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Synthesis/Regeneration 55   (Spring 2011)

The Socialist Alternative — Real Human Development a review

by R. Burke

Any hope for a revitalization of the World Left inevitably involves a rethinking of the concept of Socialism. Old formulas, handed down from the days of the Leninist party-state, cannot be offered as a response for today’s situation. In this rethinking of the socialist project, books like Michael A. Lebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative — Real Human Development are a welcome addition to the debate.

Applying ideas drawn from his study of Marxism and practical work from his involvement with the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, Lebowitz attempts to define exactly what is necessary for a socialist society to be successful. He begins with his concept of the “socialist triangle,” the three factors necessary to build the socialist alternative.

The first of these is social ownership, the idea that ownership of and control over productive activity should belong collectively to those who are affected by that activity: workers, consumers, and citizens. Here Lebowitz makes reference to the work of Pat Devine. While he agrees with Devine on the necessity of this form of ownership to any viable alternative, he states that it is only one side of the triangle and therefore not sufficient. Devine himself would no doubt agree with this conclusion. While the con-cept of social ownership is an important part of Devine’s model of participatory planning through negotiated cooperation, the bulk of his book, Democracy and Economic Planning, is devoted to addressing the same concerns that Lebowitz explores in The Socialist Alternative.

While necessary, worker management is not sufficient for the construction of socialism.

The second side of the socialist triangle is worker self-management. Again, while necessary, worker management is not sufficient for the construction of socialism. The danger of sectional interests working for their own benefit rather than that of the common good remains a major problem.

Here Lebowitz calls for the third side of the socialist triangle, the need for a “solidarian society” that would encourage the development of activities beneficial to the larger community. By concentrating on economic goals that prioritize social need rather than individual enrichment Lebowitz hopes to encourage the development of a greater degree of social solidar-ity.

Lebowitz sees in the development of workers’ and community councils the beginnings of a new socialist state. Elected governments are the remnants of the old one. For socialist society to develop it is vitally necessary to have both the old state controlled democratically by those who are committed to building an alternative to capitalism, as well as the construction of the councils of a new form of governance.

This requires a specifically socialist mode of regulation, and thus a state led by a party whose goals are to encourage the development of all three sides of the socialist triangle. Such a party by definition cannot be the Leninist vanguard party, but one which seeks to raise consciousness of the need for a socialist alternative, and acts as a facilitator for the revolutionary process.

Lebowitz expresses support for measures aimed at reducing the working day, but seems compelled to justify this by labeling time spent off the job as work in the household and community. He bases this on a passage in volume one of Capital which claims that under socialism necessary labor time will actually be increased. On this issue Lebowitz runs the risk of defining socialism as the society in which we will work longer and harder for the common good. As far as practical politics are concerned this definition is a non-starter and is likely to alienate many potential supporters. Here one misses the sensibility of the early writings of Marx which speculate on transcending the contradiction between labor and leisure, or the comments by Marcuse in An Essay on Liberation where he discusses the possibility that the process of production could be transformed into a process of creation.

Lebowitz runs the risk of defining socialism as the society in which we will work longer and harder for the common good.

While most of his book is encouraging in its attempts to visualize the basic requirements for a socialist society, a glaring omission is the lack of attention paid to environmental issues. The only mention of this is a passage in the preface that states that “the drive for quantitative expansion that is inherent in capitalism has now generated an ecological crisis.” A book which attempts to discuss “socialism in the 21st century” while largely overlooking the issues involved with addressing global warming runs the risk of seeming quaint. That it will be necessary to take environmental concerns into the consideration of just how we build socialism does not seem to oc-cur to Mr. Lebowitz. Serious questions concerning appropriate technology, renewable energy, human scale growth and production, tradeoffs between development and ecological protection, international organization, etc., are not addressed. One almost gets the impression that as long as we get all three sides of the socialist triangle right these matters will somehow take care of themselves. While the things Lebowitz argues for in The Socialist Alternative are necessary, they are not sufficient for dealing with the ecological crisis. In comparison, the ecological politics of Andre Gorz is much stronger in making the connections between socialism and environmentalism. Perhaps Mr. Lebowitz might follow up by writing another book in which he applies his concept of the socialist triangle to environmental issues.

While his work suffers from this oversight, on the whole the book is worth reading. Michael Lebowitz attempts to tackle some thorny problems for 21st century socialism, and comes up with some quite acceptable solutions. The Socialist Alternative — Real Human Development should command the attention of anyone committed to building that alternative.

R. Burke is an artist, teacher, writer and practitioner of Tai Chi and Soto Zen Buddhism living in St. Louis.

[6 july 11]

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