Review: Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century

Michael A. Lebowitz. Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press. 127 pages

Reviewed by Paul Kellogg

One of the political highlights of summer, 2007 in Toronto, was the visit to the city by author Michael Lebowitz. His packed out talk introduced a Toronto audience not just to recent developments in the revolutionary process underway in Venezuela, but to the rethinking of socialism accompanying that process. For those who missed his talk, Monthly Review has done us the favour of putting out an inexpensive paperback with some of Lebowitz’ writings on the subject.

Begin not with Venezuela, but with socialism. For more than two generations, socialist activists have had a problem. The two great models of socialism on offer – Russia’s state-ownership combined with political totalitarianism, and the West’s social democracy, which accepted parliamentary democracy, but was only two willing to compromise with capitalism – these two models had left millions disillusioned.

Lebowitz frames his whole argument in a rejection of those polarities.

“Socialism … could never be delivered to people from above. It is the work of the working class itself, Marx argued. … Only by rejecting hierarchy and converting the state ‘from an organ standing above society into one completely subordinate to it’ could the state be that of ‘the popular masses themselves, forming their own force instead of the organized force of their suppression.’ Only that ‘self-government of the producers’ could be the form of state by which people emancipate themselves and create the basis for a socialist society.”

Simply for the restatement of this profoundly radical vision of socialism from below, this book would be worth the purchase.

But Lebowitz’ point is not to simply reclaim socialism in the abstract. He points to the concrete struggles unfolding in Venezuela as offering at least the possibility of operationalizing this stirring vision.

In this, while respecting the role of president Hugo Chávez, he does not see him as the chief actor. In fact, Lebowitz argues, after the failed coup attempt against him in April 2002.

“[T]he crushing of the April coup did not put the sword in the hand of the Bolivarian Revolution. On the contrary, Chávez – uncertain of how deep his support was, especially within the military – proceeded very cautiously. … Capital retained all its positions of power.”

The key event, according to Lebowitz, was the mass response to the bosses’ strike which followed the coup. There were “months of daily struggle, and this battle was won by the masses, who were prepared to struggle to support what they saw as their government and who transformed themselves in the course of transforming circumstances.

“The slaveholders’ revolt had put the sword in the hands of the masses. And, this time the government responded without any efforts at conciliation.”

It is after this assertion of the power of the masses, that Chávez began taking money from the oil companies in a big way, and ploughed it back into education and health, “the basic prerequisites of human development” in Lebowitz’s words.

“Barrio Adentro, the program bringing Cuban doctors into the poorest neighbourhoods, began in April 2003 … Mission Robinson, the basic literacy program, began in July … And mission Mercal, building upon the government distribution of food during the general lockout, was established in early 2004, bringing significantly subsidized food to the poor.”

Lebowitz documents how this process radicalized the thinking of Chávez.

” ‘We have to reinvent socialism,’ Chávez declared in his closing speech aat the 2005 World social Forum … ‘It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition. … [W]e cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union.”

This thinking, Lebowitz argues, “was a logical continuation of a path that began with the rejection of imperialism, neoliberalism, and the logic of capital.”

Buy this book. There are, of course, some things that require further discussion.

Lebowitz, for instance, believes that the Caracazo, the great uprising in 1989 “ultimately signified very little.” It is not clear why he says this as later he argues that one of the lasting effects of this rebellion “was the military revolt of 1992 that its brutal suppression stimulated.”

This is not a quibble. The great strength of Lebowitz’ book is the way it puts the action of the masses at the centre of politics. To not give adequate weight to the accomplishments of one of these mass actions, is a worry.

More generally, we need an ounce of caution to attach to the wonderful renovation of socialism coming out of Venezuela.

Venezuela is a terribly poor country. The barriers it faces between an economy crushed by imperialism and a “society of associated producers where each individual is able to develop his full potential” – these barriers are staggering.

We need to support Venezuela in its assertion of sovereignty and independence from imperialism whether or not the masses of that country are able to make a breakthrough towards socialism.

Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian socialists, 90 years ago, knew that in their very poor country they could begin a socialist transformation. But they also knew, and were proven tragically correct, that without solidarity – and revolution – in the rich countries, their socialist breakthrough could not last.

Canada is one of the rich countries. We need to build now the poltiical traditions capable of forging the solidarity that revolutionary movements in the Global South will require.

Lebowitz has offered us a very useful weapon in that struggle.

Buy it now.

A shorter version of this review was published in Socialist Worker (Canada)