Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, 2010)

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution has been blazing the path to a 21st century socialism, a socialism that puts in first place human development rather than development of the forces of production or bringing them under state control. This has required a renovation of the Marxist tradition, a task undertaken by philosopher István Mészáros, whose thinking has influenced Hugo Chávez. But the popular exposition of these ideas comes from economist Michael A. Lebowitz.  In his earlier Build It Now, and even more clearly in the present book, Lebowitz has made available to a wide public an accessible systematic presentation of the philosophic principles of the socialist alternative emerging in Latin America.

Since his retirement from Simon Fraser University, Lebowitz has taken up residence in Venezuela where he has been a close observer of political and economic developments as well as an adviser to Hugo Chávez. There he is associated with the Centro Internacional Miranda research institute. While his views on building socialism are informed by the Venezuelan experience, they are much more general in scope. Coming from a critique of the Soviet model and the Yugoslav system of market self-management (the subject of a promised book Studies in the Development of Socialism), Lebowitz recovers the core of the socialist vision: a society that fosters the full development of human capacities through revolutionary practice, i.e. the “coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change.”

Socialism is a process that links human development and practice. Marx understood that in labor the worker not only transforms the material world, but also himself. The same dialectical relationship applies not only in the workplace but also in the sphere of political and economic struggle. So the key to human development is a society that maximizes the opportunities for active participation in all aspects of life, a society that fosters democracy, participation, and protaganism. Lebowitz argues that this is the premise for Marx’s critique in Capital. It is precisely because under capitalism labor is alienated that our products appear as an alien power that rule over us rather than as creations in which we can recognize ourselves and develop our human capacities.

Humans are social beings, but capitalism blocks a realization of our species being. While it replaces individual labor with social labor, it does this under the control of another, thereby denying the possibility of solidarity among associated workers. As Marx pointed out, it is only “when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others [that] he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.” Full human development requires conscious collective decision making. It requires worker self-management.

But it requires more than this. It requires what Lebowitz calls a solidarian society. If worker cooperatives operate on the basis of common self-interest and relate to other cooperatives through market relations, then they simply become collective capitalists. This was the fate of Yugoslavian self-management. A solidarian society goes further. Cooperatives must themselves cooperate. Quoting Marx on the Paris Commune, “United cooperative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their common control.”

Socialism as an organic system rests on the combination of social property, social production, and satisfaction of social needs – what Hugo Chávez calls the elementary triangle of socialism. These are interdependent in that “without production for social needs, no real social property; without social property, no worker decision making oriented towards society’s needs; without worker decision making, no transformation of people and their needs” (129). Once a socialist mode of production is established, socialism reproduces itself and is irreversible because each leg of the triangle sustains the others. But until that point is reached it is threatened by the established organic system of capitalism, even though it might be in crisis. Each is struggling to survive. For this reason, workers need state power (not the old hierarchical state but a truly democratic state) that can impose a mode of socialist regulation that will nurture the developing socialist triangle.

In his earlier book on the Bolivarian Revolution, Build It Now!, Lebowitz enjoins us to do just that where “a government representing workers has been elected but the balance of forces favors capital.” Such is the situation in Venezuela. What needs to be done in such a case is use state power to develop workers’ councils and communal councils through which popular classes can participate in making decisions on those matters that affect their lives, and thereby themselves be transformed into social actors. These are the cells of a new society, the basis of a new socialist state. Even in their embryonic form these cells represent “despotic inroads on the rights of capitalist property” (136) and will be resisted accordingly by capital (e.g. with a capitalist strike). It is in this struggle that workers are radicalized. The revolutionary state has created the conditions for the mobilization of people against capital.

A weak point in Lebowitz’s argument arises when he tries to conceptualize how these self-managed cells can link together cooperatively so as to promote the common good. He wants to avoid any integration from above by an overarching state because this substitutes for the democratic participation that educates people. Further, unlike many socialists today, he does not want to rely on markets to coordinate the exchange of goods because markets are based on self-interest rather than the needs of others for human development. Indeed, Lebowitz wants to see the exchange of use values between producing collectives, without prices attached to them. As he says, “the socialist alternative is to de-commodify. Everything.” (146) His claim that this can be done from the bottom up seems utopian. More feasible would be for the state to expand the range of free goods available for human development – to expand the commons – thereby promoting an acceptance of these distribution relations as self-evident natural laws.

The basic strategy for revolutionary change in a situation like that of Venezuela is to use the old state, now in the hands of revolutionaries, to nurture the cells of a new state below. One wishes Lebowitz had developed more fully his assessment of this strategy. In my assessment, whereas in Cuba it took a revolution to create a socialist state, in Venezuela an attempt is being made to create the revolution within the old bourgeois state. More precisely, sections of the state, led by Hugo Chávez, are trying to transform civil society, bringing the popular classes into the structure of governance, even against the opposition of sectors of the old state and civil society. This is a complex situation whose outcome is not yet certain. The domestic strategy of the Bolivarian Revolution is to build alternative political and economic institutions parallel to the still existing bourgeois institutions, gradually increasing their strength to create a situation of dual power.

In the political realm communal councils are being created at the neighborhood level. By being able to set priorities based on community need, participants are educated to a new kind of political role. While the resources come from the state, officials are not always responsive – even some of those who wear the red shirts of the revolution. There are those in the administrative apparatus of government who are still wedded to bourgeois ways of thinking and customary bureaucratic prerogatives and procedures. The community councils are an effort to bypass the state apparatus and local officials by putting decision-making power in the hands of people at the grassroots. Similarly, the promotion of worker cooperatives is planting the seed of a solidarity economy parallel to the existing capitalist economy. As part of an endogenous development strategy, cooperatives seek to build from those at the bottom of society, thereby incorporating the weakest as members of a national economy.

The terrain of civil society is always essentially contested territory. It is composed of a multiplicity of classes and groups with varying values and often competing, even antagonistic interests. But sometimes a class or group will project itself as representing the common good. If successful in winning sufficient support from other sectors of civil society to achieve hegemony, it can then claim to speak for the nation as a whole. For a long time now in the US, capital has enjoyed such a hegemonic position. So too in Venezuela. Even so, other class interests continue to contend within civil society. It is such popular forces that the Bolivarian Revolution seeks to strengthen, challenging the long standing hegemony of capital.

While Lebowitz might not disagree with the above assessment, one wishes he had spelled out more fully the concrete realities of making revolution in a country like Venezuela. Although the Venezuelan situation is unique, it has lessons for popular forces elsewhere in Latin America as bourgeois states come into their hands – a prospect made more likely by the exhaustion of neoliberal globalization. The vision of socialism as real human development inspires social change in the countries to our south. If only it would be so in the United States.

Cliff DuRand
Research Associate, Center for Global Justice

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