Complexities of the Socialist Alternative

Steve Ellner discusses Michael Lebowitz's writings in The Socialist Alternative on the need to place transformation of values at the center of socialist construction, largely based on Lebowitz's texperience in Venezuela and support for Chavez's "humanist objectives".

Michael Lebowitz has drawn on the diverse experiences that led to the failure of socialism in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and those in Venezuela where he has resided for nearly a decade, to bolster his thesis on the need to place the transformation of values at the center of socialist construction. In his emphasis on consciousness, Lebowitz follows the tradition of Georg Lukács, Karl Korsh and Che Guevara, while rejecting the determinist notion of the superstructure as an appendage of the structure lacking in autonomy. In The Socialist Alternative* and his previous Build It Now (2006), as well as talks in Venezuela and elsewhere, Lebowitz frequently cites President Chávez along with the Chavista Constitution of 1999 on the importance of humanistic objectives, and particularly “human development” (p. 56). The Constitution, for instance, calls for arrangements that promote solidarity among workers “‘to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective’” (as quoted on page 60).

The central concern of The Socialist Alternative is the process of transformation from the initial appearance of socialism, which is infused with the old values of capitalism, to the establishment of socialism in its pure form “economically, morally and intellectually” (p. 91). (This advanced state of socialism is synonymous in many ways with “communism.”) Lebowitz recalls that capitalism was also initially imperfect and only gradually evolved into an all-encompassing “organic system” (p. 95). In both cases, the state plays a key role in the achievement of the authentic model of the new system, but progress is not irreversible. Throughout the book, Lebowitz points to the characteristics and modalities that form part of the “organic” socialist system and are, according to the author, interdependent: worker solidarity and sense of community; equality; distribution of goods according to need; worker management; and elimination of material incentives, exchange relations, the market economy, competition among workers, and the division between mental and physical labor.

Lebowitz claims that his view of socialism as an ongoing process of transformation rather than a stage coincides with Marx’s writing, but not that of Lenin. According to Lebowitz, Lenin’s postulation of socialism as a “stage” prior to the achievement of communism “distorts” (p. 107) Marx’s “dialectical understanding” (p. 108) of the steady ripening of conditions leading to pure socialism. The distinction between the two conceptualizations is hardly academic. The concept of socialism as a stage implies a static strategy and the acceptance of certain practices that are open to criticism but are compatible with existing subjective or objective conditions during a given historical period. Furthermore, the more ambitious goals that underpin “organic socialism” tend to be subordinated (if not completely brushed aside) to the objectives corresponding to the current stage.  (1)

In contrast, by viewing the carryovers from capitalism as “defects” and socialism as an ongoing, transformational process, Lebowitz strengthens his case for an all-out war to root out capitalist remnants from the outset. Revolutionaries, according to Lebowitz, will inevitably pay a price for their failure to “consciously and continuously build… the solidarian society” (p. 81) and to realize that the defects of the past “must be subordinated” (p. 108). In doing so, they leave intact the condition of workers as “alienated and fragmented human beings” (p. 86) and run the risk of opening the doors for the reestablishment of capitalism, as occurred in the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies.

Lebowitz defends two positions that in certain situations are bound to produce tensions. On the one hand, he affirms that “socialism does not drop from the sky” (p. 25) in order to underline the complex and deep-rooted patterns inherited from the old system which “cannot be banished overnight” (p. 146). On the other hand, he argues that if the defects under socialism are not extirpated they will “poison” (p. 129) the rest of society and eventually lead to capitalist restoration. The predicament of how quickly to counter the defects of the old society and system, what objectives to prioritize, and when to make compromises is not specific to socialist construction since all movements in favor of change face the same hard choices.

Of the two considerations, the main thrust of Lebowitz’s works points to the strategy of moving decisively to root out practices and values associated with the capitalist past, even while recognizing that the pace of transformation depends on conditions in each country. Thus, for instance, by claiming that all the modalities and values that need changing are interrelated, Lebowitz reaches the conclusion that the attacks on them have to be simultaneous and, in effect, constitute a veritable all-out war (Lebowitz, 2007: 41). He refers to the observation of Soviet economist Evgeny Preobrazhensky that “when you have two different systems side by side, you can get the worst of both worlds” (p. 122).  Finally, Lebowitz constantly warns against the temptation of “turning to the logic of the market” in order to “resolve problems and inefficiencies” (p. 151). One policy implication of Lebowitz’s hard line toward capitalist values under socialism would be the prohibition of small businesses, or at least their acceptance as a “necessary evil.”

In calling for a full-fledged campaign against the carryovers from the capitalist past, Lebowitz rejects the thesis that the achievement of true socialism is contingent on great advances in material (or objective) conditions. Throughout much of their history, orthodox Communist Parties were accused of adhering to this type of deterministic outlook, which put off transformational structural goals to a far-distant future. Lebowitz also calls the argument on objective conditions an “old story” (p. 122) and points out that Lenin used it to justify the retention of exchange relations in the Soviet Union.

Lebowitz does recognize the importance of subjective conditions in determining the time it will take to achieve “organic socialism” in its pure form. At the same time, however, he dismisses the advice of those who “at every moment of crisis or the momentary failure of goals… declare that ‘the people are not ready’ and that, accordingly, it is necessary to rely upon what they are ready for” (p. 122). His proposed corrective to the prevalence of subjective conditions inherited from capitalism, such as material and egocentric values, is in large part government-sponsored educational campaigns in what he calls “the Battle of Ideas” (p. 157). Other factors that will weigh in include the opening of company records to the workers and the reduction of the work week, particularly “to incorporate time for education for worker management” (p. 134). In general, Lebowitz is confident that once private ownership of the means of production is eliminated “a new common sense” will prevail as workers “spontaneously” overcome “irrational and atavistic” (p. 188) behavior.

The subjective conditions prevailing at a given time, however, need to play a more central role in the development of strategies, which cannot be devised solely on the basis of long-term transcendental goals. Even though there is no ready-made measuring rod for subjective conditions, they nevertheless can not be simply ignored in the formulation of policies. After all, the values of materialism and individualism, which Lebowitz proposes a frontal attack on, dates back to the beginning of recorded history and not just to the outset of capitalism a few centuries ago. In Build It Now, Lebowitz (2006: 113) recognizes that while significant economic changes are underway in Venezuela, the cultural revolution “lag[s] well behind,” a stark reality that has not changed since the publication of the book and that undoubtedly characterizes all revolutionary processes (Alvarez, 2010: 243).

I would argue that in setting priorities for the implementation of ambitious goals, revolutionary governments need to distinguish between two types of positive values: those that find resonance among the population as a whole and those that produce widespread rejection or ambivalence. Lebowitz’s argument against material incentives is a case in point. In Venezuela, although President Chávez proclaims the principle “to each according to his/her needs,” it is unlikely that a large number of Venezuelans, even among his followers, are in agreement with, or have assimilated, the proposition.

In contrast, the banner of equality enjoys broad support. This is particularly the case with the goal of “relative equality,” as defined by equality of opportunity, elimination of privileges that are not derived from work, and elimination of wide gaps in income, including the exaggerated differences in remuneration for manual and mental labor. The successful application of these criteria would enhance the legitimacy of a socialist government, especially in light of the multitude of ways that capitalism, in practice, violates its own rhetoric about how the system rewards hard work. Indeed, even though some leftists consider relative equality a non-revolutionary goal, history demonstrates that capitalism is incapable of even coming close to achieving it. (2) In short, Lebowitz fails to discuss the goals of cultural transformation under socialism in the context of subjective conditions or to focus on the need to establish priorities.

The importance of timing is another factor that Lebowitz leaves largely untouched, even though it shapes the transitional process. Timing is determined in large party by the correlation of political forces both within the nation and internationally. The Venezuelan case demonstrates the importance of taking into account the enemy’s relative strength. The weakening of national capital over a period of decades (Di John, 2009: 121-122) and the loss of prestige of traditional political parties in Venezuela explain why a broad alliance of formerly powerful actors including the main business organization FEDECAMARAS, the traditional labor movement, the private media and the church hierarchy were unable to unseat Chávez through undemocratic means, thus enabling the Chavistas to consolidate their position and embrace socialism in 2005. Furthermore, Chávez’s success in maintaining his popularity at significantly over 50 percent during an extended period of time provides his government with greater options than were available to Salvador Allende when he was elected president in Chile with a mere 36 percent of the vote. Finally, Chávez’s initiatives in favor of socialism, along with the socialist commitment of the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador, are testimony to the weakening of U.S. influence and the unity achieved among progressive governments in defense of national sovereignty throughout the region.

Another area that Lebowitz fails to explore in depth is how social conflicts play out during the transitional process under socialism, and the attitude that revolutionaries should assume toward them. In broaching the subject, Lebowitz discusses the need for a democratic socialist party in Venezuela and asks “How else can the inherent contradictions among those who want the revolution to continue – eg. contradictions between the informal sector and the formal sector… between workers and peasants… – be resolved except through democratic discussion, persuasion, and education…?” (p. 161). Nevertheless, social tension and struggle within the Chavista movement is much more complex than this formula implies, as undoubtedly is the case in Cuba or any other socialist country where private capital exists. A Chavista governor or mayor, for instance, may have good reason to grant a contract for a major public works project to a large private company, regardless of the political sympathies of its owner. Nevertheless, when this occurs some Chavistas often accuse the elected official of being “counterrevolutionary” for not favoring cooperatives or smaller companies, even though these options may not be realistic given the large-scale nature of the project (Ellner, 2008: 169-171). Although the governor or mayor is not necessarily a “counterrevolutionary,” the participation of private capital will inevitably produce social and even class strains within the movement. The resolution of these types of social contradictions will most likely occur through a drawn-out dialectically driven process, which raises the level of consciousness of the population as a whole but will unavoidably generate sharp conflict (Laibman, 2007: 155). During this period, however, there is no magical formula to avoid the possibility of capitalist restoration, which is a major concern for Lebowitz.

In addition to arguments in favor of the promotion of socialist values, there are practical reasons for socialists, upon reaching power, to initiate changes that forge a sense of collectivity and solidarity along the lines proposed by Lebowitz. Socialist governments from the outset face challenges that defy the logic of capitalism. Thus, for example, the achievement of equality of opportunities, which is fundamental to the socialist system, will create the dilemma of who is to perform the work that is the hardest, most menial and most tiresome. Ecological imperatives are also antithetical to the materialistic and individualistic values promoted by capitalism. These problems and contradictions are not best resolved by what I have called the “realistic approach,” which prioritizes material incentives and downplays cultural renovation in socialist construction, nor by market socialism and technocratic formulas in general, which also fail to break with the values and mechanisms of the past (Ellner, 2010). In contrast, worker participation in management decision making, rotation of work and solidarity with surrounding communities are essential ingredients in any socialist strategy that goes beyond the objective of increasing productivity. Furthermore, the disappointing example of the Soviet Union during its last decades of existence, which stood in sharp contrast to the Cuban experience over the last half century, is testimony to the importance of maintaining high levels of popular enthusiasm and participation during the transitional process, as envisioned by Lebowitz (Raby, 2006: 121-131; Ellner, 2010: 77). (3)

Another pragmatic consideration, however, argues for material incentives during the transitional process contrary to what Lebowitz envisions. The threat of poverty and layoffs is a favorite tool of the capitalist system to enforce labor discipline and achieve high productivity. Since socialism guarantees job security and renounces the threat of poverty, wage differentials need to be significant enough to motivate workers to meet established standards, at least during the early part of the transitional process. Thus there are practical reasons for pursuing a dual strategy in which certain old values and new ones are accepted as legitimate, even while tensions between the two intensify.

In short, Lebowitz formulates cogent arguments for rejecting the stage approach to socialism. In doing so, he analyzes Marx´s writing both during his so-called early period as well as his later works and applies them to concrete experiences in Venezuela, Yugoslavia (with worker cooperatives) and elsewhere, all of which point in the direction of the primacy of cultural transformation in socialist transitions. Nevertheless, he underestimates, or fails to discuss entirely, certain complexities of the process of socialist construction such as the setting of priorities and timing. Despite all the difficulty in evaluating them, objective and subjective conditions have to be factored into the equation. In the way of example, this article has distinguished between policies underpinned by values which enjoy widespread acceptance and those which significant numbers of people reject. The latter may have to wait a leap in material conditions (as Marx and Lenin foresaw) before they can be fully assimilated by the vast majority of the population. In spite of this shortcoming, The Socialist Alternative presents a strong case for placing the transformation of values at the center of the discussion of socialist construction. The book thus represents a valuable contribution, but undeniably only the concrete socialist experiences in countries like Venezuela will determine the validity of arguments in the long-standing disputes over socialist construction.


* I am grateful for critical comments from William Robinson, Peter Marcuse and Jack Hammond. 

1. Although a strategy of stages does not preclude struggles and goals across stages, those on the left who defend it often relegate far-reaching, transformational objectives to the distant future. Trotskyists and others to the left of orthodox Communist Parties have often criticized the stage approach on these grounds.

2. The Cuban government also failed to take into account the principle of equality of opportunity when, in an attempt to stimulate individual initiative, it legalized the possession of dollars in 1993. In doing so, it provided substantial material opportunities for those working in the tourist industry and those able to receive remittances from relatives abroad.

3. Helen Yaffe (2009: 147, 161-162) argues that the policies defended by Che in order to create the “New Socialist Man” were also designed to increase worker productivity.


Alvarez R., Victor. 2010. Del estado burocrático al estado comunal: la transición al socialismo de la revolución bolivariana. Caracas: Centro Internacional Miranda.

Di John, Jonathan. 2009. From Windfall to Curse: Oil and Industrialization in Venezuela, 1920 to the Present. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania Statae University Press.

Ellner, Steve. 2008. Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

________ . 2010. “The Perennial Debate over Socialist Goals Played on in Venezuela,” Science & Society, 74: 1 (January), 63-84.

Laibman, David. 2007. Deep History: A Study in Social Evolution and Human Potential. New York: State University of New York Press.

Lebowitz, Michael A. 2006. Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

_________ . 2007. “New Wings for Socialism,” Monthly Review, 58: 11(April), 34-41.

Raby, D.L. 2006.  Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. London: Pluto Press.

Yaffe, Helen. 2009. Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

                                                                                              STEVE ELLNER 

Universidad de Oriente

Puerto La Cruz, Anzoátegui


[email protected]