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Build it Now: A Review of The Socialist Alternative

By Michael Miley


The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development. By Michael A. Lebowitz
Monthly Review Press 2010
191 pages

      Michael A. Lebowitz, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, begins his new book, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, by paraphrasing Marx, “A specter is haunting the world – the specter of barbarism.” The barbarism Prof. Lebowitz speaks of is, of course, the yoke of capitalism and depths that it sinks people into in order to satisfy its insatiable greed. The point of this book is to put forth an argument for the necessity of Socialism in the twenty-first century, and the need to focus on human development. Actual human development, not the all consuming hunger of false needs and consumerism that capitalism thrives on and denies the work force.

     Much of what is covered in this book is nothing really new to those already familiar with the ideas of Socialism. It reintroduces the idea that the Capital class divides the work force in order to maintain power and deceive them, recalling how the bourgeois used tensions between English and Irish labourers and how they used the threat of the unemployed to keep wages down. As Marx described it “the great beauty of capitalist production.” The Socialist Alternative is an introduction into Socialist thought geared towards today. That’s not to say the book does not offer anything valuable for those well versed in Marxist and Socialist theory and ideas. Indeed, it is a valuable resource for those activists looking for inspiration in leading for the Socialist alternative or those looking for a nice modern summary of some of those ideas. The book discusses what is to be done, and what needs to change if we are to bring about real human development and create ‘rich humans.’

      Professor Lebowitz has a different meaning behind ‘rich humans’ than what the capitalist would consider rich. The capitalist considers someone who has amassed a great amount of material things, at the expense and exploitation of those around them, to be rich, Professor Lebowitz considers someone who has been able to develop themselves and to become a better person a ‘rich man.’ These two ideas are at odds, since capitalism depends on the poverty of a person in order to exploit the worker as much as possible, and allowing the worker to realize that he is being exploited would be counter productive to the goals of the capitalist.

      But, as we have seen in history, the way forward will not be an easy one. We must keep our eyes on the past in order to avoid making those same mistakes. The book dismisses the State Capitalism of the former Soviet Union. If anything the key message of the book is that every mode of production is different, so a proper way of achieving the goals of real human development will differ from place to place. Lebowitz is also weary of top-down leadership and “infallible central committees.”

      But what is this socialist society for the 21st century that Professor Lebowitz sees? In the Charter for Human Development described in the book, he lays out a few points:

  • “Everyone has the right to share in the social heritage of human beings, has an equal right to the use and benefits of the products of the social brain and the social hand, in order to be able to develop his or her full potential”
  • “Everyone has the right to be able to develop their full potential and capacities through democracy, participation and protagonism in the workplace and society – a process in which these subjects of activity have the precondition of the health and education which permits them to make full use of this opportunity.”

     These are two of several points he makes for what a good socialist society, a society that is capable of allowing people to develop themselves to their full potential. I will fully admit this is a society I myself would desire. It is clear that capitalism is a dead end of history and of human development, that leads to one place, poverty and destruction, if the recent financial collapse and the on going recession not even to mention to continuing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is not proof of this, I do not know what could convince someone otherwise.

     There is a line from the late Howard Zinn’s play Marx in SOHO. In the play he, mentions how many people often say in response to criticisms of capitalism that “Marx is dead.” Implying of course, that his ideas are worthless. Marx then goes on to read bits from a newspaper recounting financial scandals and massive layoff and responds ‘Dead indeed.’ A small quip it may be, but important. I was reminded of this little quip while reading Professor Lebowitz’s book, since we hear the chorus of Marx is dead just about everywhere in our media, and The Socialist Alternative is an important book reminding us, that there is an alternative, there is a future beyond the meaningless consumerism, there is hope for mankind, and that hope is socialism, that there is a way forward and to echo the motto of the South African Communist Party “Socialism is the Future, Build it Now”!