BOOKS/Seth Sandronsky

Yes, There is a Socialist Alternative

Michael A. Lebowitz writes about the past, present and future of socialism in his slim book, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, June 2010). To this end, he joins authors such as John Bellamy Foster and István Mészáros in the emerging theory of socialist transition. Yes, Mrs. Thatcher, there is an alternative. 

Lebowitz’ book has two parts. The first is the “socialist triangle.” Its three parts relate organically to part two, “building the socialist triangle.”

The three sections of the socialist triangle are: “the wealth of the people,” “the production of the people” and “the solidarian society.” Side one of the triangle is not “s/he who dies with the most toys wins.” This phrase aptly captures capitalism’s obsession with acquisitive consumption. Instead, Lebowitz means that people, from youth to the once-young, own as a society in cooperation, not competition, the fruits of human labor, theirs and from the past. Thus people own and run their workplaces. That helps to make them rich as in living and working well, a concept and practice of wealth that simply does not exist under capitalism. Under that system, workplaces alienate people from their jobs, others and the goods/service that their energy creates.

Against the framework that Lebowitz sets forth, right-wing arguments that President Obama is a socialist for spending tax dollars on social programs in (meager) response to the Great Recession from the housing collapse. Such characterization fogs rather than clarifies his steadfast loyalties to the politically connected on Wall Street and in the military-industrial and medical-industrial complexes.

For Lebowitz, social ownership is crucial to meeting the needs of all a society’s people in their living and working. His case for why this matters is well-thought out, and intriguing. Lebowitz, following Marx, argues that developing human capacities to their fullest rises and falls in practice and theory. In other words, what happens at and away from work bears directly on people (not) achieving their fullest potentials. The socialism that Lebowitz backs is emerging throughout Latin America. It is noteworthy that he, a retired economics professor from Canada, has lived and worked in Venezuela since 2004. His book reflects that time in no small measure.

Oh, one might say, what about social ownership in China, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia? Lebowitz critiques the strengths and weaknesses of these models, including that of worker-controlled enterprises. Here, he lays bare the flaws when the state stands above and over the populace.

The triangle’s second part is workers’ organizing social production. In short, this is their choosing how and what to make, distribute and consume. The driving force here is the development of people’s creative capacities to be whatever they can be, from an artist to machinist, scientist and well beyond. Capitalism lacks such a drive. Lebowitz explains why and the effects.

Lebowitz, in the first two chapters of the book’s second part, fleshes out the interdependence of the socialist triangle’s three sides. He makes clear that the new system does not fall from the heavens. Instead, it emerges from the existing system, and “necessarily inherits premises from the old.” The new order “must go beyond what it has inherited to produce its own premises; it has to generate premises in their socialist economic form.” A big part of this shift is “the socialist principle [that] fosters a new relation, a communal society in which productive activity is undertaken not out of self-interest both where communal needs and purposes are understood as the basis of our activity.”

The book’s final two chapters flesh out concrete questions of the socialist transition. Its break with the logic of capitalism: accumulation, competition and exploitation, is a constant struggle to deepen and develop a new society and new people. A vital part of this process is a charter for human development. In it, Lebowitz writes, all people’s birthright provides them the opportunity to live in a “good society,” one that fosters the fullest possible blossoming of human beings.  

Meanwhile, capitalism’s crises of the ecology and economy worsen. What to do? One could do worse than to read and recommend to others The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development. It sheds useful light on core issues in shifting to a system that puts people and the planet first.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2010

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