workers, and to thereby acquire more property rights over the means of production.

 Under perestroika, the idea even took hold within the bureaucracy that a reserve army of labour would be beneficial to the growth of productive forces and therefore to the ultimate goal of communist abundance. Thus was the road back to capitalist hell paved with good intentions.

 But how is any of this relevant to socialists in the here and now?

 First and foremost is the realisation that a vanguard cannot substitute for the working class in building socialism. Lebowitz doesn’t argue against leadership per se. Of course there is a role for leadership in the struggle against capital. But there is a crucial difference between leadership and command, and if we are trying to build a movement towards a genuine classless society, a free association of producers, then we must always seek to advance genuine democratically exercised workers’ control, not only of individual workplaces but of the economy as a whole.

 20th Century Socialism

 We should also be prepared to question some of the axioms of far left organisation. The old ways of organising, whereby members contribute to debates only during a pre-conference discussion period and then elect a central committee to do all the thinking for them the rest of the time, must be consigned to the dustbin of history. Organisations of the left must ensure that all of their members develop the confidence to control their organisation from below, in reality and not just in theory. Put simply, democracy must trump centralism every time.

 But the most important lesson of ‘real’ 20th Century socialism is that state ownership of the means of production is insufficient to guarantee a transition to socialism. Lebowitz identifies three sides to the triangle of socialism: social ownership of the means of production; workers’ control at every level; and production geared towards the satisfaction of communal need.

 All three sides of the triangle are necessary to resist the logic of capital, which is an ever-present danger. Yugoslavia for example, introduced state ownership and a form of workers control. But instead of focusing on satisfaction of communal need, each enterprise sold commodities in a ‘socialist market’ with the aim of maximizing the income of the workers within that enterprise. The workers therefore saw it as being in their interest to devolve actual control to ‘expert’ managers. This model of ‘market socialism’ cleared the way for a rapid return to capitalism.

 Finally, we should never allow ourselves to be deluded into believing that there is only one correct strategy and program, and that once the self-chosen few have discovered it the job of everyone else is merely to put it into practice. Reality is so complex and the task of overthrowing capital so immense that we need to gain the insights of as many different experiences as possible, and to approach the problem from many different angles. Any new ‘parties of socialism for the 21st Century’ must be inclusive and pluralist, responsive to the specific conditions in different localities, and to the diverse experiences of working class women and men of all cultures and traditions. A ‘one size fits all’ mentality is wholly inadequate to the task ahead of us.

 The left needs an open and honest discussion about the experience of ‘real socialism’ that goes beyond clichéd and one-dimensional rhetoric. Such a discussion may even produce a synthesis to heal a rift that has divided the Marxist left for a very long time. Lebowitz’s book is not a bad starting point for such a discussion.


  1. I agree with Roy that we need to move beyound cliche and what some might call the “danger of a single story” () in our lingering often uninformed conceptions of what socialism was (and was not) in Europe’s East.
    But in forging a stronger left unity, I would argue that debates about how to build a broad Marxist party need an empirical ‘counter-grounding’ in what the socialist workers’ experiments in Eastern Europe actually were for ordinary families, as perceived by real people today, now caught up in the chaos of contradictions under restored capitalism in these same societies. Their authentic stories — the subject-anchored nexus of history & memory — are relevant to our struggle and reflect past functioning realities now gutted that many socialists, esp. in the English-speaking world, seem to be remarkably oblivious of.
    Michael’s study is a case in point. It focuses on the supposed failings of ‘vanguard’ leadership, principally looking at deficiencies in the Soviet Union But there is no attempt to look at actual individuals’ experiences, the remarkable culture of post-socialist memory among millions & millions of ordinary East Europeans born roughly 1970 or earlier who grew up, worked in and can vividly recall their often far better lives under Real Socialism, most now living in a nightmare of even greater contradictions of neoliberal free-market capitalism, the “transition.” As Ozen Pupovac notes: “Suspended between negation and anticipation, post-socialist societies are a beginning with no end […] A neoliberal order underwritten by the science of transitology ensures that the sole constant of post-socialism is inequality” .
    For much of his analysis, Michael builds on the work of the dissident Hungarian economist János Kornai, who joined Harvard Univ. in the 1980s as a “leading guru of privatization” . The book has NO references to Romania, Bulgaria, almost none to Poland. For the GDR, Lebowitz relies on the work of Jeffrey Kopstein , but in fact does not explore the uniquely difficult situation of socialist construction in the GDR under the pressures of encirclement and the Cold War anywhere in his book. In fact, Roy does not even mention the crushing vortex of Cold War constraints under which the socialist experiment in Eastern Europe was operating. In his book, Michael has no comment on the powerful youth movements like Komsomol, Pioneers, and what they accomplished, across the socialist states from the SU to Cuba down to today .
    Significantly, Michael has intriguing insights on the “moral economy” of Real Socialism (pp. 131-152) and its special ‘solidarian’ memes, elements which Roy leaves unmentioned in his review. Talking about the transformed “moral economies” of the socialist East, Kopstein refers to the harrowing experience of these populations in the vortex of post-socialism: “the moral shock of confronting for the first time the genuine commodification of such realms as housing, basic necessities, health care and the like, as well as early capitalist patterns of social stratification.” Tadeusz Kowalik, From Solidarity to Sellout: The Restoration of Capitalism in Poland (New York: Monthly Review, 2012 ), exploring capitalism restored in Poland, seen from the inside, “now with one of the highest coefficients of social inequalities in Europe” (p. 279), is a good informed antidote to Lebowitz’s highly abstracted analysis from afar.
    Despite his insights into some core deficiencies, Leibowitz lacks any thick description of actual workers’ sensibilities, tapped today through a grounded prism of qualitative sociographic inquiry at the grassroots in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland. Ergo: the stories of average working people who grew up in ‘Real Socialism’ and struggle today in the widening vortex of post-socialist alienation, anomie and widespread poverty, burgeoning inequality, basic dignity trampled — and the narratives of their children here & now — need to be collected systematically, analyzed, discussed and disseminated widely, an ensemble of authentic experience and memory. Imperative are explorations in the ‘oral history of Real Socialism,’ biography as a flare to illuminate past societal & communal realities.
    Such narratives can only sharpen our visions of 21st-century ‘democratic socialism’ and what Peter Mertens (chair, Workers Party Belgium) has called ‘socialism 2.0’ He noted in a 2012 interview: “It’s also not the case that we don’t know anything at all or that we have to start from a blank sheet of paper. There exist experiences, there was a socialism 1.0. With its strong points and its weak points, with its fantastic achievements, but also with its grievous mistakes. And we’re living in different times” ().

    • Hi Bill, I like Michaels’ book but I *also* like your critical comments; not being an expert in this field, I was unaware of the character of some of the sources and had not previously reflected on the gaps – lack of attention to workers everyday experiences, imperialist encirclement, etc. – in Michals’ analysis. At the same time, I found the basic history of the Soviet planning/enterprise system of real interest. Keep up the good work, Eric

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