Thursday, 3 July 2008

Michael Lebowitz: The spectre of socialism for the 21st century

The following is from the 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.

The full text is available at LINKS.

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’’.

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.

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