What went wrong with 'real socialism'?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

An important new book examines what went wrong with 20th Century socialism, why it went wrong, and how we could avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Michael Lebowitz. The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted   Monthly Review Press, 2012

reviewed by Roy Wilkes

If you don’t know where you want to go, suggests Michael 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.

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 state apparatus 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 incentivized 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.

Incentivizing 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.

This review was first published in Socialist Resistance. Reposted by permission of the author


  • I’m not aware of much written about “the political economy of the transition to socialism,” but you could try the final chapter of Callinicos’s *The Revenge of History*.

  • I am very glad to see the comments of “Critical Reading” and am willing to be corrected as to the record of the SWP-UK in analyzing the Soviet economy. What I wrote was not without foundation, but let us set that aside until I have had a chance to review SWP’s record on this question . In the meantime, Critical Reading’s comments indicate substantial agreement with the premise of Lebowitz’s argument. Has there been a review or comment yet from the SWP-UK on Lebowitz’s recent work — not only on real socialism but on the underlying argument in “The Socialist Alternative” and other recent works? More generally, what would Critical Reading recommend as an analysis, from the SWP-UK’s viewpoint, of the political economy of the transition to socialism?

  • Readers can make up their own minds about which, if any, of the theories of “actually existing socialism” does the best job of explaining the eventual collapse of the eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, but John Riddell is quite wrong when he says that ‘Those who regarded “real socialism” as capitalist (e.g. SWP-UK), have
    argued implausibly that the Stalinist economy was fundamentally sound
    but was done in by Reagan’s arms build-up.’ In fact anyone familiar with the theory of state capitalism developed by Tony Cliff and his co-thinkers will know that they were pointing to the problems and contradictions of the Stalinist economies as far back as the 1940s, when the theory was first proposed. The developing crisis of the Eastern European economies was anlayzed in greatest detail in a book and a series of articles by Chris Harman in the 1970s. For instance, in an article on “The Stalinist States” published in 1970, Harman argues that “The overall trend throughout the state capitalist world is one of
    declining growth rates and of lessening resources to meet the challenge
    of the private capitalist regimes and the demands of the indigenous
    masses. Within each state capitalist country this means increased
    concern with a stringent allocation of resources. But this inevitably
    increases the international conflicts between the different
    bureaucracies.” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/harman/1970/02/stalstates.htm) Harman continued this argument in his 1974 book *Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe* (later reissued as *Class Struggles in Eastern Europe*) and in a pair of articles on the crisis of state capitalism in Poland published in 1976 and 1977. So when Harman published “The Storm Breaks: The Crisis in the Eastern Bloc” in 1990 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1990/xx/stormbreaks.html) he was not offering a post hoc explanation of the crisis, but pursuing a line of argument that he had been developing for over 20 years and which bears no resemblance to summary offered by Comrade Riddell.

  • John’s reference to the state capitalism/deformed and degenerated workers’ states argument is pertinent. This has been for several decades, and indeed remains, the deepest schism within the far left, certainly here in Britain.

    Those adhering to the traditional Trotskyist position have long ago split into many tiny fragments; while those descended from the IS and its state capitalism analysis are even now in the process of tearing themselves apart, interestingly over differing interpretations of ‘democratic centralism’ and internal party democracy.

    The global austerity offensive and the deepening ecological crisis are presenting the left with many new opportunities to both explain the roots of the crisis and to suggest a way out of it. The destructive fragmentation of the left is no small obstacle to this endeavour.

    It is timely therefore for us to engage in a serious discussion around drawing a balance sheet of 20th Century ‘actually existing socialism’, not as an abstract theoretical exercise but as a means of developing a shared understanding of socialism and of the role and nature of revolutionary parties.

    My own view is that there are serious deficiencies in both the traditional Trotskyist analysis (which is still held by the organisation I belong to, Socialist Resistance) and that of Cliff et al. However, I also believe that with the benefit of so much hindsight – and drawing on the work of theoreticians such as Istvan Meszaros and Michael Lebowitz – that a synthesis is now achievable.

    One question I would have liked Mike to have dealt with in more detail (and perhaps I should have included this in my review) is this: any emerging workers’ state will almost inevitably be faced with the need to wage an armed struggle. Trotsky led the building of the Red Army during the period of civil war. In my view the civll war, and the so called ‘war communism’ that went with it, probably contributed more to the ascendancy of a vanguard bureaucracy than the NEP. But how is that process to be avoided? Even guerrilla warfare usually necessitates some form of military discipline (if it is be successful), which implies a vanguard of some sort.

  • As Bill Templer says, the regimes of “real socialism” scored major achievements and won widespread support (at least initially). That only makes it all the more urgent to come up
    with an explanation for their disgraceful collapse.

    Consider this: life expectancy and infant mortality rates improved massively in the Soviet Union – despite the social toll of mass murder, the gulag, and the anti-Fascist war – through the 1950s. From the 1960s these indices stagnated and, by some authoritative measures, declined, even before the sharp drop when the USSR collapsed.

    The statistics help us to understand why there was not popular resistance to the overturn of “real socialism.” Even when capitalist restoration produced social disaster, there were not significant movements, to my knowledge, to restore “real socialism.”

    All this demands explanation. The last thing we need here is a retreat into apologies for

    That said, the Marxists who opposed Stalinism have not done well, in my view, in explaining
    its collapse. Those who regarded “real socialism” as capitalist (e.g. SWP-UK), have argued implausibly that the Stalinist economy was fundamentally sound but was done in by Reagan’s arms build-up.

    Those who viewed “real socialism” as representing bureaucratically deformed workers’ states, as argued by Trotsky, did better. But they were often hemmed in by Trotsky’s view that the economic problem lay in bureaucratic parasitism rather than in the productive system itself.

    Meanwhile, the Cubans, whose critique of Stalinism was less developed, have recently published the views of Guevara, who traces the problem back to the Soviet New Economic Policy.

    So Michael has done well to leave aside, in his argument, the historical issue of Stalinism and examining the political economy of “real socialism” such as it was. This can provide a meeting place for discussion among Marxists with many contending views on Stalinism, including – I hope – Bill Templer.

    Bill wrote, of course, in response to the review of Roy Wilkes in Monthly Review. Roy has given us an excellent short presentation of Michael’s book. I did not see, however, much from Roy on Michael’s theme that the purpose of socialism is human development, or on Michael’s (and Che’s) concept that workers change themselves in the process of social struggle and protagonism.

    These two ideas underlie Micheal’s entire argument. Surely, they are at the heart of Marxism, but they were not well or widely understood by 20th century socialists, and they deserve reflection.

  • Hear, hear, Michael.

    What about Stalin and Stalinism, Bill? That vortex was pretty crushing a long time before there was a Cold War, wasn’t it? Daniel Singer called the trajectory of EE development in 1982. How’d he do that? He knew the culture, and he knew Stalinism had long since killed any possible hope of renewal from within its own carcass.

    While we’re at it, I’ve been to Prague, and I know many people who do and have lived in the former Socialism 1.0 regions. Capitalism there has not been an unmitigated disaster as you would have it, for a variety of reasons. It’s been a mixed bag. Any “thick descriptions” that paper over that are hardly very “thick.” We need honesty in all directions, not stale nostalgia.

  • I found the comment of Bill Templer on
    Roy Wilkes’ review of my book, Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’,
    interesting not only for what he said but especially for what he didn’t say—
    i.e., his deafening silences.

    In as many ways as it is possible, Templer
    stresses the loss and suffering felt by people of the former ‘real socialist’
    countries as the result of the triumph of barbaric capitalism. What socialist
    would deny this— and it is certainly the point of my discussion of the
    unilateral abandonment of the social contract that characterised the concluding
    chapter of ‘real socialism’!

    But Templer says nothing about why the working class
    in these countries allowed this to happen— the very first question I posed!
    He may want to talk about the real nostalgia of many people he has met (as
    opposed to what he calls a ‘highly abstracted analysis from afar’ of ‘real
    socialism’) but how is this anything but a justification of that system?

    Indeed, an apology for the system is
    precisely what this appears to be. How else are we to interpret his references
    to ‘the uniquely difficult situation of socialist construction’ and the
    ‘crushing vortex’ of the Cold War upon the ‘socialist experiment in Eastern Europe’ in contrast to his sneer at ‘the supposed
    failings of “vanguard” leadership”‘!

    If Templer, though, doesn’t intend a
    justification, where is there any suggestion of how to avoid a rerun of that
    experience? Very simply, what is his answer to the title of Wilkes’ review
    (‘What went wrong with “real socialism”?’).

  • I agree with Roy that we need to move beyond cliche and what some might call the “danger of a single story” (goo.gl/15KO3) in our lingering often uninformed conceptions of what socialism was (and was not) in Europe’s East.

    But in forging 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” goo.gl/mZLh8.

    For much of his analysis, Michael builds largely on the work of the dissident Hungarian
    economist János Kornai, who joined Harvard Univ. in the 1980s as a “leading guru of privatization” goo.gl/DOjIw. The book has NO references to Romania, Bulgaria, almost none to Poland. For the GDR, Lebowitz relies on the work of Jeffrey Kopstein goo.gl/xtg6j , 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. Remarkably, 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, 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 goo.gl/Ew55C), 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, Lebowitz 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.
    Ergo: the stories of average working people who grew up in ‘Real Socialism’ and live 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” (goo.gl/FQw2s).