Michael Lebowitz: Socialism for the 21st century -- re-inventing and renewing the struggle

[For more articles by or about Michael Lebowitz, click HERE.]

[The following presentation was delivered to launch La Alternativa Socialista, the Chilean edition of The Socialist Alternative, in Concepcion, Santiago and Valparaiso, November 2012.]

By Michael A. Lebowitz

January 9, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Every socialist in the 21st century should try to answer two questions.

First, why don’t workers put an end to capitalism – given its destruction of human beings and the environment (something Marx was so conscious of). In particular, given the declining standards of life for decades in the United States, the economic disaster in Europe and the current crises, how is it that the system is reproduced without a significant challenge by the working class?

Second, why did the working class within what has become known as “real socialism” [the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe] allow those systems to revert to capitalism without resistance from the working classes, who were presumably its beneficiaries?

These two questions are interrelated both in practice and theory. In terms of practice, the failure within capitalism certainly had its impact upon the shaping of “real socialism”. And, in turn, the character of “real socialism” contributed to the view of workers in capitalism that socialism was not a desirable alternative. I can recall many arguments about socialism with my father, who was a machinist, and I remember in particular his comment, “Why would I want a bigger, stronger boss?”

On the theoretical level, the two questions are linked because we rarely explore the question of what kinds of people are produced under particular relations of production. There is no lack of discussion, for example, among Marxists about the rate of profit in capitalism, economic crisis, the intricacies of the so-called transformation problem, and indeed the process of exploitation itself. But there’s little examination of the working class as subject and how that subject is shaped within capitalist relations of production.

Capitalism cripples workers

Marx certainly didn’t make that mistake. In his book, Capital, he explained what capital is -- that it is the result of the exploitation of workers. But, in addition to demonstrating that we are dominated by our own products, he also described at length what happens to workers within capitalist relations of production. Workers dominated by the logic of capital are merely the means to capital’s goal, the goal of profits. And in the process, they are crippled. The capitalist division of labour under the system of manufacture deformed workers. Did the introduction of machinery, though, change the one-sidedness that this division of labour produced? Marx answered: no, it perfected it. It completed the division between thinking and doing; it completed that deformation of workers.

This was the source of Marx's passion. This was the source of his hatred for capitalism. Not simply the exploitation that creates capital but the deformation and destruction of human beings who are merely means for capital. Our products are a power over us -- but not simply because they are a power. It is also because we are not. Capitalism does not simply impoverish us because it extracts from us the things we produce. It impoverishes us because of the people it produces.

And, Marx looked to an alternative – an alternative which he articulates in Capital. Indeed, that alternative is the premise of his book. He evokes there a society characterised not by the capitalists’ impulse to increase the value of their capital but by “the inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”. This “inverse situation” is the perspective from which Marx persistently critiques capitalism. He talks about capitalist production and how the means of production employ workers as “this inversion, indeed this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production”.

The spectre haunting Marx's Capital is the vision of a society oriented to “the worker’s own need for development”, the inverse situation. It is a call to invert the capitalist inversion, a call to build a society oriented toward human development, one which recognises the necessity for the workers’ own needs for development.

Marx pointed to the need to create new relations that end the division between thinking and doing, the need to develop what he called “rich human beings”, that rich individuality that is all sided in needs and capacities. Very simply, it is the call to build a society of associated producers, a socialist society with productive relations through which people are able to develop. But that’s not so easy. If it were only a matter of calling for the negation of capital, capitalism would have ended long ago.

Marx grasped something that so many have failed to see since -- that capital has the tendency to produce a working class that views the existence of capital as necessary. “The advance of capitalist production”, he stressed, “develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of this mode of production as self-evident natural laws”.

Here is the crux of the problem: capital tends to produce the workers it needs, workers who look upon capitalism as common sense. Given the mystification of capital (arising from the sale of labour-power), which makes productivity, profits and progress appear as the result of the capitalist’s contribution, Marx argued that “the organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance”. That is strong and unequivocal language; and Marx added that capital’s generation of a reserve army of the unemployed “sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker”. Accordingly, he proposed that the capitalist can rely upon the workers’ “dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them”.

Of course, we often struggle. Workers struggle over wages, working conditions and the defence of past gains. But as long as workers look upon the requirements of capital as “self-evident natural laws”, those struggles occur within the bounds of the capitalist relation. Subordination to the logic of capital means that, faced with capitalism’s crises, workers sooner or later act to ensure the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital. And that's why capitalism keeps going. It keeps going because we are convinced that there is no alternative -- no alternative to barbarism. As a result, the “realistic” left, the so-called good left of social democracy, tells us that the best we can get is barbarism with a human face.

Alternative common sense

To go beyond capitalism, we need a vision that can appear to workers as an alternative common sense, as their common sense. To struggle against a situation in which workers “by education, tradition and habit” look upon capital’s needs “as self-evident natural laws”, we must struggle for an alternative common sense. But what is the vision of a new society whose requirements workers may look upon as “self-evident natural laws’? Clearly, it won’t be found in the results of 20th century attempts to build socialism, which, to use Marx’s phrase, ended “in a miserable fit of the blues”.

We have to reinvent socialism. With this statement, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, electrified activists in his closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union”, he stressed, “but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition”. If we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world, capitalism must be transcended, Chavez argued. “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.”

There, at its core, is the vision of socialism for the 21st century. Rather than expansion of the means of production or direction by the state, human beings must be at the centre of the new socialist society. This is a return to Marx’s vision of the “inverse situation” oriented to the worker’s own need for development, a return to the vision of a society which would allow for “the all-round development of the individual”, the “complete working out of the human content”, the “development of all human powers as such the end in itself”, a society of associated producers in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

But the focus upon full development of human potential was only one side of Marx’s perspective. What Marx added to this emphasis upon human development was his understanding of how that development of human capacities occurs. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx was quite clear that it is not by giving people gifts, not by changing circumstances for them, not by populism nor by those at the top deciding for us. Rather, we change only through real practice, by changing circumstances ourselves. Marx’s concept of “revolutionary practice”, that concept of “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change’, is the red thread that runs throughout his work.

One aspect of this, certainly, was his explicit recognition of how the struggles of workers against capital transform “circumstances and men”, expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world. But there was more. In the very act of producing, Marx indicated, “the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language”. And, of course, the relations within which workers produce affect the nature of the workers produced. After all, that was Marx’s point about how capitalist productive relations “distort the worker into a fragment of a man” and degrade her/him and “alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process”.

Indeed, every human activity has two products; every human activity has as its result joint products-- both the change in the object of labour and the change in the labourer themselves. In my book, The Socialist Alternative, I identify this combination of human development and practice as Marx’s key link. And, if we grasp that key link, we can see its obvious implications for building socialism. What are the circumstances that have as their joint product “the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn’? To develop the capacities of people, the producers must put an end to what Marx called, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour”.

For the development of rich human beings, the worker must be able to call “his own muscles into play under the control of his own brain”. And, not by themselves but through a democratic, protagonistic process. When workers act in workplaces and communities in conscious cooperation with others, they produce themselves as people conscious of their interdependence and of their own collective power. The joint product of their activity is the development of the capacities of the producers -- precisely Marx’s point when he says that “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”. Here, then, is the way to ensure that “the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly’.

Creating the conditions in workplaces and communities by which people can develop their capacities is an essential aspect of the concept of socialism for the 21st century. But it is only one element. How can the workers’ own need for development be realised if capital owns our social heritage -- the products of the social brain and the social hand? And, how can we develop our own potential if we look upon other producers as enemies or as our markets -- i.e., if individual material self-interest is our motivation?

Capitalism is an organic system, one which has the tendency to reproduce the conditions of its existence (including a working class that looks upon its requirements as “self-evident natural laws”). That is its strength. To counter that and to satisfy “the worker’s own need for development”, the socialist alternative we envision also must be an organic system, a particular combination of production, distribution and consumption, a system of reproduction. What Chavez named in January 2007 as “the elementary triangle of socialism” (social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs) is a step forward toward a conception of such a system.

Consider the logic of this socialist combination, this conception of socialism for the 21st century:

1. Social ownership of the means of production is critical within this structure 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 producers or state bureaucrats. But, this concerns more than our current activity. Social ownership of our social heritage, the results of past social labour, is an assertion that all living human beings have the right to the full development of their potential -- to real wealth, the development of human capacity. It is the recognition that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

2. Social production organised by workers builds new relations among producers -- relations of cooperation and solidarity. It allows workers to end “the crippling of body and mind” and the loss of “every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” that comes from the separation of head and hand. Organisation of production in all spheres by workers, thus, is a condition for the full development of the producers, for the development of their capabilities -- a condition for the production of rich human beings.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes as the goal of productive activity means that, instead of interacting as separate and indifferent individuals, we function as members of a community. Rather than looking upon our own capacity as our property and as a means of securing as much as possible in an exchange, we start from the recognition of our common humanity and, thus, of the importance of conditions in which everyone is able to develop her full potential. When our productive activity is oriented to the needs of others, it both builds solidarity among people and produces socialist human beings.

There’s an old saying that if you don’t know where you want to go, then any road will take you there. I disagree. If you don’t know where you want to go, then no road will take you there. A vision of a socialist alternative such as that organic system summarised by the socialist triangle is essential if we are put an end to capitalism. Of course, knowing where you want to go is not the same as getting there. But, it is essential for indicating where you don't want to go. And one place we don’t want to go is to a 21st century version of “real socialism”.

‘Real socialism’

To explain the nature of “real socialism” from the 1950s through the 1980s, I introduced (in my new book, Contradictions of 'Real Socialism') the concept of vanguard relations of production -- a particular set of productive relations characterised by a vanguard whose logic was to deliver socialism to the masses from above and to do so without permitting that underlying population to develop its own capacities through practice and protagonism. There were definite benefits for workers. In particular, there was a social contract whereby the vanguard promised, among other things, full employment, job security, subsidised necessities and rising income over time -- as long as the working class accepted its lack of power and the opportunity to develop its capabilities in the workplace and society.

Precisely because of the nature of vanguard relations, though, the workers produced were not subjects able to build a new society nor, indeed, able to respond as the system ran into problems. But, there were further implications of this crippling of workers. In The Socialist Alternative, I noted that if workers don’t manage, someone else does; and, if workers don’t develop their capabilities through their practice, someone else does.

In ‘real socialism’, it was the enterprise managers who developed capabilities, and they emerged as an incipient capitalist class – a class oriented to the logic of capital but constrained by the logic of the vanguard. Their ultimate victory brought with it a very significant loss for the working class -- the jettisoning of the social contract, i.e., the ending of job security, full employment, subsidisation of necessities, etc. -- the loss of all the benefits that workers obtained within vanguard relations in this period. That loss was significant, and there is much nostalgia among workers about that period. But the point is not to return to it. “Real socialism” was never the alternative to which Marx looked --  that “inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”.

We need to be explicit that “real socialism” is not where we want to go in the 21st century. We need to identify what we do want -- we need the vision of a socialist alternative. Like the worst architect, for the revolutionary labour process we must build the goal in our minds before we can construct it in reality. But that is not enough -- knowing where you want to go is not at all the same as getting there. Indeed, how is it possible to get there given that capital has the tendency to produce a working class that by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of capital as “self-evident natural laws”?


The answer, I suggest, is that people do struggle even though mystified by the nature of capital. They struggle for what they see as fair, and they struggle against violations of their conception of fairness. This moral economy of the working class points to possibilities. Even though their goals in these struggles may be limited to ending the immediate violations of norms of fairness and justice and may be aimed, for example, at achieving no more than “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”, people change in the course of struggle. Despite the limited goals involved in wage struggles, Marx argued that they were essential for preventing workers “from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production”; without such struggles, workers “would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation”.

People, in short, struggle over their conceptions of right and wrong, and what Marx attempted to do was to explain the underlying basis for those struggles. By itself, the moral economy of the working class can never explain its basis -- why those particular beliefs as to what is fair are present -- and thus why those norms can change. Accordingly, it is essential to recognise the importance of the moral economy of the working class but also to go beyond it. To grasp the conditions which underlie concepts of fairness at a given moment, it is necessary to move from the moral economy of the working class to the political economy of the working class.

In short, the starting point should be real people with particular ideas and concepts. To articulate what is implicit in their concepts and struggles and to show how these contain within them the elements of a new society is essential. To see the future in the present is what is needed if we are to build that future.

In The Socialist Alternative, I propose the importance of linking existing struggles to a focus upon the right of everyone to full development of their potential. I am convinced that this focus allows us to link separate struggles and to demonstrate the importance of a socialist alternative.

Accordingly, I introduced there the idea of a Charter for Human Development. The goal of such a charter is to try to redefine the concept of fairness. To stress that it is unfair that some people monopolise the social heritage of all human beings, that it is unfair that some people are able to develop their capacities through their activities while others are crippled and deformed, and that it is unfair that we are forced into structures in which we view others as competitors and enemies.

Is it possible to redefine the concept of fairness and to build a new moral economy of the working class? Certainly, it is not inevitable. But in this period of economic and ecological crisis, there is no alternative but to try. We are at the point when Marx’s statement that capitalism destroys human beings and nature has taken on a new urgency.

The choice before us has been noted often: socialism or barbarism.