Swans Commentary » swans.com June 6, 2011  



Michael Lebowitz's The Socialist Alternative


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Lebowitz, Michael A.: The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Monthly Review Press, New York, ISBN 978-1-58367-214-3, paperback, 191 pages.


(Swans - June 6, 2011)   Despite his identification with the Venezuelan revolutionary process, Michael Lebowitz differs from "20th Century Socialists" who hitched their wagon to an "actually existing" system. For obvious reasons, Soviet, Maoist, and even Cuban socialism has too often tended to foster the rigid pursuit of a certain kind of model, either economically or organizationally. There was an unfortunate but understandable need to elevate Soviet-style planning or "Bolshevik" party-building methods (even if they were never actually pursued by Lenin) into some kind of catechism for the Marxist faithful to follow.

Obviously, none of this applies to Venezuela -- a country that is still capitalist by strict definitions. Marxist theory is challenged to describe the ever-shifting reality of a society permeated by working-class power and institutions that represent profound challenges to the existing system. Co-ops, for example, are a principal medium for economic development outside the profit system. If one has no patience for explaining contradictions, then one might be advised to avoid Venezuela.

This mixture of capitalist and socialist institutions in conflict with each other over an historical epoch should remind us of how capitalism developed out of feudalism. While Lenin and Castro moved rapidly to abolish the capitalist mode of production soon after taking power, the bourgeois revolution was in many ways the climax of an economic transformation lasting centuries. Bukharin pointed out that the bourgeoisie was not an exploited class and therefore was able to rule society long before its political revolution was completed. If Oliver Cromwell had been forced to transform a totally feudal economy overnight into one that was capitalist, then he too would have been driven to despair like so many socialist leaders.

Historically, workers are in a completely different position than the bourgeoisie. They lack an independent economic base and suffer economic and cultural exploitation. Prior to its revolution, the working class remains backward and therefore, unlike the bourgeoisie, is unable to be prepared in advance for ruling all of society. Bukharin argued that it was only through the seizure of power and rule through a vanguard party that the workers could build socialism. Perhaps the key insight of 21st Century Socialism is that the workers as a class that is bidding to rule society have to go through an extended process of economic and social empowerment. Given the near hegemony of world capitalism, that is almost a necessity. That certainly appears to jibe with the general approach of Michael Lebowitz's The Socialist Alternative, at least in my view.

Although The Socialist Alternative is very much about conceiving how a future socialist system might function, it wisely avoids the neo-utopian parecon of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. As Marx said in an 1873 afterword to volume one of Capital, he was not interested in writing recipes for the cookbooks of the future. Given the catastrophic tendencies of global capitalism, however, a socialist alternative is clearly on the agenda.

For Lebowitz, the goal is what he has dubbed the "socialist triangle," consisting of:

1. Social ownership of the means of production. It is, of course, not the same thing as state ownership since that has led to a kind of class differentiation exploited by bureaucrats in the Soviet model.

2. Social production organized by workers. This is an attempt to eradicate the distinction between intellectual and manual labor in the plants and offices of the capitalist system, a social relationship that tends to breed apathy and resentment.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs. This breaks with the paradigm of the individualist consumer and stresses the need for a collective definition of social needs. Without democracy, of course, this would be impossible.

In breaking with Leninist orthodoxy, Lebowitz rejects the distinction between socialism and communism. Lenin conceived of socialism as the first stage of communism, but Lebowitz finds no support for this in Marx. He also makes what I think is an essential point:

The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers -- "an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force." But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system -- in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.

While I think that this point is unassailable, I do wonder if there is some use to thinking in terms of a difference between two stages of development, whether or not we use the term communism. For obvious reasons, a breach with capitalism has occurred in severely underdeveloped countries that remain under the grip of capital even if the commanding heights of the economy have come under social ownership. Cuba's participation in the tourist trade is the most obvious example of this paradox. When challenged to define the USSR, Trotsky replied in The Revolution Betrayed that it was "a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism." That description will probably be relevant to any revolution we are likely to see in our lifetime, especially in a country like Venezuela.

If The Socialist Alternative refrains -- correctly -- from offering up recipes for a future socialist society, it does do something far more important, namely stressing the kind of human relationships that are essential to a society that seeks to transcend capitalism. Key to this, of course, is creating the economic foundations for full human development. Lebowitz writes:

What happens, in contrast, when we do relate to each other as human beings? If our relationship is that of being part of the human family, then if you have a need I would want to help. When we relate as owners, however, your need does not induce me to help you as another human being. On the contrary, your need gives me power over you. Your needs make you dependent upon me: "Far from being the means which would give you power over my production, they are instead the means for giving me power over you." At the same time, my needs give you power over me. We struggle against each other because we are, in fact, separate self-seekers. And, in this social relation of commodity producers, we don't look upon our productive activity as an expression of ourselves and as a joy. To secure what I need, I must produce for you. Accordingly, my activity is forced. It is a "torment," toil and trouble, "a forced activity and one imposed on me only through an external fortuitous need, not through an inner, essential one."

At the most basic level, socialism is not just about fulfilling the basic needs of society, such as food, shelter, and medical care, although these are the bedrock of the system. It is also about people enjoying the kind of freedom that is simply beyond the capability of the capitalist system to deliver. Under capitalism, freedom is largely understood in terms of the marketplace. You are "free" to buy a Toyota rather than a Buick, for example. But there is no freedom in the sense of being liberated from the constraints of an irrational system that treats the individual as a cog in the machine. The Socialist Alternative has the great merit of reminding us that socialism is more than caloric intake. We need both bread and roses, or as Emma Goldman put it, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

It should be obvious that whether or not Hugo Chávez has succeeded in transforming Venezuela into a socialist society, he has done much to reinvigorate socialist thought, evidence of which exists in Michael Lebowitz's writings and in those of his partner Marta Harnecker. In the introduction to The Socialist Alternative, Lebowitz refers to the speech that Chávez delivered to the closing session of the 2005 Porto Alegre World Social Forum. This was the first instance of Chávez referring to 21st century socialism.

Agreeing with Chávez that "it can't be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union," Lebowitz characterizes it as one resting on the need "to be able to develop through democratic, participatory, and protagonistic activity in every aspect of our lives."

In an article titled 21st Century Socialism that appeared in the July/August 2010 Monthly Review, Harnecker is emphatic about the need for democracy:

Chávez has stressed the fundamentally democratic nature of twenty-first century socialism. He warns that "we must not slip into the errors of the past," into the "Stalinist deviation," which bureaucratized the party and ended up eliminating people's protagonism.

The practical and negative experience of real socialism in the political sphere cannot make us forget that, according to classic Marxist tenets, post-capitalist society always has been associated with full democracy. Marx and some of his followers called it communism, others have called it socialism, and I agree with García Linera that it doesn't really matter what term we use. What does matter is the content.

While I heartily concur with these sentiments, I must confess that I wonder whether Hugo Chávez and Monthly Review, the publishers of The Socialist Alternative, now do.

As has become abundantly clear, these highly respected and visible socialist voices have adopted anti-democratic stances with respect to the unfolding Arab revolution. Despite the obvious affinity that the Syrian mass movement has with those in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, Monthly Review and Hugo Chávez have backed Bashar al-Assad as the last hope against a fifth column created by imperialism. Furthermore, long before the anti-Qaddafi revolt became entwined with NATO intervention, there was evidence that both Monthly Review and Hugo Chávez preferred Qaddafi.

There is only one way to understand this development. It is symptomatic of the persistence of "20th century socialist" thinking in venues that proclaim their allegiance to 21st century socialism. Inasmuch as Hugo Chávez shares many of the views of the Cuban leadership on world politics, it is not surprising that he would align himself with figures who have traditionally been associated with the "anti-imperialist" movement of Cold War vintage. The young Qaddafi was a natural ally of the Cuban revolution and the al-Assad dynasty had the appearance of being on the front lines against Zionism. Looking past surface appearances, however, would lead to different conclusions. In a characteristically erratic manner, Qaddafi expelled all the Palestinians from Libya in 1995 on the basis that allowing them to remain there would undermine the "right of return."

Meanwhile, the current dictator of Syria's father was an implacable foe of the PLO, seeing it as an independent voice of the Palestinians that he could not control. In 1976, Hafez al-Assad grew incensed when the Palestinians fought against the Christian militias in Lebanon, the very militias that would massacre women and children 6 years later in Sabra and Shatila. Eventually al-Fatah was expelled from Syria in the same fashion as their brothers and sisters were thrown out of Libya. In light of this, it is unfathomable why the al-Assad dynasty would be considered "anti-imperialist."

The tendency to divide the world between "imperialism" and "anti-imperialism" is correct, just as long as it is not at the expense of popular movements seeking democratic change.

In 1968, Fidel Castro supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia even though his speech on behalf of the Soviets contained blistering attacks on a bureaucratic system that had allowed such a state of affairs to develop. It was not one of his better efforts.

The Cold War encouraged this kind of thinking, even among non-Stalinist circles. There was an automatic tendency to back any repressive regime as long as it was opposed by Washington. One would think that in obeying the imperative to build a movement that was in accord with the principles of 21st century socialism, this throwback to an earlier epoch would have gone by the wayside. Whether or not Monthly Review and Hugo Chávez insist on clinging to obsolete and harmful ways of seeing the world, we must do everything in our power to build a world movement that understands that without democracy, there cannot be socialism and that without socialism, there cannot be democracy.


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Published June 6, 2011