Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century
By Michael A Lebowitz
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, speaking about Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century, written by Michael Lebowitz.
This recommendation by the central leader of the Bolivarian revolution of the latest book by Canadian Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz is reason enough to read it. Lebowitz is an active participant in the revolution, currently living in Venezuela where he has previously worked as an adviser for the Chavez government and currently as an adviser with the Miranda International Centre, which seeks to promote discussion and debate both in Venezuela and internationally on revolutionary ideology. Only the final chapter deals specifically with Venezuela, but 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 idea of "socialism for the 21st century" originated in Venezuela. Chavez first raised it in 2005, urging an alternative to the horrors of capitalism that avoided the errors of the Soviet Union.
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".
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 envisiged".
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". In the second chapter, Lebowitz demolishes the theory behind neoliberal economics, with its near-religious belief in the power of the "free market" to solve the needs of society, revealing how it really justifies freeing capital from any restriction in order to better subjugate the rest of society to its 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 — that it assumes, like neoliberalism, that the only way the economy can be run is by capitalism.
The rest of the chapters are dedicated to exploring how the socialist alternative of a system based on resolving the needs of people rather than capital can be constructed. In particular, Lebowitz puts enormous weight on the role of workers' management of production as a tool to allow production to be organised along pro-people lines.
It is the final chapter, delving in depth into the Bolivarian revolution, where the book really comes alive. Lebowtiz 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 start 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' lock-out in December that year. The Chavez government had to choose between continuing to see capitalism as the framework to develop the Venezuelan nation, or else relying on the poor majority themselves and breaking with capitalism to continue to develop the goals in the constitution that promote human development. It was this that led the revolution to promote "socialism for the 21st century" as the alternative.
The book has some weaknesses, most notably the way Lebowtiz collapses the various experiments in creating a post-capitalist society in the last century into the gross distortion of socialism that was Stalinism, tying it all up together in the concept of "20th century socialism". One consequence of this is 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, was essential to the Venezuelan revolution advancing.
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, Lebowtiz 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.'"