What Now? The Left in a Time of Lowered Expectations

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now” is a collection of articles and speeches that the author has given to left-leaning audiences around the world that elaborate on ideas presented in works such as “The Socialist Alternative” and “The Contradictions of Real Socialism”. Even if you are familiar with his theories on socialist development, this new book is very much worth reading because it represents a deepening of his thinking on the problems facing the left in a period of lowered expectations. For those who have never read Michael Lebowitz, the book will introduce you to one of the most important theorists of the socialist project today—in many ways our István Mészáros.

In a talk he gave in Athens to the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in December 2010, Lebowitz urged the Greek left to think beyond resisting austerity. While the need to say no to joblessness, cutbacks and fascist violence is essential, there is a need to break with the capitalist system itself that generates such ills. As a kind of prophet of the Chavista project in Venezuela, he must have anticipated shortcomings in the recently elected Syriza government even back then. As might be the case with all such broad-based left parties that do not proclaim the need for socialism, the contradictions of capitalism will eventually catch up to them once they take power. Even though it was misattributed to Trotsky, the observation that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” would apply to events in Greece if you substitute the word capitalism for war. Indeed, Yanis Varoufakis’s statement that “In 1967 there were the tanks and in 2015 there were the banks” would seem to apply in spades.

It is no secret that some on the left have practically made the anti-austerity protests of the Spanish ‘indignados’, Syntagma Square, and Zuccotti Park an end in themselves with anarchist and autonomist theorists drawing a sharp distinction between such direct actions and attempts to change society through the agency of the state. Drawing upon the experience of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Lebowitz makes the case for taking power in a polemic with John Holloway who argued for ‘changing the world without taking power’.

In the final chapter written for the collection and titled “End the System”, Lebowitz describes the ‘horizontalist’ approach as rooted in despair:

“As I argued in my essay on Holloway’s book, this faint hope of changing the world without taking power reflects a ‘period of defeat.’ The hopelessness of this path revealed by his admission on the concluding page of his book. There, he asks “How then, do we change the world without taking power?’ He answers, ‘At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we do not know.’ Sadder than Holloway’s particular impasse, however, many horizontalists share his view of state and party. Now, when capitalist destruction of human beings and nature is so obviously threatening our survival, the ‘hope of humanity’ depends upon an unequivocal rejection of the refusal to try to change the world by taking power.”

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Lebowitz’s rejection of ‘horizontalism’ has much to do with the standard “Leninist” critique that mechanically applies the “Lessons of October” to the contemporary class struggle as if the Soviet Union’s experience with a centralized state can was universal. Hugo Chavez’s notion of “Twenty First Century Socialism” runs like a red thread throughout “The Socialist Imperative” and is frequently invoked as a way to begin building socialism even while capitalist property relations dominate. In some ways, this is not that different from classical Marxism of even the nineteenth century vintage since Marx hailed the Russian peasant communes in the time of Tsardom as harbingers of a new socialistimperativesociety in a letter to Vera Zasulich.

Indeed, there are frequent references to cooperatives and neighborhood committees throughout the book, something that indicates a departure from the overwhelmingly top-down statist understanding of socialist development associated with the Soviet experience either in the Stalinist or Trotskyist version.

Lebowitz describes cooperatives as a way that workers can build solidarity within a group by sharing knowledge and property even though it runs the risk of setting its members against other workers in society, as is the case with Mondragon in Spain. Ironically, for those who swear by the example of the Soviet Union, it is often forgotten that Lenin made the case for cooperatives just before he died.

The more relevant model is the Communal Council in Venezuela that Hugo Chavez launched under the inspiration of István Mészáros. With the state ownership of oil generating the revenue that can support such initiatives, Venezuela is a kind of laboratory for the ideas defended in “The Socialist Imperative” even as a downturn in the price of petroleum weakens its material base. It is certainly worth mentioning that someone very close to Michael Lebowitz ideologically is optimistic about the prospects for the Bolivarian revolution even after the death of Chavez and the onset of economic difficulties. Writing for Green Left Weekly in Australia, Federico Fuentes argues that Chavismo is here to stay:

“Despite predictions that the Bolivarian revolution would collapse without Chavez, two years after his death Chavismo is still the most important force in the country.

“Proof of this is that no other party comes close to being able to match the level of support the PSUV maintains. It is precisely this reality that keeps the bitterly divided opposition parties united. They recognise the only hope they have of winning elections is by running together.

“The explanation for this ongoing support is that Chavismo was never simply one man’s project based on one man – as important a figure as Chavez was. Rather, Chavez served as a catalyst for Venezuela’s excluded poor majority to directly intervene into politics.

“Chavez’s election represented a spilling over of peoples’ social struggle into a political arena previously restricted to Venezuela’s elite.”

I would like to conclude with my own take on the problems of socialist development that while not necessarily disagreeing with Lebowitz’s are informed by my own experience as a board member of Tecnica, a kind of radical peace corps that sent technically skilled volunteers to Nicaragua in the late 1980s. In my view, the biggest challenge to socialist development is not the vestiges of capitalist thinking that Lebowitz alludes to in a brilliant analysis of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, a work that he dares—correctly in my view—to criticize as being unfair to Ferdinand Lassalle, who was pilloried by Marx and Engels.

In one of Marx’s most frequently quoted sentences in this work, there is a characterization of what every socialist revolution has had to face in the last hundred years: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

My experience with Nicaragua in the 1980s is that “morally” and “intellectually”, the worker and peasant had few obstacles in moving forward to a communist society—at least understood in terms of the overall human development that is a constant in Lebowitz’s writings. If you visited a peasant cooperative back then, you could see with your own eyes how people were committed to sharing the wealth they produced and how little interest they had in competing with other cooperatives for “market share” as is the case in a more developed society like Spain. The problem that Nicaragua faced was not internal; it was with external pressure both in terms of armed intervention and embargo—in other words, Yanis Varoufakis’s “tanks” and “banks” but happening simultaneously.

Such an unfavorable relationship of forces globally would also explain the growth of capitalism in Vietnam, an unfortunate tendency noted by Lebowitz in an article titled “Socialism: The Goal, the Paths, and the Compass”. He is dismayed by the tendency of young people there to “want capitalism, and … look upon Marxism as having no relevance to their lives.” This is the collateral damage suffered by a nation that was economically isolated and victimized by the collapse of the USSR. While it is too soon to predict whether Cuba will be spared such a fate, it is necessary to acknowledge that the introduction of market relations jeopardizes the “human development” dynamic that the country has enjoyed since Batista was overthrown.

Does recognizing the power of objective economic forces indicate that you are defending a socialist version of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA? This is a charge I have heard frequently from those disappointed by the capitulation of Syriza. I am not sure that acknowledging the difficulties socialists face in the 21st century means that you are secretly defending capitalism. Keep in mind that Marx and Engels always considered socialism to be a worldwide system, just as was capitalism—the system that preceded it. In 1847 Frederick Engels wrote a draft programme for the newly formed Communist League that made clear how he (and Marx as well) would view the scope of the coming revolution in answering the rhetorical question: “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” He answered his own question thusly:

“No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

“Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

“It will develop in each of these countries more or less rapidly, according as one country or the other has a more developed industry, greater wealth, a more significant mass of productive forces. Hence, it will go slowest and will meet most obstacles in Germany, most rapidly and with the fewest difficulties in England. It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace.

“It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.”

Now, of course, this is not how socialism has developed up until now. Except for Marx’s interest in the Russian peasant commune late in life, both he and Engels had their sights set on Western Europe. Instead, it has been the weak links that broke with capitalism, from Cuba to Vietnam. And even now, a country like Venezuela has to be very careful about balancing its socialist imperatives with the need to co-exist economically in a brutal and even genocidal world capitalist system. Perhaps in the long run, our mission is to make good on what Engels projected in 1847, the need to destroy the monster in its lair.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.