Michael Lebowitz: `Reach for the book: it is a weapon’

By Michael A. Lebowitz

[Presentation at the launch of El Camino al Desarrollo Humano: ¿Capitalismo o Socialismo?(The Path to Human Development: Capitalism or Socialism?) at the Venezuelan International Book Fair, Filven, in Caracas on November 8, 2008. The English version of the pamphlet will be published in a forthcoming edition of Monthly Review.]

The theme of this book fair, ‘The book in the construction of Bolivarian socialism’, is important and excellent. And I want to begin my comments by reflecting upon that theme. What role can a book play? The construction of Bolivarian socialism is the struggle of classes. And it is a struggle of people to build an alternative to capitalism. Where does a book fit in? In other words, what role can ideas play?

To defeat the existing society, you need material forces; you need human forces. But, as Karl Marx said, ideas become a material force when they grasp the minds of masses. In other words, an idea -- if it reaches people -- can be very powerful in changing society. This is a concept which we have learned from Cuba -- the importance of the battle of ideas.

When I was thinking about this theme of the book fair, I remembered a poem by Bertolt Brecht, ``In Praise of Learning’’. Part of it reads as follows:

Learn, man in the asylum!

Learn, man in the prison!

Learn, wife in the kitchen!

Learn, man of 60!

Seek out the school, you who are homeless!

Sharpen your wits, you who shiver!

Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.[1]

There's more to this poem, and I will come back to that.

The book is a weapon

This little book, El Camino al Desarrollo Humano: ¿Capitalismo o Socialismo?(The Path to Human Development: Capitalism or Socialism?) -- a book that can fit in your pocket or your purse -- was written to be a weapon. It was written to be a weapon in the struggle for Bolivarian socialism. It will be published in other countries, in other languages -- but I wrote it for here. And, I hope that it can be a weapon in this struggle. Of course, it can't possibly be the only weapon. Many weapons are needed.

But let me tell you a little about this particular weapon. The title points to three topics: human development, capitalism and socialism. The starting point is human development. That must be the starting point; that must be the premise. And, as you must know, it is the premise that underlies the Bolivarian constitution. It is there in Article 299 in the emphasis upon the goal of “ensuring overall human development”; it is there in Article 20 which talks about how “everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality”; it is there in Article 102, in its focus upon “developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society”.

And there’s more in that constitution -- because the constitution is very clear on how that full human development can occur. The constitution stresses over and over again the centrality and importance of practice, participation, protagonism. Article 62 declares that participation by people is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective”; and Article 70 points to “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity”.

In fact, the concept of human development and the concept of practice are central to building socialism. We develop our capacities through practice, through our activity. Human development does not drop from the sky. It does not come as gifts from above. It is the result only of human activity. This is precisely Karl Marx's concept of revolutionary practice, which he defined as the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self change or human activity.

But that immediately poses the question -- if human development is the goal, in what kind of society is it possible? I suggest that the key link that must be recognised and identified is that of human development and practice. Why? Because this key link points to the kind of society that is necessary for “ensuring overall human development”.

Consider, for example, 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”. Without “intelligent direction of production” by workers, without production “under their conscious and planned control”, Marx understood that workers cannot develop their potential as human beings. Why? Because their own power becomes a power over them. 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.

Protagonistic democracy

Flowing from this key link of human development and practice is the recognition of 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 what Marx called “rich human beings” -- rich in capacities and needs. I am talking here about democracy in practice, democracy as practice, democracy as protagonism. Protagonistic democracy in the workplace, protagonistic democracy in neighbourhoods, communities, communes is the way to produce rich human beings, the full development of human beings.

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.

This brings us to the question of capitalism. In fact, most of this little book is about capitalism. Because it is essential to understand how capitalism is contrary to ensuring full human development. And to do that, you have to understand what capitalism is and what it does. Understanding capitalism is essential to struggling to go beyond it. If you don't understand the nature of capitalism, it is inevitable that you'll end up trying to patch it up; it is inevitable that you will try to replace bad capitalism with a good capitalism.

What I have tried to do in the book is to explain simply some characteristics and tendencies of capitalism. Obviously, I can't go through all of this here. However, I can point to some of the questions explored:

  • Why is work in capitalism such a misery that all that we can think about doing is reducing the workday?
  • What's the relationship between work within capitalism and our desire to consume and consume, our need to possess?
  • Why do we look at other workers often as competitors and enemies?
  • What's the relationship between unemployment and capitalist production? Is the existence of unemployment an accident in capitalism?
  • Why is work performed in the home invisible in capitalism?
  • Why does capitalism encourage racism and sexism?
  • Why is there so much advertising in capitalism?
  • Why do star athletes receive so much money?

Not accidents at all

These are just some of the questions explored in the book. One of the most important aspects of this little book, though, is to demonstrate that things which may appear to be accidents aren't accidents at all -- that they are inherent in the nature of capitalism. For example, imperialism is not an accident in capitalism. The destruction of the environment is not an accident in capitalism. Economic crises are not accidents in capitalism. These all flow from the inherent nature of capitalism. And it is essential to understand that.

Because if you don't understand capitalism and what is inherent within it, if you only see things on the surface and don’t see their inner connections, what is really quite simple will appear complicated -- too complicated to change. If you don’t understand the nature of capitalism, you will think that it's possible to have capitalism without imperialism; you will think it is possible to have capitalism without the destruction of the environment; you will think it is possible to have capitalism without crisis. And so, you will think that it is possible to make some reforms which solve everything.

For example, you'll say that the economic crisis that we face right now is the result of greedy bankers and Wall Street financiers and the lack of governmental oversight; so, the answer will be that we need to have a new financial architecture and we need to watch banks more closely.

Rather than understanding the inherent nature of crises in capitalism (and how the current crisis reflects the patterns of development of capitalism from the 1970s on), you will be like the 19th century economists who said that economic crises were the result of sunspots -- except in this case the sunspots you blame it all on will be the speculative sunspots that occurred on Wall Street.

Similarly, take the problem of destruction of the environment. Can that be separated from capital’s drive to expand? The “vicious circle of capitalism” involves the production of people who are alienated and crippled and find their satisfaction in consuming and consuming. And it is the nature of this circle to grow. It grows because of the drive of capital to expand. Because capital must grow, it devotes enormous human and material resources to conjure up new, artificial needs. It seduces people into a life of consumerism (which can never be fully satisfied), and it must do this -- it must sell more and more commodities. It must create new needs, new needs which increase our dependence upon capital. This is why Marx commented that the “contemporary power of capital rests” upon the creation of new needs for workers.

In other words, 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 within 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 even 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? Will the rich countries of capitalism be able to use their power to grab the resources located in other countries?  It doesn’t take much to see that the spectre of barbarism is haunting the world.

How could anyone ever think that capitalism is a path to human development? Yes, of course, some people have always been able to develop much of their potential within capitalism -- but all people cannot. Why? Because the very nature of capitalism depends upon the ability of some people to monopolise the fruits of human activity and civilisation and to exploit and exclude others. But, as Marx and Engels recognised, that is itself a limited human development. Our goal must be “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. 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.

`Elementary triangle’ of socialism

But it's not enough to say, yes, I agree capitalism is basically incompatible with full human development. If you think that there is no alternative to capitalism, then your efforts will go into trying to improve it, trying to make it less bad, trying to make it less unequal and less antagonistic to human development. In other words, if you think there is no alternative, why struggle against capitalism; rather, you struggle within capitalism.

That is why an effective weapon against capitalism must include a vision -- a vision of an alternative, an alternative based upon human development, the socialist alternative. So, in addition to looking at capitalism, this book considers a vision of socialism for the 21st century. It is a vision based on the concept of what Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez 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.

Social ownership of the means of production 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 this builds new relations among producers and allows them to develop their capacities. And,satisfaction of communal needs and purposes because it means that our productive activity is based 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 in the case of the programs of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), we build solidarity among people and at the same time produce ourselves differently.

This elementary socialist triangle stands in sharp contrast to what I call the “capitalist triangle” -- (a) private ownership of the means of production, (b) exploitation of workers for (c) the drive for profits. It provides the vision of an alternative to barbarism; it is the alternative to trying to create barbarism with a human face.

Let me suggest, though, another reason for the necessity of a vision. Think about what Karl Marx called the characteristics of the labour process, the process of producing. That process starts with a goal, the vision of a result not yet achieved. And then it involves human beings working with tools and instruments of production and being disciplined to achieve that goal -- in other words, engaging in activity with a specific purpose. Now, in capitalism, the goal which characterises the capitalist labour process is capital's goal -- capital' s goal of profits. Human beings and means of production are simply means to achieve that goal; human beings are directed to achieve that goal; they are disciplined in the workplace to achieve capital's goal. So, the goal which capital envisioned, the goal of profits, is achieved to the extent that capital succeeds in disciplining workers.

Let us think of the struggle for socialism. I suggest we need a vision; we need a concept; we need a vision of socialism. If we don't have that vision, we won't discipline ourselves to keep up the struggle to reach that goal. We all know that it won't be easy to reach that goal. That is all the more reason why we need a vision. We need a vision of socialism so we can keep our eyes on the prize. In short, it isn't enough simply to describe capitalism. We have to talk about the society we are trying to create.

Of course, knowing where you want to go is not the same as being there. There is a big gap between a vision and the process of making that vision real. But it is a start. It's the start of the collective process of building socialism -- a process which must be collective. The socialist process necessarily involves our collective goals and our collective self-discipline in struggling to achieve those goals. (It cannot involve someone else's goals or discipline imposed from the top.) Part of this process involves particular tools, instruments, weapons. And, as I indicated earlier, I hope that this little book can serve as a weapon in this struggle.

Since I've come back to the concept of the book in the construction of Bolivarian socialism and to the idea of the book as a weapon, let me end by returning to the poem by Bertolt Brecht, “In Praise of Learning”:

Learn the simplest things. For you

whose time has already come

it is never too late!

Learn your ABC’s, it is not enough,

but learn them! Do not let it discourage you,

begin! you must know everything!

You must take over the leadership!


Learn, man in the asylum!

Learn, man in the prison!

Learn, wife in the kitchen!

Learn, man of sixty!

Seek out the school, you who are homeless!

Sharpen your wits, you who shiver!

Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.

You must take over the leadership.

[Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at SimonFraserUniversity in Vancouver, Canada, and a program coordinator with the Centro International Miranda, Caracas, Venezuela.]

[1] Selected poems of Bertolt Brecht; Translation and introduction by H.R. Hays.  NY: Grove Press; London: Evergreen Books. copyright 1947. First Grove edition 1959.



In Praise of E-Learning (at Rocklands High) (with apologies to Bertolt Brecht’s In Praise of Learning)

In praise of e-learning
out there at Rocklands High
amidst poverty and crime
and woman and child abuse
and all else

In praise of e-learning
and all other learning
from before the cradle
onwards in life

In praise of e-learning
in spite of everything
taking on the challenges
feeding young minds

In praise of e-learning

Are You?

Penned Friday Sept 19 2008, spurred to put fingers to keyboard, after a belated reading of “Students log on to e-Learning”, Cape Argus @ School Supplement, September 10 2008, out here down South Africa way.