Reviewed by Joseph Jamison

Michael A. Lebowitz has a worthy goal: to correctly diagnose the causes of the downfall of so many socialist states in the late 20th century and to make sure that, in this century, socialists do not make the same mistakes. Unfortunately, he does not reach that goal.

Lebowitz is the author of the book under review, The Socialist lmperative: from Gotha to Now (Monthly Review, 2015, NY, 264 pages)[1] His new book amplifies themes taken up in the 2012 The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the Conductor and the Conducted.[2]

Much of The Socialist Imperative is a penitential read. Lebowitz parses Marx’s texts, trying to tease  out of Marx’s metaphors and formulations in The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) and other classic texts, an interpretation that accords with the author’s views on the Venezuelan Revolution and more generally, the path to socialism in this century.

The author continually invokes Marx to justify interpretations having little in common with Marx’s actual positions. The book is weighed down with references and allusions to Marxism, phrases such as “as Marx said,” ; ” Marx was clear…”; “Marx embraces this concept….”; “in the words of the Communist Manifesto,…”; ” as Marx explained..,”; “recall that Marx comment…”

The quotationism has a pattern. It is as if capitalism and Marxism were frozen in time, as if mid-nineteenth century Marxism were the last word, as if the capitalist system had not evolved to become monopoly capitalism and imperialism. He has plenty of criticism of 20th century socialism, but he leaves out 20th century Marxism: Lenin and Leninism.

The author’s coinages take some getting used to: “solidarian,” “Real Socialism” (“RS”, by which he means 20th century socialism),” ” moral economy of working class,” “protagonistic,” “logic of capital,” “vanguard Marxism,””protagonistic democracy.” He eventually borrows explicitly anarchist terms: “statism,” “horizontalism.”

The Socialist Imperative is a collection of eleven essays, unlike The Contradictions of Real Socialism which dealt with one basic theme: the question of 20th century socialism.[3] The most important essay, reflected in the new book’s subtitle, explores Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. Offering a “heretical” interpretation, the author labors to find textual evidence of anarchist concepts in the Critique. Another essay restates Lebowitz’s analysis of 20th century socialism, adding something on market self-management in Yugoslavia.

In The Socialist Imperative Lebowitz repeats his earlier indictment of 20th century socialism in East Europe and the USSR, and adds critical observations on Vietnam and Cuba.[4] In the section “Struggling to Build Socialism Now” in Chapters Seven through Eleven he considers “the working class as a revolutionary subject, the concept of democracy in relation to building socialism, the moral economy of the working class, the state in socialism, and the struggle to end capitalism.” [5]

Merits of the Book
Before looking at its shortcomings, let’s credit The Socialist Imperative with several flashes of insight. Lebowitz states an important truth about social democracy. Social democracy blames neoliberalism, not the capitalist system, for the economic crash of 2008 and after. “From this perspective bad capitalists rather than capitalism itself are identified as the source of all evils. Indeed, a bad neoliberal capitalism is viewed as the enemy, which implies that all can be resolved by a “good” capitalism.” [6]

The author also acknowledges that the downfall of 20th century socialism stemmed from what occurred in its last decades, from the 1950s to the end. It was not doomed by nature or from its birth. Lebowitz is not wrong about the fact that,  in the three decades before 1985, the Soviet authorities, for example, paid scant attention to the relations of production. They turned a blind eye to the growth of a gigantic, cancerous second (private, illegal) economy. The second economy, however, is not the Lebowitz explanation for the downfall.

In Chapters One and Eleven Lebowitz is properly self-critical for not having clearly grasped the importance of the environmental crisis in the case for socialism. In truth, we all should acknowledge that the Monthly Review (MR) editors have done an excellent job of spearheading Marxist thinking about the climate crisis. The climate disaster adds another powerful argument for the necessity of socialism. By “the socialist imperative” Lebowitz means:

“This is the socialist imperative — end capitalism and build a society of associated producers oriented to the full development of human potential, and association that (in the words of the Communist Manifesto) understands that the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each. In this respect socialist imperative is not new. However the clash between capital’s tendency to expand without limits and the existence of the limits given by the natural world has now brought humanity to the point that where the need to act upon the socialist imperative is immediate.” [7]

The author maintains The Socialist Imperative has a unifying theme:
“There is a recurring theme: a focus on Marx’s key link of human development and practice, the importance of building capacity and strength of the working class through spaces and practices like workers councils and communal councils and what happens when you do not.”[8]

His social reformist strain persists: a perspective of incremental change, no qualitative break in the nature of class rule, and a denial that the state has a stable class character.[9]

Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program
Anarchism, like social reformism, is a petty bourgeois ideology hostile to scientific socialism. It reflects the class inconsistency and instability of the old and new middle strata of modern capitalist society. Its ideas reflect their class outlook, class interests, even class moods. In its pure form, anarchism’s basic idea is the rejection of all state power and the doctrine of the totally unlimited freedom of each individual person.

To accomplish his “posthumous anarchization” of Marx [10], the author must revise the standard interpretation of Marx’s position on the state and on the stages of the new socioeconomic formation, positions which Marx sketched in his comments on the Gotha Program. Lebowitz wishes to turn the Critique of the Gotha Program into a critique of 20th century socialism.

The author asserts 20th century socialism tried to build socialism on the defects of capitalism — the old capitalist relations of production — and it made little or no effort to change the relations of production. He mocks “two stagers,” claiming the idea that socialism has two stages — socialism and communism — is wrong, though it was  obviously evident in Marx and reiterated by Lenin. He declares that Lenin and the Bolsheviks put too much stress on the development of the productive forces in the early years of building socialism in which bourgeois notions of right still prevail. They put too little emphasis on relations of production, leaving the working class weak and unable to resist when the crisis came in 1989-91.[11]

Trying to Finding Anarchism in the Critique of the Gotha Program
The author turns to anarchism to augment his theory of 20th century socialism. Lebowitz finds attractive anarchism’s ignoring of the stages of socialist development, its denial of the class nature of the state, its insistence on building socialism immediately, and its accent on immediate transformations. Lebowitz’s anarchism becomes clear in his section “The Misuse of the Critique of the Gotha Program.” He wants to go after Lenin, especially Lenin’s influential theses on the nature of the state in State and Revolution (1917).

According to Lebowitz, a one-sided emphasis by Leninists on growing the productive forces – to the neglect of perfecting the relations of production from the start – can lead to fatal results. In “What is to be Done? “, part of his last chapter “End the System,” he spells it out.

“The classic formula for ending the rule of capital has been to begin by taking the state away from capital, that is, by ending capital’s ability to use the police, the judiciary, the army, the legislative bodies and its other oppressive mechanisms to enforce its rule. This was the position advanced by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto….

“However the twentieth century demonstrated that the political supremacy of the working class is not achieved simply by winning elections or seizing the state. The real battle for democracy, as argued in chapter 8, involves the creation of institutions that provide space where workers can develop their capacities by their protagonism… twentieth-century states characterized by social democracy and real socialism prevented the development of those capacities. Those states that maintained the weakness of the working class and ensured that others would rule, whether it was in the name of the working class or in the proclaimed interest of all the people.”[12]

He ignores the question of which class wields state power. He demands Build It Now! [“It” being socialism]. What, then, becomes of the state in Lebowitz’s theory? His answer is contradictory and murky.

“To end the capitalist nightmare and to build the socialist dream requires the state. But what kind of state? In chapter 10, I argue that the state that can promote the necessary development of human capacities required for a strong working class is one based on the communal councils and workers councils and the mechanisms that link them. Only the new state, the state from below, is an integral part of the socialist dream… until such time as the new state from below is able to stand upon its own foundations, the old state is required if power is to be taken from capital and if decisive actions to support the interests of the working class, including the removal of barriers to the new state are to occur who else can end immediately capitals ability to use the police, the judiciary, the army the legislative bodies.

“In the new society as it emerges both the new and the old state necessarily co-exist and interact. “Dual state socialism” in this transitional period should not be confused though with the concept of “dual power” which suggests the existence of two classes; on the contrary in dual state socialism only one class is represented and it is walking on two legs.”[13]

Two states? One, the new grassroots state, is rising? And the other, the old one, is disappearing? By what alchemy is that to come about?

Meanwhile, what about the bad old state, the state of the Venezuelan capitalists, still bent on maintaining exploitation and minority rule? In Venezuela, the bad old state is reflected in the fanatical hostility of the privately owned media to Chavez and now Maduro, the guarimbas [violent illegal street clashes, riots with rock-throwing], and the multiple coup attempts, with an eager ally in a US imperialism experienced in strangling revolutionary movements in Latin America.

The Venezuelan Communists say that the bad old Venezuelan state is still around:

“One of the most serious problems faced by the revolutionary forces is the bourgeois state that has not been dismantled and that permanently hampers this. Concerning the present State, our ideological workshop analyzed that “the leadership of the state is in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie, and this alone, as demonstrated historically, is not interested in developing the tasks of the transition period.” [14]

Lebowitz and 20th Century Socialism
Most social democratic writers, when they discuss the matter at all, either repeat or leave implicit the dominant theory of bourgeois writers on the downfall of 20th century socialism: it stemmed from overcentralization and lack of democracy. Lebowitz does more; he is adding substantive content to his theory of the 20th century socialist downfall and a 21st century socialist resurrection. He offers a simple model of class conflict in 20th century socialism, a model shaped by anarchism.

The Soviet workers didn’t do enough to defend socialism. Why? Socialism, as set up by Communist Parties, left workers passive and defenseless. Vanguard Marxism [read Communist Parties] left them weak. They were ill prepared to defend socialism when the crunch came in 1989-91.

“Precisely because workers did not develop the capacity to rule in the workplace and in society, sooner or later capital openly assumed the drivers seat…. In contrast to a verticalism that they identify as power over people, many now insist on a horizontalism… horizontalism requires the use of direct democracy and consensus it is non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian… such horizontal social relationships certainly are not unique to new autonomous movements. Among the places it can be found are the communal councils of Venezuela, in workers councils, the assemblies of recovered workplaces, cooperatives and in traditional communities. “

Unfortunately, he caricatures the various types of explanations of the downfall of 20th century socialism.[15] In his own simple explanatory model which he calls “Contested Reproduction” there are three social groups: first “the vanguard,” which does the planning; second, the workers; and third, the managers.

Lebowitz locates the material basis of the ideas that undermined socialism in the managerial class. A fuller summary of his model is given in a review of The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the Conductor and the Conducted.[16]

As to why the working class resistance was not sufficient to prevent the return to capitalism and the erosion of the job security and material benefits that workers enjoyed, Lebowitz blames “Vanguard Marxism.” He argues that the socialism that developed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was not the socialism envisioned by Marx but a deformed, top-down socialism.

His argument is carried out at such a level of generality and abstraction by juggling arbitrarily chosen Marxist texts, that it is easy to lose sight of how little the argument corresponds to the messy facts of 20th century history. Why was an imperfect Soviet socialism, for example, replaced by gangster capitalism after 1991? He does not make theoretical generalizations from historical evidence. Instead, he deduces the downfall of 20th century socialism by the alleged characteristics of these three postulated groups, along the way equating managers – a social function that must occur in all societies — with capitalists. His mysterious “logic of capital” prevailed.

Did 20th century socialism pay little attention to the relations of production? What about collectivization, an immense effort to raise private peasant farming to more efficient and socialist forms, namely collective farms and state farms, in other words, to change the relations of production in agriculture? What about Soviet industrialization itself, which created a giant Soviet working class, mostly out of the former peasantry? Wasn’t that a change in the relations of production?

Lebowitz and Bolivarian Venezuela

Lebowitz is enthusiastic about the Bolivarian Revolution. The author dedicates his book to Hugo Chavez.  “In memory of Hugo Chavez-Frias who understood that it is necessary to reinvent socialism and struggled to do so. We look in the same direction.” To this reviewer, this dedication seemed a somewhat immodest claim of equal status with the great Venezuelan revolutionary.

Lebowitz reminds us again and again that he gave advice, for a time, to  Hugo Chavez.  A theorist, Lebowitz wants to have practical influence on the Venezuelan Revolution. He and his partner Marta Harnecker were involved in setting up the Centro Internacional Miranda, a Caracas think tank.[17] Its training program aims:

“…to help to give cadres the critical ability to handle such things as the basic concepts of economics, politics, sociology, education, history and law; to give them a thorough understanding of the Bolivarian Revolutionary process, the tools for top level public administration in a society heading towards socialism; knowledge about the way socialism developed in the twentieth century and the perspective for twenty first century socialism; the ability to design, implement and evaluate public policies.”

Is anyone heeding Lebowitz’s advice in Venezuela? The Venezuelan Communists note that Hugo Chavez took advice from all quarters: “We welcome that, on the roots of class struggle, President Hugo Chávez and the PSUV [Chavez’s party] are heading ever more decisively in favor of scientific socialism.” [18]

Lebowitz knows he is borrowing from anarchism. Is he aware that his resort to anarchist ideas has a precedent? In the aftermath of the 1989-91 disasters for socialism in Europe, some anarchist writers concuded their viewpoint had been validated. Anarchists did the same thing after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, another huge catastrophe for the European working class movement. Lenin noted it in State and Revolution: “The anarchists had tried to claim the Paris Commune as their own, so to say, as a corroboration of their doctrine, and they completely misunderstood its lessons and Marx’s analysis of the lessons.” [19]

After the Commune, Michael Bakunin argued that:
“But since I stand for liberty as the primary condition of mankind, I believe that equality must be established in the world by the spontaneous organization of labor and the collective ownership of property by freely organized producers’ associations, and by the equally spontaneous federation of communes, to replace the domineering paternalistic State. “[20]

How similar this is to Lebowitz.

Lebowitz’s theories are an amalgam of social reformism, anarchism, as well as his “human development” ideal – a subjective, abstract, and classless notion seemingly plucked out of thin air. Human development, he asserts repeatedly with little convincing evidence, is Marx’s “key link.”[21]

Theories have consequences. Doctrines that advise revolutionary leaders to ignore the question of state power — and somehow Build It Now! — can damage a government under mounting attack from homegrown reaction and US imperialism.

In all revolutions at some point the need arises to change decisively the class character of the state to ensure the survival of the revolution. To win control of the executive branch of a government in an election is not the same as winning state power.

Aside from a couple of ideas, the book under review is not a helpful contribution to the understanding of what went wrong in 20th century socialism. Its willful misreading of Marx leads to political advice potentially ruinous for revolutionary socialists. Latin American leaders need to find more realistic advice than they can find in the pages of The Socialist Imperative.

[1] A professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, Michael Lebowitz is author of several other books on Marx and socialism, including Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (MR, 2006) and The Socialist Alternative (MR, 2010)
[2] Roger Keeran and Joseph Jamison, review of The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted at
[3] Keeran and Jamison, op. cit.
[4] The Socialist Imperative, 151.
[5] Ibid. 8-9.
[6] Ibid.
[7]Ibid., 8.
[8] Ibid., 9.
[9] [The state] “develops as a process.” Ibid., 217
[10] In David Laibman’s memorable phrase, it is the ” posthumous anarchization” of Marx.
[11] In this book Lebowitz posits a Third Way between social democracy and communism. In fact he thinks he has transcended social democracy and communism. He criticizes both. “Twentieth century states characterized by social democracy and real socialism …maintained the weakness of the working class and ensured that others would rule, whether it was in the name of the working class or in the proclaimed interest of all the people. Precisely because workers did nor develop the capacity to rule in the workplace or society, sooner or later capital openly assumed the drivers seat.” Socialist Imperative, 213. But his enmity is aimed mainly at communism. He replicates anti-Communism’s list of the alleged crimes of 20th century socialism, seeing them “potentially” implicit in the standard interpretation of The Critique of the Gotha Program: “Here then is a potential theoretical basis for justification in practice of anything that may be deemed to increase productive forces, be it gulags, state repression of workers organization, insistence upon a centralized state over and above society or all of the above.” Ibid., 73
[12] Ibid., 213-214
[13] Ibid., 217-218.
[14] “The PCV and the Construction of Socialism in Venezuela,” International Communist Review, July 16, 2014.
[15] Ibid. , 90-91.
[16] Keeran and Jamison, op. cit.
17] Luis Bonilla-Molina, President of the Centro Internacional Miranda, a foundation created by Decreto Nº 3.818. Presumably this implies state funding.
[18] “The PCV and the Construction of Socialism in Venezuela,” International Communist Review, July 1, 2014
[19] Lenin, Against Right-wing and Left-wing Opportunism, against Trotskyism (Moscow, Progress 1975), 297.
[20] Mikhail Bakunin, 1871, “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State,” Bakunin on Anarchy, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, 1971.
[21] “Focus on the key link of human development and practice distinguishes the concept of socialism for the 21st century from the theory and experience of 20th century attempts at building socialism.” The Socialist Imperative, 153.