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The Socialist Alternative reviewed in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

Michael A. Lebowitz

The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2010. 160pp., £12.95 pb

ISBN 9781583672143

Reviewed by John Gregson

Michael Lebowitz’s important book portrays a vision of the socialist alternative to capitalism through a synthesis of some of Marx’s most important philosophical arguments concerning human development, revolutionary practice and radical democracy. Developed from his experiences in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela as a ministerial advisor, what is particularly impressive is that this relatively short yet deceptively comprehensive work develops not only the philosophical foundations of that alternative but also outlines strategic, concrete measures that can contribute to making that vision a reality.

The first half of The Socialist Alternative would, by itself, provide a valuable contribution to Marxist philosophy through its development of the arguments contained within Marx’s Grundrisse. Lebowitz’s powerful vision of the socialist alternative is, like Marx’s, of a ‘good society’ that ‘fosters the full development of human potential whilst keeping human beings at its centre.’ (31) This alternative society is posited as an inversion of capitalism’s tendency to impoverish and obstruct human development – for whilst capitalism creates the material conditions for this human development ‘it simultaneously denies to the majority the possibility of becoming anything other than poor human beings.’ (53) This key notion of human development is the focus of the first half of the book in which Lebowitz outlines and develops the foundations of what he calls the ‘socialist triangle’ (25) – those three mutually interdependent elements that are intrinsic to the development of the good society.

The first side of the triangle signifies the first necessary step towards that socialist alternative – ‘the social ownership of the results of social labour.’ (40) Lebowitz argues that as long as capitalism controls the means of production, our ‘social inheritance’, the continuation and perpetuation of ‘exploitation, deformation and the destruction of the environment is guaranteed’. (40) Lebowitz is careful to qualify that social ownership and state ownership are very different. What the former signifies (and what the latter does not) is the profoundly democratic notion that ‘all those affected by decisions about the use of means of production are involved in deciding upon that use.’ (41) This, for Lebowitz, stands in stark opposition to the twentieth-century experiences of state socialism in which state bureaucrats and functionaries determined the goals of production.

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