[OPE-L] GLW Review of _Build It Now!_

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Mar 26 2007 - 22:20:34 EDT

---------------------------- Original Message --------------------------
Current GLW:
<http://www.greenleft.org.au/>28 March 2007
Issue #704

'Two, three, many Bolivarian revolutions!'

Stuart Munckton
24 March 2007

Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century
Monthly Review Press, 2006
US$14.95, 127 pages

“I recommend this good book, booklet to go by its
size, but the content is big”, Venezuela’s
socialist President Hugo Chavez said on his
television program Alo Presidente on January 21.
He was speaking about Build it Now: Socialism for
the Twenty-first Century, written by Michael Lebowitz.

On the same show in April last year, Chavez had
commented “Michael Lebowitz sent me a good work,
a chapter of a book about Venezuela [entitled]
‘The Revolution of Radical Need’.” Agreeing with
Lebowitz’s key argument, Chavez insisted: “A
revolution has to satisfy people’s needs in a
radical way ­ that is at the root. And therefore
this revolution has to become more and more
radical … I stress Michael Lebowitz’s concept … because we
are in a hurry.”

This recommendation of the latest book by
Lebowitz, a Canadian Marxist academic, by the
central leader of the Bolivarian revolution is
reason enough to read this book. Lebowitz is
active participant in the revolution. He
currently lives in Venezuela, where he has
previously worked as an advisor for the Chavez
government. He works as an advisor with the
Miranda International Centre, which seeks to
promote discussion and debate both in Venezuela
and internationally on revolutionary ideology.
Only the book’s final chapter deals specifically
with Venezuela, but as Lebowitz explains in the
introduction: “Although the essays in this book
come from various sources, most relate in some
way to Venezuela, a country which at the time of
writing embodies the hopes of many for a real
alternative to capitalism.”

The concept in the book’s title, of “socialism
for the 21st century”, originated in Venezuela.
Chavez first raised the concept in 2005, urging
an alternative to the horrors of capitalism that
avoided the errors of the Soviet Union. Lebowitz
explains the first half of the title is inspired
by a slogan of the South African Communist Party:
“Socialism is the future, build it now!” He says,
“Regardless of the practice of the SACP, I’ve
always felt that the slogan is profound ­
precisely because that slogan simultaneously
recognises the need for a vision that can guide
us … and also stresses the need for activity, the
need to struggle for that goal now.”

This combination of vision and struggle captures
Lebowitz’s central point about how a better,
socialist, society can be created: “In the
struggle to realize the vision of a new society,
we not only change the old society, we also
change ourselves, and, as Marx commented, make
ourselves fit to create the new society.”

Lebowitz begins by pointing to the need for an
alternative to capitalism, writing that “the
whole system revolves around profits and not
human needs … we see everyday what capitalism
produces. The blatant waste in advertising, the
destruction of the planet, the starvation of
children alongside the obscene salaries of
professional athletes, the despotic workplace and
the treatment of human beings as so much garbage
… these are not accidents in the world of
capitalism”. Rather they are inevitable in a
society organised according to the needs of the
capitalist, not human development.

However, Lebowitz argues that the attempts to
build a post-capitalist society in the 20th
century also failed to create a system “in which
the worker’s need for self-development
dominates”. Lebowitz claims much of the
alternatives to capitalism in the 20th century
focused on the expansion of the productive forces
“leaving little room for the exploration of the
relevance of the social relations in which people
live”. Sidestepping the debate about how best to
categorise what he calls the “20th century
alternative”, Lebowitz says the key thing is to
“recognize that what emerged last century was
definitely not the concept of socialism that Marx envisaged”.

Instead, Lebowitz returns to Karl Marx’s concept
that the aim of socialism is to create a system
that could “unleash the full development of all human potential”.

Lebowitz provides a very useful introduction to
Marxist economics in the first chapter, entitled
“The Needs of Capital Versus the Needs of Human
Beings” and explains how it is that the
capitalist system serves only the needs of
capital, not humanity. Lebowitz points to the
division between the small minority that own the
means of producing wealth, the capitalist class,
and the rest of society, who are forced to sell
their labour power to the capitalists to survive
­ the working class ­ as the key contradiction
that needs to be resolved if we are to develop a
society that puts human needs first.

Lebowitz explains how the needs of the working
class come into conflict with the needs of
capitalists to increase their profits by
increasing the exploitation of their work force.
This occurs at the same time as capitalism
dramatically expands productive capacity, leading
to the contradiction between the potential to
resolve world hunger, while greater numbers of
people are condemned to starvation.

In the second chapter, Lebowitz, pointing out
that “Economic theory is not neutral”, demolishes
the theory behind neoliberal economics, with its
near-religious belief in the power of the “free
market” to solve the needs of society. Lebowitz
reveals how neoliberal economics “justifies”
freeing capital from any restriction in order to
better subjugate the rest of society to capital’s interests.

He also reveals the key weakness in the Keynesian
alternative, traditionally promoted by social
democrats. Lebowitz points out that the key
problem with social-democracy is political ­ it
assumes, like neoliberalism, that the economies
can only be run on a capitalist basis. Therefore,
while there may be a role in times of crisis for
the state to stimulate the economy via
investment, the provision of welfare, and
ensuring decent wages, when the capitalists
decide they no longer need such measures,
social-democracy inevitably backs down.

However, Lebowitz shows how, if you realize that
it is workers, not capitalists, who ultimately
possess productive capacity, there is no reason
to back down just because capitalists threaten to
revolt. If capital refuses to invest or goes on
“strike” a government can either “give in or move
in”. If the state is willing to organize
production when capitalists refuse to, not only
is the threat of economic crisis removed, but
also the space is opened to begin to build a
post-capitalist alternative. However,
social-democracy refuses to take this road, as
Lebowitz uses his personal experience as a policy
advisor to the social-democratic government in
British Colombia during the 1970s to show.

The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring
how the socialist alternative of a system based
on resolving the needs of people rather than
capital can be constructed. In opposition to the
bureaucratic, dictatorial model associated with
Stalinism, Lebowitz strongly emphasizes Marx’s
arguments about the centrality of the
self-activity of working people themselves as the road
to emancipation.

In particular, Lebowitz puts enormous weight on
the role of workers’ management over production
as a tool both to allow production to be
organised along pro-people lines, and just as
importantly allow working people through their
own experiences to develop themselves into “new
people”, capable of constructing a new society
based on the principles of collective rather than
individual interests.

However, Lebowitz doesn’t argue that simply
introducing a model involving workers’ management
is enough to change society. He polemicises
against the anarchist academic John Holloway, who
argues against seeking to win state power to
achieve change. Lebowitz points out that this
argument “has been refuted in two clear ways”.
First of all, looking at the experience of the
Venezuelan revolution, he argues: “Can we even
begin to imagine the changes that are occurring
here now without the power of the state?”
Lebowitz refers to Marx’s arguments on the need
for workers to win state power to transform
society, explaining that it needs to be a form of
state power fundamentally different to the
capitalist state, organised democratically as the
self-government of working people.

It is the final chapter, delving in depth into
the Bolivarian revolution, where the book really
shines. It is here that the preceding arguments
are playing out in reality. Lebowitz provides an
extremely useful overview of the history and
dynamics of the revolution. He explains how it is
that the process, begun by Chavez’s election in
1998, didn’t begin with the aim of constructing
socialism. Rather, it was based on contradictory
aims, captured in the constitution adopted in
1999, of attempting to develop a new society that
would put people’s needs first while capitalism
would remain the main economic framework.

Lebowitz explains how the capitalist class
launched a revolt against the measures of the
Chavez government that sought to resolve the
needs of the poor majority, launching first the
military coup in April 2002, then a bosses’
lockout in December that year. The Chavez
government had to chose between continuing to see
capitalism as the framework to develop the
Venezuelan nation, or else relying on poor
majority themselves and breaking with capitalism
to continue develop the goals in the constitution
that promote human development. It was this that
led the revolution to promote “socialism for the 21st century”.

Lebowitz provides a detailed discussion on the
attempts in Venezuela to create badly needed
economic development along lines that put the
needs of people first. In particular, he looks at
the experiments in cooperatives and workers’
co-management as means by which working people
can get control of the economy and through the
process transform themselves into revolutionary
subjects. He presents some of the key debates on
the way forward for the Bolivarian revolution,
giving special attention to the debates
surrounding experiments in workers’
co-management. He puts his view on the necessity
to develop the means by which working people can
increasingly run the economy in order for the revolution
to advance.

He puts large emphasis on the need for a
political and cultural revolution in Venezuela,
to accompany the economic changes. The need is
both to empower working people, which he sees
possible both through co-management and the new
grassroots communal councils, and simultaneously
create “new values” that mean that working people
use this power not in their narrow self-interest
but according to the needs of society as a whole.
He argues, “Without democratic, participatory and
protagonistic production, people remain the
fragmented, crippled human beings that capitalism
produces”. However, simply giving people the
power without seeking to transform their
consciousness will not lead to a better society,
as he uses recent examples in Venezuela to demonstrate.

This captures the essence of the struggle Chavez
is pushing forward, especially since his victory
in the December presidential elections. Two of
the key struggles he has since announced are an
“explosion of popular power”, via the communal
councils, and a revolution in education in order
to create a new socialist morality. This explains
why Chavez has promoted Lebowitz’s book so
enthusiastically, and why anyone who wants to
understand the direction of the Bolivarian revolution
should read it.

The book has some weaknesses, most notably the
way Lebowitz conflates the various experiments in
creating a post-capitalist society in the last
century into gross distortion of socialism that
was Stalinism, tying it all up together in the
concept of “20th century socialism”. One
consequence of this is that the book completely
ignores the example of Cuba, which, while
influenced by the Soviet Union, avoided
degenerating into a bureaucratic dictatorship. As
a result the Cuban Revolution, despite its
limitations as a poor, blockaded island, has been
able to show inspiring examples of the sort of
pro-people logic Lebowitz advocates. This
omission is especially notable given the crucial
role Cuba has played in assisting the Bolivarian
revolution. Cuba’s provision of tens of thousands
of volunteer doctors and teachers to start the
social missions, a product of Cuba having broken
with the logic of capital, were essential to the
revolution advancing.

Also, while Lebowitz understandably and quite
rightly, puts a big emphasis on the self-activity
of working people in order to create the “new
human” capable of building a different sort of
society, this only deals with one half of the
problem. The other side is the question of
leadership, and constructing out of the daily
struggles of working people a political
instrument capable of leading the struggle, which
are not touched on for most of the book. However,
the actual experience of the Bolivarian
revolution highlights the signficance of solving
this question, and Lebowitz rightly raises this
as a key question in Venezuela.

Lebowitz uses the Bolivarian revolution to tie
the book together in his conclusion. He argues
the Bolivarian revolution “has reminded us that
socialism is not the goal. Rather, the goal is
the full development of human potential.
Socialism is the path to that goal. The only
path.” Importantly. Lebowitz also notes that “the
Bolivarian Revolution has also put Marxism back
on the agenda. But not just any kind of Marxism.”
Rejecting the mechanical “Marxism” that only sees
increasing economic growth and material wealth as
its goal, Lebowitz argues the Bolivarian
revolution has placed at its center an
understanding that “real wealth is human wealth”.

Lebowitz argues “most of what stands out about
the Bolivarian Revolution has little specifically
to do with Venezuela. The struggle for human
development … the understanding that people are
transformed as they struggle for justice and
dignity … that socialism and protagonistic
democracy are one ­ these are the characteristics
of a new humanist socialism, a socialism for the
twenty-first century everywhere.”

At the end of the book’s introduction, Lebowitz
argues that “The choice before us is socialism or
barbarism. Which one shall it be?” Lebowitz
paraphrases Che Guevara to provide his answer at
the end of this inspiring read: “So, today, let
us say, ‘Two, Three, Many Bolivarian Revolutions.’”

From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue
#<http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2007/704>704 28 March 2007.

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