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Michael Lebowitz: `We must choose socialism over capitalist barbarism'

Michael Lebowitz was interviewed by Srećko Horvat during the Subversive Film Festival and conference on socialism, held from May 1 to May 25, 2010, in Zagreb, Croatia. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Michael Lebowitz's permission. [Click HERE to read more articles by Michael Lebowitz.]

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Srećko Horvat: In May, as a participant of the big international conference on Socialism, you are coming to a country which had an experience with the the Yugoslavian version of socialism in the last century. Could you explain why socialism in the 21st century?

Michael Lebowitz: Basically, I think there is no alternative. Capitalism has always been a system that treats human beings and nature simply as a means for the purpose of making profits. The logic of capital is the growth of capital and, as Marx pointed out, its tendency is to destroy both those original sources of wealth -- human beings and nature. But how long can that go on? Production under capitalist relations is so unfulfilling that it produces people who can only get satisfaction by purchasing and possessing things. At the same time, we know that in order to be able to sell the commodities produced, capital must constantly generate new needs. It is a lethal combination – consumerism is not an accident in capitalism.

But can everyone in the world consume, consume? We can already see the result of growing demands upon natural resources, the competition between old capitalist countries and new emerging ones, the drive to emulate the consumption standards of the global North. After all, why should people in some parts of the world be privileged by the accident of their birthplace? How long can this continue? How long before there is a growing struggle over the limited resources – a struggle between those who currently control those resources and those who feel entitled to an equal share? I think barbarism is the direction that capitalism is going. And that our choice is between socialism and barbarism.

Of course, nobody sensible is looking for reproduction of socialism as it was attempted in the 20th century. As the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, said in 2005, "We have to reinvent socialism." And, he noted that it can't be the kind of socialism that existed in the Soviet Union. "It must be a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything."

I think that is precisely the socialism we have to invent. Socialism for the 21st century has as its core a focus on human development – the full development of human potential. That is a return to the central theme of 19th century socialists like Karl Marx. It is the understanding that our goal must be a society in which everyone has the opportunity to develop all their capacities and potential. Marx summed it up in The Communist Manifesto by saying that the goal is "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all". In large part, that vision was missing in much of the 20th century attempts to build socialism. Instead, emphasis upon the quantitative growth of productive forces displaced that vision.

One of your most famous books is certainly Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the Working Class. For those who haven't read it yet, could you explain what is left out of Capital. Is there any relationship between what was missing in the 20th century and missing parts of Marxist theory?

Well, there's a lot missing in Marx's Capital. That book had an essential purpose but it was limited. The point was to explain the nature of capital and its tendencies. Marx's goal there was to explain to workers what this beast is -- how what we see around us is not accidental, how it can't be changed simply through reforms, that you need to end the rule of capital. There is an enormous mystification of capital, and we need to go beneath the surface to understand capital. Marx did that brilliantly. However, Capital was not an attempt to describe the whole of capitalism. Remember that Marx intended initially to write six books about capitalism, and he only finished the first of these – the book on capital (and, of course, he only finished the first volume of that book himself). We ourselves have to go beyond Capital.

I think the short answer as to what is missing in Marx's Capital is the human being as a being of praxis. We don't see human beings with their own goals, struggling to achieve those goals and transforming themselves in the process. We can see that in Marx's other writings but not as a theme of Capital. Marx necessarily would have had to deal with this if he ever had proceeded to the volume on wage labour. So that's what I was trying to do in my book: explore implications of Marx not writing the book he planned on wage labour.

I think that once you begin to look at the side of the worker, you are led inevitably to stress the human being as a subject and you see the importance of the "key link" of human development and practice. But if workers don't appear in Capital as subjects for themselves, then we don't focus upon capital's constant need to divide and separate workers in order to weaken them. Two-sided class struggle goes into the background, and all capital has to do is increase productivity in order to produce these objects (workers) more cheaply. What you end up with is technological determinism because what capital must do to capture the fruits of productivity gain is not explored. So, we don't even get a full picture of the side of capital without introducing the worker as a subject.

The relation of all this to the question of socialism for the 21st century is that it is essential to recognise that Marx wrote Capital from the perspective of a society in which people are subjects who are able to develop their full potential – where they are able to become, in his words, "rich human beings". His premise was a society based not on the growth of capital but what he referred to in Capital as "the inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker's own need for development".

Look at how many times Marx talks there about capitalism as an "inversion". Well, an inversion of what? The answer is the inversion of a different, more human society – socialism. A society which does not destroy human beings in the process of production, a society which introduces new productive forces that do not cripple human beings but which allows them to grow, a society which treats nature as something to be respected and sustained.

Yes, I definitely do think there is a link between what was missing in Marx's Capital and what was missing in 20th century attempts to build socialism. In my new book, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, I have tried to develop the logic of a socialist alternative based upon the concept of human development.

A central theme of that book and your recent work is the concept of the "elementary triangle of socialism". Could you explain it?

If you don't know where you want to go, no road will take you there. For some time, I have been stressing the absolute necessity to have a clear idea of where we want to go, a vision of socialism. That's especially important after the experiences of the 20th century. The socialist alternative (which is not only an alternative to capitalism) must put human development at its core. So, I explore in the book the conditions for this, drawing upon Marx but also upon what we need to learn from the 20th century experience.

I try to look at socialism as an organic system, a system of production, distribution and consumption in which the elements all coexist and support each other. I consider here these elements as (A) social ownership of the means of production, (B) social production organised by workers for (C) social needs and purposes.

Social ownership is essential because it is the only way to ensure that our communal, social productivity is directed to the free development of all rather than used to satisfy the private goals of capitalists, groups of individuals, or state bureaucrats.

Social production organised by workers because it's only the way to end what Marx called the crippling of body and mind that comes from the separation of head and hand. As long as workers are prevented from developing their capacities by combining thinking and doing in the workplace, they remain alienated, fragmented human beings whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things. And if workers don't make decisions in the workplace and develop their capacities, we can be certain that someone else will.

Finally, satisfaction of communal needs and purposes focuses upon the importance of going beyond self-interest. It means we look upon others as members of a community, as members of a human family. The essential starting point here is the concept of a community, a concept of solidarity – something we can never build by focusing on selfishness and self-interest.

These three sides of this combination (which Chávez has called the elementary triangle of socialism) clearly reinforce each other. And, if any of these are missing, it poisons the other sides of the triangle – this is an important lesson from the 20th century.

You have written on the Yugoslavian system of "self-management", and in one of your older works you state that "worker management is the only real ultimate alternative to capitalism". Why did this experiment fail?

I’m sure that people in Croatia can answer this much better than I can. My own impression is that your self-management experiment (to which I was very much attracted at the time) had many problems but that we can learn from these in order to build an alternative which doesn't make the same mistakes.

Underlying much, I think, was the absence of the third side of the triangle – the attempt to create a society consciously based upon a concept of community and solidarity. Instead of recognising the way in which people develop by meeting each others' needs, the focus was upon self-interest; the logic was that by, stressing material self-interest, the development of productive forces would lead somehow to a new society oriented toward human development. Ultimately, that didn't differ much from the perspective of Soviet Marxism.

Of course, there was the recognition here that state ownership is not social ownership and that workers' management is a necessary condition for social ownership. That certainly was missing in the Soviet model. However, the focus upon self-interest infected the other sides of the triangle. Enterprises competed against each other and acted against each other's interests in order to maximise their income. There were great disparities in income levels based on differential access to and possession of particular means of production; and unemployed workers had no access to the means of production at all and ended up leaving to become guest workers outside the country. This wasn't social ownership – it was group ownership of specific means of production.

Further, workers did not rule within the workplace; they tended to accept the recommendations of the managers and the experts. The assumption was that everyone in the enterprise had the same interest – maximising income. So, why not accept what the managers proposed? Thus the division between thinking and doing continued, and the result was that workers did not develop their capacities. If they were able to get rid of bad managers, it wasn’t in order to self-govern in the workplace. Rather, it was like an electorate voting out one government and electing a new one to rule over it.

Why didn’t the workers rule? An important reason was that they did not feel qualified to make technical decisions. However, rather than transforming the workday so that part of it would be set aside for education in self-management, the focus was on immediate material interest and not upon an investment in human capacities. The absence of a conscious attempt to build solidarity, to build a solidarian society, infected both social property and worker management.

In this respect, we need to think seriously about the observations of Che Guevara who worried specifically about the lack of a socialist spirit here when workers compete against each other and, in general, warned that reliance upon material self-interest leads to a dead end. When I visited here in the 1970s and 1980s, I was struck by the lack of solidarity in the society. It was quite a contrast to Cuba, with which I was familiar.

As you know, the socialist experiment in Yugoslavia had also some bad sites (concentration camps such as Goli Otok and prisons for political disidents such as Lepoglava, a new class associated with the [Communist] Party, and so on). How would you explain the socialist alternative to those who went through bad experiences during the time of "real-existing socialism"?

Well, I have to confess that I did not know about these things and did not question them. When I looked at Yugoslavia, I was looking at it as an economist and as a test of the experiment of workers' management. So I was not exploring other elements of the society. Certainly, too, Yugoslavia seemed to be so advanced as a society relative to the countries following the Soviet model.

As to how I would explain the socialist alternative to those who went through those experiences? The same way I explain it now to people living in countries that are trying to build socialism at this time. In Vietnam, Cuba and Venezuela – all countries that I have been in recently, I stress the necessity to build all three sides of a socialist triangle. To build social ownership of the means of production, workers' management in workplaces and communities and a solidarian society – one based upon the conscious recognition of each others’ needs.

And, I stress that if you don't do that, the failures will be predictable. The point, as Che stressed, is to simultaneously build productive forces and new socialist human beings.

In Croatia, some sayif you can ban Nazi symbols, you could also ban the communist symbols as the red star (both are symbols of totalitarian regimes). How would you answer to such claims?

I don't look upon those as symbols of states but rather as symbols of movements. And I reject entirely the idea that you can equate a symbol associated with people who used human skin to make lamp shades and executed people in the gas chambers, on the one hand, with the symbol under which many people have struggled for freedom, against capitalism and imperialism (and I think of the Vietnamese people who defeated US imperialism in particular).

People who equate those two symbols are foolish or inhuman. Having said that, however, I don't agree that a state should ban the Nazi symbol. Rather, I think that people should themselves struggle politically against that symbol and consciously educate themselves and others to struggle against such inhumanity.

You knew some of the former members of the Praxis group (Gajo Petrovic, Predrag Vranicki, etc.). How do you, from a temporal but also spatial distance, look upon their work?

I haven't thought about them for a while. When I referred earlier to the concept of human beings as beings of praxis, though, it reflected their central themes. I was very much influenced by the work of Gajo Petrovic and Vranicki and tried to see them when I visited Zagreb in the past.

The idea of making human development the centre of a concept of socialism and stressing that this development occurs only through practice is, in fact, a return to the critical insights of Marx of which they were so aware. I think that the humanistic Marxism that they stressed is what socialism for the 21st century is all about; hopefully, the more we work at building that, the more their insights and those of the Praxis group will be acknowledged.

Where in the world do you see those new possibilities, new hopes for better societies based on the concept of solidarity?

There are new possibilities, and we see them especially in Latin America right now because the strong rejection of the effects of neoliberalism there has opened the door to think of an alternative – not a third way, a barbarism with a human face, but a socialist alternative.

I have been working in Venezuela for several years along with my wife Marta Harnecker, and I think there are many very important developments there. In particular, there is a vision of a socialist alternative in Venezuela. You can see that represented in parts of Venezuela's Bolivarian Constitution introduced under Chavez. In its explicit recognition (in Article 299) that the goal of a human society must be that of "ensuring overall human development", in the declaration of Article 20 that "everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality" and the focus of Article 102 upon "developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society" – the theme of human development pervades the Bolivarian Constitution.

That constitution also focuses upon the question of how people develop their capacities and capabilities – that is, how overall human development occurs. Article 62 of the constitution declares that participation by people in "forming, carrying out and controlling the management of public affairs is the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective". The same emphasis upon a democratic, participatory and protagonistic society is also present in the economic sphere, which is why Article 70 stresses "self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms" and why Article 102’s goal of "developing the creative potential of every human being" emphasises "active, conscious and joint participation".

In other words, that "key link" of human development and practice figures prominently in the Bolivarian Constitution. But, it’s not just words. There has been a conscious attempt to develop new institutions which allow people to transform themselves while transforming circumstances. This is most apparent with the development of communal councils – councils based on 200-400 families in urban areas (and smaller in rural areas). These councils, in which the general assemblies are the supreme decision-making body, are engaging in participatory diagnosis of their needs and participatory budgeting.

Of course, while they are a real place where people can develop through their protagonism, the problems they can deal with are limited by their size. So, the step occurring now is the coming together of councils to form communes so they can take on larger responsibilities. Here there is attention being given to ensure economic viability – units of productive activity oriented to social needs. And the next step will be the coming together of communes to form communal cities.

In fact, a new state is being formed (not easily and not without contradictions and conflicts with the old state); Chavez has said many times that the communal councils are the cells of the new socialist state.

Although it is not as advanced, there also is a process going in the direction of workers' management of state industries. Here there has been great resistance from bureaucrats and managers against workers' management, and some of the initial steps taken toward what was called co-management in Venezuela (a partnership between workers and society) were reversed.

However, in the last year the combination of workers' militancy and Chavez has put workers' management back on the agenda. For example, workers in the state steel and aluminium industries, with Chavez’s encouragement, have produced a socialist plan for their region and Chavez has insisted that what Venezuela has now is state capitalism and that, without workers' control, you can’t have socialism. The same thing is happening now in the electrical industry. And, that appears to be occurring as the state moves into new sectors of the economy.

The central focus is definitely not self-interest – Chavez in particular is very conscious of the problems associated with that. So, there is a real attempt in Venezuela to work at building the socialist triangle. I don’t want to minimise the problems and obstacles. The goal is clear but it’s a real struggle.

The eyes of the world are on Venezuela. Something new is happening there, but some leftists are very critical of what they view as Chavez's populism. What's your opinion?

The spectre of populism is often raised when people talk about Venezuela but I’m not certain that I know what they mean when they use the term. In some cases, it reflects nervousness about the enthusiasm and movement of masses, and there’s an implicit but repressed preference for that familiar model in which people enter a voting booth every few years by themselves and elect a government to do good things. In other cases, people worry about a leader who may buy popularity by providing gifts from above for an unchanging client population.

But that is not what is happening in the Bolivarian Revolution. While the poor definitely have gained significantly in terms of education, health and the general reduction of poverty, they are definitely changing and gaining a sense of power and dignity. The idea that you can’t solve poverty without giving power to the poor, a famous statement by Chavez, and the development of those real mechanisms by which people are able to develop through their collective activity – that goes far beyond any concept of populism.

It’s easy to talk about such questions abstractly from a distance, but in the real Venezuela, the deep rentist culture of corruption and clientalism on the one hand and apathy and despair, on the other, would make building a new society a difficult matter under any circumstances. I think the real changes that are occurring would not be taking place in the absence of the leadership of Chavez; and, it is essential to understand that this is a leadership that is part of a dialectical relationship with the masses. That relationship is what propels the process forward.

What's going on now in Venezuela? In this part of the world we get news only if Chavez is doing or saying something mass media find attractive ...

And we should add negative. That is not unique to this part of the world. It is true in North America and elsewhere as well. What is transmitted internationally by the mass media about Venezuela is in general the perspective of international capital (which, naturally, is not enthusiastic about the emergence of a socialist alternative) and, in particular, the perspective of the viciously anti-Chavez opposition media within Venezuela.

In fact, many of the stories that appear in the international press are little more than rewrites of items in Venezuela's domestic press; and graphic images transmitted by CNN, for example, come from its local affiliate Globovision (often called Globoterror by Chavists), a 24-hour anti-Chavez news and opinion channel.

If you want to find out what is going on in Venezuela on a regular basis you basically have to go to the internet because local people and visitors (who are not, for example, afraid to go into the poor barrios) are reporting on what is happening and how life is changing. With the help of online translation programs, you’ll get a quite different picture and you can understand the changes and struggles happening in Latin America.

Do you think the current crisis of capitalism will lead to a rejection of capitalism in other parts of the world and the search for a socialist alternative? As we know, after the great depression of the 1930s, capital restructured itself and instead of a new and better world we got the Bretton Woods agreement and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Isn't the ongoing crisis only a new method for strengthening the old system?

A crisis in capitalism is not the same as a crisis of capitalism. In the absence of subjects prepared to struggle to change the system, capitalism has a free hand to try to restructure itself. That is certainly what we see occurring as the G20 is invented to take the place of the G7; it’s a recognition that restructuring international capital involves the incorporation of the new capitalist actors (especially China, India and Brazil).

Whether that attempt to restructure will succeed, on the other hand, remains to be seen. The more important question, though, is whether the attempt to make the working class pay for the deficiencies of capitalism will produce new actors who are increasingly oriented toward putting an end to capitalism. That was the pattern in Latin America, and we can see resistance at this time in Greece and I suspect we’ll see it elsewhere. I think that is important and has much potential. But resistance in itself can just raise the costs of particular measures to capital and may lead no further than to some reforms.

To go further, I think it is necessary both to understand the nature of capital and also to have a vision of a socialist alternative. I think the first of these is beginning – as indicated by the growing interest in Marx in the context of the crisis. We need to work on the second, too, to make it clear that socialism is not about a state-controlled and -dominated society; rather, the socialism we need to struggle for must be about creating the conditions for real human development.

Will the ongoing crisis be a new method for strengthening the old system? Only struggle will decide that.

[Michael A. Lebowitz was a founder of the Centro Internacional Miranda in Caracas, Venezuela, and has directed a program there on Transformative Practice and Human Development since 2006. His publications include Build it Now (Monthly Review Press, 2006), Following Marx (Haymarket Books, 2009) and The Socialist Alternative (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming in 2010), as well as several articles on Venezuela in Monthly Review and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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