Michael Lebowitz: The spectre of socialism for the 21st century
The following is the keynote address to the annual meeting of the Society for Socialist Studies, Vancouver, June 5, 2008. It was originally titled ``Building socialism for the 21st century''. To hear an audio recording of the speech, click HERE.
By Michael A. Lebowitz
A spectre is haunting capitalism. It is the spectre of socialism for the 21st century. Increasingly, the characteristics of this spectre are becoming clear, and we are able to see enough to understand what it is not. The only thing that is not clear at this point is whether the spectre is real – i.e., whether it is actually an earthly presence.
Consider what this spectre is not. It is not the belief that by struggling within capitalism for reforms that it is possible to change the nature of capitalism -- i.e., that a better capitalism, a third way, can suspend the logic of capital (except momentarily). Nor is it a focus upon electing friendly governments to preside over exploitation, oppression and exclusion -- i.e., to support barbarism with a human face. Indeed, this spectre does not accept the premise that you can challenge the logic of capital without understanding it. Very simply, the spectre of socialism for the 21st century is not yesterday’s liberal package -- social democracy. Further, this spectre is not a focus upon the industrial working class as the revolutionary subjects of socialism, a privileging whereby all other workers (including those in the growing informal sector) are seen as lesser workers, unproductive workers, indeed lumpenproletariat. Nor does it suggest that those industrial workers by virtue of the difference between their productivity with advanced means of production and their incomes (i.e., the extent of their exploitation) have a greater entitlement to the wealth of society than the poor and excluded.
In the conception of socialism for the 21st century, socialism is not confused with the ownership of the means of production by the state such that (a) it is thought that all that is necessary for socialism is to nationalise and (b) that everything not nationalised is an affront. Indeed, this spectre does not emphasise the development of productive forces without regard for the nature of productive relations (such that gulags, dictatorship and indeed capitalism can all be justified because they develop the productive forces and thereby move you closer to socialism and communism).
Nor, for that matter, does it think of two post-capitalist states, socialism and communism, separated by a Chinese wall; in the concept of socialism for the 21st century, there is no separate socialist principle of ``to each according to his contribution’’ which must be honoured. Rather, there is simply the recognition that the development of the new society is a process and that this process necessarily begins on a defective basis -- in other words, with defects such as self orientation. Precisely for this reason, this recognition of existing defects, the battle of ideas -- an ideological battle against the old world -- is central to the concept of socialism for the 21st century.
Finally, socialism for the 21st century is not based upon democracy in the classic sense. By that, I mean that it is not based upon the concept of representative democracy -- that institutional form in which rule by the people is transformed into voting periodically for those who will misrule them. All these fall into what I call yesterday's socialist package.
Marx and the centrality of human development
So, if the spectre of socialism for the 21st century differs from yesterday's liberal and socialist packages, what is it?
First of all, it is a stress upon the centrality of human development. In this respect, it is a restoration of the focus of 19th century socialists. It is the vision of a society with the goal (according to Saint-Simon) of providing to its members ``the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties’’, a goal to which Louis Blanc referred as ensuring that everyone has ``the power to develop and exercise his faculties in order to really be free’’ and of a society in which, according to Friedrich Engels, ``every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society’’. This vision of human development which is central to socialism for the 21st century was unquestionably Marx’s vision (Lebowitz, 2006: 53-60)
The Young Marx envisioned a ``rich human being’’ -- one who has developed their capacities and capabilities to the point where they are able ``to take gratification in a many-sided way’’ -- ``the rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses’’ (Marx, 1844: 302). ``In place of the wealth and poverty of political economy’’, he proposed, ``come the rich human being and rich human need’’ (Marx, 1844: 304). But, it was not only a young, romantic, so-called pre-Marxist Marx who spoke so eloquently about rich human beings. In the Grundrisse, Marx returned explicitly to this conception of human wealth -- to a rich human being -- ``as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities and relations’’; real wealth, he understood, is the development of human capacity -- the ``development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption’’ (Marx, 1973: 325).
Could anything be clearer? This is what Marx’s conception of socialism was all about -- the creation of a society which removes all obstacles to the full development of human beings. He looked ahead to that society of associated producers, where each individual is able to develop her full potential -- i.e., the ``absolute working-out of his creative potentialities’’, the ``complete working out of the human content’’, the ``development of all human powers as such the end in itself’’ (Marx, 1973: 488, 541, 708). In contrast to capitalist society in which we are the means to expand the wealth of capital, Marx in his book Capital pointed to that alternative society, ``the inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development’’ (Marx, 1977: 772).
The workers’ own need for development -- there is the spectre, there is the impulse for a new society. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx projected that in the cooperative society based upon the common ownership of the means of production, the productive forces would have ``increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly’’ (Marx, 1875: 24). As he described it in the Communist Manifesto, our goal is ``an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’’ (Lebowitz, 2003: 202-5). Our goal, in short, cannot be a society in which some people are able to develop their capabilities and others are not; we are interdependent, we are all members of a human family. Thus our goal must be the full development of all human potential.
`These ideas live today’
There’s more here than a 19th century view. That these ideas live today can be seen very clearly in the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela. 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’’ -- this theme of human development pervades the Bolivarian Constitution.
Further, there is something there that you don’t find in the liberal conceptions of human development underlying the UN Human Development Index. This constitution also focuses upon the question of how people develop their capacities and capabilities -- i.e., how overall human development occurs. Article 62 of the Bolivarian 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 necessary way. And, the same emphasis upon a democratic, participatory and protagonistic society is 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’’.
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This focus upon practice as essential for human development was, of course, Marx's central insight into how people change. It’s not a matter simply of spending more on education, health and social services. Remember Marx's early comment on Robert Owen’s conception that what was needed to change people was to change the circumstances in which they exist. Marx (1845) emphatically rejected the idea that we can give people a gift, that if we just change the circumstances in which they exist they will be themselves different people. You are forgetting, he pointed out, that it is human beings who change circumstances. The idea that we can create new circumstances for people and thereby change them, he insisted, in fact divides society into two parts -- one part of which is deemed superior to society. It is the same perspective that Paulo Freire (2006: 72) subsequently rejected in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed -- the concept that ``knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing’’.
In contrast, Marx introduced the concept of revolutionary practice -- ``the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change’’ -- the red thread that runs throughout his work. He talked, for example, of how people develop through their own struggles -- how this is the only way the working class can ``succeed in ridding itself of the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew’’. And he told workers that they would have to go through as much as 50 years of struggles ``not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power’’. And, again, after the Paris Commune in 1871, over a quarter of a century after he first began to explore this theme, he commented that workers know ``they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historical processes, transforming circumstances and men’’ (Lebowitz, 2003: 179-84).
Always the same point -- we change ourselves through our activity. This idea of the simultaneous change in circumstances and self-change, however, is not limited to class struggle itself. It is present in all activities of people -- i.e., every process of activity has two products -- i.e., joint products -- the change in circumstances and the change in the actor. This obviously applies in the sphere of production as well. As Marx commented in the Grundrisse, in production ``the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, …new needs and new language’’. Here, indeed, is the essence of the cooperative society based upon common ownership of the means of production -- ``when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species’’.
How far, of course, this is from the idea that what you have to do is build up the productive forces and thereby transform the conditions in which people exist, transforming their being and their consciousness! But what other inferences flow from these principles -- the focus upon human development and upon revolutionary practice, that simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change? Let me suggest that these two principles constitute the ``key link’’, the key link we need to grasp (in Lenin’s words) if we are to understand the concept of socialism for the 21st century.
Consider, for example, what this means for the process of production. If people are prevented from using their minds within the workplace but instead follow directions from above, you have what Marx described as the crippling of body and mind, producers who are fragmented, degraded, alienated from ``the intellectual potentialities of the labour process’’. There’s no surprise that Marx looked forward to the re-combining of head and hand, the uniting of mental and physical labour -- i.e., to a time when the individual worker can call ``his own muscles into play under the control of his own brain’’. But, more than a simple combination of mental and manual labour within the sphere of production is needed. Without ``intelligent direction of production’’ by workers, without production ``under their conscious and planned control’’, workers cannot develop their potential as human beings because their own power becomes a power over them (Marx, 1977: 450, 173).
What kind of productive relations, then, can provide the conditions for the full development of human capacities? Only those in which there is conscious cooperation among associated producers; only those in which the goal of production is that of the workers themselves. Clearly, though, this requires more than worker-management in individual workplaces. They must be the goals of workers in society, too -- workers in their communities.
After all, what is production? It’s not something that occurs only in a factory or in what we traditionally identify as a workplace. When we understand the goal as that of human development, we recognise that production should not be confused with production of specific use-values; rather, as Marx noted, all specific products and activities are mere moments in a process of producing human beings, who are the real result of social production. And, that points to the importance of making each moment a site for the collective decision making and variety of activity that develops human capacities.
Implicit in the emphasis of the concept of socialism for the 21st century upon human development and how that development can occur only through practice is our need to be able to develop through democratic, participatory and protagonistic activity in every aspect of our lives. Through revolutionary practice in our communities, our workplaces and in all our social institutions, we produce ourselves as ‘rich human beings’ -- rich in capacities and needs -- in contrast to the impoverished and crippled human beings that capitalism produces.
In contrast to the hierarchical capitalist state (which Marx understood as an ``engine of class despotism’’) and to the despotism of the capitalist workplace, only a revolutionary democracy can create the conditions in which we can invent ourselves daily as rich human beings. This concept is one of democracy in practice, democracy as practice, democracy as protagonism. Democracy in this sense -- protagonistic democracy in the workplace, protagonistic democracy in neighbourhoods, communities, communes -- is the democracy of people who are transforming themselves into revolutionary subjects.
How else but through protagonistic democracy in production can we ensure that the process of producing is one which enriches people and expands their capacities rather than crippling and impoverishing them? How else but through protagonistic democracy in society can we ensure that what is produced is what is needed to foster the realisation of our potential?
If there is to be democratic production for the needs of society, however, there is an essential precondition: there cannot be a monopolisation of the products of human labour by individuals, groups or the state. In other words, the precondition is social ownership of the means of production: this is the first side of what President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has called the ``elementary triangle’’ of socialism: (a) social ownership of the means of production, which is a basis for (b) social production organised by workers in order to (c) satisfy communal needs and communal purposes.
Let us consider each element in this particular combination of distribution-production-consumption.
A. Social ownership of the means of production
Social ownership of the means of production is critical 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 ownership is not, however, the same as state ownership. Social ownership implies a profound democracy -- one in which people function as subjects, both as producers and as members of society, in determining the use of the results of our social labour.
B. Production organised by workers
Production organised by workers builds new relations among producers -- relations of cooperation and solidarity. As long as workers are prevented from developing their capacities by combining thinking and doing in the workplace, they remain alienated and 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. Protagonistic democracy in the workplace is an essential condition for the full development of the producers.
C. Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes
Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes focuses upon the importance of basing our productive activity upon the recognition of our common humanity and our needs as members of the human family. Thus, it stresses the importance of going beyond self-interest to think of our community and society. As long we produce only for our private gain, how do we look at other people? As competitors or as customers -- i.e., as enemies or as means to our own ends; thus, we remain alienated, fragmented and crippled. Rather than relating to others through an exchange relation (and, thus, trying to get the best deal possible for ourselves), this third element of the elementary triangle of socialism has as its goal building a relation to others characterised by our unity based upon recognition of difference; through our activity, then, we both build solidarity among people and at the same time produce ourselves differently.
And, this concept of solidarity is central because it is saying that all human beings, all parts of the collective worker, are entitled to draw upon our ``communal, social productivity’’. The premise is not at all that we have the individual right to consume things without limit but, rather, that we recognise the centrality of ``the worker's own need for development’’. Further, our claim upon the accumulated fruits of social brain and hand is not based upon exploitation. It is not because you have been exploited that you are entitled to share in the fruits of social labour. Rather, it is because you are a human being in a human society – and because, like all of us, you have the right to the opportunity to develop all your potential.
At the same time as a human being in a human society you also have the obligation to other members of this human family -- to make certain that they also have this opportunity, that they too can develop their potential. As a member of this family you are called upon to do your share -- a concept also present in the Bolivarian Constitution: Article 135 notes ``the obligations which by virtue of solidarity, social responsibility and humanitarian assistance, are incumbent upon individuals according to their abilities’’.
Look at the direction that this key link -- human development and the simultaneous changing of circumstance and self-change takes us:
- to democratic decision making in the workplace and the community
- to a focus upon building solidarity and new socialist human beings rather than relying upon exchange relations and material self-interest (which Che Guevara — whose 80th birthday would have been today -- warned us leads to a blind alley)
- to a new conception of the state as one which is not over and above civil society (i.e., a state of the Paris Commune-type) -- i.e., a state which Marx wrote is our own ``living force’’, our own power, rather than a power used against us
- and, for that matter, this key link of human development and revolutionary practice leads us to recognise the need for a political instrument which respects the creative energy and revolutionary practice of masses rather than substitutes its own wisdom. In short, a political instrument which embraces the revolutionary pedagogy of Rosa Luxemburg when she argued: ``The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.’’
Is the spectre real? Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution
The outlines of the spectre, socialism for the 21st century, become increasingly clear. The question remains, however, is the spectre real? Does it have an earthly presence? Especially, since this vision of the spectre draws so much upon the discourse of the BolivarianRepublic of Venezuela, it is important to ask what the reality is there.
Certainly, socialism for the 21st century has been explicitly on the agenda in Venezuela since Chavez’s closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when he surprised many people by saying, ``We have to re-invent socialism.’’ At that time, Chavez emphasised that ``It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.’’ Capitalism has to be transcended, he argued, if we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world. ``But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.’’
Without question, there has been progress in this direction. Starting in 2004, oil revenues from the newly recaptured state oil company were directed to new missions which have been providing people with basic prerequisites for human development -- education, health care, adequate and affordable food. Important steps, too, have been taken to develop each side of the elementary socialist triangle:
Social property: There has been an expansion of state property, which can be a threshold to socialist property (because it is possible to direct state property to satisfy social needs). In addition to the expansion of state sectors in oil and basic industry, to last year’s acquisition of strategic sectors such as communications, electric power and the recovery of the dominant position for the state in the heavy oil fields has been added this year so far a major dairy company and most recently the steel company (SIDOR) that had been privatised by a previous government. Further, the offensive against the latifundia has resumed with several land seizures (or ``recoveries’’), and new state companies (including joint ventures with state firms from countries such as Iran) have been created to produce means of production like tractors.
Social production: While the government has continued to seek ways to encourage worker-management, in particular by supporting cooperatives and recovered factories, this side of the triangle is the least developed so far. In part, this is because of opposition within the state to worker-management in strategic sectors such as oil and energy, and in part because of opposition from traditional trade unions to co-management structures and workers’ councils. What has been happening is a continued search for forms, and the government has moved from exploring cooperatives as the desired form, to EPS, companies of social production (which made commitments to workers and communities), and now to the exploration of the concept of socialist companies. Everyday, I hear of new ideas in this direction. At this point, this aspect is a work in process. However, it does appear that a previous model of 51% state ownership and 49% ownership by a workers’ cooperative is being replaced by focus upon 100% state ownership with workers’ control. Progress in this area, unfortunately, has been held up by the chaos and intense battles between Chavist trade union currents, and that has been a source of incredible frustration for many -- including Chavez. In this process, Chavez continues to exhort the working class to play a leadership role. After this year’s takeover of the dairy producer Los Andes, he argued that ``workers' committees must be created, socialist committees, in order to transform the factory from inside. The workers must know what is happening in the company, participate in decision-making in the firm.’’ And, after the decision to nationalise SIDOR, he announced that the government was a government of the working class. At this very point, the nationalisation of SIDOR after major struggles by the steel workers has re-animated the organised working class; and our institute (Centro Internacional Miranda) has organised roundtables between tendencies and currents that would not have been possible several months ago.
Production for social needs: Throughout the country, there are many experiments attempting to link producers and consumers directly -- especially in the sphere of agricultural products and in local trading with local currencies. To be able to identify social needs, though, continuing social institutions are required; and the most significant advance that has occurred is the development in 2006 of the new communal councils which are able to identify the needs of their communities. These councils are an extraordinary experiment in bringing power to people in their neighbourhoods -- creating an institutional form in which they can diagnose their needs collectively and determine the priorities for their communities. Of course, the idea of participatory diagnosis and budgeting is not unique to Venezuela; that is occurring in a number of communities elsewhere (and the most famous example is Porto Alegre in Brazil). But what is unique in Venezuela is the size of the units in question. Communal councils are formed to represent in urban areas 200-400 families (which can be 1000 people) and in rural areas as few as 20 families. It means that the councils are choosing not distant representatives but, rather, their neighbours, people they know well -- and not as representatives but as voceros, spokespersons for the ultimate decision-making body, the general assembly (which, of course, meets in the neighbourhood, thus allowing everyone to participate). In the communal councils you have the embryo for a new state from below. And that was recognised explicitly by Chavez last year when he proclaimed ``All Power to the Communal Councils’’. Now, of course, the communal councils are small, and the problems of society go well beyond those that can be resolved at the neighbourhood level. That is understood, and Chavez has called the councils themselves the cell of a new socialist state. They are seen as the building blocks -- essential because they are allowing people to develop confidence and capacities in dealing with problems they understand. (Observing the sense of pride in these communities is very moving.) However, it is obviously necessary to begin to combine the communal councils into larger associations in order to deal with larger problems. And that is precisely what is happening now with the creation of pilot projects to combine some of the more advanced groups of councils into socialist communes. The process envisioned is very clearly one of trying to build a new state from below.
So, is this spectre of socialism for the 21st century, with its focus upon human development and practice, real? Clearly, it is not just words. There is truly an attempt to make socialism for the 21st century real. But, can it succeed?
Can socialism for the 21st century succeed?
You might wonder, why am I even posing this question -- given evidence that the desire is there and knowledge that the great oil revenues available provide the means!
Three years ago, I gave a talk in Venezuela called ``Socialism doesn’t drop from the sky’’, which has been very widely circulated in Venezuela (largely because Chavez has talked about it a number of times on television); it is also a chapter in my book, Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century. One aspect of the title of that essay refers to the obvious point that socialism obviously is necessarily rooted in particular societies -- which is to say that it must be developed in societies with particular histories. To understand the possibilities for success in Venezuela, you have to know something about the nature of that society.
Now, I can’t give you a complete, balanced account of Venezuela in the time left. So, I’ll just stress just some of the characteristics which suggest significant obstacles to building socialism for the 21st century in Venezuela.
When you talk about Venezuela, you have to begin with oil. Not only the effect of oil exports upon the hollowing-out of the economy such that local manufacturing and agriculture effectively disappeared as the result of an exchange rate which made it much cheaper to import everything rather than to produce it domestically. It’s an extreme example of what is called the ``Dutch disease’’: despite rich agricultural land, Venezuela was importing 70% of its food. So, massive migration from the countryside to live in the cities, e.g., in the hills surrounding Caracas -- 80% of the population is urban, maybe 10% engaged in agriculture. And as for industry, it was largely import processing -- processing food, assembling cars and assorted other import-related sectors. Oil production itself doesn’t generate many jobs, so we have to think about unemployment, an informal sector (about 50% of the working class) and poverty -- extreme social debt and inequality.
Add to that economic effect, the effect upon state and society. Unlike the classic picture of a state resting upon civil society, upon the social classes, in Venezuela, civil society rests upon the state. Contrary to Engels’ sneers at Tkachev, in Venezuela the state indeed has been suspended in mid-air -- or, more precisely, suspended upon an oil geyser. Thus, the state has been the supreme object of desire -- or, more precisely, access to the state for the purpose of gaining access to oil rents has been a national preoccupation. And, in this orgy of rent seeking within a poverty-stricken society -- a culture of corruption and clientalism, parasitic capitalists who don’t invest, a labour aristocracy with trade union leaders who sell jobs, a party system which functions as an alternating transmission belt for elections and access to state jobs, a state which mostly does not work because it is filled with incompetent sinecurists but, when it does, is completely top-down. These are just a few characteristics worth mentioning.
All of this was present in Venezuela when Chavez was elected in 1998. And, you would have to be truly naïve to think that it disappeared when Chávez came to office. On the contrary, it pervades Chavism -- the corruption, the clientalism, the nature of the state, the nature of the party (including the new party – PSUV -- currently being built), the gap between the organised working class and the poor in the informal sector -- it’s all there! And, you will recognise that it is entirely contrary to everything in the concept of socialism for the 21st century.
Socialism doesn’t drop from the sky. It is necessarily rooted in particular societies. And, these two souls which currently beat in the breast of Venezuela are clearly at war. Chavez often cites [Italian Marxist Antonio] Gramsci about how the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born (although he leaves out the part about how a great many morbid symptoms appear at that time). Precisely because of these two opposed tendencies, when I write about Venezuela, I always stress the internal struggle within Chavism as the main obstacle to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution. Obviously, it is not the only obstacle -- there is the existing oligarchy, the latifundists (who are the most reactionary and violent part of the opposition), the existing capitalists in their enclaves of import processing, finance and the media (which has been their main weapon) and, of course, US imperialism. Not only was the US complicit in the 2002 coup which briefly removed Chavez and in the oil lockout and sabotage later that year, but it also funds and trains the opposition, orchestrates the international media blitz against Venezuela (currently with the assistance of magical laptop computers produced by its Colombian clients), and it is in the process of bringing the US navy back to patrol the waters off Venezuela.
Imperialism is no paper tiger. And, clearly, solidarity with the Bolivarian process is essential by those outside the country who value the concepts and developments I have described. However, I stress the internal obstacles to socialism within Chavism -- the emerging new capitalists (the ``bolibourgeoisie’’), the high officials (both from military and vanguardist traditions -- it is difficult to see the distinction) who are opposed to power from below in workplaces and communities (and, thus opposed, in this respect, to human development and revolutionary practice), the party functionaries and nomenklatura. Why do I stress this? Because I consider this the ultimate contradiction of the revolution; and, I think the struggle between this ``endogenous right’’ (the right from within) and the masses who have been mobilised is the ultimate conflict which will determine the fate of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Who will win?
Who will win? I have to tell you honestly that I don’t know. My daily mantra in Venezuela is ``pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’’. I can tell you that Venezuela is no place for a revolutionary who suffers from bipolar disorder. There are the days of depression and despair; there are the days of manic exultation. In the end, it will all depend upon struggle, class struggle, and when it comes to class struggle, there are no guarantees.
But let’s assume a worse-case scenario -- that the process in Venezuela degenerates, that it proceeds to demoralise its supporters, is defeated in one way or another by defectors, domestic capitalists, the military or imperialism. Let’s assume, in other words, that this particular earthly manifestation of the spectre of socialism for the 21st century is no more.
What will be left? A spectre -- but one with much more substance than Marx and Engels could write about in the Communist Manifesto in the mid-19th century. A spectre -- but one which is capable of becoming a material force by grasping the minds of masses. A spectre -- but one which is absolutely essential to our survival because of another spectre.
Think about this concept of socialism for the 21st century. About the focus upon human development as the goal, upon a democratic, participatory, protagonistic society as the necessary way for the complete development of people, individually and collectively. Think about the idea of communal councils in which people can collectively decide upon their needs, where they simultaneously change circumstances and themselves. Think about democracy in the workplace, about ending the divide between thinking and doing and being able to draw upon the tacit knowledge of workers to be able to produce better. Think in general about this concept of revolutionary democracy which is central to the concept of socialism for the 21st century.
This is not a concept just for Venezuela or Latin America or for the poor of the South. Why is this not a spectre that can appeal to Canadians in their communities and workplaces? Why is there not the potential for a political instrument here that can focus upon these aspects, that can put forward a vision and that can be a medium for coordinating these struggles from below?
I suggest that this is not just a nice wish -- it is a necessity. Because there is another spectre out there -- a spectre which is haunting humanity, the spectre of barbarism.
Think about capitalism. Its very essence is the drive to expand capital. The picture is one of capital constantly generating more surplus value in the form of commodities which must be sold, constantly trying to create new needs in order to make real that surplus value in the form of money. That constant generation of new needs, Marx noted already in the mid 19th century, is the basis of the contemporary power of capital.
Thus, a growing circle -- a spiral of growing alienated production, growing needs and growing consumption. But how long can that continue? Everyone knows that the high levels of consumption achieved in certain parts of the world cannot be copied in the parts of the world which capital has newly incorporated into the world capitalist economy. Very simply, the Earth cannot sustain this -- as we can already see with the clear evidence of global warming and the growing shortages which reflect rising demands for particular products in the new capitalist centers. Sooner or later, that circle will reach its limits. Its ultimate limit is given by the limits of nature, the limits of the Earth to sustain more and more consumption of commodities, more and more consumption of the Earth's resources.
But well before we reach the ultimate limits of the vicious circle of capitalism, there inevitably will arise the question of who is entitled to command those increasingly limited resources. To whom will go the oil, the metals, the water -- all those requirements of modern life? Will it be the currently rich countries of capitalism, those that have been able to develop because others have not? In other words, will they be able to maintain the vast advantages they have in terms of consumption of things and resources -- and to use their power to grab the resources located in other countries? Will newly emerging capitalist countries (and, indeed, those not emerging at all) be able to capture a ``fair share’’? Will the impoverished producers of the world -- producers well aware of the standards of consumption elsewhere as the result of the mass media -- accept that they are not entitled to the fruits of civilisation? How will this be resolved?
The spectre of barbarism is haunting humanity. And, what is the alternative to it? Yesterday’s liberalism -- social democracy -- has never understood the nature of capital and offers, accordingly, only barbarism with a human face. And, yesterday’s socialist package, with its promise of more rapid development of productive forces, its privileging of industrial workers and, its premise of a stage based upon a principle that we all must get in accordance with our contribution -- this is no alternative to the crisis humanity faces.
Whatever the ultimate fate of the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, its principal contribution has been to restore hope; it has done this by revealing that there is an alternative to neoliberalism and the logic of capital. The alternative offered by socialism for the 21st century points to the need to understand that, regardless of the luck of our birthplaces or our own past contributions, the accumulated fruits of social brain and hand belong to us all. Internationally, its alternative is ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which has created links between Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia based upon solidarity rather than exchange relations. At the core of the alternative offered by socialism for the 21st century is the idea of building a society based upon relations of solidarity -- solidarity between producers, e.g., in formal and informal sectors, solidarity between those of the North and those of the South. At its core is the idea of producing consciously for communal needs and purposes and thereby building a society in which the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each.
So, let me conclude with a point that is completely unoriginal but which, so significantly, is being heard more and more these days: the choice before us is -- socialism or barbarism.
Let me add, though, that socialism doesn’t drop from the sky -- you have to struggle to make it real.
[Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at SimonFraserUniversity in Vancouver, Canada, and a program coordinator with the Centro International Miranda, Caracas, Venezuela.]
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