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Venezuela: Who Could Have Imagined?

Doug Dowd lives in Bologna, Italy. His most recent book is At the Cliffs Edge: World Problems and U.S. Power (Peninsula Peace and Justice Cener, 2007). To read more of Dowds work browse

Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), 127 pages, paperback, $14.95.

This short work consists of two parts: analytical and programmatic. The analytical emphasis is upon the most important crime of capitalism: namely–its dependence upon alienation/dehumanization.

Lebowitz first shows the indisputable need to do away with–not “reform”—capitalism; then he continues to take on the problems that must be dealt with and resolved in a worker-controlled non-capitalist society, and the need all along the way to overcome the broad range of difficulties requiring “rehumanization.”

His reasoning for both analysis and program depends upon Marx from beginning to end, with an initial and vital emphasis upon Marx’s earliest writings, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. His point of departure programmatically is focused upon the directions and problems confronting what has recently emerged as the most promising country: Venezuela.

The book’s first three chapters focus upon how and why Marx’s reasoning applies with even greater strength in today’s world than it did in his own time—if only because capitalism has had well over a century to wreak its destructive ways and means, displayed most effectively and dangerously in the dehumanization of the dominant capitalist society: the United States.

Lebowitz has done an excellent job of updating Marxian analysis. He does this with a clarity that makes Marx’s often difficult analyses accessible to all, especially what Marx taught us about capital’s need and ability to alienate us from our humanity and hammer that down with its control over our hearts and minds: “The ideas of the ruling class in every epoch are the ruling ideas….the class which is the ruling material force is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Fifty years ago Orwell modernized that argument when he wrote of “doublethink” and its relatives. Orwell’s world is to today’s media—its techniques and control by giant corporations—what the Wright brothers’ plane is to a space ship: We are ruled over by the consciousness industry and its mind managers—and, what’s more, we are liking it.
All the more important then, that we understand it, get serious, and organize. Who? Everyone. Against what? Capitalism. For what? Democratic socialism. Where? Everywhere. In what ways? See below.

All of those and related questions are in some degree discussed and answered as well as could be in such a short book: succinctly, clearly, and admirably. Lebowitz does not provide blueprints, but he does give a badly needed and readable set of rough guidelines. Taken together, they usefully show what he has in mind by “socialism for the twenty-first century.”
It is relevant to note that after his retirement from a long teaching career in Canada Lebowitz moved to Venezuela—just in time to be an on-the-spot observer of its ongoing shift to a “new” left in the last few years.

Central to his call for “socialism in the twenty-first century” are his critiques of the reformism characteristic of left politics and programs since the Second World War, and the ease with which those reforms have been undone and reversed—a reversal initially achieved by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (and her “there is no alternative”) and embraced by Reagan and Clinton and the neoconservatives in the United States (and on the Continent).

Lebowitz agrees that there is “no alternative” within the capitalist system. However, he asks and implicitly answers:
Is there no alternative to an economic system that relies upon the propertylessness of the mass of the people to compel them to work to produce profits for those who do own?

Is there no alternative to a system in which the foundations of human wealth, human beings and nature, are treated as mere means for the generation of private monetary wealth, means often destroyed in the process? Is there no alternative to a system whose very logic is to divide and separate people, to preclude the possibilities for human solidarity?

In the ensuing discussion, he emphasizes the need to confront, shake off, and replace the “ruling ideas, attitudes, and values” we have absorbed by living in a capitalist world; and that to do so, as Marx argued, we must confront years of struggle, to unlearn if we are to able to learn: “not only in order to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves…workers know that they will have to pass through long struggles…transforming circumstances and men….so people can rid themselves of the muck of ages.”

To which, it needs adding, there’s a lot more muck to get rid of today than in Marx’s time; and, for just those reasons, there is a stronger need to do so. As MR readers will know, U.S. struggles for a decent existence have mostly been focused upon alleviating this or that outrage (dirt wages, dangerous working conditions, little or no health care, no or stingy pensions, etc.)—all of which have been and remain essential. But all of which, although absolutely necessary, must be seen as against one reality or another, but not against capitalism itself—not for the utterly different, decent, truly democratic, non-capitalist society “in which the full development of human potential is paramount.”

Chapter 4, accurately entitled “Reclaiming a Socialist Vision,” ends with this question:

Who these days could possibly think that the full development of human potential is compatible with patriarchy, racism, imperialism or hierarchy, to name just a few sources of oppression? In the various struggles of people for human dignity and social justice, a vision of an alternative socialist society has always been latent. Let us reclaim and renew that vision.

In the United States, a sickening percentage up to now have belonged in that “who” they have been socialized to ignore those sources of oppression and have learned to blame the victim even when they are among those victimized.
Is there no way out? Of course there is; but it is a path up a steep and slippery slope, littered with obstacles. It is essential for us to explain the wrongs and dangers of capitalism and the deep need to work for a fully democratic, socialist, non-capitalist society; one that has done away with the inequalities of income, wealth, and power which, in its turn, requires eliminating the discriminatory racism and sexism that facilitate those inequalities. In short, we must work for a society democratic in its economy, politics, and social relationships.

Yet, all of us, on the left or not, have an enormous amount of thought and feeling to shake loose from our largely unconscious discriminatory attitudes regarding poverty and inequality, and our unwitting acceptance of an economic system that runs roughshod over human social development. We must awaken to the fact that almost all of us have trod the same treacherous ground throughout our lives—constructed by and for the benefit of a privileged few.

That such a mental and emotional housecleaning is so badly-needed—and so difficult—is a major reason why “socialism will not drop from the sky.” Of course, another reason is that capitalists will always fight back, with any means necessary, as they have in Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, Cuba, Chile, and the Congo, to name a few well-known examples.

Venezuela is a recent example; there the United States encouraged the coup in 2002 that failed—even though Venezuela had yet to begin to embark on its present socialist path. At first, and necessarily, Chávez focused upon Venezuela’s breakaway from its long colonial/imperialized history; only in the past two or three years has that breakaway been made into a systematic effort toward building a socialist society.

As it has done so, Chávez has become more popular; and, whether Washington knows it or not, our long exploitation of Venezuela is nearing its end. Venezuela, because if its oil riches, is able to assist several other Latin American countries that are also challenging U.S.-led globalization/imperialism. While these countries remain distinctly behind Venezuela in regards to socialism, Chávez is consciously and wisely attempting to narrow this gap through internationalism.

Some of this book’s strength arises from the fact that as the Venezuelan transformation was in its early stages, Lebowitz was invited by the Chávez government to discuss worker self-management—a subject informed by his earlier studies of broadly similar, but failed, efforts in Tito’s Yugoslavia—at two international conferences held in Caracas. He is convinced—and convincing—that worker self-management is the essential path to follow if a truly democratic non-capitalist society is to thrive and endure. It never came close to being achieved under Tito, and Lebowitz makes it clear that it still has a long way to go in Venezuela. Thus the book’s sixth chapter: “Seven Difficult Questions.”

The seven are concerned with the complicated problems needing serious attention and resolution if worker self-management and democratic socialism are to be viable. Here I present only the questions. They have to be dealt with now in Venezuela, but also worked through here and now by all who are seeking to bring their own societies to the point where such questions need answers; and the sooner the better:

  1. How do we break down the division within the enterprise between those who think and those who do?
  2. What should be done in a worker-managed enterprise when sales fall?
  3. What should be the role in worker self-management of competition between workers in different enterprises?
  4. What responsibility do workers in self-managed enterprises have for the unemployed and the excluded? Who is responsible for creating jobs?
  5. In a system of worker self-management, who looks after the interests of the working class as a whole?
  6. Should worker-managed enterprises be allowed to fail?
  7. How can solidarity between worker-managed enterprises and society as a whole be incorporated directly into those enterprises?

Put differently, it is essential to recognize that for socialism to be a success in its own terms, those building it must recognize and act upon the imperative put forth by Chávez (in 2005): “Workers are entitled to demand fair wages and other benefits….They are also called upon to be a fundamental element of social transformation.”

My first reaction to the above questions was how sweet it would be to face such difficulties. But such difficulties are surely even more difficult than they seem at first glance; especially when we consider how much socialized “muck” we must clean out of our ways of thinking and feeling if we are to control our own lives, instead of the brutes who now run the world.
The book’s last chapter—“The Revolution of Radical Needs”—is concerned with just that; it begins with this apt quote from Marx: “Only a revolution of radical needs can be a radical revolution….To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself.”

Finally, as I considered these difficulties (and inwardly thanked  Lebowitz for having raised them), I also found myself pondering still another large question, concerning both rich and poor nations whose people may seek to create a path toward socialism. What conditions will help other countries pursue socialism in the twenty-first century? They do not and are not likely to have the same advantages as Venezuela, which is rich in oil, the most vital of all resources. As it moves to break entirely free of outside control, Venezuela has substantial financial strength to fund a social revolution at home (in education, health, housing, etc.).

Also underway has been its growing assistance to other Latin American societies shifting to the left—nurturing what in the next decade seems likely to evolve into a Latin American regional economy (its initial members are likely to include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador as well as much of Central America and the Caribbean). As a result, we may be approaching the end of colonialism/imperialism and exploitative globalization in Latin America thanks to the lead taken by Venezuela.

Unfortunately, such optimism is much less applicable in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Nor is a meaningful break toward democratic socialism likely in Europe or the United States. In the rich countries, the mind-managed, self-destructive brew of consumerism, militarism, imperialism, Evangelical Christianity, and apathy still holds sway. For most in the poor countries, those follies are not even dreamt of by any but a small minority. In a nutshell, the large majority of peoples of the imperialized world have not been as bewitched as the relatively well-off people of the imperializing world.
Nonetheless, Lebowitz’s book attests that there is reason for hope. How many of us could have imagined the Venezuela of today, even as recently as fifteen years ago?