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, built 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 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".
Lebwitz 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 Lebowtiz 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. 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 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 sort 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 Lebowtiz 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, Lebwotiz 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.'"