Monday, December 10, 2012

Goodbye to Vanguard Marxism


“The Contradictions of Real Socialism – the Conductor and the Conducted” by Michael A. Lebowitz, 2012

The title of this book reads like it is some Ayn Rand screed, and the unfortunate phrase chosen by Lebowitz, ‘real socialism,’ confuses the issue he is raising.  ‘Ostensible socialism'; ‘really-existing attempts at socialism’ or ‘workers states,’ would be far more accurate for what he means.  After all, Marx in the “Critique of the Gotha Program” made it clear that socialism was a classless society, which would mean it had no state.  However, the important thing is not the terms Lebowitz uses, but the ideas behind them.  He makes his own terms up for some categories, in an attempt to define the nature of what happened in the USSR, China and eastern Europe after 1950. 

This date is picked because, other than the analysis of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky in the 1920s, and of course, quotes from Marx, history for Lebowitz starts in that year.  The prior period is somewhat of a foggy haze to him, filled with some 'crazy uncle' or something.  Though not acknowledging the struggle of the Left Opposition, in a somewhat dishonest way Lebowitz pays ideological homage to it.  The Marxist concept of ‘permanent revolution’ is upheld and the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ undermined, in spite of his dissimulations. Workers democracy is endorsed by Lebowitz and the bureaucracy pilloried, though as the "vanguard."  Trotsky and the Left Opposition were indeed the first Marxists to analyze the effects of the bureaucracy in power, not Michael Lebowitz.

Lebowitz feels that every Marxist must study what happened in the former ‘socialist’ countries, applying Marxism itself.  He uses many original sources to factually analyze the former workers states, and to uncover what led or will lead to counter-revolution.  The Hungarian Janos Kornai is one of his key sources for facts, but not conclusions.   His overall analysis shows that the ‘plan’ was never carried out anywhere, with, of course, national variations.   The reason for this was that social and economic relations were always contested between capitalism on one side, the ideology and organization of the vanguard party on another side, and on a third side, the working class.  Society never became an organic whole.  Preobrazhensky understood this contestation was happening in the 1920s in the USSR.  Lebowitz, instead of forgetting dialectics, applies it to the situation after the conquest of working class power.  Dialectics makes the ‘linear’ development of communism based on an increase in the ‘productive forces’ a fantasy.  He shows, in somewhat dry language, how the struggle between capitalist tendencies and the ‘vanguard’ party, ‘vanguard’ state, ‘vanguard’ economy and the ‘vanguard’ culture – and, hidden in the shadows, the ‘moral economy’ of the working class, actually created motion - in this case, backwards.   The influence of world imperialism is not mentioned in this book as a finger on the scale of capitalist restoration, but it could have been.

Within the workers states, the capitalist tendencies were initially embodied in the enterprise managers, who ultimately wanted control and then ownership of the factories they ran.  The ‘vanguard’ party, which tried to organize a planned economy, was also dominated  by sectoral factions – the leading ones being in heavy industry, the military and resource extraction.  As a result, a scarcity economy was created for the working class based on how the enterprise managers and the ‘vanguard’ planners interacted.  The enterprise managers, who were paid incentives to ‘make the plan,’ hoarded labor and materials, lied about production capabilities and quality, participated in the underground economy  and used ‘storming’ methods to fulfill the plan, creating poor-quality goods or a lack of goods.  As a result, the plan did not work – partly because the planners did not know the real facts.  And the planners began to do some of the same things, though in broader sectors.  This conflicted economy was characterized by shortages of everyday things – housing, food, quality clothing, car parts and many other consumer goods. This scarcity economy was one of the factors undermining the workers state and the allegiance of the working class. 

This clash between the planners and the enterprise managers was a key disequilibrium in these countries attempting to reach socialism.  It reaches it apotheosis in the neo-liberalism of Gorbachev's USSR, which installed theoreticians who supported the independence of the enterprise managers – paving the way for a complete breakdown of planning and the beginning of formal privatization.  Lebowitz shows that the process had started long before that.  He understands that legal ownership of property by the state is only a precondition for socialism and forward movement – not socialism itself.  As it was, in the workers states he contends that property was owned in reality (though not legally) by the vanguard at the center of society.  His key point, based on Marx’s own words, is that material development alone does not lead to the realization of socialism – it is the development of the working class as full human beings that leads to socialism. Material development is secondary and follows that human development.

Lebowitz, like many others, points out that the working class was ignored in their own state.  As long as the social wage was supplied – stable prices, the supply of basics like housing and health care, job security based on full employment, a slow pace of labor, the ability to steal enterprise goods, and the ability to move to other factories – workers were content with the bargain of having no direct power in the factory, the trade unions, the political bodies or in any workers councils.  This was the source of stability, this bargain.  As time went on, stagnation began to creep into the economy due to the failure of the plan and the lack of involvement by the workers.  Lebowitz points out that experiments in ‘workers self-management’ in Yugoslavia and several other workers states to counter this failed because they actually increased the centrifugal forces tearing the plan and the working class apart.  This is similar to the writings of Americans like Gar Alperwitz, who is always promoting workers self-management in the present U.S. – but within only one firm.  Group capitalism in essence, which I guess is an improvement over our conventional capitalism.  But in a society trying to move to socialism, it is backward looking, though apparently ‘democratic.’ 

So the real villain of counter-revolution ultimately was not the enterprise managers, but the ‘vanguard’ itself, as they were responsible for holding back the working class.  They enforced their power through ‘regulation’ – not just of the enterprise managers for a time, but of the working class itself.  Hence the subtitle of this book, ‘The Conductor and the Conducted.”  After a time, the planners and the enterprise managers reached accommodations, as each acted upon the other.  Factory managers supplied central 'planners' with scarce goods.  They became a hardened strata which became ever more distant from the working-class, and moved ever slowly back towards capitalism.  There is a bit of the innocent Maoist analysis here in Lebowitz, but Mao was also a ‘vanguardist’ of the highest order, so I suspect Lebowitz has left Mao behind.  The 'Vanguard' pressed their organizational structure upon every aspect of  society, attempting to bring it to socialism by depriving the class that actually creates socialism from actual power.  And herein lies the irony.

Lebowitz traces how the 'moral economy of the working class' had the possibility of leading the society towards real socialism.  As an example, the Russian term "blat" - essentially trading goods and services, some stolen, some not - created networks of solidarity among workers, in essence a 'gift economy' - yet an economy that was only in the 'egg,' only limited to small circles   He maintains that normal working-class egalitarianism and the idea of fairness among workers holds the seeds of a new society.

Some of Lebowitz’s lines about how the 'Vanguard' can almost literally ‘own’ the means of production in certain sectors is a picture of what is now happening in China, as counter-revolution winds society backwards on the gears of the vanguard’s money.  And the Chinese working-class is ignored, in this so-called 'socialist state' by this so-called 'Communist Party.' 

After all this, Lebowitz has no comments on the nature of the vanguard party prior to the revolution, or what should be the role of a vanguard party, if any, in the struggle for socialism.  He dodges this question too.  I’ll make a suggestion that I’ve made in the past.  That is that the ‘vanguard party’ as a ‘democratic-centralist’ body – if it is even possible for a millions-strong proletariat to end up following only one organization! – should see itself as a combat organization primarily, and begin to ‘wither away’ once the capitalist state is overthrown.  That will guarantee that ultimately the workers councils hold real power, not a group of self-chosen bureaucrats.

And I bought it at May Day Books! 
Come to the May Day Book Sale & Party this Saturday Afternoon.  All books 20% off and purchases of over $35 will get you a free book from our used/discounted section.
Red Frog
December 10, 2012


 

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