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The Socialist Alternative reviewed in Science & Society

Complexities of the Socialist Alternative


Michael Lebowitz has drawn on the diverse experiences that led to the failure of socialism in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and those in Venezuela where he has resided for nearly a decade, to bolster his thesis on the need to place the transformation of values at the center of socialist construction. In his emphasis on consciousness, Lebowitz follows the tradition of Georg Lukács, Karl Korsh and Che Guevara, while rejecting the determinist notion of the superstructure as an appendage of the structure lacking in autonomy. In The Socialist Alternative* and his previous Build It Now (2006), as well as talks in Venezuela and elsewhere, Lebowitz frequently cites President Chávez along with the Chavista Constitution of 1999 on the importance of humanistic objectives, and particularly “human development” (p. 56). The Constitution, for instance, calls for arrangements that promote solidarity among workers “‘to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective’” (as quoted on page 60).

The central concern of The Socialist Alternative is the process of transformation from the initial appearance of socialism, which is infused with the old values of capitalism, to the establishment of socialism in its pure form “economically, morally and intellectually” (p. 91). (This advanced state of socialism is synonymous in many ways with “communism.”) Lebowitz recalls that capitalism was also initially imperfect and only gradually evolved into an all-encompassing “organic system” (p. 95). In both cases, the state plays a key role in the achievement of the authentic model of the new system, but progress is not irreversible. Throughout the book, Lebowitz points to the characteristics and modalities that form part of the “organic” socialist system and are, according to the author, interdependent: worker solidarity and sense of community; equality; distribution of goods according to need; worker management; and elimination of material incentives, exchange relations, the market economy, competition among workers, and the division between mental and physical labor.

Lebowitz claims that his view of socialism as an ongoing process of transformation rather than a stage coincides with Marx’s writing, but not that of Lenin. According to Lebowitz, Lenin’s postulation of socialism as a “stage” prior to the achievement of communism “distorts” (p. 107) Marx’s “dialectical understanding” (p. 108) of the steady ripening of conditions leading to pure socialism. The distinction between the two conceptualizations is hardly academic. The concept of socialism as a stage implies a static strategy and the acceptance of certain practices that are open to criticism but are compatible with existing subjective or objective conditions during a given historical period. Furthermore, the more ambitious goals that underpin “organic socialism” tend to be subordinated (if not completely brushed aside) to the objectives corresponding to the current stage. (1)

In contrast, by viewing the carryovers from capitalism as “defects” and socialism as an ongoing, transformational process, Lebowitz strengthens his case for an all-out war to root out capitalist remnants from the outset. Revolutionaries, according to Lebowitz, will inevitably pay a price for their failure to “consciously and continuously build… the solidarian society” (p. 81) and to realize that the defects of the past “must be subordinated” (p. 108). In doing so, they leave intact the condition of workers as “alienated and fragmented human beings” (p. 86) and run the risk of opening the doors for the reestablishment of capitalism, as occurred in the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies.

Lebowitz defends two positions that in certain situations are bound to produce tensions. On the one hand, he affirms that “socialism does not drop from the sky” (p. 25) in order to underline the complex and deep-rooted patterns inherited from the old system which “cannot be banished overnight” (p. 146). On the other hand, he argues that if the defects under socialism are not extirpated they will “poison” (p. 129) the rest of society and eventually lead to capitalist restoration. The predicament of how quickly to counter the defects of the old society and system, what objectives to prioritize, and when to make compromises is not specific to socialist construction since all movements in favor of change face the same hard choices.

Of the two considerations, the main thrust of Lebowitz’s works points to the strategy of moving decisively to root out practices and values associated with the capitalist past, even while recognizing that the pace of transformation depends on conditions in each country. Thus, for instance, by claiming that all the modalities and values that need changing are interrelated, Lebowitz reaches the conclusion that the attacks on them have to be simultaneous and, in effect, constitute a veritable all-out war (Lebowitz, 2007: 41). He refers to the observation of Soviet economist Evgeny Preobrazhensky that “when you have two different systems side by side, you can get the worst of both worlds” (p. 122). Finally, Lebowitz constantly warns against the temptation of “turning to the logic of the market” in order to “resolve problems and inefficiencies” (p. 151). One policy implication of Lebowitz’s hard line toward capitalist values under socialism would be the prohibition of small businesses, or at least their acceptance as a “necessary evil.”…

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