Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006)
The collapse of the Soviet system and the consolidation of the world capitalist order has led many socialists to reject Marxism and all “grand theories” as ways to understand the creation of the modern world and to grasp the possibilities for its radical transformation. Lebowitz’s concise and clearly written book resolutely bucks that trend. Indeed, the author argues that the left needs a grand theory more than ever to understand the past and create a socialist future. Firmly opposed to vanguardist, populist, and totalitarian models, he believes that Marx’s fundamental analysis basically had it right: Capitalism, in its essence, debilitates people by preventing them from relating to one another as human beings. The goal of socialism, then, is “to organize society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.”
Such a condition, the author reminds us, “will not drop from the sky.” It has to be created through struggle. Lebowitz, an economist from Canada now living in Venezuela, examines the various arenas (political, social, economic, and ideological) in which this struggles unfolds. Drawing on his experience in Yugoslavia as well as Venezuela, he sets out in brief, succinct chapters to reclaim Marx’s vision and to examine concrete possibilities for building socialism now.
Lebowitz begins by analyzing the needs of capital as opposed to the needs of human beings. He outlines Marx’s analysis of capitalist relations of production and illustrates how, in drawing on Hegel’s dialectical method, Marx was able to demystify the process of exploitation that lies at the heart of capitalism. He shows that Marx eschewed a teleological belief in capitalism’s inevitable collapse and saw revolutionary action as the only way to get rid of the system. Marx recognized the ways in which the process of exploitation stimulated workers’ resistance, understood quite well how capital used immigrant labor, racism, and other means to undermine workers’ unity, and acknowledged the importance of struggling for reforms in building a movement and improving conditions. Lebowitz’s most important point, however, is that Marx analyzed how the system works as a whole and showed that, in order to get beyond it, the system had to be transformed as a whole.
In chapters two and three Lebowitz further illustrates how Marx’s analysis is perhaps even more applicable to today’s world than it was to his own. He shows how neo-classical economics, resting on unfounded assumptions regarding the behavior of “economic man” and on faith in the market to create the best of all possible worlds, is more suited to preserving the status quo than to solving society’s problems. The Keynesian “alternative” also sought to preserve, not to overthrow, the system. It aimed to stimulate consumption as a means of promoting capital accumulation, but its fundamental goal was securing the needs of capital. When the capitalist class decided that Keynesianism no longer served its interests, it was discarded. Keynesianism’s fall from grace left social democracy in a long-term crisis, unable to construct a credible alternative to the neoliberal policies of the right.
Lebowitz argues that the way out of this dead-end is to put meeting human needs through endogenous development at the top of the agenda. Instead of serving the demands of the international marketplace, government policy must focus on meeting needs of the poor majority. When carried out within a national context, such a strategy will encounter sharp opposition from the imperialist powers and from non-governmental institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. Therefore, it must go beyond the mere import-substitution policies that failed in the past to break ideologically and politically with dependence on capital. The new policy would constitute a truly revolutionary effort to transform the system.
Carrying out a radical alternative project calls for creating a new kind of self-knowledge and for developing people’s self-awareness as interdependent beings, guided by solidarity rather than individualism. Instead of competing against one another, people could share social knowledge as a way of benefiting the community. A process of creating this new outlook, the author claims, is now underway in Venezuela. It is embodied in the goals of that country’s 1999 constitution, which aims to ensure “overall human development” and the “free development of the creative potential of every human being and full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society.”
Embedding such goals in the constitution is only the beginning. For the process to go forward, it must be inclusive and participatory. It must involve self-management, co-management, cooperatives of many types, democratic planning, and more. It is efforts such as these that most powerfully challenge neoliberalism.
In viewing this process in the Venezuelan context, Lebowitz is keenly aware of its many possible pitfalls. An expert on the Yugoslav system of self-management, he witnessed first-hand the gap between theory and practice that undermined that promising experiment, and he presents a series of challenges that Venezuelans will have to address. How, for example, do we break down the division within enterprises between those who think and those who do? What should be done in a worker-managed enterprise when sales fall? What responsibility do workers in a self-managed enterprise have for the unemployed and excluded? Should a worker-managed enterprise be allowed to fail?
Whatever the specific responses to these practical problems might be, Lebowitz argues that an essential element of any socialist solution must be the building of worker-solidarity beyond the confines of particular enterprises. This solidarity, he asserts, was lacking in Yugoslavia’s system of self-management, but things might turn out differently in Venezuela. Guided by an egalitarian constitution that attempts to link, via democratic planning, the needs of communities to the capabilities of self-managing producers, Venezuela’s socialist project has the potential to overcome the difficulties that weakened the Yugoslav effort.
In his concluding chapter, Lebowitz traces the progress of the Venezuelan revolution over the past two decades. He notes that Hugo Chávez’s government initially undertook a range of reforms that broke with neoliberalism but not with capitalism. Chávez aimed to diversify the economy and to use the state to redirect resources to the poor, but there was little emphasis on building an alternative from below via cooperatives, self-management, or popular participation. Only as the struggle within Venezuela for control of the state intensified, culminating in the failed U.S.-backed coup and a massive capital strike in 2002, did Chávez move toward a program of endogenous development. His ability to fend off the coup depended on the army, but it was the workers who defeated the capital strike. The new strategy would rest increasingly on this support from below.
Lebowitz’s analysis of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” is hopeful but sober. He recognizes that there are no models to copy, that policy must remain pragmatic and flexible, and that the government faces many internal and external opponents. Venezuela’s enormous oil wealth has been misused for decades and there are many fundamental social and economic deficits that will require time to overcome. As the government moves to expand those sectors of the economy oriented around the production of use-values, cooperation, and self-management, one can expect that internal conflicts and external pressures will intensify.
Not long ago, in the wake of Communism’s fall and neoliberalism’s apparent triumph, transformations such as those taking place in Venezuela were virtually unimaginable. Now there is much discussion of Venezuela serving as a model for other states in the region, and Chávez has been active in sending economic assistance to neighboring countries and working to reorient trade priorities in the region. It remains unclear, however, if Venezuela’s experience will have much impact outside of Latin America or among nations not rich in oil or comparable natural resources.
In their recent contribution to these pages (November 2007), Roger Burbach and Camila Piñero essentially confirm many of Lebowitz’s key arguments. They note that “The focus on human development as a process and participatory democracy as a means is a central component of ‘Bolivarian’ socialism,” and they stress that decentralized decision-making (in the workplace and via communal councils and other local bodies), the democratic reform of the Venezuelan state, and the construction of a unified and democratic revolutionary party are essential to the revolution’s long-term success.1 Their analysis, like Lebowitz’s, completely upends the mainstream media’s criticisms of Venezuela’s socialist project which, as in the case of the recently failed referendum to reform the 1999 constitution, focus almost entirely on the person of Chávez and his supposed efforts to consolidate control over the presidency and to expand its powers. That is why Build it Now is such a timely work. Sophisticated yet accessible, it can be a very effective tool in the left’s effort to educate people about what is going on in Venezuela and about the potential for radical change elsewhere.
Reviewed by William Smaldone
Department of History
1. The term “Bolivarian” is not always useful for describing the goals of Venezuela’s revolution. Simón Bolívar emphasized Latin American unity, but he also advocated the creation of a highly centralized political order that concentrated sweeping power in the hands of the executive. Decentralized institutions of popular power were not a part of his vision. For Bolívar’s views on the role of the executive see E. Bradford Burns, ed., Latin America: Conflict and Creation, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 52-58.