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The Socialist Imperative reviewed in Socialism & Democracy

The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now

The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now
224 pp, $22 pbk, ISBN 9781583675465
By Michael A. Lebowitz

Reviewed by Brandon Absher in Socialism and Democracy, vol. 31, no. 2 (pp. 188-92)

We live in a time of increasing peril and dizzying contradiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of Donald Trump – a billionaire born with a gold-plated silver spoon in his mouth who was able to present himself as a man of the people, appealing, it seems, to a base of white workers who felt excluded from the “new economy” and abandoned amidst what he described in his inaugural address as “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”1 Even as Trump’s xenophobic and racebaiting demagoguery catapulted him to the presidency,2 there were other seemingly unlikely developments on the Left. Millions of people, mostly young, turned out to vote against the mainstream of the Democratic Party in favor of Bernie Sanders, who labeled himself a “democratic socialist” and issued a call for “political revolution.”3 More inspiring, in the aftermath of Trump’s election there have been mass mobilizations and street protests unlike anything the US has seen in decades. On the one hand, the Trump presidency may literally, as Noam Chomsky has emphasized, threaten the existence of life on Earth – whether through increasing US reliance on fossil fuels or by initiating nuclear war.4 On the other hand, Trump’s rise has united workers, students, immigrants, women, people of color, queer people, and people of all faiths and nationalities in their opposition to his dark vision of the world’s future.

It is apt, then, that Michael A. Lebowitz begins his The Socialist Imperative with a chapter entitled “The Capitalist Nightmare and the Socialist Dream.” Invoking Marx’s image of capital as a vampire, Lebowitz shows how capitalism sucks the life from its prey, leaving only the bloodless husk. As he writes, “Capital wastes human beings, nature, and society. The story told in Capital is that of eternal life for the vampire. That is the nightmare” (29). According to Lebowitz, Marx’s story is not one of inevitable transformation. Capitalism can continue into perpetuity, overcoming any barriers and expanding beyond any borders in its path – save perhaps the natural limits of the Earth itself. This macabre nightmare, however, is filled not only with vampires, but also with gravediggers: undead, wasted beings who haunt capitalism threatening a revolutionary awakening that will set a hard limit to its self-reproduction. Whereas, Lebowitz tells us, Marx’s magnum opus described only the nightmarish “logic of capital” – replete with its transubstantiation of labor into commodities and monstrous eruption into crisis – Lebowitz seeks to uncover and explain the “logic” of the gravediggers, the working class.

Behind the logic of the working class, Lebowitz emphasizes, quoting Marx, is the “worker’s own need for development.” According to Lebowitz, capitalism renders the working class a legion of “deformed” and “crippled” beings wasted by capital’s thirst for blood. In so doing, it blunts the exercise and cultivation of the workers’ specifically human capacities, their species-essence. Lebowitz writes:

[C]apital is the barrier that stands between us and our own development. It is so because capital has captured the fruits of all civilization; it is the owner of all the products of the social brain and the social hand; and it turns our products and the products of workers before us against us. (144)

Yet, precisely because capitalism obstructs the development of the worker, it tends to destroy the capacities necessary for genuine social transformation. Paradoxically, workers must realize their humanity in order to transform society and they must transform society in order to realize their humanity. This paradox is overcome, however, when we realize that, in all their activities, human beings alter not only the things around them, but also themselves. This insight, according to Lebowitz, is the “red thread” running throughout Marx’s work, and the basis for revolutionary struggle. As Lebowitz puts it, “It is through their struggles that workers make themselves fit to create the new society” (60).

In contrast to the “capitalist nightmare,” Lebowitz argues that the logic of the working class announces the “socialist dream” of full human development. Drawing on what Hugo Cha´vez called the “elementary triangle of socialism,” Lebowitz offers a vision of twenty-first century socialism built on: (1) social ownership of the means of production; (2) social production organized by workers; and (3) satisfaction of communal needs and purposes. Each of the three sides of the triangle is necessary for the development of a form of socialism that will go beyond the experiments of the twentieth century, not only because they are essential for the full development of workers’ specifically human capacities, but, just as importantly, because genuine socialist revolution requires, for Lebowitz, the transformation of “productive relations.”

In developing this view, Lebowitz presents an original and provocative interpretation of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. According to Lebowitz, Marx’s central insight is that socialism, as it emerges from capitalist society, will continue to reproduce and rely on capitalist “premises.” Most importantly, workers will continue to conceive of themselves as owners of labor-power who must exchange it with the state to receive goods or as owners of cooperative enterprises who must compete with others to secure greater benefit for themselves. In contrast, an emerging socialist society must institute democratic management of the workplace and orient production to the needs of all rather than the private gain of the laborer. Lebowitz explains, “As the new society develops, our claim upon the output of society increasingly is as a member of society. The measure of the development of the new society is the expansion of the commons” (69). Thus, in contrast to Lenin’s classic “two-stage” reading of the Critique of the Gotha Program, the deficiency of the first phase of the revolutionary process is not the insufficiency or inadequacy of “productive forces”; rather, it is the persistence of alienated relations of production.

The dream of workers’ self-management is freighted, of course, with the weight of the socialist revolutions and experiments of the twentieth century. “Real socialism,” as Lebowitz dubs it, operates, not according to the logic of the working class, but according to the “logic of the vanguard.”5 This logic undermines the development of the workers’ capacities tomanage and direct their labor democratically, even as it simultaneously induces managers to act as petty capitalists seeking bonuses, promotions, and other rewards. “In this respect,” Lebowitz suggests, “from the perspective of workers, the statist firm may be no different than the capitalist firm” (115). Top-down management, mandated production goals, and individualized rewards all clash with the socialist dream of social ownership, workplace democracy, and global solidarity.

This is not to say, however, that, there is no need for state or party in Lebowitz’s vision. Rather, both must play essential roles in the revolutionary process. The “political instrument” capable of realizing twenty-first century socialism will not be characterized by the vanguardism of the past with its “one-sided” focus on capturing what Lebowitz calls the “old state.” Instead, the party of twenty-first century socialism must orient itself toward the development of a “dual state.”6 On the one hand, this means capturing the “old state” for the purposes of a “socialist mode of regulation.” On the other hand, because the working class can only become a revolutionary subject amidst the struggle for their own development, protagonistic democratic processes must be nurtured and sustained. This is achieved with the development of the “new state” – the Commune. In its support for the “new state,” the party must learn from popular social movements even as it seeks to integrate them into the struggle for a revolutionary transformation of society. At the same time, the party must unite the diverse interests underlying the movements and orient them toward their common goal, twenty-first century socialism.

With The Socialist Imperative, Lebowitz outlines an unquestionably beautiful dream and offers significant insight into how it might be realized. In the aftermath of the 2016 US election, moreover, and surveying the rise of neo-fascist elements across the globe, it is hard not to be struck by his prescience: “The specter of barbarism is haunting the earth,” he writes, “and the economic and ecological crises of capitalism give it more and more substance” (212). The emergence of neo-fascism in recent years nonetheless points to what I consider to be missing in Lebowitz’s important work. Lebowitz rightly identifies as drivers of neo-fascism the longing to recover an idealized past and the demand for a scapegoat to blame for the depredations of contemporary capitalism. But, in the developed West, such racist ideology arises from perceived threats to the privileges guaranteed by European colonialism and global white supremacy. The international working class will only be fit for revolution when significant numbers of its members are ready to sacrifice these privileges and make common cause with the “wretched of the earth” – the majority of humanity – against their common enemy. The development of a revolutionary subject, therefore, must also be guided by the articulation of a decolonized morality of global solidarity.

(c) 2017 Brandon Absher
D’Youville College
Buffalo, New York

1. “Donald Trump Inaugural Speech: Full Transcript.” Forbes.Com, January 20, 2017.
2. Thomas Wood, “Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism,” Washington Post, April 17, 2017, and, more generally Henry A. Giroux, America at War with Itself (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017).
3. Aaron Blake, “More Young People Voted for Bernie Sanders than Trump and Clinton Combined – By a Lot,” Washington Post, June 20, 2016.
4. “Noam Chomsky: With Trump Election, We Are Now Facing Threats to the Survival of the Human Species,” DemocracyNow.Org, January 2, 2017.
5. Lebowitz distinguishes between what he calls “Real Socialism” as practiced by the Soviet Union and “Market Self-Management” as undertaken in Yugoslavia. Both may be counted as instances of “Actually Existing Socialism”; however, they present significantly different economic dynamics and internal contradictions (cf. 76–88).
6. Lebowitz is careful to distinguish his “dual state” strategy from Lenin’s “dual power.” Lebowitz’s “new state” replaces the old state rather than merely taking over its powers and functions (217f).
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