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Book Review: The Socialist Imperative

R. Burke

The Socialist Imperative

In recent years Michael A Lebowitz, a writer associated with the Monthly Review current of socialist thought, has produced a number of books regarding practical matters involved with the building of socialism. In The Socialist Alternative he discussed the concept of the elementary triangle of socialism: social ownership of the means of production, production organized by workers councils, and production planned to meet communal needs. The Contradictions of Real Socialism; the Conductor and the Conducted examined the structure and functioning of the Soviet economic system, demonstrating how it was undermined by the contradiction between the socialist logic of planners and workers versus the logic of capital followed by managers of enterprises, motivated by maximizing their material rewards. In his most recent book The Socialist Imperative; from Gotha to Now Mr. Lebowitz has presented a collection of essays expanding upon the themes of his earlier works, including some rather interesting insights into the weakness of the Yugoslavian model as well as making links between his views on a socialist alternative and environmental concerns.

While these essays all touch on different issues, there is a recurrent theme running through them all. This is “a focus upon Marx’s key link of human development and practice, the importance of building the capacity and strength of the working class through spaces and practices like worker’s councils and communal councils, and what happens when you do not.” One particular insight of Marx that Mr. Lebowitz calls attention to is that capitalism produces a working class that assumes the need for a capitalist class. This is a lesson that needs to be kept in mind when contemplating contemporary political events, in which a growing discontent over the dominance of neoliberalism may take nationalistic and ugly forms.

Lebowitz begins with an essay, “The Capitalist Nightmare and the Socialist Dream.” Here he makes use of images derived from popular culture- vampires and zombies- with which to critique capitalism. Like the living dead of our television shows, capitalism feeds on living labor. Mr. Lebowitz calls attention to the way that capitalism’s hunger for profit thrives on the overcoming of barriers, obstacles to its growth that cause it to develop by overcoming those barriers. This he likens to the living dead. In the process two waste products are created: nature and society. Nonetheless we can invert the capitalist nightmare and have the socialist dream instead. This requires that capitalism must encounter its’ limit, its’ final end.

An important chapter of the book deals with the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx’s unpublished thoughts on the attempt to create what would become the German Social Democratic party in May 1875. Marx criticized the influence of Lassalle, one of the German socialist leaders, in the wording of the document. Lebowitz calls attention to the fact that older societies are built upon the basis which a previous one has left them, and that a process must consciously be engaged in leading towards the newer society being able to reproduce itself on its’ own basis. Like Alain Badiou, Lebowitz finds the forms of political organization resorted to in the Paris Commune, self governing communes, as the political institution necessary for the building of socialism, intimately connected with the planning of production for the satisfaction of communal needs.

Two chapters are focused on the shortcomings of previous attempts to build socialism.

Whereas the Soviet Union was beset by a contradiction between the logic of capital represented by managers and the socialist logic of planners, in Yugoslavia self-managing enterprises competed on the market without any attempt to plan for collective needs. As a result there was a tendency to treat the enterprise as ‘group property’, competing with other such units for the maximization of self-interest. While there were some attempts in the 70’s to encourage the development of planning from the bottom up, these were fiercely resisted by managers, and came to naught. While the Soviet Union neglected one side of the socialist triangle, workers self-management, Yugoslavia neglected another, production planned to meet communal needs.

Beyond his insights into the elementary triangle of socialism Lebowitz stresses the importance of self-development and transformation. He reminds us that, for Marx, the working class becomes revolutionary through its’ struggles with capitalism, that is through a process of self-transformation. The revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its’ position within the process of production, yet without the struggles to improve its’ lot it does not learn to develop those potentials, or gain the confidence that would allow it to overcome capitalism. Indeed his concept of ‘socialism for the 21st century’ is of a society organized to encourage “the full development of the potential of all members of society.”

Also important is his views regarding communal councils as the basis of a new form of state. Mr. Lebowitz recognizes however that this is a process of development, not something that is accomplished in one stroke and is done. While the new state is coming into being, the old one will for some indefinite time continue to exist. He is therefore critical of those who attempt to build a new society by refusing to take power or to engage in the control of the state. In a transitional period in which the foundations of a new process of social self- reproduction are being laid while the remnants of an older system still persist, to avoid the taking of power in the ‘old state’ is to allow an important instrument of governance to remain in the hands of those who would suppress the emergence of a new society. “The socialist mode of regulation involves a combination of the nurturing of the new state and the withering away of the old.”

Overall The Socialist Imperative, from Gotha to Now is a timely set of essays that address rather practical matters about the construction of socialism. Michael A. Lebowitz displays a mastery of the details regarding previous attempts to create a socialist alternative and the lessons to be learned from this. His use of the concept of the ‘elementary triangle of socialism’ shows us what is necessary in order to avoid the mistakes of the past and be more successful in the future. The emphasis on the process of human development and the vital role that human self-activity plays in this provides insight into the question of ‘what is to be done’ to end the capitalist nightmare and fulfill the socialist dream. This book is yet another worthy effort from Mr. Lebowitz.

The Socialist Imperative; from Gotha to Now

By Michael A. Lebowitz


Monthly Review Press, New York, 2015

224 pages, Paperback, $22.00