Contested Reproduction and the Contradictions of Socialism

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin No. 877, by Michael A. Lebowitz, September 13, 2013 (see also on YouTube: Some Explanations About the Fall of Real Socialism, 54.41 min, uploaded by CPE CPE, June 17, 2013).

Why did ‘real socialism’ and, in particular the Soviet Union, fall? Let me note a few explanations that have been offered. With respect to the Soviet Union, one very interesting explanation that has been suggested is that it’s all the fault of Mikhail Gorbachev. And not simply the errors of Gorbachev but the treachery. Those who offer this explanation rely in particular upon a document which is sometimes described as his confession. This document begins as follows:  

My ambition was to liquidate communism, the dictatorship over all the people. Supporting me and urging me on in this mission was my wife, who was of this opinion long before I was. I knew that I could only do this if I was the leading functionary. In this my wife urged me to climb to the top post. While I actually became acquainted with the West, my mind was made up forever. I decided that I must destroy the whole apparatus of the CPSU and the USSR. Also, I must do this in all of the other socialist countries. My ideal is the path of social democracy. Only this system shall benefit all the people. This quest I decided I must fulfil.

Now, one of the most interesting things about this document is that it is virtually untraceable. It is said to come from an interview in Turkey but the actual source is unverifiable and, indeed, appears to have occurred with different interviewers … //

… Contested Reproduction in Real Socialism: … //

… The Logic of the Working-Class:

Was there no alternative to vanguard relations other than the restoration of capitalism? In the book, I identified a third logic – the logic of the working-class. That logic was repressed both in reality (insofar as only social organizations which functioned as transmission belts for the vanguard were allowed to exist) and ideologically (insofar as the distortion of Marxism which I have called Vanguard Marxism disarmed the working-class). However, in the behaviour and interactions of the working-class, there was a particular moral economy of the working-class – a sense of what was right and just. And, in that moral economy of the working-class of ‘real socialism,’ the seeds of a socialist alternative are implicit. In their orientation toward egalitarianism, we can see glimpses of one such characteristic – the focus upon the common ownership of the means of production (which implies the right to share equally as owners).

Similarly, from the individual workplace came a particular common sense – a sense of their own collective power as workers and latent support for workers’ control. Of course, no organized campaign for worker power was possible in normal circumstances under the conditions imposed by the vanguard. But, workers protected each other in the workplace. There was a broad consensus among workers and support for resistance to domination and exploitation from above, and the spontaneous eruption of workers’ councils at points of weakness in the system (eg., Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1980) allows us to infer the existence of an underlying consensus among workers in support of worker management.

In short, we can see two elements latent in the moral economy of the working-class in ‘real socialism’ – social ownership of the means of production and social production organized by workers, two sides of what I described in my book, The Socialist Alternative, as socialism as an organic system, two sides of what President Chavez called “the socialist triangle.” Together they imply the concept of “the cooperative society based on the common ownership of the means of production.” Yet, cooperation within a society involves more than cooperation within the sphere of production. It also encompasses cooperation with respect to the determination of the purpose of productive activity. Fully developed, such a society focuses directly upon social needs, that is, on production for communal needs and purposes – the third side of the socialist triangle. That side, too, is latent in the moral economy of the working-class within “Real Socialism.”

For that third side, the key concept is solidarity. In the solidarian society, people do not relate as owners, demanding a quid pro quo for parting with their property or their labour. Their starting point is not that of self-oriented owners, but rather the concept of a community. The germ of such relations was revealed within ‘real socialism’ when people helped one another without demanding an equivalent in return. In contrast to a relation in which alienated, mutually indifferent individuals exchange alienated things, there was a gift relation within networks among people who have a bond, people who have a past and hope to have a future, and its product is the enhancement of solidarity. The solidarian society is precisely a ‘gift economy’ – one in which those who give are rewarded not by the anticipation of what they may receive at some point in return but rather because not to give violates one’s own sense of virtue and honour.

In the moral economy of the working-class in ‘real socialism,’ thus, we can glimpse not only the orientation to social ownership of the means of production and social production organized by workers but also communal needs and purposes as the goal of productive activity – the three sides of the socialist triangle. Latent is the potential for a different type of society – a cooperative society in which people relate consciously as members of a community. It is the society of associated producers, a society based upon the recognition that the free development of each depends upon the free development of all.

No one, though, could ever confuse this impulse with the logic of the vanguard; nor, obviously, is it the logic of capital. This is the logic of the working-class, the logic of associated producers. It is a logic that places full human development at its core and insists that people develop through their activity – and thus one that places at its centre protagonism in the workplace and the community because it grasps the importance of ‘revolutionary practice’ – “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change.”

Contested Reproduction in Yugoslav Self-Management? … //

… Interaction of Differing Logics in Yugoslav Self-Management:

And that is what I propose to you – that you think about ways in which the differing logics of the vanguard, capital and the working-class interacted to generate dysfunctionality and to deform each other in practice. To approach this question adequately, I would need to do a serious study (which I keep promising myself and others that I will get around to doing). Let me suggest, though, some aspects of those interactions in no special order.

Consider, for example, the workers’ orientation toward common ownership of the means of production. The form that this took in Yugoslavia was to reject the inequality arising from differential access to particular means of production. Workers in less profitable firms expected their wages to rise much like those in the more profitable firms. The effect was to reduce significantly the liquidity of the weaker firms and to compel them to turn to the banks to secure funding not merely for expanded reproduction but even to meet the personal income requirements of workers. This was, of course, entirely contrary to the official perspective on “socialist commodity production” where personal incomes were to be the result of commodity sales not of bank loans. A similar effect upon the liquidity of firms was that, unlike capitalist firms, a slowdown in sales did not mean that members of the collective were laid off; rather, the concept of a workers collective meant that at such times firms continued to produce by producing for inventory. Adding to the effect of all this was the Vanguard’s position (as reflected in the arguments made by the representatives of the commune governments on banks) that enterprises should not be allowed to fail because that would generate unemployment, leaving commune governments to deal with that problem. In short, we see here the basis for both a soft budget constraint familiar in Hungary for the same reason and also the internal tendency to generate significant inflation as a result of bank lending.

The logic of the working-class (supported by the Vanguard) interfered in other ways with the ability of the managers to run the enterprises in a way which they considered efficient. Having to spend time in meetings of the workers councils was clearly viewed as a waste by the managers but it was one imposed as a constraint by the Vanguard. Similarly, the imposition of self managing agreements as the basis for a plan from below also was a factor which went counter to the ability of individual enterprises to function as they wished in the economy. Not surprisingly, the managers lost little time in breaking the self-management agreements when conditions changed which were contrary to the individual welfare of their own firms.

While the Vanguard constrained the logic of capital and supported elements such as those above consistent with the logic of the working-class (e.g., the development of a plan from below, workers councils, protection against enterprise bankruptcy), it at the same time thwarted the realisation of the logic of the working-class by its unbending insistence upon the supremacy of self-interest. Arguments suggesting that people should relate to each other in any way other than self-interest were attacked (for example by Kardelj) as ultra-leftism, voluntarism and anarchism – as were criticisms that the managers had become a new class with power over workers.

Rather than focussing upon building an alternative based upon solidarity and cooperation of people within a community, rather than building upon the basis of the moral economy of the working-class and looking to reinforce the logic of the working-class, the premise of the vanguard was that the way to encourage workers to cooperate or is to argue they will make more money this way. Although they used the term ‘solidarity,’ in practice it meant “Solidarity is built by workers recognising that by working together they will make more money and will succeed better.” There was both a theoretical and class basis for this position. Theoretically underlying that premise was the same position as that of the vanguard in ‘real socialism’ – the Vanguard Marxism that distorted Marx to argue the necessity of two separate stages with a first stage based upon a socialist principle of “to each according to his contribution.” And, in practice, underlying that premise was the logic of capital and the power of the commodity-producing enterprises whose agents of property were the managers.

Vanguard Marxism, I argue in the book, is a one-sided Marxism. It looks at workers only as workers. In other words, it doesn’t look at workers as human beings with other sides, as human beings within society. That is a point that Marx grasped clearly in his criticism of the formula of “to each according to his contribution” in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. It was a critique of the focus upon material interest – one understood by Che Guevara is his reflection that “the pipe dream that socialism can be achieved with the dull instruments left to us by capitalism; for example, the commodity as an economic cell, individual material interest as the lever, etc., can lead you into a blind alley; and you wind up there after having travelled a long distance with many crossroads and it’s hard to figure out just where you took the wrong turn.”

Yugoslav self-management did end up in a blind alley. The failure to build upon the logic of the working-class and the continued interaction of the differing logics produced an impasse in which the logic of capital was dominant but constrained, deformed and dysfunctional. In the end, though, that impasse was resolved by external force – IMF conditionality which enabled the supporters of capital to take the logical step in the 1988 law on enterprises to substitute for the legal constraint of decision-making by workers councils the power of stockholders.

As I indicated above, my purpose in this brief sketch of the Yugoslav experience was to encourage you to explore that history by seeing it as the result of a particular process of contested reproduction. But I confess that I hope that I conveyed another message as well – the point is not to interpret history differently. Rather, it is to make history.
(full long text).

(Michael A. Lebowitz is a professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. His lates book is
The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted


Michael Lebowitz: Contested Reproduction and the Contradictions of Socialism, 54.41 min,  uploaded by CPE CPE, June 17, 2013;

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, by Karl Marx 1852.

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