The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted by Michael A. Lebowitz
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012)

Reviewed by John Womack, Jr.

March 15, 2019

Michael Lebowitz’s book is mostly an argument about what was wrong with the Soviet Union, 1950-1990, and what he thinks made its complete failure inevitable. He means it not only for the USSR, but for the German Democratic Republic and other Soviet-allied European republics (Czechoslovakia et al.) as well.

The book has already received serious, sharp Marxist reviews in US journals, most notably by Mel Rothenberg, “The Contradictions of Leftist Critique,” Science and Society, January 2014, and by Roger Keeran and Joseph Jamison, posted August 28, 2015, Marxism-Leninism Today, reposted July 11, 2018. This review cannot come near their informed and perceptive analyses of Lebowitz’s book. It will only trace his argument’s main lines, briefly tell how he argues, turn some light on the background from which he formed the argument, and finally draw a lesson about political alliances and political differences.

In his book’s title Lebowitz proclaims his purpose, demystification. Soviet socialism, he headlines, was not real, true, Marxist socialism. It was nothing more than “real socialism,” his quotation marks, to indicate it was actually fake.[1]

He pushes three lines to explain post-Stalin Soviet society as he thinks it really was.

(1) The Soviet mode of production was not the working class collectively owning the means of production, working them, and deciding how to use them, how to improve them, and how to distribute the product. Instead, the Soviet state owned the means of production, and the Soviet Communist Party decided only in the workers’ name, in fact according to its own centralized economic plans, how to use the means and the live force of production. The party’s economic and political direction was exclusive, comprehensive, and continuous. Quoting Marx, as he compared the capitalist of his generation to the conductor of an orchestra, Lebowitz presents the CPSU as fake socialism’s conductor, directing the workers as “the conducted.” This mode of production corresponded with Soviet relations of production. For their character Lebowitz applies a different, military metaphor: Since these relations were really a vanguard leading the working class as if it were an army, the mode of production was a “vanguard mode of production” (his coinage); the relations of production, “vanguard relations.”

(2) But not really, for on account of the vanguard’s centralized planning and its constant orders to increase Soviet production in all departments, the state’s managers of its “enterprises,” its units of production, had continually to lie to the vanguard and violate its orders, improvising on their own or among themselves, at least to pretend to fulfill orders, or go them better, ideally for Soviet welfare, often, really, only for their own special interests, e.g., bonuses, anyway to keep their job, even rise in the vanguard’s hierarchy. Their inevitable mismanagement resulted in the Soviet economy’s infamous shortages, hoarding, periodic rushes in production, useless products, etc. Though the vanguard, acting on “the logic of the vanguard,” is the principal in relation to its managers, the managers in practice are not its faithful agents. Since they had no rights in the “enterprises” they managed, could not buy or sell them, they could not be capitalists.

But acting on their own as much as they did, outside the central economic plan, they “embody…the logic of capital,” making “a second economy.” And the vanguard, precisely because it was a vanguard, did not have the power to bring them into real compliance with its orders. Quoting a Soviet economist in the 1920’s (writing about other conflicts), Lebowitz presents vanguardism and managerism as “two mutually hostile systems.”

(3) There, he argues, the fatal Soviet fault comes clear. The vanguard could not control its managers, who were systematically subverting “real socialism,” heading for capitalism. It could not, because to stop them it would have had to quit its own system, let the collective working class take power, let workers themselves take the means of production and decide for themselves how to manage them and their own labor, decide how to distribute their work and their product, “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” That is, the vanguard would have had to surrender its “real [fake] socialism” for real, true socialism. But then the vanguard would have vanished into thin air. “The fundamental contradiction of ‘real socialism’ is the social division into “conductor and the conducted, …the domination of workers by the vanguard.” For its own inherent, systematic fault vanguardism finally dissolved before managerism’s systematic drive toward capitalism.

Worse yet, the workers did not even try to take power, from the vanguard or the managers. The reason: The vanguard’s “Vanguard Marxism” had so “deformed them” ideologically that they believed in “the division between thinking and doing” and could not imagine themselves seizing the means of production. Under the vanguard’s misinformed, erroneous, ineffective directions and fake Marxism, all the while dealing with managers serving their own interests, Soviet workers stuck to the Soviet “social contract.” This was fake socialism’s “moral economy.”

For their submission to the vanguard and to managerial connivance, Soviet workers received various benefits impossible in capitalism, stable prices, free health care, free schools, subsidized food, housing, and fuel, above all security in their jobs, practically property in them, furthermore an effective right to a job anywhere else in the Soviet republics. So sure were workers of their jobs that they stole supplies and products from work, stole their own labor, for their own business in the “second economy,” or faked it, simply for rest and recreation. The vanguard unwittingly but inevitably made the working class into an army of thieves and loafers. No surprise then that when vanguardism fell apart, when the managers made their move for power, forcing a crisis in which a truly socialist proletariat could have smashed them and made real, true socialism, the vanguard-corrupted proletariat remained passive.

These three lines of argument depict “the contradictions of ‘real socialism’” in a triangle. On one side you have the contradiction between the vanguard and the managers; on another, the contradiction between the managers and the workers. But the base is the third side, the basis of “real socialism,” the contradiction between the vanguard and the workers. “Real socialism” could not have succeeded. On its basic contradiction it was doomed to fail sooner or later–and for all the harm it did workers, good riddance to it!

So, in summary, is the first two-thirds of the book. The last third is mostly Lebowitz’s argument on what true socialism is. Marx did not get it, he thinks, because he could not “complete his own work,” could not “go beyond Capital…to focus upon the side of the worker.” And his only “one-sided Marxism,” his “disciples” ruinously rendered into “economism.” But Lebowitz goes (he thinks) where Marx could not, to understand “the political economy of the working class,” to theorize “the logic of the working class.” His own both-sided Marxism reveals the true socialism. It is also a system, and he describes it too as a triangle. One side is “social [not state] ownership of the means of production”; another, “social production organized by workers.” But cooperative production alone will not suffice. The third side is the base, true socialism’s basis, its “moral economy,” its purpose, which is “solidarity,” or “communality.”

This “solidarian society” will not have a conductor. It will be “a society of associated conductors,” playing not a symphony, but “jazz,” its “supreme goal…the full development of human capacities.” Lebowitz cautions, true socialism “will not drop from the sky.” It will take struggle. The working class will have to struggle, not against capitalist resistance, but to overcome its own old capitalist and fake-socialist deformations, learn to unify “thinking and doing.” But once it does, it will make “the ‘key link’ of human development and practice,” enjoying “human development…through the activity of free and associated producers.” This society, true socialism, safe and sound, will be the actual, daily practice of “protagonistic democracy in the workplace, protagonistic democracy in neighborhoods, communities, communes,” people “transforming themselves into revolutionary subjects.”

At the end, as if to forestall questions, Lebowitz allows he is not against “leadership in the struggle,” that he is for “ending capitalist ownership of the means of production by all means possible,” and that to expropriate the capitalists he recognizes the need to use temporarily “the inherited [capitalist? fake socialist?] state” for the new, truly “socialist mode of regulation.” He recognizes he has not explored these questions, but only because he limits his focus to “real socialism” and the right way to go beyond it to true socialism.


If you have never read much about the Soviet Union, or read only hostile criticism of it, Lebowitz’s book may seem brilliant and powerful, inspiring, even rousing. It may lead you to cry, “Yes, of course! Now I know what to do!” But if so, reader beware.

Lebowitz argues in a way easy to read, paragraph by paragraph, and winningly didactic, at least for college students and new recruits. And he seems to know Marx inside and out, quoting him on almost everything he argues. It makes sense. Lebowitz taught Marxism at Simon Fraser University for 35 years, 1965-2000 (early retirement). His courses must have been especially popular. He has said that is how he learned Marxism, teaching it to his students. Most convenient for a new reader: Like many professors he often quotes himself, over and over, from his earlier books and in this book, so that if you lose his drift, be sure he will soon remind you.

But on any close, serious examination, not the kind in a college classroom or academic conference, but the hard, exacting kind in fact vital in real, live class struggle, Lebowitz’s argument goes to pieces. It cannot stand. It is an often interesting, skillfully phrased, but largely incoherent composite of misconceptions, false assumptions, confused metaphors, abstractions, contradictions, mistakes in research, logical fudges, and misleading mixes of Marx quotes. No doubt Lebowitz believes what he writes. And if you want to read his vision of pie in the sky, here is your book. But if you have serious commitments on earth, like the destruction of capitalism and the imposition of working-class rule, better tend to them.

Never mind that Marx referred to “the conductor” but briefly (in three quite separate remarks in all his work), and then not to frame a theory.[2] He meant (as Lebowitz knows) only a metaphor, to show (as Lebowitz seems not to know) the typical form of English capitalist firms in the 1840s and ‘50s, an individual capitalist owning (only) his business and running it himself. When  in the great London financial crash of 1866, just as he was finishing Capital I for publication, he saw that capital was no longer

individual, but “collective,” in “the credit-system,” he set himself to study the new collective swindle and duly revise his subsequent chapters. He got it, but for all his other commitments he died before completing the revision, left for Engels to do.

Never mind either that really a vanguard does not conduct anything. The general command at headquarters gives its orders to the field commanders, who before their other forces send the vanguard into action in the van, up in front. On socialist vanguards, read not Lebowitz, but V. I. Lenin, What Is to be Done? (1902), especially Chapter 3, Section 5, which Lebowitz deliberately ignores.

And let it pass too (groan) that interviews asking Soviet workers who stole from their workplace if they thought that was all right, cannot reveal more than zero about a “working-class moral economy.”

These and various other such minor mistakes, lapses, and malaprops do not in themselves do Lebowitz’s argument any bad damage. Though they may make you wonder how much to discount it, they are not the kind to discredit it.

But several major faults do discredit it. The biggest is Lebowitz’s very peculiar notion that Marx ought to have completed his work by a study like Capital but on labor, titled, say, Labor. A veteran teacher of Marxism, Lebowitz thinks Marx thought of Capital as “the political economy of capital,” and therefore to complete his work he owed workers a book on “the political economy of the working class.” This is false. The subtitle of Capital is “A Critique of Political Economy,” just so, full stop, to be multi-volumes on the totality of the capitalist economy and capitalist economics. It is (no news for you readers) about capitalism in its essence, precisely in its essential parts, fundamental among them labor, all the parts in their particular and combined operations. It is (as you know) an economic analysis, Marx’s economic explanation of

how the world’s dominant mode of production comprised essentially dead labor (means of production) and live labor (able-bodied and able-minded human beings), how it connected them for production, how the mode reproduced itself in continual expansions and accumulation of surplus value, how it also made its crises, and why its relations of production, between capitalists and workers, were fundamentally and thoroughly exploitative, capitalists inevitably exploiting workers, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always exploiting them. Capital is—in Marx’s view HAD TO BE—all about capital AND labor. It boggles the mind that Lebowitz has not seen Marx’s conjunction of capital and labor.

Thinking he goes beyond Capital, actually wheeling off on his own, Lebowitz proposes a “political economy of the working class.” But his analysis is not economic. His “political economy” is social and cultural. If you know the bourgeois and Marxist literature on workers’ alienation in capitalism, you will find quite familiar Lebowitz’s analysis of how fake socialism “deforms” workers. It is Marxist cultural analysis, meritorious (or not) in its own terms. But it is not Marxist political economy.

A second major kind of fault is false assumption. Lebowitz claims his critics presume they know everything worth knowing about “real socialism,” defend it, belong to “political sects,” consider themselves “the chosen.” He must be right about some of them, and not straw men either, but real, live dogmatists. But his assumption is only an excuse to refuse debate, as he does refuse it, with all others who know as much about “real socialism” as he does, or more, are not dogmatists, and disagree with him.

Another of Lebowitz’s major false assumptions, “human development”: He has found (in English translations) probably all Marx wrote, various, widely scattered, always intense passages, about “the development of all human powers as…the end in itself.”

And he quotes some passages (again and again), particularly to link “development” with Marx on “revolutionary practice.” But Marx is not Moses bringing down The Tablets. The idea of an intrinsically wonderful human nature comes from Greek tragedy (without it no tragedy), turns in the Renaissance into natural, dynamic development, the wonder unfolding in individuals in the extraordinary wisdom and fortitude to master great disorders, and goes Christian in Hegel’s mighty Trinitarian dialectics of “the struggle unto death,” whence Marx takes it and makes it in his materialist dialectics mankind’s truest cause and ultimate, earthly, communist triumph and glory. It is an optimistic idea. But consider: The Hebrew prophets, St. Augustine, and Luther, all also echoing clear in Hegel and Marx, had other, grim ideas about human nature. “These are very deep waters, …deep and rather dirty.” No need to wade into them for a solidarian humankind, much less to believe in socialism and fight for it.

A third kind of major fault is Lebowitz’s abstraction. Quoting Marx (over and over) on “organic systems,” he also relies much on once-internal critics of “real socialism.” The big shot among them, on whom he relies most, is János Kornai, a convert to “neo-classical” economics and linear programming, émigré to the USA for tenure at Harvard, also professor at George Soros’s Central European University, and last year awarded Soros’s “Open Society Prize.” On Kornai’s abstract “models” Lebowitz represents capitalism, fake socialism, and his own futuristic true socialism as if each were a total separate unit, a whole in itself, integral, everything in it a perfectly fitting, bonded part of it. Consequently he models each system’s economy as “endogenous,” each quite independently of the other in constant “renewal,” reproducing itself, even in “contested reproduction,” always only by internal factors, nothing external. The fault here is not lack of (true) realism, all models being only simulations of reality, but the abstraction’s limits, in space and time.

As to space, for a big example, Lebowitz ignores Earth, where the two systems are mortal economic, political, and ideological enemies. The global abstract cannot not be a perfect unit. It would comprise the two systems in mutual mortal enmity, an exogenous factor for both and in both, a piece in each that would not be a part. And it would include Earth’s many diverse non- systems, loose territorial complexes of odd pieces and parts which the mortally rival systems would vie with each other to dominate and use, each for itself against the other, ergo more exogenous factors, making more complexes that are yet more variable and unstable. You could model all that. Lebowitz does not.

Consequently his argument omits two enormous realities of critical concern to socialism, “real” or real. (a) Unlike, say, Marx, a master of geopolitical analysis, following instead his neo-classical star, Lebowitz goes absolutely blank on the Cold War, nada. (b) Unlike, say, Lenin, whom he grades down for opposing anarcho-communism (in the thick of real Russian revolutionary struggles in 1917-18), and whose revolutionary internationalism (1919-1924) he utterly disregards, he goes absolutely blank on imperialism, the national question, and national liberation, again nada. In Lebowitz’s abstraction there is (incredibly) no war, international or civil. (Nor incidentally is there any race or ethnicity or gender.)

As for time, Lebowitz opposes its abstraction into “stages.” He abstracts it as “process,” all continuous and ever on the rise: No stairs for him to climb, or landings where he might have to fight an enemy for the next floor, but an escalator. In his abstract “process” there is (incredibly) no revolution, no Lenin, no Bolsheviks, only “revolutionary practice” before the revolution and after. And once the working class somehow (off stage) takes power by “process,” class struggle ends, for good. That time he allows when workers in power may use “the inherited state” on disagreeable capitalists or managers, maybe as well on still

misbehaving fellow workers, will not be a “stage,” only “a period.” (Lenin called it “transitional,” “a phase (step or level, stage)” toward the final stage, “communism.”) Lebowitz does not model the hair he splits between “stage” and “period.” But it looks as if workers in “the process” of “human development” through their “revolutionary practice” will not take long to make true socialism (Marx’s and Lenin’s communism).

Time is history, infinite singular facts, a mess to abstract. But historians do abstract it, cannot do history without abstracting it for the non-fiction story they decide is truest about the particular past they have chosen to historify. Consciously or not they all model the past in their stories about it. But the truest historians try their best to use first-hand evidence for their story, “primary sources,” their bases for a reader’s trust in their story. They use “secondary sources” like second-hand evidence, only if they fully trust them, or, if they think they are wrong, to criticize them and true the story. Marx studied abundant primary sources to write Capital’s chapters, the historical as well as the systematic. Lenin did likewise to write his first book, a history of capitalism in Russia.

Regarding sources, compare Lebowitz’s book with another on what went wrong in the Soviet Union, Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed (2010).

Lebowitz lists 475 citations of 53 authors, 109 books and articles on various questions, 12 by Marx (cited 100 times), 11 by himself (cited 70 times), seven by neo-classical Kornai (cited 110 times). Specifically on “real socialism,” none is a primary source; they are all secondary. The best are a few good, solid interview-based economic monographs and a few good, solid histories, all 30-40 years old. Lebowitz does not mention Socialism Betrayed. In contrast Keeran and Kenny list 709 citations of 103 authors, some 130 books and articles, more than a dozen of them published primary sources, cited 110 times; these include six substantial Soviet memoirs

and Yuri Andropov’s analyses of grave Soviet problems in 1982-83. Among  secondary sources in Socialism Betrayed are some 25 good, solid historical studies, six of them by two leading Soviet historians of the period, cited 150 times or more, and seven acute studies by the US economist who generally and in detail best understood the Soviet “second economy,” cited 30 times. Lebowitz noted none of them. Keeran and Kenny do not cite themselves (or Lebowitz). In short, really, Lebowitz knows very little about “real socialism” compared with Keeran and Kenny.

History, which Lebowitz might use to explain what he models was wrong in “real socialism,” Russian, Soviet, or any other history (of capitalism, imperialism?), he explicitly excludes from his accounts. He excuses himself for this gross fault on the promise (2012) he will do the history later (payment still pending, 2019).

Besides, he contradicts himself in big, hapless ways. Partly this is due to his simplicity and limits in abstraction. He skates blithely from microanalysis to macroanalysis, back and forth. Fudging the logics of induction and deduction, he chooses some various particular cases each of which (if strong) will make his point, draws from them a universal rule, from which he deduces that it prevails in all cases, a “system.” He does not test his models for validity except on the evidence he has selected to frame them. It is as if he concluded, “At night all cows are black.”

Partly also the contradictions are between his continual focus on logic, whether capitalist, “real socialist,” or true socialist, and (without any history) his occasional admission of history’s effects, like “deformed” workers, and his own vision of the necessary future. He does not even try to reconcile the different demands of logic, history, and need. Nor does he move to resolve contradictions he vaguely recognizes in specifically human “need,” say, between material and moral need, or “communal needs” now and a decade or generation from now. (And do not ask

about real contradictions between local community, multi-local communes, and national, much less global, communion, or simply between cooperatives.) These are contradictions between wishful thinking and strategic thinking. Lebowitz comes closest to dealing with them in his rousing moral appeal for “protagonistic democracy,” which he fervently believes will make the contradictions go away. But this is only more wishful thinking, the logic of the will, the pseudo- dialectic of exhortation. It is most reminiscent of evangelical preaching.

About his quotations of Marx, only a few words: After 35 years of teaching Marx, Lebowitz evidently still cannot differentiate between Marx’s economic science, political and economic journalism, political polemics, economic history, political programs, correspondence, manifestoes, philosophical criticism, inquisitive as well as conclusive notes, drafts, and all the other ways Marx put his terrific, brilliant mind on paper (and Lebowitz knows only in English). And Marx always wrote in contexts, which is how you have to read him to understand him. Lebowitz avows he knows Marx is not Scripture. But in practice he takes it as Gospel—except when he does not. From the 12 works by Marx that he cites he quotes, repeatedly, always out of context, some passages or remarks that he thinks slam-dunk seal his argument, prove his position is straight-up Marxism—and quotes others that he grades incomplete and proceeds on his own to complete Marx, improve him.

A collection of his quotes would be a weird salad, odd chunks and strips of beef, chicken, ripe and unripe slices of various fruits, some peppers, tomatoes red and green, chopped sardines, potatoes roasted, baked, and raw, some tuna, a slaw of broccoli, cabbages, and carrots, etc., ketchup for dressing, each bite supposed to prove Lebowitz’s mastery of Marx or improvement of him. Oddly, his mastered and improved Marx looks for all the world like an (undeclared) anarcho-communist, the sweet kind, Fourier, or later Kropotkin.


But maybe it is not so odd. Considering Lebowitz’s generation and political background, this kind of politics would be second nature. Born in 1937, from a New York City working-class family, night-class graduate of the old NYU, in Economics, day-time working at a big electrical- products company in its market research (price-fixing), he learned young how bourgeois economics falsified capitalist reality; it disgusted him, rightly. At the University of Wisconsin in 1960 for a Ph.D. in Economics, he quickly like many others there (and elsewhere) went political and to the Left, for Cuba, civil rights, and soon Ho’s Vietnam. An editor at Studies on the Left, i.e., the New Left, he was at Port Huron in 1962 and helped found Students for a Democratic Society. In 1965 he got a good job in Economics at British Columbia’s then brand-new Simon Fraser, and took his first deliberate Marxist steps, studying Marx to teach him. There too he went into politics, following the Fourth International’s UK movement for “workers control” and so dedicated to “community organizing” in Vancouver that the BC New Democratic Party (its Left wing behind him) made him its policy chair in 1974-75. Along the way he turned from writing academic reviews to writing articles mainly for various US and Canadian socialist journals, Science and Society, Studies in Political Economy, Reviews of Radical Political Economy. His first book came out in 1992, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class; its second edition (2003) won the Deutscher Prize in 2004.

By then he had gained much richer political experience. Retired early from Simon Fraser (2000), he had spent serious time in Cuba on invitation by Cuban intellectuals and cultural officials. Yet richer experience lay just ahead. With his new partner, Marta Harnecker, the Chilean Socialist, he was moving to Chavista Venezuela to bring his and her ideas to the Bolivarian Revolution—where he soon learned “protagonistic democracy.” By 2006 with

Chávez’s blessing he and Harnecker had formed a new international center in Caracas for Bolivarian “thinkers and activists”; his program there, “Transformational Practice and Human Development.” That year too he published Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. His paean to Bolivarian councils, communes, and “the communal state,” it was moreover an enthusiastic promotion of communalism wherever, workers rising from below in any country to transform themselves into its new sovereign and true socialism. And he began to figure in Canada in The Socialist Project, a Toronto-based socialist organization of academics and unionists, “more than a movement, less than a party,” devoted to “pressuring social democracy [the New Democratic Party] from the Left as it bleeds to the Right.” In articles and interviews for the project he and Harnecker were its Bolivarian Latin Americanists. In 2008 Beyond Capital came out in a Cuban edition. Two more books quickly followed, Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis (2009) and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (2010).

Unhappy over Venezuela’s political impasses, communal power from below not enough there to undo state capitalism above, Lebowitz and Harnecker left for Canada in 2011 and settled back in Vancouver. But for The Socialist Project and elsewhere, internationally, in many articles, lectures, and interviews, they continued their promotion of co-ops and communes for “human development” into socialism.

This was all remarkable cultural work all for good, honorable causes. And Lebowitz did it all with much energy and passion, in obvious, earnest joy, and for his work winning notable international attention and influence on the Left. His new repute confirmed to him how important his work was. The next year, going strong, he published The Contradictions…. Though it showed what was wrong in his work, his international fans hailed it as a major contribution to contemporary socialist debate.

Lebowitz’s next book, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (2015), repackaged some of his previous contentions and elaborated others. It was as before an exciting read, if you had not read it five times before, or did not see its major faults, the same faults as before. But it too won high international praise on the Left. (For Lebowitz’s international reputation see and “International Conference: 150 Years Karl Marx’s Capital: Reflections for the 21st Century,” Athens, January 14-15, 2017,

It is strange—the broad appeal of The Contradictions, the international attraction of the Left to all Lebowitz’s work ever since his Deutscher Prize (2004), despite the work’s major, reiterated faults.

But it may not be hard to explain. First, most significant, the Left so impressed by Lebowitz’s ideas is a pretty special kind of Left, international, but not everywhere, a public presence so far only in countries where capital rules, its imperialist bases or its semi-colonies. And these countries are not many, mainly USA, Canada, UK, France, Greece, and Venezuela; the only ex-“real socialist” country, Slovenia (ex-Yugoslavia). There are the parts of the world where Lebowitz’s readership, audience, and market are.

Second, wherever this Left has a public presence, it is intellectuals, not scholars (who do original research and analysis), but people after “ideas.” They circulate ideas for “debate,” intellectual consumption, a kind of publicizing class. No doubt many, like Lebowitz, come from working-class origins, but their education has raised them (like him) into academic and other idea-demanding, idea-supplying jobs. And significantly they seem to owe their Leftism to certain old, familiar political experiences, in New Leftism, second- or third-hand Trotskyism, social- democratism, nice anarchism, or social unionism, but apparently none in Communist parties; the

few Communists they admire are pre-1956 and r.i.p. If they had a labor base or a steady, solid popular following, they would matter much to the Left at large. In Canada since the 1970s the people who later organized The Socialist Project have had serious connections with the Canadian Auto Workers and some Ontario public-sector unions. But nowhere else does this Left have any evident history or pull now in any country’s labor movement, or otherwise broadly in its working classes.

Third, Lebowitz’s particular contribution to this idea-circulating, idea-consuming Left is his idea of how to make true socialism (regardless of revolution): one, two, many co-ops and communes. His latest is to promote “the dream of socialism,” that the working class “through its [co-operative and communal] struggles…transforms itself …. to create the new world.” Communists will remember that Marx did not waste time on dreams. He studied the class-ridden world as it actually was in front of him, to explain how it came to be, how it functioned, and how it tended to crack and break down, so that the proletariat, organized, armed, its fighting units coordinated, well led, and on the offensive, could wreck bourgeois resistance, take ruling power, “by force….sweep away” the old world’s orders, and in time build a new, classless order. Check Marx on the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France (1871), before you follow Lebowitz’s riff on Marx’s draft critique of a draft German Workers Party program (posthumously published, 1891). Lebowitz, for all his laudable politics, believes socialism will naturally emerge, from workers coaching each other in solidarity, much as “the human potential movement” issues (supposedly) in “self-actualization.” So too believe many of the good-hearted Leftists who read Lebowitz, for them a “must read.” But this socialism reads less like Marx than like Abraham Maslow. Next stop, Esalen on the Left.


Here is the main lesson for Communists: After all the Marx quotations, Lebowitz and his Left are about changing the world for the better by working-class mutualism. They do not do concrete economic, political, or social analyses of real capitalist self-destructive drives into crises, analyses useful for working-class action. They do not do real politics, mutinous working- class power, working-class force in resistance to capitalist force, to overpower capitalist force. They do not do strategy, tactics, war, revolution. They do cultural socialism, all for the good, but not much good when suddenly real push comes to real shove. Intellectual and eclectic as they are, they are generous with their advice in debates, but practically declare they will only debate the future when a crisis opens so deep that workers really can take capitalism down, “by force,” for it will not go down any other way, and secure working-class rule.

In May 1919, two months after the foundation of the Comintern, in the thick of the Russian Civil War, Lenin invited Kropotkin to the Kremlin. He much admired the old man, in particular for his classic history of the French Revolution, and wanted to meet him. Kropotkin happily came, told Lenin how glad the Bolsheviks were making him, but complained the soviets were too hard on cooperatives, which he preferred. Lenin objected, they were hard only on the co-ops hiding capitalist rackets. Kropotkin insisted, no, it was bureaucrats imposing their authority. Lenin agreed bureaucrats were bad, but argued it would take time to eradicate the rotten cultures in human skulls, and the new Russian Communist Party, even as “state power,” could not presto correct everything wrong. They argued about authority, Lenin for its necessity against the (very real) counterrevolution, Kropotkin against it, advocating co-ops, like two or three he knew of in England, another in Spain, French syndicalism. This, in the real circumstances then, the Comintern, the Civil War, amazed Lenin. He gave Kropotkin a little lecture about working-class unity, capitalism’s ravenous predatism on voluntary fellowships, the

critical need for “the masses” in “direct struggle.” He stopped, apologized for his Bolshevik excitement. Kropotkin assured him if the new ruling party did not direct the state toward oppression, he thought the revolution was “in good hands.” Lenin promised him publication of his book on the French Revolution in a big, new, popular edition, at a cooperative publisher. They said cordial good-byes. Walking to his next Commissars meeting, Lenin sadly grumbled to his secretary how out of it the dear old man with his co-ops was. “There you have the poverty of ideas of the anarchists and all other petty bourgeois reformers and theoreticians, who at a moment of massive creative activities, at the time of a revolution, are never able to come up with a good plan and with good practical advice…”[3]

Now, a century later, Lebowitz and his Left have no more than Kropotkin to offer Communists. Co-ops and communes, yes, good for many reasons. Coalitions with any kind of movement or party that will strengthen socialist struggles, yes, excellent. But going into a decisive crunch, do not count on allies who want everything right and as free as jazz before decisive action.



[1] The name was in fact originally (in German real existierender Sozialismus) “real existing socialism.” Rudolf Bahro, a DDR dissident in the 1970s, took it from DDR officials’ language to name the system he was criticizing, and the name spread widely through his major work’s translation into English, The Alternative in Eastern Europe (1978), 17-18.

[2] On real conducting: Christopher Seaman, Inside Conducting (University of Rochester, 2013).

[3] Vladimir D. Bonch-Bruevich, “Pamiati P.A. Kropotkina: Vstrecha V.I. Lenina s P.A. Kropotkinym,” Vospominaniia o V.I. Lenine, 1917-1924 gg. (Moskva: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1963), 3 vols., III, 399- 406, online in English from a Dutch translation, “A Meeting between V.I. Lenin and P.A. Kropotkin,”

Editors’  note: A shorter version of this article was originally published by the People’s World. It has been supplemented with additional material. The original can be read here.