A Review of “The Socialist Alternative”

Ankit Sharma

Michael A Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Monthly Review Press & Aakar Books, 2010

This book is part of Michael Lebowitz’s larger project of demonstrating the ever-existing necessity of a socialist transformation as the revolutionary resolution of class struggle in capitalism. It builds a theoretical foundation for such revolutionary praxis in the specific objectivity of the 21st century. Lebowitz’s previous book, Build it Now, captured and described the specificities of socialist praxis and possibilities in the Bolivarian experience of Venezuela. The Socialist Alternative can be seen as building a coherent model of an alternative by gathering and arranging the elements that are found scattered in that experience.

Like the previous one, this book too is a result of Lebowitz’s rigorous and critical engagement with the ‘socialist’ experiences/experiments of the 20th century. The author clearly critiques the stagist and statist conception of socialism that was based on an ‘uncritical’ takeover of the State and the subservience of the self-activities of the labouring classes to the purpose of strengthening the State. It was this statism that defined the socialist praxes of the 20th century.

Lebowitz also critiques the dwarfish (yet important) experiments of cooperatives and the Yugoslavian practice of workers’ self-management – where, apparently, we find an inversion of the top-bottom approach, and also a kind of workers’ control. Yet this managerial structure failed to develop a “solidarian society” that countered the segmentation and competition among workers, as the logics of commodity production and profiteering continued at the base of those experiments.

The socialist alternative that Lebowitz posits is a process – it is “the path to Human Development” constituted through self-organisational and self-emancipatory practices of the working class. The democratic, participatory and protagonistic activities would reconstitute our everyday lives in this process. “Through revolutionary practice in our communities, our workplaces, and in all our social institutions, we produce ourselves as other than the impoverished and crippled human beings that capitalism produces.” (22) After all, “revolutionary practice” is nothing but “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of the human activity or self-change”, as Marx defined it in one of his theses on Feuerbach. Thus, even though ownership over the means of production still remains critical for building socialism, social solidarity and active participation of every human being based upon “the elementary triangle” of social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs are central to Lebowitz’s socialist imagination. It is this centrality of solidarian revolutionary practice that emancipates socialism from its relegation to statism and productivistic technocracy. This is the vision of the “good society”, which put simply is an association where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.


In Part I, The Socialist Triangle, Lebowitz begins with an analysis of the “wealth of people”, through which he arrives at the first side in the socialist triangle – the concept of social property. He locates the critical centrality of accumulated past labour (the accumulation of tools/instruments of labour and knowledge/skill) and the combination of labour in determining the level of productivity. The “free service of past labour” and the “free gift” of cooperation determine the social productive power. Further, it is the combination of labour that generates the social character of human labour, and thus constitutes even accumulated past labour as “social inheritance” or “social heritage”.

Class struggle in a sense is a contest over this social heritage – “to whom does it belong”? In fact, capitalism rests upon the alienation of social heritage, its mystification as capital and its institution as “an alien power opposed to [man], which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him” (Marx). This normalisation of expropriated social heritage and its mystification as capital is possible because of the wage-form of labour that defines capitalist production. Under this form a capitalist and worker seem to confront each other as equals and workers are projected as sellers of labour who are fully remunerated. Only when the sale of labour(-power) is differentiated from the expenditure of labour-power (labour) that we are able to understand the genesis of surplus value and thus, the nature of capitalist exploitation. Otherwise, in the mystified system, profits and productivity gains are contributed by capitalists and are results of capitalist investments, rather than the products of “the combination of living social labour and of past social labour.”

Social heritage can assert its full sociality only when this mystification is destroyed. Only when it comes under social ownership that it can serve humanity rather than individuals. Thus, is derived the first cornerstone of the elementary socialist triangle. However, the notion of social ownership, for Lebowitz, is not so given, rather it is grounded in the dynamic praxis of socialism – it implies a profound democracy from below that involves everybody in decision-making, who are affected by those decisions. Hence, it cannot be relegated to state ownership, as happened with the 20th century socialist ‘victories’ (or defeats). Also, limitation of ownership to decision-makers allows differential and privileged access to means of production on the basis of one’s location in the productive economy and thus perverts social ownership. Displacing capital by things does not destroy mystification – as its essential element, reification is still prevalent. What is important for socialism is to bring human beings to the centre of production and distribution, and to understand “the development of human capacity” as real wealth, the goal to which the “objective wealth” must become subservient. “This is the real wealth of people – rich human beings.”

Lebowitz differentiates the Marxist conception of human capacities from that of Human Development Reports, which are based on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. The understanding of human development in HDRs is circumscribed within a liberal framework that seeks to integrate people on the margins into the so-called mainstream – to make the capitalist system more inclusive. It seeks to remove barriers in the broadening of opportunities (capabilities in this framework are equivalent to opportunities). It certainly questions neoliberal market fetishism, but it empowers the state to complement the market.

In the Marxist framework, on the other hand, the relationship between human development and self-activity or practice, and thus simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change is central. “The Production of People” is the process of self-creation of man. From outside to inside the formal or direct production process, every labour process is a production of human capacity. This continuum is clearly visible when popular self-development is the goal. However, even when this goal is not preconceived, as in a bourgeois economy, where labour processes are abstracted from one another (as work from leisure, whereas in fact it is the latter that readies a worker for work), the struggle of workers against capital “transforms ‘circumstances and men,’ expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world.”(51)

Of course, capitalism destroyed the barriers to human development that pre-capitalist societies posed and created the conditions for the development of the rich individuality. But capitalism in order to reproduce itself generates mystifications that cognitively impoverishes workers – “they distort the worker into a fragment of a man”, who is overwhelmed by the creative power of his own labour projected as an alien power, as the power of capital.

Lebowitz here shows how to read Capital to obtain Marx’s conception of socialism – “Read Capital with the purpose of identifying the inversions and distortions that produce truncated human beings in capitalism and we can get a sense of Marx’s idea of what is ‘peculiar to and characteristic of’ production in that ‘inverse situation,’ socialism.” Most importantly, we must not be trapped by capital’s definition of production, since it is here that alienation, distortions, mystifications and fetishism are generated. It is important to reestablish human beings as both the subject and object of production, where “specific use-values … are mere moment in a process of producing human beings, the real result of social production.”(59) It is social production in this sense that is identified as the second element of the socialist triangle. In this production process, the “systematic and hierarchic divisions of labour” that create caste-like segmentations do not have any place. And, “every aspect of production must be a site for the collective decision making and variety of activity that develops human capacities and builds solidarity among the particular associated producers.”(60) It is in this light, Lebowitz critiques the experiments in “real socialism” and foregrounds the Solidarian Society – a new social form based on “protagonism and conscious cooperation by producers”.

Capitalism is based on separation and not association – where “the community of human beings is at its core a relationship of separate property owners”(66) and human development is a result of the competition of self-interests in the market. While Marx considered the experience of cooperatives in the nineteenth century important, but he viewed them as new form still reproducing “all the defects of the existing system” – not going beyond profit-seeking and competition, beyond market and self-interest. The cooperatives must themselves cooperate and become the basis for a “harmonious system of associated labour” where “many different forms of labour-power” are expended “in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” Lebowitz, rereading Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, finds the continuation of exchange relations (and thus of bourgeois right) as the chief defect of socialism. It is a defect related to the relation of distribution, which conserves inequality (on the basis of relative contributions or work). Each producer, like in capitalism, continues to be the “owners of the personal condition of production, of labour-power” and he has self-interest in maximising his income. The Yugoslav model that the chapter discusses illustrates the problems of the self-managed enterprises that “functioned in the market and were driven by one thing – self-interest. In every enterprise, the goal was to maximise income per member of the individual enterprise.”(74)

Lebowitz considers self-interest as “an infection in socialism”. It “undermines the development of socialism as an organic system”. If this infection is not fought against, it will infect “all sides of the socialist triangle”. Enterprises in order to be profit-maximisers will rely increasingly upon experts and expertise (as happened in the case of Yugoslavia), thus diluting workers management. Labour-power as property would perpetuate inequality leading to a break in solidarity. Resultant differential possession or differential development of capacities combined with self-interest would destroy the common ownership of the means of production. It is only by a conscious and continuous building of the solidarian society, thus fighting self-interest, that socialism as an organic system can emerge. In this new society, “man’s need has become a human need”, there is “communal activity and communal enjoyment”, and “the other person as a person has become for him a need – the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being”. Further, “there is an exchange not of exchange values but of ‘activities, determined by communal needs and communal purposes’.”(79)


The second part of the book deals with “the becoming of socialism as an organic system.”(85) Lebowitz considers it important to differentiate between the Being and Becoming of an Organic System – historically viewed a social system grows out of the old system, whose traces persist as defects in the new system, while any system as an organic whole “produces its own premises and thus rests upon its own foundations.”(88) Hence, the three sides in the socialist triangle in their mutual interdependence found socialism as an organic, completed system. However, this organicity of a system is a product of the historical process of “[subordination of] all elements of society to itself and [creation of] the organs it still lack in order to rest upon its own foundations”.(92) Lebowitz brings out a lucid Marxist understanding of this historico-logical process with regard to the emergence of the capitalist system by a rereading of Capital from this angle. He concludes that a capitalist mode of regulation is needed for capitalism to stand on its own foundations. There is no universal mode of such regulation; its constitution is relative to geo-historical specificities. Similarly, in the process of the becoming of socialism a socialist mode of regulation is needed, which will reproduce socialist relations and subordinate all the elements (inherited from the past) to the needs of this reproduction.

In his elucidation of The Concept of a Socialist Transition, Lebowitz begins with a critique of the stagist conception of socialism/communism which distorts Marx’s understanding of socialism/communism as a single organic system in the process of becoming. Under this scheme, a defect inherited from the past that was to be subordinated in the process of becoming was transformed into the foundational principle of the stage of socialism. Human beings were continued to be seen as private owners of labour power, and a right of inequality based upon unequal work capacity was sanctified. Still entitlements were not based upon an individual’s “capacity as a member of society”. Thus, individual material self-interest remained the lever, instead of being considered as a defect that must be fought against and subordinated.

Lebowitz recognises that in the process of their confrontation with capital workers change their circumstances and themselves – they come to understand the limits of economic action and extend their solidarian praxis to subvert capitalist class power. Through their political or class movement they win the battle of democracy and begin to rupture the logic of capital – and thus the process of the becoming of socialism based on the logic of human development emerges. It begins with a “critical rupture in property rights”, with the expropriation of the capitalists by the state in the name of the associated producers. However, such expropriation cannot have socialistic orientation unless there is a transformation of the state itself – i.e., its transformation “from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it”. But such transformation is imaginable only when the associated producers become possessors of production and reproduction – these would be socialist relations of production. In a sense, there must be simultaneous sustained attack on class despotism, on the “systematic and hierarchic division of labour” at both levels – the workplace and the state. And thus in this struggle, will emerge a new socialist mode of production, subordinating “all elements of society to itself”, creating organs specific to it and developing productive forces that reflect new relations of production. But to realise this the midwifery of a socialist mode of regulation is needed. Lebowitz is unequivocal in asserting that this will not be a despotic hierarchical state, but “the political form for the social emancipation of workers”, which will assert workers’ protagonism, not substitute it. It will be “the power of decentralised, democratic, ‘self-working and self-governing communes’ – a state of the Paris Commune type.”(119) Lebowitz cautions that there is no linear irreversibility in this process of socialist transition”: – every step is contested – “the logic of the old system weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”:

“Two paths – one going back toward capitalism and one advancing toward socialism. We come, then, to Lenin’s famous question, ‘Who will win?’ There is nothing inevitable about the answer.”(123)

There is no universal path to socialism. Different paths confronting diverse contingencies are directed toward the common goal of the full development of human potential. Lebowitz once again attacks stagism that dismantles the socialist triangle into some sort of universal historical sequence, asserting that such perception does not understand the organic character of socialism – the interdependence of the three sides. Only the recognition of the simultaneity of these elements can help us confront capitalism, which too is an organic system – “To change a structure in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another, you have to do more than try to change a few element in that structure; you must stress at all times the hub of these relations – human beings as subjects and products of their own activity.” Lebowitz stresses the conception of revolution as a process – “a process of contested reproduction.”(129)

There is a continuous need to subordinate capitalist relations and create new socialist elements. For this, social force is required in the form of state power. Some concrete proposals, like taxing the surplus value, ensuring transparency, transforming the workday to incorporate time for education for worker management, reorganisation of production at the base involving workers and community assemblies etc are discussed in the book. These are required for facilitating socialist transition in the societies where “the battle of democracy has been fought but not yet won” and where despite workers governments “the balance of forces favors capital”. These seemingly reformist socialist conditionalities put capital on defensive, they constitute despotic inroads on capitalist rights. However, they must encourage class protagonism of the workers or revolutionary practice, or else they would be reduced to statism and eventually help in the re-consolidation of capitalist class power. Workers and neighbourhood councils that foster cooperation and solidarity can act as “the elemental cells of the new socialist state”, as forms of popular protagonism. But for them to stand as viable foundations for a socialist alternative, linkages between them – interconnections among workplaces, within and between communities must be drawn. And ultimately producers must connect directly with their counterparts, the final consumers – i.e., needs and their knowledge must be liberated from “the tyranny of exchange value.” This liberation will eventually lead to continuous expansion of the commons.

The last chapter, Developing a Socialist Mode of Regulation, deals with the conception of the mode of regulation that would facilitate the inroads the new socialist society would make into capitalist sociality by ensuring the reproduction of socialist relations by strictly subordinating the vestiges of the older system. For Lebowitz, this mode is, first, an ideological fight that exposes capitalist perversions, while stressing the cooperative and solidarian practices. Secondly, it involves the creation of institutions that facilitate these practices, like workers’ and community councils. And, thirdly, it means an emergence of a kind of dual state power – the old state despotically dealing with capital and facilitating its own demise, and the new state emerging from below on the basis of the new institutions of popular power and practice. These two states complement one another, yet remain contradictory; so there is a continuous danger of the old consolidating itself, unless the new state expands and develops its elements by normalising and institutionalising socialist accountancy and rationality that focus on human development and needs.

Lebowitz finally asserts that a socialist mode of regulation requires a political leadership and even “a party of a different type” in order “to mediate among the parts of the collective worker, provide the welcoming space for where popular movements can learn from each other and develop the unity necessary to defeat capital.” This party must facilitate (not supersede) the popular initiatives from below. It must be the propagator of revolutionary practice as “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of the human activity or self-change” – as the self-emancipation of the working class.