Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 6, 2011

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Alternative”

Filed under: socialism,swans,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

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.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/lproy70.html


  1. I am glad to have discovered your blog, Mr. Proyect.

    What is socialism? I describe myself as a socialist because I believe that society ought to be organized for its own good, not for the benefit of private wealth or individual pleasure. As I’m sure you know, we must live according to the workaday logic of an economic system which exploits those dependent on it. But do you share my opinion that individualism, embedded in constitutional law, is a guarantee of behaviour that is imperialist and capitalist?

    According to the codes of Western democracies, an individual is empowered to suit himself in life despite the effects of his behaviour on some others or all of society. In the United States, persons and corporations must be free to do as they please. As a result, government is powerless to control overpopulation and environmental degradation around the world.

    Historically, freedom from tyranny was enshrined after revolution as freedom period; now it has become freedom run amuck.

    Comment by Michael Stepkoff — June 6, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

  2. I served as editor of the book reviewed here. No review can cover everything. So let me encourage readers to get the book, to see the full development of Lebowitz’s arguments. Here is an excerpt from a review in Green Left Weekly that gets to some important aspects of Lebowitz’s arguments:

    So the struggle for a socialist transformation must unfold on two fronts: within the state that owns the means of production, and in the workplaces.

    But the struggle also unfolds within the context of an emerging new society that is, said Marx, “economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old [capitalist] society from whose womb it emerges”.

    For the struggle to succeed, it is vital to fight consciously against the “defects” inherited from the old society and subordinate — rather than try to use — these defects to one’s ends.

    Lebowitz is opposed to a vision of socialism that suggests it must pass through distinct stages, where priority is first given to developing the productive forces to create a world of abundance, and says this was not Marx’s view.

    Chapter six, “Making a path to socialism”, offers a kind of transitional program for socialism in the 21st century.

    Lebowitz’s starting point is that the transition towards socialism must move forward simultaneously on all three fronts of the socialist triangle.

    He says every concrete measure must serve to change circumstances while helping to produce revolutionary subjects and raise their capacities.

    “Only in a revolution”, wrote Marx and Engels, can the working class “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.

    Threats to this revolutionary process are always present from counter-revolutionary capitalist elements, the tendency of bureaucrats to “seize production” for themselves and the tendency to rely on the market to resolve problems.

    To combat this, a “socialist mode of regulation” is essential to allow socialism to subordinate all elements of society to itself, and create the organs it still lacks.

    This encompasses an ideological struggle against capitalism and for socialism (“The Battle of Ideas”); the creation of worker and community councils where people can organise to change their circumstances and themselves at the same time; and “a state that supports this struggle ideologically, economically, and militarily and thus serves as the midwife for the birth of the new society”.

    At this point, Lebowitz asks a central question: “What do we mean by the state?

    “We have to talk about two states here — one, the state that workers captured at the outset and that initiates despotic inroads upon capital, that is, the old state; and, second, the emerging new state based upon workers councils and neighbourhood councils as its cells.

    “The two must coexist and interact throughout this process of becoming.

    “The inherent tension between these two states — between the top-down orientation from within the old state and the bottom-up emphasis of the workers and community councils — is obvious.”

    “Yet”, Lebowitz argues adamantly, “that tension is not the principle contradiction”.

    Given the presence of revolutionaries in the old state, it would be an error to act as if it was the same as the capitalist state.

    Similarly, it would be a mistake to ignore the vices of the old society present in the embryonic forms of the new state.

    The struggle against bureaucrats seeking to defend their privileges or ideological inertia will unfold within both states.

    At the same time, Lebowitz says, “interaction between the two states is essential”.

    The old state has the advantage of being able to see the picture as a whole and concentrate forces, but it also has a tendency to act from above and prioritise expediency over revolutionary practice.

    The new organs can identify “the needs and capacities of people and can mobilise people to link those needs and capacities directly”.

    But there is also a tendency towards localism and the new emerging state “is not capable at the outset of making essential decisions that require concentration and coordination of forces”.

    Critical to all this is a political instrument — or political party — that can provide leadership. This is needed because a society marked by the vices of the old cannot produce a process where all workers become socialists at the same time.

    But a new kind of leadership that “fosters revolutionary practice only by continuously learning from below. There is, in short, a process of interaction, a dialectic between the political instrument and popular movements.

    “By itself, the former becomes a process of command from above; by itself, the latter cannot develop a concept of the whole — that is, it cannot transcend localism.”

    The Socialist Alternative is an inspiring and insightful contribution to the discussion of rebuilding the socialist project in light of past failures and the current challenges facing anti-capitalist activists everywhere.

    No doubt here in Australia, in the context of the resources boom and the growing environmental crisis, the ideas raised in the book regarding social ownership and the need to struggle for transparency – “open the books” – will provide much food for thought for ecosocialists in the battles that lie ahead of us.

    Comment by michael yates — June 6, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

  3. OTOH

    “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.”

    Perhaps this is a summary paraphrase of Bukharin’s view, but OTOH

    “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.”

    Clearly these are incompatible views, and that might have been the intent of the paragraph quoted, but that is not at all clear. But is clear that for “the key insight of 21st Century Socialism” to be true, the proletariat must resemble, or somehow occupy a historical-material position analogous to the bourgeoisie. But the evidence is that the proletariat has already had an extended economic and social experience in the modern class struggle, even an experience in a “process of economic and social empowerment” from the 1880’s onward, and especially in the postwar until the 1980’s, only to arrive at the point of a surrender of position after position since then, while also arriving at a representation where “communism” equals Kim Sung Il – certainly a good reason for imperialism, together with the capitalist-roading PRC, to keep that regime around.

    Therefore one suspects that the view of the proletariat in the first case is correct. Further, the proletariat succeeds the bourgeoisie in history, and after the scientific revolution in thought, so that we not only do not need to wander through the theological fog and wilderness of something such as Protestantism yet again, we can in fact learn first and foremost, from the historical experience of the bourgeoisie itself, that there is little objective “reason” for taking so long, given that the real material basis for socialism *already* exists without a doubt – indeed they cry out every day now for their realization. Now.

    Therefore I think that the inevitable gap between the subjective condition of the proletariat and the demands of the objective situation is – “remains” – the real problem to tackle. The rest is basically tactical – and tactics, hence the bitter disputes around the Arab Spring, do matter very much. But Marx and Engels were right to assert that failing to bridge that gap will lead to the annihilation of the proletariat together with capitalism; it cannot arise like the bourgeoisie out of the detritus and decay of the old order. This is only to recognize that the proletariat’s’ historic tasks are an order of magnitude greater than that of the bourgeoisie in its day, and now appear to include rescuing the human race from its own self-annihilation – that said without the intent of the least alarmist hyperbole, and certainly not in the spirit of “Trotskyist” hysterics of the interwar period, pinned as they understandably were between fascism and Stalinism, as we actually have more time than *that* – but as a simple logical conclusion calmly arrived at.

    We may not have the bourgeois luxury of taking our time.

    Comment by Matt — June 6, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

  4. I’m beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t just let capitalism destroy itself, before attempting to put anything else in place.

    Comment by Cecilieaux Bois de Murier — June 7, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  5. Cecilieaux wrote:

    “I’m beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t just let capitalism destroy itself,”

    Um, that would also “destroy” us with it. As in “destroying the village in order to save it”.

    Are you seriously willing to throw millions of people out of work, most of whom wouldn’t be aware of why it was happening, for the sake of a political point?

    (Not to mention that it’s not by “our” leave that capitalism will do much of anything, much less destroy itself.)

    Read more Marx, please.

    (That goes for Michael S. above, too.)

    Comment by Todd — June 7, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  6. Important as the struggles in Venezuela have been, nothing is gained by romanticizing them or engaging in wishful thinking about what they have accomplished. Capitalism is an international system, and Venezuela remains a capitalist society fully integrated into that system. There may be some worker co-ops, and no doubt that is a good thing in a modest way, but co-operatives within capitalism are at bottom just a means by which workers are impelled to manage their own exploitation. They still operate within capitalism, and if they raise their wages, or reduce their working hours, beyond the level dictated by the reigning capitalist market, they are put out of business by their traditionally capitalist competitors. That can only change when capital itself, and thereby the rule of capital, is abolished, internationally.

    As for Chavez himself, he is another variant of the ‘Bonapartist’ autocrat dismissed by Marx and Engels in their writings about Louis Bonaparte, the French President who later made himself Emperor, and who sought to nationalize French capital under state control. Marx and Engels were not impressed by his claims to be a ‘socialist’.
    Those who argue that aside from his unfortunate foreign policy lapses, Chavez is a great guy striving to bring about a socialist democracy, might ask themselves what kind of socialist democracy is envisioned by an authoritarian leader who likes to hang out with dictators and thugs.

    Comment by Ulli Diemer — June 10, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

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