Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century Monthly Review Press, 2006 US$14.95, 127 pages
reviewed by DAPHNE LAWLESS
In the capitalist "West" today, the class struggle sits finely balanced. An as yet formless but real anger among the grassroots is balanced with the fear, cynicism and despair of almost thirty years of solid defeats for our side. In this situation, revolutionaries – and all those who want to build a better world – have not only the opportunity but the duty to get stuck in to the business of building the movements and a new political leadership of the oppressed. Failure of this project or that project will not be fatal, if we learn from it. What might be fatal to our chances of making real advances, though, is a failure of imagination.
Michael Lebowitz knows this all too well. Build It Now, his collection of essays and articles on the theme of "socialism for the 21st century", accurately points out that "our greatest failing is that we have lost sight of an alternative" - "we" being the forces for social change. It's worth giving a couple of minutes of thought to why that might have been.
During the dark years which followed the upturn of the 70’s and 80’s, the small but real revolutionary Marxist parties which sprang up throughout the world disintegrated. Some of them gave up when the getting got tough, retreating into the social democratic parties, and from there often retreating again into the welcoming arms of neo-liberalism.
Other hunkered down in small "revolutionary" groups which increasingly took on the appearance of religious organisations. This similarity could be seen in their public activity - "interventions" in mass movements, such as selling their newspaper, increasingly became rituals rather than real attempts to link with the masses. Their internal meetings also took on the aspect of religion, with close study of the "holy texts" often alternating with hunts for heretics.
But these groups were also religious in the sense that Marx would have recognized - that of "the heart of a heartless condition, the soul of a soulless world". In a world where Marxism had become irrelevant to the working masses, ritual "political" behaviour and abstract faith in a literary Marxism became a consolation rather than a guide to action. The activities of such groups at least kept the ideas and tradition of Marxist political action alive during the dark years. But in an era in which the masses are beginning - tentatively - to move on a global scale, and the need for what Gramsci called "organic intellectuals of the working class" becomes acute, the bad habits of sect-like behaviour have a nasty habit of sticking.
Michael Lebowitz's aim in his short book is to think outside the traditional categories which have been mistaken for "Marxist analysis". He takes as his title an old slogan of the South African Communist Party, which has the virtue of emphasising that the struggle for socialism, for a post-capitalist human civilisation, is something that has to be fought for and planned for now, not somewhere down the track. And for his subtitle, he takes a slogan of the Bolivarian revolution - emphasising that while we can learn from the victories and defeats of the past, revolutionary practice must be continually reinvented in the present day. While this book is put together from a variety of sources, each article has the common thread of someone attempting to practically work from the insights of great revolutionaries, to find new answers to Lenin's age-old question: "What Is to Be Done?"
Lebowitz's Marxism is fundamentally humanist - in that he sees actual living people, and how they live their lives, as the central important thing in a revolutionary project. This challenges the fetishization of economic growth common to both Stalinism and neo-liberalism. 21st century socialism, he says, must be open to "exploration of the social relations in which people live", rather than bricks, mortar and production figures.
Anyone new to revolutionary politics would be well advised to read the first chapter carefully, as it is a succinct and straightforward introduction to the central question of Marxism - the labour theory of value and the model of the capitalist economy on which it is built. As Lebowitz says clearly: "Economic theory is not neutral", and a good grasp of economics from a working-class point of view is vital for anyone who wants to take on the neoliberal creed of There Is No Alternative. He quotes former World Bank president Joseph Stiglitz as saying that no-one in the ruling class really believes the dogma they spout about "perfect competition" or the "invisible hand" of the market which makes everything all right - but that this idea still "functions as a weapon to be used on behalf of capital". So too, our side needs its own economic ideas as weapons, ideas that justify the idea that working people should be at the centre of deciding what is produced for whom and how.
Lebowitz makes the important point that capitalism is always driven to not only make production more profitable, but also "expand the sphere of circulation" - that is, to not only make it easier to sell goods, but to create new markets and even new commodities to sell. The "new working class" in the Western countries are increasingly involved in either the service industries, or in precisely those industries which expand circulation - the industries of communication, of packaging, of marketing, of making sure that one brand of goods gets sold over its virtually identical competitor. Lebowitz inspiringly labels the whole industry of marketing and public relations as what it is - "an unacceptable waste of human and material resources". But this waste can't be avoided under capitalism.
The dead-end waste of capitalist “monopolistic competition” is also the paradigm for modern “democratic” politics. It's no accident that elections in the West are increasingly being seen in terms of a meaningless choice between Coke and Pepsi. This false choice is also the nature of national political contests in these days when every major party has accepted neo-liberalism, or the social liberal alternative which Lebowitz describes as “barbarism with a human face”.
Lebowitz also makes it clear why a return to Keynesianism – the 1960's style social democratic economics of government intervention and direction of investment - is no longer a goer. Lebowitz knows what he's talking about here from experience. He was policy director for the NDP - the equivalent of the Labour party - in the Canadian province of British Columbia in the 1970's, and no doubt remembers how Keynesianism was thrown aside by the ruling class when it proved helpless against the oil shocks. For those traditional social democrats who still believe that the Labour and Social Democratic Parties of the 1970s offer a model, Lebowitz says it plainly: Keynesianism and neoliberalism are just two sides of the same coin. While neoliberalism seeks to smash wages and barriers to investment, Keynesianism aims to direct investment and boost domestic purchasing power. But they are both all about keeping the local capitalists happy.
The globalised economy has made "one country" solutions obsolete. Any attempt at building national barriers inside which to build a more profitable - or even a more humane - capitalism will simply be smashed by the tidal wave of money in the global finance markets. Lebowitz deserves to be quoted at length on this:
Since no govt based simply on its own resources can hope to succeed in this struggle against such internal and external enomies, the central question will be whether the govt is willing to mobilise its people on behalf of the policies that meet the needs of people. Here the essential matter is the extent to which the govt has freed itself from the ideological domination of capital.
Only mass militancy can even defend the most minor challenge to the rule of capital. But this means taking on domestic as well as foreign capital. There is simply no way to inspire a mass movement with minor demands which tinker around the edges. As Lebowitz says, only threats to "existing patterns of ownership" - both domestic and foreign - can mobilise a real democratic uprising.
Any leftist government which comes up against the ultimate sanction of the ruling class - an investment strike, or hoarding of consumer goods - has, in Lebowitz's words, two choices: give in, or move in. Surrender to capital, or nationalise and occupy. And considering that in every country the state apparatus works on behalf of the ruling class, only a mobilised and determined popular movement organised independently of that apparatus can make the second option a realistic one. This requires the self-transformation of the working masses which Marx foresaw, as Lebowitz says:
Where are the measures in traditional theory for the self-confidence that arises in people throught the conscious development of co-operation and democratic problem solving in communities and workplaces?... The means of achieving the new society are inseparable from the process of struggling for it... to build a world based on solidarity, we must practice solidarity.
The first three chapters of this book are essentially negative, in the sense that they discuss what isn't right, what doesn't work, and what hasn't happened. The real content of this book - its positive suggestions - are inseparable from the author's personal experience as an advisor to the Bolivarian revolutionary government of Venezuela.
Some argue that the Bolivarian Revolution is of limited relevance to other countries, as Venezuela is made unique by its status as an oil-exporting giant. Venezuela has of course a very different economy to an advanced Western nation, but it has one vitally important thing in common with countries like New Zealand. In Venezuela, up to 50% of the population are in the "informal" sector of the economy - casual workers, petty traders, or the nameless masses who service the needs and desires of the Venezuelan oligarchy. 20th century revolutions were based around a self-conscious industrial working class seizing control for themselves at the point of production. This class has been smashed in most Western countries, and never had a chance to develop in Venezuela.
This has led to an assumption in some quarters that traditional union organisation must be rebuilt in the post-industrial West before a revolutionary transformation is on the cards. But as Alex Callinicos says in his article reprinted in this issue, in many ways the working class in the Third World have been thrown back to a pre-20th century atomisation - that the new revolutionary democracies might look more like the Paris Commune than the Petrograd Soviet. If a new form of popular power arises based on the fragmented working masses rather than a disciplined industrial proletariat, then the lessons learned in Caracas or La Paz might be vitally important in South Auckland, or even Los Angeles.
The reaction of various socialist and revolutionary groups around the world to the ongoing Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela - and to the most central and visible leader of that process, President Hugo Chávez - is a prime example of what has gone wrong here. Organisations who had gotten into the habit of "analysis" of events in distant lands had often forgotten that the whole point of Marxist analysis is to determine the correct line of action. Indeed, for many groups, "analysis" simply meant deciding which pre-determined mental pigeonhole to put any new phenomenon in. Once they had determined that Chávez was a "radical reformist", a "left Bonapartist", or even a "Peronist", then it became clear which set of clichés to use in speeches and articles - and no further thought needed to be taken. This has led to the quite pathetic spectacle of so-called "Marxist-Leninst" groups actually lining up with the pro-imperialist Venezuelan oligarchy, against the revolution.
In contrast, real Marxism is based on dialectical logic - the idea that things are not simply what they are but always changing themselves into something else. Trotsky's great contribution to Marxist thought was the concept of transitional demands - that we can fight for limited demands in the here-and-now which point towards and lead on to fundamental social change. And that's where Lebowitz comes from.
This second half of the book begins by refusing the "autonomist" approach to social change - that we can "change the world without taking power", in the words of John Holloway. The correct insight that only the self-activity of the working masses can create a new world has led in some quarters to a belief that nothing worthwhile can come from any other direction. "Could we imagine the changes that are happening [in Venezuela] now without the power of the state?" asks Lebowitz.
It's not so much that the autonomist or ultra-left critics of the Bolivarian revolution can't imagine what's happening - they just can't believe that anything worthwhile could be coming from Chávez or the government which he leads. The irony is that, rejecting the "leadership from above" of Chávez, these groups have often ended up attaching themselves to various trade union officials or small political sects with minimal influence in the ground in Venezuela, in the hope of finding some kind of alternative leadership.
"Socialism doesn't drop from the sky," says Lebowitz in one of his most memorable phrases. "It is necessarily rooted in particular societies. And that is why reliance upon detailed universal models misleads us."
The experience of the Paris Commune famously taught Marx that a revolution must smash the old state apparatus. But those who quote this example against Chávez neglect the point that in the succesful October 1917 revolution in Russia, the civil service structures of the Tsarist ministries were not smashed - in fact, the bureaucrats and officials were often compelled to work for the new Soviet authority at gunpoint. The central role of the nationalised oil industry (PdVSA) in the Venezuelan economy meant, more than any other, that the existing Fourth Republic state could not be smashed overnight
The Bolivarian constitution in itself is a "transitional document" - reflecting the balance of power in the movement that brought Chávez to power in 1998. Its central value to the movement, even more than the quite limited democratic gains which it embodies, is as a symbol that the masses would now have a measure of control over the very state which produces most of Venezuela's foreign exchange earnings. To reject this victory - and the further victories which it has led to - on the grounds that the state was not smashed overnight, or on the grounds that it was sparked off by an election victory rather than the armed masses storming the Presidential palace - is a dreadful case of substituting predetermined categories and wishful thinking for the reality of the class struggle.
Lebowitz sums it up well:
The new society can never be fully formed at the beginning. Initially, that new society must build upon elements of the old society... a new society comes on the scene necessarily in a defective form and ... it develops by transforming its historical premises, by transcending its defects.
Lebowitz goes on to say that
a state determined to serve as the midwife of a new society can both restrict the conditions for the reproduction of capital and open the door to the elements of the new society. This process requires a special kind of state... the state itself must be transformed into one subordinate to society.... Without creating power from below... the tendency will be the emergence of a class over and above us.
Whether the forces ranged around a revolutionary project in Venezuela can build on the gains of the Bolivarian Republic and make this happen is by no means certain. But it is the height of folly to write off the project in advance.
The last two chapters of the book are possibly the most thought provoking, because the most concrete. Lebowitz knows for certain that the future socialist society
cannot be a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all initiative is the property of state officeholders or cadres of self-reproducing vanguards. Precisely becauise socialism focuses upon human development, it stresses the need for a society that is democratic, participatory and protagonistic.
(One of the puzzling aspects of the text is that Lebowitz continually refers to what he calls "20th century socialism" in the past tense - doubly ironic considering the important role of Cuba in the ongoing process in Venezuela.)
Lebowitz, like Chávez, recognizes that a new broad coalition - or, in Gramsci's terms, "historic bloc" - will be necessary to win final victory, especially given the historic weakness of the organised working class. However, Lebowitz is still a Marxist, and states clearly that "worker management is the only real ultimate alternative to capitalism”. Accordingly, he devotes a chapter to the experience of the 20th century regime which made worker self-management a central plank of its ideology - Tito's Yugoslavia.
Tito's regime, while coming out of the Stalinist Comintern, established itself on the basis of successful guerilla resistance against Nazi occupation, rather than on the back of Soviet tanks. When Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, his ruling apparatus established elected factory councils in the nationalised Yugoslav economy. On paper, these councils were the supreme authority in the factory, with full authority over production, only paying a tax on their capital to the state.
Lebowitz notes that the goal of a socialist transformation is to abolish the distinction between mental, manual and managerial labour - in a word, the abolition of classes. However, twenty-five years into the experience, as Lebowitz notes, the class system in the Yugoslav self-managed factories was as strong as ever:
Although the members of the workers' councils had the power to decide on critical questions... they didn't feel like they had the competence to make these decisions – compared with the managers and technical experts. So in many enterprises, the workers' council stended to rubber-stamp the proposals that came from management... [the councils] functioned like an electorate unhappy with its government, but not as the government themselves.
Another problem arose from the fact that Yugoslavia was still a market economy, with the various worker-managed factories competing amongst one another. This replicated many of the problems of free-market capitalism - duplicate investment in competing factories and the waste of competitive marketing. But it also posed what capitalist economics calls "the aggregation problem" - how an economy based on small, independent business, albeit managed by their workforces, would be able to deal with society-wide problems such as unemployment or social welfare.
The Yugoslav economy was plagued with inflation. The state would not allow money-losing enterprises to fail. So those businesses would demand subsidies from local government – who would usually agree, as it was cheaper than paying the dole - which mean there was no incentive to cut costs and make production efficient. Business that wanted to expand would borrow from the (state-owned) banks, eventually leading to the banks being the real directing forces in most of the self-managed sector. The richer enterprises in turn partly owned the banks, and used them to further ensure their dominance in the economy - again, just as in a Western capitalist economy. This division between rich and poor enterprises was reflected in a distinction between richer and poorer parts of the Yugoslav federation, which tragically exploded into civil war in the early 90's.
So, if the experiment in a worker-directed economy in Venezuela is not to fall apart in "“unemployment, growing inequality, envy, inflationary tendencies, rising social and ethnic tensions” as it did in Yugoslavia - what can we learn? Lebowitz boils down the central problem to the following: “What is the relation between an individual worker-managed enterprise and society as a whole?” He goes on to say that, in the Venezuelan case, the worker-managed factories must remain collectively responsible to the broader social movements, rather than looking out for themselves. Otherwise, he warns, "the premise of a divison between an aristocracy of labour in specific enterprises and the majority of the working class is not unthinkable.”
This is a vital point that socialists in other countries must grasp about conditions in Venezuela. We all know in the West that there is a contradiction between union leaderships and their rank-and-file workers. And yet some revolutionaries in advanced countries take the Venezuelan union leaderships - when they are critical of Chávez - as some kind of authority or even alternative revolutionary leadership. In contrast, many inside Venezuela believe that the union leaderships – even those in the radical UNT federation - are infected with the "me first" attitude of the Fourth Republic. Lebowitz reflects that
the stress upon wage demands by organised workers, plus the reversion by PDVSA unions to the old practices of selling access to jobs in the industires, convinced some Chavists that the organised working class was oriented to its particular interests rather than to those of the working class as a whole.
On the other side, there are those within the Chávez government and the movement who don't see a place for worker self-management in
"strategic" industries at all – on that very reasoning mentioned above, that the self-interest of reasonably privileged organised workers contradicts the needs of the broader masses. But Lebowitz rightly points out that that attitude is but a short step from believing that the workers have no right to strike in their self-interest against "their own" state – the ghost of Stalinism rearing its ugly head.
Lebowitz understands the vital point that the contradiction between the industrial workers and the broader masses only makes sense in an economy still dominated by the cash nexus and the need for production for exchange. This brings up the question of whether an alternative means of consumption, distribution and exchange to the market is necessary to make sure a democratic economy can flourish and grow, and to promote production for real social need. The Social Mission "Vuelvan Caras II" is seeking to promote new networks of "Social Production Enterprises", which will work closely with the Communal Councils who will comprise the core of the new state structure. This is interestingly similar to Michael Albert's "Parecon" vision of Producers' and Consumer Councils working together in a post-market economy.
Lebowitz also suggests that the division between the ordinary workers and the technicians and managers can be bridged by guaranteeing time and opportunities for worker self-education during the work day - something which the new constitutional reforms seem to be attempting to bring in. However, on this point Lebowitz has something of a blind spot as to the political lessons to be learned from Yugoslavia. He doesn't mention the elephant in the room, that Yugoslavia was politically a one-party Stalinist regime, where matters of national economic and social policy were simply not up for debate, except behind closed doors by bureaucratic cliques.
When Lebowitz talks about the managers and the experts and their alienation from the workers, he doesn't mention that the managers and experts were virtually all members of Tito's ruling party, the League of Communists. Colin Baker, an English socialist, has pointed out that the ruling parties of Stalinist regimes resemble in social composition and function nothing less than a Western conservative party - a mostly ideology-free zone where the elite meet to network and swap gossip. And so the problems of democracy within the "worker-managed" enterprises are intimately linked to the fact that an unaccountable bureaucracy was the real ruling class in Tito's Yugoslavia. The question of what kind of organisation the United Socialist Party of Venezuela becomes is, once more, absolutely vital. A new party built from below, which acts as a tool of worker and popular self-organisation and self-education, could be the vital link which pushes forward the struggle to abolish the class system in the workplace.
But that's not a guaranteed outcome of the Venezuelan revolution. The coalition which elected Chávez in 1998 and wrote the Bolivarian constitution was a highly contradictory one, like all broad democratic movements. The initial, reformist trajectory of the Chávez government was summed in in what was known as the "Sunkel plan" after its author - basically a prescription for building up domestic capitalism in Venezuela using a strong state, similarly to the way that Japan and South Korea industrialised. Lebowitz starts his last chapter - a potted history of the Bolivarian revolution to this point - by saying that we need "a challenge to capital that starts from the needs of human beings". In the early days, the dominant forces in the Chávez movement wanted nothing more than to be able to compete with world capitalism on a better footing, which meant cleaning up the corruption and parasitism endemic in the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.
But it was Chávez's very moves needed to survive which meant that the project was pushed inexorably to the left. After the counter coup in April 2002, Chávez at first attempted to placate the oligarchy. This only meant that they scented weakness, culminating in the oil lockout at the end of that year. To defeat that lockout, the government was forced to turn to the masses to keep itself alive. Grassroots committees in tandem with the military organised food distributions, took over petrol stations and re-opened schools which had been shut down. This was the point at which the organised working class and the "Positive Middle Class" movement emerged as real players. The workers at PdVSA "boasted that not only had they run the company well, they had signiciantly reduced the cost of production.” The terror of all popular reform movements - the capital strike - had happened and had been defeated. The Chávez government had taken the fateful decision to move in rather than give in.
“Venezuela's specific needs and condititions meant that it would have to invent rather than copy”, says Lebowitz. The Social Missions - parallel structures outside the state to funnel oil money into sosocial programmes - were the first inkling that the Chávez government had recognized that the Venezuelan state itself was its enemy. But it's well known that the Chávist movement is full of "counterrevolutionaries in red berets" - or, to put it less emotively, forces who want to see a return to the original, reformist goals of the Chávista movement, and are uncomfortable with the new ideas of mass participatory democracy or workers' control in the economy. Lebowitz notes:
among both existing state officeholders and appartchiks of the Chavist parties, there is some resistance to a shift downward in power because it reduces the ability to distribute jobs and largesse from above... The economic revolution, in short, has begun in Venezuela but the political revolution... and the cultural revolution... lag well behind. Without advances on these other two fronts, the Bolivarian Revolution cannot help but be deformed... Given the enemies of the... Revolution (both those outside and inside it), a political instrument that can bring together those fighting for protagonistic democracy in the workplace and in the community is needed."
The founding of the PSUV and the push for the new constitution - the constitution of the Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela - constitute the next steps in this political revolution. It is impossible to predict in advance what will happen next.
Lenin knew well that it is impossible for any organisation - even a revolutionary party - to make a sharp turn in practice, strategy or principle without internal stress, conflict and perhaps even splits. And yet, it is precisely that ability to make turns - that supreme tactical flexibility - which is vitally necessary in any political force which aims to take a leadership role in the class struggle. Michael Lebowitz's book gives all revolutionaries and anyone else serious about fighting for social change how to concretely engage with an active, living social struggle. He shows that you can do this not by abandoning Marxism or by sticking to a rigid predetermined "checklist" of what a revolution looks like, but by using reality to expand theory, rather than using theory to limit how we deal with reality. This short book - while not without its flaws or blind spots - is an example of how a revolutionary is supposed to think and write. Read it.