6.7 20th century "vanguard Marxism" and "real socialism"

In The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the conductor and the conducted, Michael Lebowitz (2012, Monthly Review Press) argues that "real socialism", by which he refers to the model of socialism exemplified by the former Soviet Union, failed precisely because the people were not engaged in the building of the new institutions, including engagement in democratic forms of production. This role of creating new institutions and making all the important decisions about how and for what purposes they would function was usurped by the new bureaucracy, which Lebowitz described as "Vanguard Marxism". Re-created in this top-down process was the alienation characteristic of the system they were trying to replace.

As a Canadian scholar studying the work of Marx, Lebowitz contends that the post World War II descendants of the early Russian revolutionaries failed to understand and practice the essence of Marx's new theory of human society. Lost in their reading of Marx was recognition of Marx's emphasis on the all-round development of human beings as the alternative to their alienation under capitalism. For this, people needed to be thoroughly engaged in the creation of the new society. It is through such engagement in creating something new, including participating in making all the important decisions, that we also develop. Human development takes place, and can only take place, by thoroughly democratic participation in the building of the new institutions we need.

Marx hoped to expose this reality through a careful examination and exposition of the nature of capitalism, in which the capitalists and their representatives appropriate for themselves the right to make all the decisions about production, distribution and how the profits earned are expended. Although Marx's work on Capital: A Critique of Political Economy remained incomplete, with only three of several planned volumes completed, the latter two by Frederick Engels, Lebowitz contends that Marx nevertheless succeeded in revealing how the profit motive at the heart of capitalism drives capitalists to put the growth of capital ahead of all other considerations, including people and nature.

Lebowitz further contends that fixated on Marx's elucidation of the working processes of capital, the nineteenth and twentieth century disciples of Marx unfortunately missed both his explicit as well as implicit insistence that the alternative to capitalism could only be found through the engagement of working people in the development of the institutions that gave priority to their own needs of free development.

"Vanguard Marxism" - as critiqued by Lebowitz - was not the path that Marx envisioned and argued for. If anything, it was closer to being its antithesis. Just as the alienation of working people from the products of their labor and thereby from nature and from each other is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism, an alternative to capitalism must include the thoroughly democratic engagement of people in creating their own, free institutions. Just as capitalism builds and rebuilds itself (expressed by Marx as the "reproduction of the relations of production") so must the people in the new system engage in the mutual process of institutional development and self-development.


This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New


Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them


Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement


Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.


William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class


George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP


Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018



1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism


1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems


2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

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Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.