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Michael Lebowitz: '21st century socialism needs a 21st century Marxism'

May 23, 2009 -- Michael Lebowitz is a Canadian Marxist economist. He is the director of the “Transformative practice and human development” program at the Caracas-based left-wing think tank, the Centro Internacional Miranda. He is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University and author of Build it Now: 21st Century Socialism and the 2004 Isaac Deutscher-prize winning Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the Working Class.

Lebowitz was a featured speaker at the World at a Crossroads conference organised by Green Left Weekly, the Democratic Socialist Perspective and the socialist youth group Resistance, held in Sydney, Australia, on April 10-12, 2009. Christopher Kerr spoke with Lebowitz about capitalism's crisis and the socialist alternative.

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Given the current economic crisis, is Marxism still relevant?

It is more relevant than ever. Marxism seeks to explain the underlying reasons for what is occurring and to seek out the alternatives.

Liberalism, neo-classical thought and other schools don't try to look for the underlying reasons for historical events, such as the current crisis. These schools of thought take certain phenomena and treat them either as accidents or as caused by bad people, bad policies, bad bankers, bad speculators, etc.

Only Marxism really attempts to understand the nature of capitalism and why capitalism generates crises, why it generates exploitation, why it deforms and cripples people rather than helps their self-development.

You have talked a lot about a 21st century socialism as a rejuvenation of the socialist project. Do we also need a 21st century Marxism as a part of this?

Absolutely, we need a rejuvenation of Marxism — in many respects a return to the Marxism of Karl Marx. We have to go back to Marx’s premise and goal, which was the concept of human development.

It is no accident that the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 with Frederick Engels, talked about how the free development of each depends upon the free development of all.

By free development, they meant the development of human potential and capacities. In Marx’s writings from 1844 through 1858, and in Capital, he kept talking about developing a rich individuality and rich human beings. He argued that capitalism distorted human development, while socialism was necessary for it.

We lost that in the 20th century. Marxism became interpreted as having to do with a way to develop the productive forces, in which the question of economic development became everything. The question of the nature of the relations between people in economic production, the nature of the circumstance in which we function, became forgotten or ignored.

One of the key parts of Marx’s emphasis on human development is that it only occurs through practice. That’s the concept of revolutionary practice — the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change.

And if you understand this key link in human development, then you understand that you cannot build socialism, a new society, without workers’ management in workplaces, without community control — without control from below over society.

This is not because it is nicer or more efficient, but because it is the only way people transform and develop themselves, thus making a new society possible.

How relevant is Venezuela as an example for 21st century socialism?

I think Venezuela is one of the most relevant examples. If you look at Venezuela’s constitution, it talks about the goal of overall human development. It says that people must develop their potential and all their creative possibilities. It also says that this is only possible through practice.

These are not simply nice words in a constitution; it’s also that we see this introduced in so many ways in Venezuela. The most obvious case right now is the communal councils, where with small units, representing in the urban areas at most a thousand people and less in rural areas, people have the opportunity in assemblies to make decisions. People are able to identify and plan their own needs, and then proceed to put the plan into action.

You can also see it through the promotion of cooperatives, and now increasingly through worker-managed companies called “socialist enterprises”.

[A longer version of this interview first appeared at Green Left Weekly issue #796, May 27, 2009.]

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