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Michael Lebowitz on Venezuela: `Socialism requires a new state from below'
November 5, 2009 -- Venezuelanalysis.com -- On the question of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Michael Lebowitz is one of the thinkers who has penetrated deepest into our process. He plunges his scrutinising gaze into its most diverse and conflicting issues, in order to calmly and forcefully reveal its truth with knifelike clarity. He talks like a peasant or a worker who dips into the reality that they experience, that they suffer and feel.
At the Centro Internacional Miranda, I had a chance to converse with Lebowitz, a professor from the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (Canada).
Lebowitz is the author of outstanding books such as Socialism does not fall from the sky (much discussed by President Chávez) and Build it now: Socialism for the 21st Century. I do not hesitate to declare that Lebowitz is an essential light for us in the Bolivarian revolutionary process. Many problems and many concerns were raised in this interview and he responded to them with simple and accurate clarity. [For more by Michael Lebowitz, click HERE.]
We are concerned with the issue of socialism, but there is sometimes a big difference between what is said and what is done in reality.
This is always going to be true. But the first thing we need to do is to create a vision and for this you need the words. There is an old saying that if you do not know where you want to go, any road will take you there, but no, this is not true; rather, if you do not know where you want to go, no road will take you there. And I think that in Venezuela, with the development of the concept of socialism for the 21st century, we know where we want to go. We don’t want to move towards a society in which the state directs everything. It should be a society where people develop themselves through their practice, through their protagonism.
This vision is clear and it is a vision that is very different from the experiences of socialism in the 20th century. That is the first step, a very important step, but now we come to the crucial step: Understanding how this should be done in practice and how can we establish the institutions that allow people to develop. This is being developed now through the communal councils, workers' councils, where people participate in making the decisions that affect them. The problem, though, is that it’s not so easy to do that when there are people who want to do everything for others from above. They say: we are going to create communal councils everywhere, communes everywhere. And if the people are not ready to develop their communal councils, they say we’ll do them ourselves.
Part of the problem is impatience that does not respect the process and the time that must elapse for people to develop themselves. Furthermore, there are people who are totally opposed to the idea that the people themselves make their own decisions. The clearest case can be seen with workers' participation. There are people who believe that workers are unable, that they are not prepared, and that they don’t have the knowledge to make decisions affecting their work process. The result of this attitude is reflected in the fact that electricity outages are occurring throughout all of Venezuela. The workers know what the problems are, but they have not been allowed to implement the solutions, to take the necessary steps to prevent such outages. Vision is important but it is not enough; it is not sufficient--- struggle is always necessary.
When you say that there are people who oppose this process are you also referring to people within chavismo?
Yes, of course, within chavismo. That's why, for example, there is no workers' participation at PDVSA [the state oil company].
Simón Bolívar founded Gran Colombia on December 17, 1819, and died on December 17, 1830, and then this tremendous work he created with his great strength and will disappeared. What if Hugo Chavez were to disappear today?
I think it would be a great loss, not only for Venezuela but for the whole world, because under the leadership of Hugo Chavez the hope that was lost has been restored, the hope that there is an alternative to neoliberalism. If such a thing occurred at this time it would be more than a loss, it would be a tragedy, because I think the process is not sufficiently developed that it could continue with leadership from below. Perhaps by 2020 there would be a possibility that the process could continue without Chavez. But right now, no.
What can be done to ensure that there are substitutes that can take over the struggle from Chavez without much trauma?
There are people working very close to Chavez, in his circle, who have Chavez's ideas, his vision, his consciousness, but they lack the charisma of the president to lead. At the same time there are others that are much better known, but I'm not sure they share the project that President Chavez is leading. And today I am speaking very carefully, sometimes I say this very strongly and openly.
With the oil situation, which remains our major export product, and in the face of the new global drama of high food prices, we find ourselves with a situation of abandonment in the countryside: how in a short period of time, could we structure a form of economy different from that of mono-production imposed on us by capitalism?
Oil is not a problem but a blessing. There are many countries in the same situation where agriculture has been abandoned or has been more or less marginalised by transnational corporations. The existence of oil resources allows the Venezuelan state to take a part of this revenue to build infrastructure and create conditions in the countryside so that people feel they want to return to work in the countryside and see that it is possible to have a good life.
With the food crisis it is absolutely essential to encourage people to go to live in the countryside. With oil revenues these conditions can be created. Compare this situation with the situation in Cuba where they also have problems with agricultural production, and where people are leaving the countryside, and they do not have the oil revenue to attract people back to the countryside. What appears to be happening in Cuba is that they are saying we will allow private property in agriculture [and thus attract people] and some people will make lots of money producing and selling food at great profit.
In Venezuela it is possible to use part of the oil wealth to create units of agricultural production in the countryside and to attract people, not through high incomes for producers but based on the quality of life that these people can enjoy living in the country. Agriculture has been an area where all attempts to build socialism have failed. The Soviet Union ignored agriculture and in some rural areas it was impossible to walk or drive on the roads. People had to bring products to market by air. China said that they would not follow the Soviet path, and would develop agriculture, but they didn’t. They were still extracting resources from the countryside for industry. So instead of what happened in other places where agriculture served industry, here in Venezuela, you can do the opposite: make oil serve agriculture.
If the countryside is abandoned, it will require a long time to train people who want to do the jobs required by agriculture. People have changed a lot in the cities and it would be very difficult to convince them to be “peasant” farmers.
Yes, it will take time. This is not going to happen overnight. But I think that President Chavez understands this problem. It is no coincidence that there are so many Hello President shows in rural cooperatives, in the new socialist farms. I think it's a way of saying to people who are living in the hills and barrios and who are spending a lot of time trying to get to work, to say, look, it's time for a change. There is much more you can do. In Brazil the Movement of Landless Workers [MST] has many young people, and when the MST occupies land, they gain land for these families to begin a new life. In Brazil the stereotype that all farmers are old is not true. Perhaps what is needed is to launch a campaign aimed at young people to facilitate this process of repopulation of the countryside.
In view of the international situation: we are very threatened; how should we prepare ourselves to face a more critical situation in northern South America?
I just finished a book that addresses an issue which is the problem of the old state that progressives have appropriated, and not necessarily by force. In the long run, socialism requires that the old state is replaced by the new, the state from below. The immediate situation requires, though, that the two states complement each other. The new state from below that helps people develop cannot initially have a global vision. The old state, though, is in the habit of giving orders from above. What is essential is to develop the interaction between the two states and for a time you have to walk on two legs; and the same is true when it comes to preparing for a crisis of military intervention. That implies having a traditional army that can protect people, but we should also arm the people and develop the militias from below.
[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. Translator's note – this is a slightly abridged translation of the first part of a three-part interview with Michael Lebowitz carried out in late September.]