Socialism is back on the agenda as an alternative social model in Lebowitz’s Socialist Imperative, but we cannot do without the revolutionary party, argues Kit Klarenberg

Michael A Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (Monthly Review Press 2015), 264pp.

“Bourgeois class domination is undoubtedly a historical necessity, but so too is the rise of the working class against it. Capital is also a historical necessity, but so too is its grave digger, the proletariat.” 
Rosa Luxemburg

The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now is Michael Lebowitz’s latest work, a gathering of eleven ruminations on the nature of socialism in the present day. In many ways, this is a refreshing volume that helpfully adds its voice to a suddenly resurgent and more confident left.

Books articulating theories of socialist development are voluminous in number. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the publication of such volumes has been fervid, as academics and Kathedersozialisten (armchair theorists) have struggled to make sense of the post-Cold War world with impotently speculative screeds. Much of this literature has been stricken by a focus on how the left can change things without assuming power. This propensity was perhaps as unsurprising as it was unhelpful; since 1991, the left has largely been in retreat worldwide, with the prospect of socialism assuming control anywhere appearing as an ever-waning fantasy.

The USSR is no more, replaced by a series of nationalistic, largely oligarchical police states. The Union’s disparate cluster of international associates, isolated and defenceless against Western economic warfare and clandestine meddling, promptly adopted varieties of capitalism or, like Cuba, struggled to survive. Many ostensibly progressive parties the world over have accepted neoliberal policies and principles.

A period of defeat

It is understandable if some feel that to be a socialist in the twenty-first century is to be perpetually disappointed; a state of mind which understandably fosters a sense of pervasive resignation. Margaret Thatcher’s constantly reiterated declaration “there is no alternative” has seemingly become a mephitic prophet’s curse made real.

In The Socialist Imperative, Lebowitz specifically seeks to counteract this mentality; he dubs it a symptom of ‘a period of defeat’. It is precisely this appreciation of the current milieu, and its attendant pessimism and scepticism, which makes the book so necessary. The Socialist Imperative seems particularly vital in light of a year which has seen Venezuela continuing to endure unrelenting US-led assaults on its dignity, the rapid surge of Syriza to government in Greece, blighted by an even more hurried total capitulation in office, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn. All these events bring into sharp relief the scale of the battle believers in alternative ideas must fight in order to get a hearing of any kind within mainstream political structures.

Suffice to say, Lebowitz does not believe socialism a hopeless cause. In fact, as modern capitalism increasingly threatens not only the stability of the environment, but our very species survival, he considers it a more morally crucial objective than ever. In attempting to establish a framework for socialist victory in the twenty-first century, he assesses why previous efforts were unsuccessful, how capitalism came to be embraced – or, at least, tolerated – by the people who would benefit most from a more equitable configuration of society, and advances a modernised vision of collectivist organisation.

No apology

Much of the material here dealing with past socialist miscarriages – in particular the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – will be familiar ground to many readers. However, Lebowitz’s analysis is always refreshing, far removed from more common ‘if only’ apologetic tracts. He identifies exactly what caused the downfall of each system, and offers detailed elucidation of why they were or became lost causes.

Likewise, his attitude towards ‘horizontalist’ movements (such as Occupy) also breaks with common wisdom. For many, including Michael Kazin (editor of Dissent), Occupy was an attempt to demonstrate ‘what a better country would look like, and what it would take to get there.’ Lebowitz rejects this notion, believing that an environment in which direct action is apparently all the Left has available as a strategy has produced a feeling that occupation and demonstration are effective ends in themselves.

While resistance is an important responsibility for all modern socialists, for Lebowitz, there should be more focus how to build a socialist alternative that does not recreate the problems of the various failed Stalinist models. Assuming a need to build institutions capable of moving beyond capitalism, Lebowitz seeks inspiration in the structures arising in Venezuela and elsewhere where there are serious political challenges to existing imperialist and capitalist structures. As a result, he favours cooperative movements and localised committees which work to create a unified program for governance, and incrementally lay the foundations of a socialist state. The suitability of such types of organisation for advancing the challenge to capitalism, in places where there is not a political context directly challenging international neoliberalism, is something that should, however, be questioned.

Triangular socialism

Counterfire has previously diverged from Lebowitz on the question of whether a revolutionary party is a necessary organisation for achieving power. In former works, the question has either been ignored entirely, or considered only parenthetically – with mild hostility. Lebowitz’s aversion was perhaps logical, stemming from his interpretation of the relationship between the Communist Party and the proletariat within the Soviet Union; he identifies this unsatisfactory association as a key structural defect within Soviet society, and one of the fundamental drivers of that system’s breakdown.

Now, Lebowitz’s attitude seems to have evolved – or at least thawed. Perhaps compelled by his first-hand experience of the PSUV’s achievements in Venezuela, he now appreciates the role a party can play as an organising agency in a revolution. This endorsement is not without caveats. He argues that a party must be a conduit for the will of workers, not a guiding or commanding force, and must exist within a unified, triangular structure.

The triangle proposed Lebowitz here consists of principles all socialists will view as obligatory. They are; public ownership of the means of production, with places of work run by workers for workers; workers producing depending on their capabilities and the needs of others, while continuously developing these competences; cooperative arrangements in which workers share knowledge and property with one another. Lebowitz believes a revolutionary party will fail as others have if these conditions aren’t met.

Despite this updated outlook, Lebowitz’s reticence to endorse fully the need for a revolutionary democratic movement – and the type he does advocate – remains a bone of contention, and the central weakness of his thesis.

As Marx and Engels themselves understood, socialism is impossible to achieve in just one country – and, as history has palpably demonstrated, almost any country treading a socialist path can expect to be under severe attack from within and without. Even those states which have fruitfully dabbled with socialist policies find their potential limited by the imperialistic reality of current circumstances. Ultimately, no socialist experiment can happen in isolation, even with the ideal model being applied in the best circumstances.

As Lenin and Trotsky understood in 1917, the Russian Revolution would be doomed without the support of other socialist states, the best hope being a successful revolution in Germany. It was to that end that the precarious Soviet State, in the most difficult of circumstances, poured so much energy into building revolutionary organisations elsewhere in the world. For all the value of local experiments, and co-operative endeavours, a revolution is a political event in a national context. The working class needs collective political organisations to co-ordinate its social power, and develop the consciousness of the whole class, into a real challenge to the ruling class. Such a party must always remain fully democratic, and rooted in the real movements of the working class, but it is the essential step to achieving a revolution, and then defending it against the inevitable capitalist counter-attack. Lebowitz’s lack of emphasis on this (perhaps unwelcome) reality, and the limited role he envisions for such a party, are a significant shortcoming.

Less severe a failing, but also a lacuna, is the nigh-on total absence of China from the book’s pages. The country is only once mentioned, in a brief quotation describing the relationship between Chinese workers and the state. What’s missing is an analysis of China – not merely under the rule of Mao, but Guofeng and Xiaoping, and the latter-day conversion to a state-managed capitalism, from what was, arguably, always a form of state capitalism. One can only speculate as to the motivation for this omission, but an answer may lie in a brief discussion of modern Vietnam three chapters prior.

Writing of a recent visit, Lebowitz laments that young Vietnamese communists feel Marxism has no relevance to their lives. They instead crave capitalism, crediting foreign (i.e. Western) investment with alleviating regional poverty. Lebowitz does not examine the reasons for this attitudinal shift, and the solutions he advances for rectifying this situation are underwhelming. Yet with recent signs of worker militancy in China it may be that these Communist-Party-led capitalist societies will produce their own challenges to the international capitalist order. If such eruptions were to occur, it would again require confident, and highly organised groups of revolutionaries to be able to seize the initiative before it were to be lost.

Imperative reading

Regardless of these cavetas, The Socialist Imperative remains an indispensable resource for new and old socialists alike, which should provoke and inspire in equal measure. Contained within this work are a number of constructive solutions for overcoming the vampirism of the ruling elite, stimulating a zombified populace, and making certain the copious blunders and aberrations of the past do not transpire again.

The capitalist enemy would like to believe the left has been vanquished permanently. It is up to us to prove them wrong, and do so quickly. As Lebowitz himself understands, the battle will not be easy, nor will the transition be swift.

He appreciates Engels’ pronouncement that “an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory”, and with any luck, so will all who read this volume. We live in a world of tanks and banks, both of which can and will be used to hamper our mission. Hesitancy to act may mean it’s too late for collective action to produce a better tomorrow. After all, it is not merely the future of socialism at stake; we waver on the precipice of global environmental catastrophe and a potentially apocalyptic new wave of war. Now, more than ever, socialism remains an imperative corrective.

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