‘The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted’ reviewed by Alex Cistelecan

Reviewed by Alex Cistelecan

About the reviewer

Alex Cistelecan is a lecturer at Petru Maior University, Romania, and post-doctoral researcher at …


Rather than a historical or dialectical analysis of actually existing socialism, The Contradictions of Real Socialism. The Conductor and the Conducted should be read more as an exercise in the moral psychology of ‘human development’ that, for Michael Lebowitz, should supplement today’s Marxism.

The crucial tenet of this kind of socialism is the idea, nay, the ideal of human development. According to the author, the main problem with the old theory and practice of Marxism is that it hosts ‘a distortion that forgot about human beings’. Witness the overwhelming importance that the critical analysis of capital enjoyed in classical Marxism, and the extremely rare interest in the human element of future socialism, that is, in the underlying morals and psychology of the coming new man. Thus, instead of – or, at best, besides – staring obsessively at the moving contradictions of capitalism, we should focus on the requirements needed by the ‘development of a solidarian society, in which we go beyond self-interest and build solidarity through our activity’ and in which we finally ‘replace a focus on selfishness and self-orientation with a focus on community and solidarity’. In short, future socialism rests on the possibility of ‘developing a new common sense’ – and in this task, Lebowitz undeniably succeeds.

So where does Real Socialism fit into this new old socialist common sense? Obviously, Real Socialism is the supreme example of what can go wrong when socialism cares only for the objective, economic and political side of the issue, and ignores the necessary moral and psychological development of its human element. There is no point in (sort of) socializing the means of production if the social structures left in place are still hierarchically biased. The contradiction of real socialism is precisely this: that it attempted to build socialism on the basis of ‘vanguard relations of production’, in which the conductor – the central planners – stand above the conducted – the workers. This ‘despotic character of direction’ maintained in Real Socialism involves a separation between thinking and doing that gravely deforms the potential for human development and, hence, inevitably undermines the proclaimed socialist goal.

In order to ground this new – and yet, as old as it gets – diagnostic of what went wrong in Eastern Europe, Lebowitz promises to unfold an analysis of Real Socialism as a system. The usual explanations of Real Socialism and of its failures – state ownership of the means of production, central planning, underdeveloped capitalism, the lack of world revolution – are, claims Lebowitz, merely ‘an entertaining parlor game’. What we need – and what they lack – is an understanding of ‘Real Socialism as a system’. This sounds very promising, but as it turns out, the ‘systematic’ approach to Real Socialism actually translates into an analysis of the way in which the subjective incentives of the main contenders in the sphere of production (central planners, managers, workers) were pitted against each other. This focus on the interplay of subjective incentives has, perhaps, less to do with the dialectic vocation of Marxism than it with the method of rational choice theory.

In the same way in which Marx started his systematic account in Capital with the analysis of a concrete surface phenomenon , namely the commodity, Lebowitz approaches the systematic nature of Real Socialism by dealing with an ‘obvious surface phenomenon’ – the ‘shortage economy’. However, besides the fact that Janos Kornai (whom, for one reason or another, Lebowitz chooses to follow faithfully all through the volume) also focused on the illuminating nature of the ‘chronic shortages’ for Real Socialism, the choice of this surface phenomenon as key to the systematic nature of the object of study is rather ungrounded. Marx’s commodity is a concrete element extremely rich in conceptual and historical substrata that practically project almost by themselves the structural axes of the whole systematic perspective. Chronic shortages do not seem to have the same explanatory potential for Real Socialism: they only cover one period – the last decades – in the existence of this social system. In spite of what Lebowitz claims, they were not only the direct expression of the immanent logic of vanguard relations of production, but also, and at least in the same measure, the result of a dynamic in global capitalism (the rise in oil prices and the consequent indebtedness of the communist states). And finally, there’s shortage and shortage: there is the socialist chronic shortage in which everybody is secured a job, paid holidays, free education and healthcare, yet is confronted with difficulties in finding bread or toilet paper; and there is the capitalist shortage, in which there is, indeed, an abundance of commodities, that nevertheless coexists with chronic shortages in terms of basic subsistence conditions. As it turns out, the reason for choosing this particular surface phenomenon – chronic shortages – as key to the systematic nature of Real Socialism reveals itself once that ‘systematic’ nature is gradually unfolded: practically, the analytical advantage of the shortage economy is that it presents us with a social perspective in which the various subjective incentives of the main politico-economic players can be better grasped because of their persistent mutual opposition. In brief, shortage economy is the original Robinsonade of the moral approach to Real Socialism.

The image projected by this Robinsonade is that of Real Socialism as a contested system traversed by three contrasting subjective logics: the logic of the vanguard, that is the paternalist social contract imposed by the central bureaucracy, which promises stability and basic subsistence rights for the workers in exchange for their submission to the authority of the central conductor. The ‘moral economy’ of the workers, who are willing to accept the commanding stature of the bureaucracy, even with its enforced separation of thinking and doing (and hence the impossibility of genuine human development), but only as long as it can provide the social contract that it vowed for. And the ‘logic of capital’, represented by the managers of state owned enterprises, a logic that becomes more and more articulate and sure of itself as the shortage economy deepens and as the social contract promised by the vanguard is being gradually eroded. Ultimately, of course, the ‘logic of capital’ pushed for by the managers will have won: the managers – joined by the economist technocrats – were the only ones capable of articulating their position as a class in itself and thus of mounting a genuine claim to hegemony. In the name of the ‘consumer’ and with the help of the economists’ discourse, the aggressive agenda of ‘freeing the managers’ from the irrational constraints of a centralized economy will pave the way for the smooth capitalist integration of the post-communist countries. However, the fault for all this, according to Lebowitz, lies only with the existing vanguard relations of production: it is only because Real Socialism established a hierarchical command over the economy and society, which blocked the path to genuine human development, that the workers – the presumed beneficiaries of this social arrangement – ultimately accepted (even if passively) the dismantling of this paternalist system, and the capitalist rebellion led by the managers so easily succeeded.

The lesson of Real Socialism is now clear: if we do not want to repeat its mistakes, we should, claims Lebowitz, abandon vanguard Marxism with its specific vanguard relations of production, and supplement the classical components of socialism (cooperation and common ownership of the means of production) with a vital third element: the ideal and practice of a solidarian society based upon the ‘recognition of our common humanity’. Soviets + electrification + human kindness would then be the revised formula for 21st century socialism.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this perspective on Real Socialism – or future socialism in general. However, the merits of this approach are more difficult to track down. As a critical diagnostic of Real socialism, the contradiction between the conducting bureaucracy and the conducted workers has been a recurrent accusation in leftist, humanist, or anarchist readings of 20th century state socialisms. The more specific interplay between central bureaucracy, managers and working class has also been more accurately historically analyzed by authors like Eyal, Szelenyi and Townsley. As for Lebowitz’s methodological choice – to focus upon the system of Real Socialism as it was ‘more or less consolidated and stable, rather than on the original emergence of that system’ – it has the effect of blinding this approach precisely to the historical (that is, the original mixture of conjectural and necessary) nature of that social system. Once these historical aspects are left out, the failures of Real Socialism are read as a direct expression of its founding theory (vanguard Marxism), in the same way in which, in the whole volume, Real Socialism, far from constituting a terrain of materialist investigation, functions more like a punching bag in which the author’s moral intuitions (human development cannot coexist with bosses in production) can be easily pushed in, checked out and smoothly confirmed.

But the most problematic aspect of Lebowitz’s brand of socialism plus human development has to do precisely with the opportunity of this moral supplement to Marxism. According to Lebowitz, the principal advantage to be derived from this kind of socialism lies in the fact that, by rejecting the separation of thinking and doing, of conducting and following, it does not postulate socialism merely in the future, as a realm of freedom to be reached once the issue of necessity is solved (that is, after an initial stage of state capitalism and central command). On the contrary, socialism as human development is to be reached and developed immediately as its own practice – the subjective, solidarian disposition is to be born in the midst of its own practical expression. Is that really the case, however? Following Hugo Chavez, Lebowitz’s triangle of fundamental ingredients of socialism consists in: common ownership of the means of production, cooperation in the process of production, and socialist morality (‘the recognition of our common humanity and our needs as members of the human family’). But what is the specific nature of this third, moral element? If it is simply the subjective result of the imposition of the other two, one only has to realize the former and expect to generate the required social morality by means of the new, proper arrangement of the social relations of production. If, instead, the socialist morality will not necessarily emerge as a simple subjective reflection and internalization of the socialist relations of production, then there must be an educator which will inevitably stand above the not-yet socialized working class. In other words, if self-management and socialized means of production are not sufficient (as appears to be demonstrated by the Yugoslav experience), then there is absolutely no certainty that the socialized working class, left on its own, and even in a socialized context, will not develop a logic of capital, as the managers did in Real Socialism (for example, by seeing themselves as shareholders of their own socialized means of production). Hence, again, the need for the Party at least as a temporary ‘sentimental educator’ of the working class, as a conductor of the temporary socialistically disharmonic orchestra of the conducted. In brief, the moral supplement of human development is at best superfluous, and – at worst – can only reproduce the problems of socialism it claims to solve.

8 August 2014


  1. I still don’t see why the party is necessary, even if Lebowitz isn’t offering any serious argument against it. The “sentimental educator” could be a federation of those socialized working people: the common expression of an understanding in the necessity of common moral education as a dam against the return of capitalism. Vanguardism “is” morally deficient, one should only remember Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiaoping’s dire prediction: “If China runs into trouble, it will come from inside the Communist Party”.

    The moral element of any anti-capitalist form or way of organising is “already” embedded in that struggle (by opposition to capitalism and principles indirectly derived from the struggle against it). What remains to be discussed is:

    1. How to educate those that are not yet educated
    2. How to reinforce the morality of the educated
    3. How to remain moral in devising what is common morality
    4. How to decide what is necessary and what is morally contingent upon the new moral framework
    5. How to synthesize or synchronize different views on morality
    6. How to pair up the new social relations (including those of production) with the new moral framework.

    One should also remember upon the fact that even if Marx tried be objective when discussing the inner dynamics of Capital, moral assumptions were already in place, normativizing what should and should not be reproduced in the forthcoming socialism.

    “the socialist morality will not necessarily emerge as a simple subjective reflection” – you give the Yugoslav experience, but you do the same mistake you say Lebowitz does: ignoring the external and internal conditions that might have rendered the emergenge of the new socialist morality inert (like the shortage economy; or the exploitative regime of factory work, with its routine that blunts the sensibility of the worker to the rich feast of life, degrading the worker’s image of his or her human potentialities).

  2. In the opening line of his essay on The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’: the Conductor and the Conducted, Alex Cistelecan proposes that my book should be read as ‘an exercise in the moral psychology of “human development”’; and he proceeds to riff on this theme by speaking of my ‘moral supplement to Marxism’, ‘the moral supplement of human development’, ‘the moral approach to Real Socialism’, and my apparent claim that the classical elements of socialism should be supplemented ‘with a vital third element’— namely, that my ‘revised formula for 21st century socialism’ would be ‘soviets+ electrification+ human kindness’. HA! Not only is this unrecognisable as a description of my book on ‘real socialism’ book but it is precisely contrary to what I have argued in that book and developed in my immediately preceding work, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (2010).
    One of Cistelecan’s problems is that he appears incapable of distinguishing between the concept of socialism as fully developed upon its own foundations (‘Communism’ in the lexicon of Histmat) and the struggle to build that society. Thus, to speak of the characteristics of the former (e.g., a society in which there is ‘recognition of our common humanity and our needs as members of the human family’) is presumably to assume that one can realise this by a focus upon ‘the required social morality’ and the ‘human kindness’ which allows for the construction of a ‘solidarian society’. Cistelecan glides from the real process to the ideal by ignoring my specific points that the solidarian society does not develop spontaneously and requires ‘the development of an entire complex of organs— individual workers’ councils, coordinating bodies of workers’ councils, and organs that transmit the identification of needs (communal councils, communes, etc)’— ‘institutions that foster the development of human capacities’ (including the expansion of the commons) (166, 169, 187-8).
    So, how can we explain that all he sees is moral psychology, a moral supplement to Marxism, the moral supplement of human development— rather than the real process of struggling to create new social institutions? As has been noted before, reading to discover silences is often very revealing. And there is a deafening silence in Cistelecan’s review. In The Socialist Alternative and in the Introduction to this book, I stressed Marx’s key link of human development and practice and noted that emphasis upon this key link implies our ‘need to be able to develop through democratic, participatory and protagonistic activity in every aspect of our lives’. Indeed, the focus is upon ‘revolutionary practice in our communities, our workplaces, and in all our social institutions’— it is upon the development of revolutionary subjects through their practice (18).
    The silence in Cistelecan concerns practice. It’s not there, and the implications are apparent. Take away practice from the key link of human development and practice, and human development floats in mid-air to be grounded by Cistelecan’s preoccupation with a moral supplement of human development (or by Vanguard Marxism’s inexorable march of productive forces). It is precisely because I focus upon revolutionary practice, that simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change, that I stress the centrality of building those new institutions from below in which people can transform themselves. And this focus upon the key link is not abstract theory— it was something immediately visible in the communal councils, workers councils and recovered factories in Venezuela in the seven years I was there as an adviser. Practice is how we build the socialist alternative (as I stressed in the book with that name).
    But what’s all this got to do with ‘real socialism’, the subject of the book under review? After all, I explicitly indicated in the Preface that the focus on human development ‘is not the subject matter of this book’ and in the Introduction that the book was ‘not about the theory of socialism as an organic system’ but, rather, about the ‘attempt in the twentieth century to build an alternative to capitalism’ (8, 20). Cistelecan’s preoccupation is with the theme of The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development rather than with my attempt to theorise the nature of ‘real socialism’ as it consolidated over the period of the 1950s through the 1980s.
    In Contradictions, my starting point was the concrete phenomena of shortages in ‘real socialism’ from which I distilled by analysis the simple concept of vanguard relations of production which involved a vanguard oriented to building socialism and a particular relation to the working class which, under a social contract, received job rights and other support not present within capitalism in return for not challenging the rule of the vanguard in workplace and society, Logically developing, then, what was inherent in that relation, I explored its particular laws of motion (including the difficulty of intensive development) and (given the inability of workers in this relation to develop their capacities), the emergence of a separate body of enterprise managers induced to support the plans of the vanguard by material incentives in the form of bonuses. This latter group, I argued, increasingly took form as a separate class (an incipient capitalist class), and its struggle against the logic of the vanguard became the source of dysfunction in the economy and deformation in the vanguard. Indeed, rather than choosing ‘to follow faithfully all through the volume’ Janos Kornai (as Cistelecan asserts), my emphasis upon the centrality of this class struggle is a complete rejection of Kornai who subsumed the managers and the vanguard within a single bureaucracy and accordingly by definition excluded the possibility of this struggle so much at the core of the trajectory of ‘real socialism’ and the ultimate victory of capital.
    Although seeing everything through the prism of his premises, Cistelecan does not entirely ignore the book. For one, he criticises my concrete starting point of scarcity. ‘The choice of this surface phenomenon as key to the systemic nature of the object of study’, he claims, ‘is rather ungrounded.’ It cannot compare to Marx’s identification of the commodity as the entry point to unveil the nature of capitalism. A very interesting assertion. So, what would Cistelecan propose as an alternative logical starting point? Does he think there is one? Or, does he reject the method of attempting to develop logically an understanding of the systemic nature of ‘real socialism’? Specifically, does he reject Marx’s method (which I attempt to follow) in favour of empiricism? Yes, from his scattered comments about ‘real socialism’ this appears to be the case— thus, a formless soup combining empiricism and lamentations about supposed moral supplements to Marxism.
    True, he does say that the idea of viewing ‘real socialism’ as a system is ‘promising’. However, he immediately complains that what I have produced is an analysis of how ‘the subjective incentives’ of the main contenders in the system ‘were pitted against each other’. Indeed, ‘this focus on the interplay of subjective incentives’ is akin to ‘the method of rational choice theory’. I have learned to my surprise that, rather making class struggle the core of my description of the course of ‘real socialism’, I have merely presented ‘a contested system traversed by three contrasting subjective logics’ (those of the vanguard, capital and the working class). But this is not a matter of the ‘subjective incentives’ of the contending parties! Rather, those subjective incentives flow from the class positions of the respective parties. One wonders if Cistelecan would refer to the capitalist system as the locus of the interplay of the contrasting subjective logics of capital and the working class.
    The class struggle which I focus upon in Contradictions is the one immediately between the vanguard and capital but there is also a logic of the working class— one latent because it is disarmed both in practice by the restrictions imposed by the vanguard and in theory by Vanguard Marxism. In considering the side of the working class, I do refer to the ‘moral economy of the working class’ (could this be my original sin?). Certainly, it is essential to recognise the social norms and beliefs as to right and wrong on the part of workers in ‘real socialism’ (e.g., the orientation toward egalitarianism). However, I explicitly argued the necessity to go beyond moral economy to the political economy of the working class and to struggle for workers control and solidarity among the working class through the creation of workers councils and communal councils at the base (cf. Chapter 6 ‘From Moral Economy to Political Economy’ and Ch, 7 ‘Towards a Society of Associated Conductors’). Once again, practice; once again, class struggle.
    It is true, as Cistelecan observes, that socialised means of production, worker self-management and communal councils do not guarantee the spontaneous development of socialism as fully developed and, indeed, that there is a ‘need for the Party’ as a conductor. On this question, he is pushing through an open door: I have always stressed the need for leadership (186) and explicitly a party in Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (2006) and The Socialist Alternative. But not the vanguard party. Not a party which presumes to deliver socialism as ‘a gift to those below by the only ones above who know how to create socialism’ (70). Rather, a different type of party— one which recognises the importance of fostering the conditions in which people can develop their capacities, one which learns how to listen, one which can govern by following.

    11 August 2014

  3. Bravo michael lebowitz!

    I have only read your review and not your book. I find cistetelcan’s writing academic and typical of academic people who believe they know what Marx really is all about.

    If michael lebowitz has seven years of assisting with the building of worker’s councils and communitarian organizations, that try to be really grounded, root and branch,in the working class, than it will defer to his wisdom and praxis.

    Cistelecan obviously has never worked in a factory, in the field or in a menial service job. The most difficult job for all “marxists” is how to build a real working class party, how to be an effective leading force and how to deliver the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ without the heavy hand of elitism etc.

    Michael lebowitz appears to address the issue of how to deliver effective and real communist leadership by way of grounded working class institutions controlled by workers and yet led by communists and socialists. This truly is difficult practice: just ask Lenin, Mao or Castro etc. The failure of communism in China and Russia etc. is partially a result of not building democracy and leadership within mass organizations–although the commune movement in China was such an attempt. Shortages! Of course there had to be shortages in Russia ans China if you want to build an inclusive ‘Economy’ where all boats rise together. Goulash communism–the Russian promise of the American Dream–was an insane promise. It consolidated the power of nomenklatura.

    The global left,today, more than ever, requires the knowledge of how to win the working class to the building and the mainteinance of anti-capitalist institutions.No ponderous academic thesis and counter-thesis by Castelecan could ever be intelligible to workers who want to know how to overthrow capitalism, let alone how to build real socialism.

    Michael Lebowitz is on the right road whereas academics like Castelecan are merely doing the ruling class’s work of befuddling and confusing working people with nit-picking.

    Presently, Richard Wolff is working hard to encourage Americans to rise up and organize and abolish capitalism by way of building working class ownership of capitalist corporations. The slogan of Lenin during World War One was ‘turn the guns around’;well, today the slogan for workers is the slogan is to turn the corporations into worker controlled enterprises.This is the most challenging job for workers who are still pining of getting the American Dream back. Cistalecan offers nothing of how to get this job done. Lebowitz offers new praxis, workers need to pay attention and learn.

    michael naemsch, artist and former union leader.

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