[OPE] counterfire review of socialist alternative

From: <glevy@pratt.edu>
Date: Sun Sep 26 2010 - 09:27:48 EDT


The crisis that burst upon the world in 2007 undermined
ideology and created a new audience for socialist ideas.
Alexander looks at three books that attempt to address the
possibilities for socialists.

Michael A.
Lebowitz, /The Socialist Alternative/ (Monthly Review
Press 2010),

Alan Maass, /The Case for Socialism/ (Haymarket
Books 2010), 173pp.

Erik Olin Wright, /Envisioning Real
Utopias/ (Verso 2010),
xviii, 394pp.

The economic crisis
beginning in 2007 punctured the dominance of
neo-liberal ideology,
without completely overturning it. To accomplish
that, and force
socialism back on the agenda, is the urgent political
job of the
left, as the establishment's relative disarray will not last
for the
long term. The tired old saw on democracy still functions for
capitalism as a whole: however bad capitalism is, it is the best system

possible. Breaking this piece of common sense is a priority.
the crisis does seem to have given left-wing writers the
confidence to
start openly arguing for socialism once more.

Despite books by figures as different as Badiou (/The Communist

Hypothesis/, Verso) and G. A. Cohen (/Why Not Socialism?/, Princeton

University Press), much of this new wave of writing seems to be
from the context of the American continents. The upsurge in
the left
across Latin America in the last ten years or so, as well
simultaneous bitter divisions within the USA, no doubt provide
impetus. Nonetheless, the three books considered in this review
are all
very different in intentions and approach, and so it might
be considered
somewhat unfair to consider them side by side. And
yet, it is precisely
their very varying perspectives that beg

Capitalism is a murderous system, and the
injustice and hardship within
a privileged centre such as the United
States provide Alan Maass with
the punchy opening for his /Case for
Socialism/. He goes on to contrast,
for example, the US government's
spending on wars and its social
spending, providing arguments that
anyone should find compelling.
Material of this kind enables the
book to develop an accessible critique
of American capitalism. This
approach can be rousing to the activist,
and is certainly a useful
source, but its effectiveness depends upon a
problematic assumption.
The hidden premise is that the experience of
economic hardship will
encourage people to look towards the left as a
matter of course.
Sadly, the terrible fact about capitalism is that its
damage lies
not merely in the quantitative hardships it inflicts upon so
people worldwide, but the isolating, embittering effects of the
daily experience of alienation in boom times as in recession. The
de-humanising impact of capitalism upon people is essential to the
system's survival.

Alienation is therefore a key element in
Michael A. Lebowitz's pithy but
profound explanation of capitalism
as a system in /The Socialist
Alternative/. Thus he explains why
'our power does not appear as our
power because, in reality, it
/isn't/ our power anymore. Rather, we
think of the means of
production, of our social heritage, as /capital/'
(p. 35). This
mystification of society and economy is constantly
reproduced by the
exploitative structures of capitalism. It is what
enables the ruling
class to convince many people that 'cuts' are just a
common sense
>From here, the analysis leads Lebowitz onto the
problem of defining socialism and the difficulties of achieving it.

Lebowitz intends his analysis of alienation and its socialist
'the rich human being', to provide the basis for a kind of
for the building of socialism. The formula here is
derived from Mészáros
by way of Chavez's triangle of
socialism: social ownership of the means
of production, social
production organised by workers, and social
production for communal
needs and purposes (p. 24). Lebowitz builds the
case for socialism
by moving from the profound de-humanising effects of
economic relations, to demonstrating why the 'socialisms' of
twentieth century failed to overcome capitalism's alienating
life-cycles. Thus learning from those disasters, through a return to
Marx's analysis of capitalism as an historically constituted system, is

necessary in developing a new socialist programme. This would be a
system of production, distribution and consumption in which
real human
needs rather than abstract profit become the driving
force. The shape of
socialism thus emerges very persuasively from
Marx's own analysis of

While Maass presents
a 'common sense' approach to the case against
capitalism, Lebowitz
illuminates why standard common sense is so often a
gift to
capitalist ideology. The thoughts of the ruling class are ruling
thoughts in a very deep sense. Lebowitz's careful definition of a
humanist socialist project makes brilliant use of Marx's writings from

the 1844 manuscripts, through to the /Grundrisse/ and /Capital/,
alongside a number of other works. The wholeness of Marx's thought on

the nature of capitalism, alienation and human liberation from it,
as a
result is made lucid and accessible. Lebowitz makes it clear
socialism does not simply follow directly from the horrors of

capitalism, but does not fully elaborate how capitalist alienation
be overcome through self-conscious, organised class struggle.

Nonetheless, Lebowitz extracts an impressively coherent set of
from Marx about the nature and meaning of socialism, giving
the lie to
an early contention in Eric Olin Wright's /Envisioning
Real Utopias/.
This contention is drawn from the standard view of
Marx that he left
only a 'broad-stroke conception of the future',
lacking a 'theory of the
trajectory' (pp. 27-9) into a future
system. Several passages in
Lebowitz would serve as withering put
downs of this point of view.

Wright adopts a number of
dispiriting positions for someone setting out
to 'envision' actual
'utopias'. One would expect such a project to
attempt to leap with
some enthusiasm beyond the given 'reality' of the
present, but in
fact Wright seems relentlessly to adopt the principles
socialism's opponents as his starting point. The counter-productive
effect of revolutionary perspectives is just one nostrum that re-appears

with some frequency. It begins to seem as if revolutionaries are
serious impediments to the achievement of 'real utopias' than,
say, the
capitalist ruling class. This is all a long way from
grounding in the perception that present 'common sense'
encodes the dominance of capitalism. Academic reason, such
as it is, is
often a reliable example of the thoughts of the ruling
class being
ruling thoughts.

This is the price of
Wright's 'realism'. Considerable space is given
over in the first
section, 'Diagnosis and Critique', to dealing with
even the most
tendentious right-wing defences of capitalism. The virtues
of a
straightforward, factual attack on capitalism is evident when the
distinguished left academic feels the need to concede capitalism's great

successes. Not only has capitalism 'generated dramatic technological
scientific progress' leading to much improvement but that 'these

improvements . . . have diffused quite broadly, including, more
recently, to significant parts of the developing world' (pp. 40-1). The

immense social destruction and exploitation, the suffering imposed
the bulk of the global population by neo-liberal globalisation,
seems to
have passed by Wright altogether. It is hard not to feel at
this point
that Wright would benefit from Maass' brisk run through
the horrors of
present-day capitalism.

Having conceded
the ground to panglossian visions of neo-liberal
globalisers, Wright
then offers the 'counter-factual' argument that the
world could be
better still under socialism. This seems to be a weak
position to
argue for the necessity of a wholly new social system.
Wright is not
choosing weak foundations out of caprice, but apparently
out of
theoretical conviction. He states that Marx was wrong in nearly
aspects of his work; 'historical materialism' is untenable, the
labour theory of value has been 'disproved', and there is no long term

tendency for the rate of profit to fall (pp. 100-110).

All that is left is a theory of 'class', which in Wright's hands seems

to be defined in static sociological terms, rather than anything
remotely dialectical in nature. This is particularly true in his
discussion of the complexities of class structure in modern developed

economies. Here he sees the capacity of a working class to act
collectively in a struggle against capitalism only declining over time.

No potential countervailing developments are considered. The growth
white collar work simply diminishes the share of the working
class in
the population, rather than adding to its potential
strength through the
increasing proletarianisation of non-managerial
professionals (p. 103).

Marx's method was at centre an
historical one. He did not analyse
capitalism by proceeding from
abstract categories but from the
historically constituted whole of
the social system as it actually
existed. Wright reproduces the
worst defect of bourgeois sociological
analysis by proceeding in the
opposite direction. For example, in a
hoary old chestnut of standard
thinking, he declares that 'no actual
living economy has ever been
purely capitalist or statist or socialist,
since it is never the
case that the allocation, control, and use of
economic resources is
determined by a single form of power' (p. 123).

Unable to live
up to positivist categories, reality is found wanting.
historically real development of capitalism as a whole system,
dominated by a capitalist class, is hidden by this sort of formalistic

analysis. The approach prevents Wright from seeing how capitalism

enforces the dominance of a particular kind productive relation
throughout the whole system, however sociologically 'impure' some parts

of the whole might be. Wright is forced to argue for 'real Utopias'

because in abandoning the guts of Marxism, he loses all sense of the

historical process by which capitalism might be vulnerable to attack
replacement by any social agent within it. Instead there are
'utopian' propositions which must be dissected for their
advantages and
disadvantages by a disconnected academic process.

Moreover, 'in no developed capitalist society has the working
developed a collective capacity to challenge the foundations
capitalist power' (p. 106). This is to read history through the
lens of
right-wing triumphalism internalised as defeat. History
becomes a flat
surface where the contradictory whole and the
contingent flow of class
struggle is written out of bounds. It seems
to be defeat, political and
ideological, which leads Wright to spend
so much space on tussling with
'ruling thoughts' rather than
advancing to any advocacy of socialism of
any kind.

Wright does reach the 'utopian' phase of his book, there is no
of the institutions of power which are crucial to the enforcing of
capitalism, or that these would be used against any really threatening

alternative. Indeed when discussing power he rules out seeing it in

clear class terms, reducing it to a concept of 'capacity' (p. 112).
doubt Wright could defend vigorously his rejection of Marxist
methodology for standard sociological categories and analysis. However,

it certainly rules out any revolutionary socialist praxis in favour
what becomes a moderate reformism within the bounds of the

The increasingly limited ambitions undermine the
plausibility of the
routes to 'utopia' that he presents. There are
of course many intriguing
ideas, such as 'democracy cards' as an
egalitarian way of financing
elections (pp. 167-70), or a universal
basic income (pp. 217-222). These
are splendid notions in the
abstract. Nonetheless it is hard to see them
being implemented in a
meaningful form without a politically powerful
working class
movement. Additionally, in the right circumstances, the
ruling class
might be able to manage some of these innovations to the
of capitalist interests. The former situation renders the
plan superfluous, and the latter pointless. In the discussion
universal basic income, the issue becomes one of the problem of
capital flight from any country that implemented such a programme. The

necessity of building a Maass, organised class force that could
this 'utopian' idea, does not arise.

having defined away class power in the Marxist sense, is only
interested in increasing 'social empowerment'. There are interesting
discussions of some proposed empowering mechanisms, like municipal
participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre. Wright does often effectively

point to the strengths and limitations of such experiments. Other

discussions, such as those of co-operatives and employee stock
ownership, are unconvincing as alternatives to capitalism, even within

Wright's terms, and are hard to see as utopian as such. Indeed, once
has been conceded that 'markets' are probably necessary, without
sense of the social power they give to existing class forces,
the sense
of a 'utopian' vision becomes quite elusive.

This is where Lebotwitz's elaboration of socialism as 'real human
development' is particularly refreshing. Lebowitz is much less detailed

than Wright in his consideration of possible plans and practical
alternatives, but that is actually a strength. It flows from a sound
understanding of the meaning of contingency in the building of socialism

in different circumstances. There are many possible demands and
that a powerful Maass movement could make, but their
particulars are
less important than the building of working class
solidarity. That is
the key germ of socialism, whatever particular
historically contingent
institutions socialist movements might

Even so there seems some ambiguity in Lebowitz's
argument precisely
around the building of a class power that could
push society towards
socialism. This hesitation may be related to
his involvement with the
'Bolivarian revolution' in Venezuela. A
detailed consideration of the
'Bolivarian revolution' from a
perspective close to Lebowitz is the
recent issue of /Monthly
Review/, July-August 2010; Marta Harnecker
begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting, /Latin

America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid
Mistakes/. There is no question that Latin America is presently a beacon

for anti-capitalism internationally. Nonetheless, in Venezuela and

Bolivia alike, the relationships between leaders and the movements,
the working class in general, are seen by many revolutionary
as problematic. Lebowitz and Harnecker seem to see Chavez
and Morales
uncomplicatedly as part of a revolutionary process.

Lebowitz leaves the question of the party to a short section at
the end
of the book. /The Socialist Alternative/ is gracefully
concise, and much
to be recommended, but the question of
organisation surely needs more
detailed consideration. Lebowitz
recognises the crucial role of
leadership, yet he seems to consider
the revolutionary party mainly
through the lens of the damage
Stalinist parties did in the twentieth
century. A genuine Leninist
party is not however merely a hierarchical
'transmission belt' for
orders (p. 162). Indeed Lebowitz's own arguments
on the dialectics
of alienation and liberation are deeply connected to
issues of class
consciousness and its relationship to the party, and
arguably cry
out for development in this direction.

All books that make a
general case for socialism, from the popular
pamphlet to the
academic treatise, always invite invidious comparison to
Marx and
Engels' /Communist Manifesto/. One of the many great strengths
that short book was its ability to convey highly complex and
revolutionary ideas in remarkably simple form. It seems much harder now,

for all sorts of reasons, to achieve anything like that wonderful
mix of
the profound and accessible. Maass avoids the complexity in
favour of
readability, and has produced a useful book, particularly
in an American
context, that might inspire many to political action.
Wright no doubt
wishes to inspire but seems unable to escape the
deadening assumptions
of pure academic sociology. Michael Lebowitz,
however, has produced a
very fine book, which does succeed in
echoing the original triumph of
dialectical /praxis/.

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Received on Sun Sep 26 09:29:19 2010

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