[OPE-L] Review of "Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Mar 09 2007 - 09:47:25 EST

>Michael A. Lebowitz. Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First
>Century. Monthly Review Press. New York, 2006. 127 pages
>Reviewed by James Haywood
>This book consists of several talks and essays written by Michael
>Lebowitz during 2004 and 2005, years in which he participated
>first-hand in the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela. Since its release,
>his new book has had a significant impact in Venezuela, and was
>recently featured by President Hugo Chavez in his regular television
>show "Alo Presidente!"
>Lebowitz's book aims to flesh out the concept of 21st Century
>socialism ­ made famous by Chavez and the Bolivarians ­counterposing
>it to both Stalinism and social democracy.
>This book should have a place in every socialist's collection. It
>relates basic conceptions of Marxism to the Venezuelan process today.
>However, a failure to look at the experience of Soviet Russia in
>Lenin's time and the Cuban revolution make this book, at times,
>somewhat abstract.
>Marxism is a political act
>The book starts with an outstanding introduction to basic Marxist
>theory. Lebowitz stresses that Marx "wrote Capital as a political act,
>as part of his revolutionary project." (page 29) In other words
>Marxism does not view the world through a set agenda of formulas.
>Marxism is about using and developing theories in response to reality.
>Lebowitz goes on to explore the main ideologies justifying capitalism,
>specifically neoclassical economics and theories associated with the
>British economist J.M. Keynes. His discussion of Keynesianism is of
>greater interest because of its influence in the workers' movement. In
>brief, its basic concept is that "workers could gain without capital
>losing." (page 35) Both approaches are essentially alike, Lebowitz
>says: they propose different mechanisms for the government to "support
>capital's requirements" in order to "make capital happy to invest."
>(page 37) The labour movement needs a true alternative, Lebowitz says,
>based on stimulating "the solidarity that comes from an emphasis upon
>the interests of the community rather than self-interest." (page 42)
>Lebowitz convincingly describes how such a policy, carried out by a
>government with mass support, could create "non-capitalist sectors" in
>the economy (e.g. state-run enterprises) which could defend such a
>government against a "capital strike" by the bosses — a clear
>reference to the Venezuelan experience.
>In Lebowitz's view, Third World countries like Venezuela can achieve
>"endogenous development" — which serves the interests of the
>population, not imperialism — "but only if a government is prepared to
>break ideologically and politically with capital, only if it is
>prepared to make social movements actors in the realization of an
>economic theory based upon the concept of human capacities." (page 42)
>Lebowitz claims that the biggest obstacle to socialism is "TINA"
>(There Is No Alternative), i.e. the idea pounded into the mentality of
>workers and exploited in Latin America is there is nothing worth
>fighting for. But surely Cuba is on their doorstep as a living
>example? Unfortunately there is no mention of Cuba at all.
>Lebowitz does well to refute the anti-statist conception that all
>governments are necessarily repressive, using Venezuela as an example.
>He also attacks the Stalinist model, represented above all by the
>Soviet Union. Interestingly, rather than attack the undemocratic
>political system, he criticizes the Soviet Union from a different
>"The Soviet Union took the form of immense factories, mills and
>collective farms.… We must acknowledge that small enterprises may both
>permit greater democratic control from below (thus developing the
>capacities of the producers) and might better preserve an environment
>that can serve the needs of the people." (page 71-72)
>More fundamentally, he warns, "socialism cannot be achieved from above
>through the efforts and tutelage of a vanguard that seizes all
>initiatives and distrusts the self-development of the masses." (page
>72) Surely this bold statement is aimed against not only Stalinism but
>elements within Chavez's own movement who consider themselves above
>and beyond the masses.
>The Yugoslav Experience
>Another section of the book, entitled "Seven Difficult Questions,"
>poses tasks for the Venezuelan movement for workers' control by
>discussing the Yugoslav experience of "self-management." Lebowitz
>provides detailed information on an experience not often discussed
>within the left, taking up problems such as factory competition,
>managerial responsibilities, and the politicization of workers.
>Among his fresh and challenging questions: "What responsibility do
>workers in self-managed enterprises have for the unemployed and the
>excluded? Who is responsible for creating jobs?" (page 79)
>Still, he appears to evade the central problem: Yugoslavia was ruled
>by a privileged bureaucracy, in the Stalinist mode, which
>depoliticized its working class.
>Lebowitz does well to point to the fact that self-management in and of
>itself is not socialist. The final question, which takes this up, is
>called, "How can solidarity between worker-managed enterprises and
>society as a whole be incorporated directly into those enterprises?"
>(page 83) Small worker-managed factories can and have existed under
>capitalism, he points out. What makes the character of this socialist
>is how production is intertwined with the needs of society: is the
>enterprise running to make a profit or as part of a planned economy to
>meet people's needs?
>In Yugoslavia, he says, the "focus was on self-interest rather than
>the interests of the working class as a whole." (page 84)
>Venezuela Today
>Lebowitz's book comes alive when he takes up the Venezuelan revolution
>today. He provides a brief but effective account of how the Bolivarian
>movement led by Hugo Chávez evolved ­ from his early days in power as
>a champion of a capitalist "third way," through the right-wing
>lock-out and coup attempts, where he saw the power of independent
>mobilizations by working people.
>The insights are fresh and compelling, reflecting Lebowitz's
>experience as a socialist living in Venezuela, deeply imbedded in its
>revolutionary process.
>He stresses that "the traditional organized working class [has been]
>less of an actor in this revolution" than the poor in the
>neighbourhoods. (page 102) But this changed — to some extent — after
>the lockout and the formation of a militant union federation (the
>UNT). Examples are given of workers taking over abandoned or
>capital-starved factories and managing the workplaces themselves.
>Lebowitz warns that "there is nothing inevitable about whether the
>Bolivarian Revolution will succeed in building that new society or
>whether it will lapse into a new variety of capitalism with populist
>characteristics. Only struggle will determine this." (page 116)
>And the greatest barrier in this struggle comes, he says, from "people
>wearing the red shirt who are opposed to the revolution." The greatest
>threat comes "from within the Bolivarian Revolution itself." (page
>Lebowitz also argues that "the Bolivarian Revolution has also put
>Marxism back on the agenda." This is certainly true, but the book
>would have been strengthened by considering the relationship of the
>Venezuelan movement to Cuba, which boldly put Marxism on the agenda 46
>years ago. This relationship has found expression both on the plane of
>ideas and materially, through the tens of thousands of Cuban medical
>and other experts serving in Venezuela.
>The book closes by touching on Che Guevara, For Che recognized "that
>it is necessary to act vigorously to eliminate the categories of the
>old society, particularly the lever of material interest, and to build
>the new human being." Lebowitz says that "Che's Marxism is embodied in
>the Bolivarian revolution." (pages 117-18)
>Lebowitz's book is far from clear on how this is to be done.
>Paraphrasing Marx, he says "the idea of human society is sufficient to
>defeat the idea of barbarism." (page 52) and calls for "governments
>who "reject the logic of capital." He avoids reflection on previous
>revolutionary experiences in Russia, Cuba, and elsewhere. If this
>sounds a bit vague, it may reflect the evolution of the Venezuelan
>process itself. Recent speeches by Chávez have been more specific on
>the need to build a new state apparatus based on the masses (see
>Socialist Voice #108)
>But the book has an overriding merit. It explains why we are fighting
>capitalism. Do we just want an end to war and better wages? Lebowitz
>argues that our goal is nothing less than the full development of
>human potential, something capitalism just cannot achieve. Lebowitz's
>socialism is one that rejects social democracy and Stalinism; it is a
>socialism based on workers' democracy. The task now is to build
>parties and movements that can make this idea a reality.

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