`Let us rediscover Marx' -- Two talks on Michael Lebowitz's `Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class'

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By Michael A. Lebowitz

[Michael Lebowitz will be a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads conference, to be held in Sydney, Australia, on April 10-12, 2009, organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. Visit http://www.worldATACrossroads.org for full agenda and to book your tickets. Find other articles by Michael Lebowitz HERE.]

February 16, 2009 -- It is well known that when Karl Marx heard what people calling themselves Marxists were saying, he commented, ``all I know is that I am not a Marxist’’. It is not as well known, however, that Marx had little respect for disciples in general. A theory disintegrates, he said, when disciples try to ``explain away’’ problems in the theory -- when they engage in ``crass empiricism’’, use ``phrases in a scholastic way’’, and employ ``cunning argument’’ to support the theory. A theory disintegrates, he said, when the point of departure of the disciples is ``no longer reality’’ but the theory that the master produced.

Although Marx had in mind what had happened to the theories of Hegel and Ricardo at the hands of their disciples, the problem he detected applies to his own theory. Marx has had too many disciples -- too many people who simply repeat the theory, too many people who argue endlessly that it is correct in the form that Marx left it. These are people whose mantra is the ``two whatevers’’ -- whatever is in Capital is right, whatever is not in Capital is wrong. With a dialectical perspective, however, we recognise that what is outside Capital is essential to understand what is inside it.

I began to wonder about what was not in Capital when I was reading the Grundrisse, Marx's notebooks from 1857-8. Among other things, those rich notebooks are filled with a discussion of needs. And, indeed, Marx noted there that the contemporary power of capital is based upon the creation of new needs for workers. (Can we deny the significance of the constant generation of needs by capital, of the power that consumerism gives capital?) But, where was the discussion of the needs of workers in Capital? Further, Marx explained that he would assume that the standard of necessity of workers was given for a given time and place, but that this assumption would be removed in the book on wage labour. What book on wage labour? In the Grundrisse, Marx indicated that the book on wage labour would be one of his six books (of which Capital was only the first).

And so I began to explore the question of what happens if we remove the assumption that Marx intended to remove? What happens if we allow the standard of needs of workers, that set of needs which underlies the value of labour power, to vary? Let me tell you that it was like pulling on a loose thread. The more I pulled on this thread, the greater the implications that were revealed (and continue to be revealed). Except this is really not a good analogy. Because the theory did not unravel. On the contrary, the theory in Capital became so much more consistent with the bulk of Marx's work on politics and struggle. In short, it was more like a chemical experiment -- adding an element and producing exciting results.

Let me tell you about a few of those results in the time available to me today.

We need to recognise, for example, that Marx's Capital is a critique of the political economy of capital -- that it is an inner examination and critique of the way things look like from the perspective of capital. That book looks at things from the side of capital and not from the side of the working class. It articulates and develops the goal and impulse of capital, its drive for surplus value, but it does not articulate and develop the alternative goal, what Marx called the worker's own need for development.

Thus, we can see that there is a whole set of alternative categories which are not developed which we need to think about. The concept of productive labour introduced, for example, is productive labour for capital -- labour which produces surplus value. What is not explored is productive labour for the worker -- labour which supports the education, health and the nurturing of human beings, and which aids in the development of human capacities. The concept of wealth introduced is wealth from the perspective of capital -- an accumulation of commodities, an accumulation of money. What is not considered, though, is wealth from the perspective of workers -- the full development of their capacities, the creation of what Marx called rich human beings.

However, we do get little glimpses of that alternative political economy of which Marx spoke -- the political economy of the working class, the political economy which points to a society in which people are able to develop all their capacities. In that society, ``all means for the development of production’’ do not cripple workers and turn them into fragments of human beings, ``alienated from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process’’. That is a society in which productive forces are not infected by capital's need to divide workers; that is a society in which ``the original sources of wealth’’, human beings and nature, are not destroyed because they are only means to capital's goal.

Marx refers repeatedly to capitalism and capitalist relations as an inversion, an inversion of this alternative society. Nowhere, though, does he describe that society; rather, it is his premise. In this respect, Marx's Capital is not neutral science. Rather, Capital is filled with indignation, hatred of the system that exploits and, even worse, destroys human beings. How can we read Capital without recognising that his condemnation of capitalism is from the perspective of that inverse situation in which means of production are used to satisfy ``the worker's own need for development’’? When you recognise Marx’s understanding of real wealth as the development of human capacities, you understand the horror implied in the opening sentence of Capital, where he describes a society in which wealth appears as ``an immense collection of commodities’’.

Indeed, one of the most important findings flowing from this particular intellectual experiment is the recognition that Marx's focus upon human development and the development of human capacities is present in Capital as a spectre haunting the political economy of capital. The importance of human development is essential there just as it is in his other works. Of course, Marx does not think of human development as falling from the sky, as coming as a gift from above, or as a present for those who have been good enough to develop productive forces. Always central to his conception is that people produce themselves through their activity -- in other words, that ``simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change’’, which he defined as ``revolutionary practice’’.

Here, then, is what I call the key link -- human development and practice. People transform themselves through their activity. The particular kind of activity in which people function within capitalism produces a particular kind of person: when you work under capital's direction for capital's goal, you are capital's product. Understand this key link, and you recognise that the full development of human capacities cannot occur without producers functioning as collective subjects under their own direction with their own goals. This concept of the key link of human development and practice, which is Marx's concept of revolutionary practice, thus points to the importance for the development of socialist human beings of democratic practices and protagonism at the level of neighbourhoods, communities, workplaces and society as a whole. It points to the necessity for the simultaneous development of socialist productive forces and socialist human beings -- that concept of which Che Guevara spoke.

Can we have the full development of human capacities without protagonism? Without democracy from below? I suggest that Karl Marx speaks to us today and that he is very relevant to the reality we face -- the task of going beyond capital and building socialism for the 21st century.

Several years ago, one of the finest Marxist theorists, Istvan Meszaros, presented a paper here in Cuba with the title, ``Marx, Our Contemporary’’. I share that idea of the contemporary relevance of Marx. Let us rediscover Marx -- not as disciples who disintegrate a theory but as followers who continue along the path that he opened.

[This was a presentation on the Cuban edition of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, which was delivered at the Havana Book Fair, February 16, 2009.]

Ernesto Molina: `Workers have to learn to construct a more universal space in its struggle against capital'

By Professor Ernesto Molina, translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Presentation on the book, Beyond Capital: Marx’s political economy of the working class by Michael A. Lebowitz, at the 2009 Havana Book Fair.

February 16, 2009 -- The author of this book is a professor emeritus of Marxist economy and socialism at Simon FraserUniversity in British Colombia, Canada, where he gave classes for a little over 30 years. Currently, he is the director of the program, “Transformational practice and human development”, at the Centro Internacional Miranda, Caracas. As well as his works on Marx, methodology and theory of the crisis, he has written widely on the theory of socialist economy. He received, precisely for the book that we are presenting today, the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize for the best and most innovative work in the Marxist tradition.  

In Michael Lebowitz’s book, we can identify a creative focus on the analysis of those aspects that Marx left incomplete as part of his grand plan to write six works that he was unable to finish due to the adversities of life. He was only able to partially prepare the first work – Capital – because, as is known, the final draft of volumes II and III were done by Frederick Engels.

Marx fundamentally conceived of Capital as a way to expose the enemy of the working class: capital. The merit of Michael Lebowitz resides, precisely, in his identification of another pole of analysis necessary to carry out: the struggle of the working class against capital, for which Marx proposed to write “Wage labour”.

The more capital divides workers, the more it can exploit them. Workers want time to themselves, they want to still be able to do things after work, reduce the work day and increase real salaries: that is, reduce the level of exploitation. Capitalists push in a contrary direction. That is why they introduce new technologies: to increase the level of exploitation. Technology is an instrument of class struggle. Technology is not neutral: it can be put at the service of capital or at the service of the working class.

When workers compete among themselves, it strengthens capital. If capital acts as one in the face of many unions, it is strong. If the trade union demands a lot, capital moves to another country. When unions in the North are very united, capital emigrates to the South and the situation of the workers in the North worsen, unemployment increases and salaries deteriorate. But unions in the North frequently convert themselves into complices of capital, against the unions in the South.

The greater the level of division among workers is, the lower real wages are. In Capital, Marx assumes a constant wage. He knew that the struggle meant it was not constant. The necessities of the workers grow, and that is where the power of capital resides. This idea of the role played by the necessities of workers as an arm of domination by capital is fundamental in Michael Lebowitz’s conception.

The working class has to have a strategy to raise the level of satisfaction of its growing necessities. The study of the working class, of ourselves, demands that we know how people produce themselves through their activity, through the struggle. Workers that don’t struggle belong to capital; they are faithful slaves, immoral instruments of capital, apathetic beings, non-thinking.

The struggle is also a process of production of people, of historic subjects. Capitalist productive forces are created to divide the workers.

From the theoretical-methodological point of view, Beyond Capital constitutes well what the author has used as a subtitle for the work: ``Marx’s political economy of the working class’’. It makes us think of a political economy of the working class before and after the socialist revolution.

Because the workers have to learn to construct a more universal space in its struggle against capital, when today it is assuming a character more global with new instruments of domination. This demands the bringing together of a large diversity of legitimate interests of the peoples, cultures, struggles and proposals of the social organisations in opposition to capital and all its forms of domination.

This work is of special interest for Latin America and Cuba. The social and political situation in Latin America has been defining itself further to the “left” via the resistance of the peoples through established democratic means. The Bolivarian Revolution has been pushing forward bit by bit and with great flexibility the idea of ALBA [Bolivarian Alternative for Our Americas], which is converting itself into a process of legitimate integration adapted to the particular conditions of each situation, locality and country.

Not all the governments in Latin America that have taken a position in defence of national interests in the face of North American imperialism are promoting truly radical projects in defence of the grand majorities. But these alliances are possible in the face of the colossal of the North. While Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez Frias is promoting the idea of socialism of the 21st century, reformists, non-neoliberal, or better still neostructuralist ideas, that in some way or another are also counterposing themselves to North American imperialism, are attempting to attract the efforts of the peoples to favourable changes towards a better world in the region.

Is it possible and necessary to establish alliances between revolutionary and reformist movements? Under what conditions?

Venezuela has converted itself into a very rich and diverse scenario for demonstrating:

  • the human value of inclusive social policies;

  • the protagonist role and participation of the popular sectors in testing out new development models;

  • the differences between accumulation of electoral forces and accumulation of social, citizen and political forces, and

  • also demonstrating to what point a better world is possible despite all the aggressions and mainstream media campaigns at the service of transnationals.

There is a certain relationship between the emphasis that Lebowitz gives to the importance of the subjectivity of the working class, and in general the workers, and the conception of Ernesto Che Guevara, who in the spirit of Marx’s ideas, recognised that it was not enough to just increase (productivism) the object on which socialist property rests, but also, and with more reason, it was necessary to develop the personality of the subject that exercises that property.

I’m not interested in the economic socialism without a communist moral. We fight against misery, but at the same time, we fight against alienation. One of the main objectives of Marxism is to make disappear the interest, the individual interest factor and profit factor, from psychological motivations. Marx was interested in the economic facts but also on their repercussions on people’s mind and the definitive result of this repercussion. He called it a `fact of conscience’. If the communism neglects the facts of conscience, it converts itself into a distribution method, but it will never be a revolutionary moral.[1]

It is better to build the new by building from our own strengths, and not from our weaknesses, inherited from the old regime. The new socialist moral cannot come into being if we only rely on the “old” capitalist moral, that while old, continues persisting when we initiate the transition to the new society.

Evidently, Adam Smith faithfully reflected the moral inherent to capitalist society when he wrote in The Wealth of Nations in favour of not putting trust in human solidarity, but rather in the egotistically and personal interests of each one, given that, in order to get what we want out of others, we have to demonstrate to them how much it will benefit them to do so:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages[2]

It is as if conscious cooperation without coercion between people was impossible, and effectively, this is the norm under capitalism, that is why it is so important to create, step by step, this cooperation, with the protagonism and initiative of all free and associated producers, in the community, the country, the region, with the consensus of all; starting off, with a certain level of economic coercion by the socialist state, and education, until public opinion sees as the norm that no producer (worker, peasant) escapes from work.

Capital imposes economic and extra-economic coercion on labour. Social property will progressively eliminate all types of coercion as general norms. The workers themselves within each factory and within society will each time be more capable of cooperating in a conscious manner.

But for this it is necessary to create the required favourable conditions. It would be very interesting to hear from Michael Lebowitz himself about his experiences in Venezuela at the community scale and of those factories under workers’ control that are developing there, not without some opposition and incomprehension from within the revolutionary process itself.

Lenin spoke of socialism as a society of cultured cooperativists. When we consciously cooperate, we develop relations based on solidarity, we are democratic, we accustom ourselves to listening to others, to developing initiatives, we educate ourselves and others and we self-educate ourselves, we develop our capacities, we learn to struggle in an organised manner.

And when a democratic and popular government, such as the one in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, gains access to some quotas of power, internal and external obstacles are raised by reactionary forces, so that the wealth in the hands of the state (oil) are not put at the service of the people and to avoid the ever more conscious protagonism of the workers in all spheres of society. But above all, so that the socialist project does not advance and serve as a example for the people of the region and the world

When for many it appeared that “The end of history” had arrived, that the Marxist utopia had been an impossible dream, the Cuban Revolution persisted. Latin America is assuming new colours. We are still far from having conquered all, but we continue to move forward. We salute with affection and respect this work of Michael Lebowitz, who we consider a revolutionary of ideas and action.

[Ernesto Molina Molina was a professor of economics at the University of Havana for 38 years. Since 2001, he has been professor at the Superior Institute of International Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, MINREX. He is president of the Society of Economic Thought of the National Association of Cuban Economists, ANEC, and member of the Academy of Science of Cuba’s commission on social sciences. His books include The General Theory of Keynes, a critique of bourgeois economic theory, and most recently, Economic Thought in the Cuban Nation (2007).]

[1] Un reportaje al Che en Argelia. Entrevista con Jean Daniel titulada “La profecía del Che”, citado en Ernesto Che Guevara: La Economía Socialista: debate .Editorial Nova Terra, Tamarit 191, Barcelona 11, p. 46 – 47.

[2] Adam Smith, La Riqueza de las Naciones, Barcelona, Editorial Bosch, 1983. Reproducida por la UACA, San José, 1986, Libro IV, Cap. II, Sección I, Tomo II, pag. 54.