Michael A. Lebowitz. The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015. 266 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-58367-546-5.
Reviewed by Jamie Melrose (University of Bristol )
Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Gary Roth
Socialism: Yesterday and Today
“The socialist imperative,” according to Michael A. Lebowitz, is to “end capitalism and build a society of associated producers oriented to the full development of human potential” (p. 8). To move beyond capitalism, to understand how capitalism is failing and why it ought to be superseded today, as a matter of urgency, is the primary purpose of Lebowitz’s The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now, a collection of essays based mostly on previous papers, books, and contributions. “The necessity to end the capitalist system and to replace it with that inverse situation oriented to the worker’s own need for development is undeniable” insists Lebowitz (p. 207). “Very simply,” he concludes his first chapter, “if we are to have any dreams, we must end capitalism now, by all means possible” (p. 41).
Allied to this pressing, immediate animus is revolutionary socialists’ historical experience in the twentieth century, and, in the context of the contemporary global order, their primarily oppositional character. For Lebowitz, “therein lies the tragedy” (p. 157)--“it is not enough to say no” (p. 177). To only say “‘NO.’ No to cutbacks, no to austerity, no to new user charges, no to the destruction of our lives and our environment” (p. 157) is to be one of the leftist “poets of negation” (p. 177). Lebowitz is no fan of the type of leftism that errs towards crass spontaneity and which decries political organization as old-fashioned and bureaucratic: “capital’s walls will never be brought down by loud screams” (p. 178). “Without a socialist party,” for example, particular and partial proletarian self-interests tend to dominate, thus undermining “the building of a solidaristic society in which people are able to develop their full human potential” (p. 223).
Yet Lebowitz is by no means sympathetic to revolutionary vanguardism, that is, the position that assumes if only the Left gets its organizational house in order (voting for the right motions at sparsely attended meetings; forming a well-disciplined band of activists spouting the same interminable calls for solidarity), then it will be fit for working-class heroes. Lebowitz points out that there is no revolutionary, ready-made collective proletariat in a position to deliver the socialist imperative, if only it were offered. Nothing springs “full-grown from the forehead of Zeus” (p. 157). “Struggles are a process of production,” and it is through these conflicts, in “[e]very skirmish in which people assert themselves” against capital in all its forms, that revolutionary subjects are markedly engendered. The type of revolutionary subject that comes forth “may not correspond to the stereotype of the working class as male factory worker,” but this is a stereotype that Lebowitz is quick to stress “was always wrong” (pp. 144-145).
In his treatment of the socialist imperative, Lebowitz’s analysis combines an acute accounting of the old (the expiration of Russian communism, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme) alongside the projects of the present. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is writ large in this book, unsurprising given Lebowitz’s association with the Centro Internacional Miranda in Caracas, and John Bellamy Foster’s eco-Marxist concerns are an integral part of Lebowitz’s presentation of Capital’s central theses. Most upliftingly, Lebowitz is also concerned with the incipient promise of the new: “the struggles of resistance of working people themselves against capital’s assault”; “by acting in solidarity with needs of others, people ‘construct themselves as certain kinds of people’” (pp. 157, 209).
It is to Lebowitz’s credit that he pulls this all together in an appealing, vivacious fashion. On first seeing that The Socialist Imperative was a collection of previous pieces, from hither and thither, I did not expect Lebowitz to be as effective as he is in tying his socialist memes into a coherent piece of work. The Socialist Imperative does read as the product of Lebowitz rifling through a long-overlooked bottom drawer stuffed with papers, but despite this, it has an impressive unity, with clear nodal points: the necessary ecological destruction inherent in capitalist development, a sober reckoning with real socialism, Lebowitz’s socialist triangle of “social ownership of the means of production, social production organized by workers, for the purpose of social needs,” and Marx’s understanding of revolutionary practice (p. 40).
In more theoretical terms, the problem that Lebowitz is wrestling with in The Socialist Imperative, in this thematic brew of past failings, present promise, and grounded utopianism, is “the process of becoming” (p. 189). Strikingly, the term “becoming” is littered throughout the text (pp. 63, 105, 190). The process of becoming is the tricky bit in any sustained piece of Marxist perlocution, the fusing of past, present, and future in a singular moment that is just that little bit more advanced and involving for an audience than recycling truisms about learning lessons from history, the historicity of our plight, the immediacy and profound structural roots of current problems, the potential of humanity if they only got together, and the unavoidable “long and painful birth” of any truly revolutionary moment. Of course, there are more erudite ways of putting the idea of becoming forward. In Marxist theory the notion of dialectics can stand here for such a dynamic fusion; it can also be terminological cover for a multitude of vague, lofty pronouncements. Notwithstanding, to rhetorically capture either “dialectics” or “becoming,” particularly if one accepts the political dimension of accounting for the fluid logic of capitalist development, one has to convey the positive side of negation, the open-ended, contested nature of every social arrangement, as well as the concomitant qualities of a determined but highly mutable, antithetical but situated revolutionary subject.
Lebowitz’s answer to such a challenge, a challenge I rush to note he does not explicitly set himself, is to home in on the intersection of past, present, and future, the extent to which the revolutionary subject is free to develop, free not only from capitalist exploitation but also from all restrictive notions of development, be they present in the prison house of the state or in the hierarchical workplace. In terms of the past, yes, the worker is held back, both anthropologically and ideologically, by the accumulated power of capitalist productive relations. Presently, though, in unremittingly addressing that bondage, workers will acquire a greater understanding of how to realize a post-bondage state of affairs, and thus generate their future, cast to a large extent by the past but also free from any teleology. Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach (1845) is somewhat of a motto, the home of the phrase revolutionary practice: “circumstances are changed by men” (p. 180). “[W]hen people engage in collective struggle,” Lebowitz argues, “there are two products: change in the particular circumstances and change in the human subjects … the second develops the strength of the working class and produces the potential gravediggers of capital” (p. 209). Projecting forward, the worker becomes a subject over (as opposed to subjugated by) her society, a problem-solving agent in the problem-rife implementation of a large-scale socialist association of free producers.
As many have done before and many will do again, Lebowitz seeks to slay a hoary Marxist dragon. For him, “[t]he standard assertion of Marxists is that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.” “Capital, we are taught,” he continues, “is finite because it contains a Limit--the working class, created, united and expanded by capital in the course of its development” (p. 20). As the health warning (“standard assertion”) suggests, this is a faulty proposition. When it comes to justify the need to do away with capitalism, Lebowitz’s is an interventionist account of Marxist activism. When Lebowitz writes “you will not find the answer in Das Kapital,” in his own version of Gramsci’s similar line regarding the Bolsheviks’ revolt against Marx’s most famous work, this is because “it only tells us about the working class insofar as capital acts against it” (p. 144). It does not tell us, to use one of Lebowitz’s favorite words, the “inverse.” In his rigorous critique of political economy Marx only gave us a “glimpse” of what to expect as an alternative to capitalism, the realization of our needs through democratic, micro-participatory but also macro-directed social production (p. 29).
For his part, Lebowitz does not run from making economic reform a question of public policy. In recommendations sent to Hugo Chávez, Lebowitz details introducing socialist cooperative relations within capitalism: “The process of introducing these conditions--socialist conditionality--means the insertion of new, alien productive relations within the capitalist firm” (p. 121). Policy goals to be enacted as soon as is feasible include “worker management must replace despotism in the workplace” (p. 189). In Lebowitz’s advocacy, “direct protagonistic democracy” ought to shape any socialist state, and unlike statist projects such as the USSR or mainstream European social democracy, workers’ capacity to govern ought to be fostered by a community of councils and workplace assemblies, albeit mindful of the case study of Yugoslav market socialism (p. 195). Echoing the phrasing of the end of the first chapter, Lebowitz concludes his chapter on democracy thus: “Very simply, if socialism is to be the future, we have to build it now. Everywhere” (p. 155).
This may be too simplistic a presentation of Lebowitz’s casting aside of overly economistic conceptions of the working class and of schematic projections of revolutionary outcomes. For one thing, Lebowitz is keen to impress that workers are “one of its [capitalism’s] waste products”; “the working class in capitalism is a product of capital” (pp. 20-21). Whether transformative agent or effluent, though, one cannot be too one-sided either way in sketching the ideal working-class subject in Lebowitz’s eyes. His roter Faden in The Socialist Imperative is that the agency of workers should be respected, that capitalism creates a series of limits “that can be negated, that can be surpassed” and it is “only by creating the conditions in which people can develop their capacities by cooperating with others” that this can be achieved (pp. 19, 33). Capital as a subject is itself aware of the need to constantly revolutionize and transcend previous configurations, thus meaning workers are never going to be presented a golden opportunity to bury capitalism. They have to, to use another of Lebowitz’s favorite words, “subordinate” capitalist relations of production through the active reproduction of socialism in present production; namely, the social control of production and its governance for the social good, and the contiguous dismantling of workplace hierarchies.
This case is central to Lebowitz’s chapter on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, in which Lebowitz blends classic Marxist analysis with the type of post-Marxist concerns that saw him labeled an anarchist by David Laibman, editor of Science & Society (p. 42). The Critique, written in 1875 and then edited and published by Engels in 1891 as a criticism of another program draft, has been, claims Lebowitz, misinterpreted. It has been held up as contra any invocation of the socialist imperative in capitalism. In the Critique Marx appears to give credence to a specific stage at which socialism was fully realizable--communism--and not before. Cooperatives, for example, were no replacement for “the revolutionary transformation of society”; no socialist measure could fundamentally wound the bourgeois order. “In a higher phase of communist society … only then can the limited horizon of bourgeois right be wholly transcended.” In contrast to this interpretation, to Lebowitz it is important to bear in mind that Marx is discussing a period of transition. Marx is explicating a process, the historical crux of which is liable to incorporate elements of the old and the new.
Here again “becoming” is the watchword. To adopt the stagist approach of capitalism, socialism, then communism is to deflect “attention from the pressing need from the outset to change the relations of production in workplaces and communities and to transform the state into what Marx called the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat--the state of self-working and self-governing communes fostering the revolutionary practice through which people change themselves as they change circumstances” (p. 74). Marx in his Critique was not contending socialism needed to correspond absolutely to a point in time of a particular socioeconomic arrangement. A society of associated producers “emerges from capitalist society, hence in every respect--economically, morally, intellectually--as it comes forth from the womb, it is stamped with the birthmarks of the old society.” The emphasis on “emerges” is correct for Lebowitz: workers actively create their new socialized production endogenously. Capital is transformed by its own gravediggers to the point at which a communistic set of productive relations is extraneous--able to be decreed to society as a whole. Social production then becomes the first principle for the organization of society, rather than imposed post-revolution by a dictatorship of the proletariat imparting a rarefied model of social production that then and only then endogenously prevails. Thus Lebowitz quotes from Marx’s Grundrisse (not the first draft or “outline” of The Civil War in France as cited): “We build the new society by ‘subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks’” (p. 71).
Lebowitz is no heterodox “radical” political theorist “no longer bound by the categories of class, party and state,” nor, as in work of the referenced Occupy activist Marina Sitrin, does The Socialist Imperative really pulse with any sense of the creative multitude at work, the horizontal collaborative lessons that Lebowitz credits to revolutionary practice. Plus, if one were a dogmatic Marxist of a certain orthodox, highly mythical strawman vintage, the “standard” Marxist casting one’s eye over The Socialist Imperative, a certain strain of utopianism might be the accusation. Looking at the chapter titles, with words such as “dream,” “transcending,” and “path,” The Socialist Imperative is certainly a book fixated on the intentional realization of socialism. However, Lebowitz’s anti-utopianism is manifest in his affinity with some traditional party political forms; an alternative to the reign of capital carries with it some elements familiar to the reign of capital. Lebowitz’s gift is, in effect, to put the political into a deep political-economic understanding of neoliberalism, to possess an awareness of the potential of good governance and reflexive subject formation. In the wake of our latest new social movements, in a populist, humanist Marxist framing that does not discard utterly the language of liberal democratic politics, Lebowitz has the deepest respect for a heterogeneous, global, exploited, and powerless mass fighting to acquire a collective identity, which in turn, post hoc would enable the return of solidaristic and disciplined mature proletariat movements.
. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marginal Notes on the Programme of the German Workers’ Party,” in Marx: Later Political Writings, ed. and trans. Terrell Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 214.
. Antonio Gramsci, “The Revolution against Capital,” in The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. David Forgacs (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999), 32-33.
. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Later Political Writings, 214-215.
. Ibid., 213.
. Saul Newman, “Postanarchism: a politics of anti-politics,” Journal of Political Ideologies 16 (2011): 313-327.
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Jamie Melrose. Review of Lebowitz, Michael A., The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now.
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