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New Wings for Socialism

Michael A. Lebowitz is the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2006); and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming). He is currently living and working in Venezuela at Centro Internacional Miranda. This essay is adapted from an address on the occasion of the launch of the Venezuelan edition of Build It Now on January 25, 2007, in Caracas, Venezuela.

An Old Essay

Seventeen years ago, in 1990, I began an essay with a poem of Bertolt Brecht.  It was a poem about a man in Europe in the Middle Ages who put on “things that looked like wings,” climbed to the roof of a church, and tried to fly.  He crashed, and the bishop who passed by said, “No one will ever fly.”*

In 1990, what was called the socialist world had crashed.  And, everywhere there were experts who saw this as proof: socialism had failed.  No one would ever fly.

What I attempted to do in that essay was to challenge the theoretical arguments against socialism, theoretical arguments, in particular, against the Marxist case for socialism.  And, I proposed that there had been a distortion of Marxism both in theory and in practice—a distortion that forgot about human beings, a determinist message focusing upon productive forces that was silent about “the nature of human beings produced within an economic system.”  The determinist argument which stresses the primacy of productive forces, I argued, could never understand why Marx sacrificed his “health, happiness and family” to write Capital.  Nor could it make sense of why Marx never stopped stressing that workers could make themselves fit to create a new society only through the process of struggle.

What was my essential point?  It was to emphasize the importance of developing a new common sense—one which sees the logic of producing together in order to satisfy human needs.  The failure to do this and to stress instead the development of productive forces, I proposed, leads inevitably to a dead end—the dead end which we could see in front of us.  The point was simple: as Che Guevara had stressed in his classic “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” to build socialism it is essential, along with building new material foundations, to build new human beings.

But, how?  I focused upon a number of elements.  Self-management in the process of production, I argued, was an essential element: “Insofar as people produce themselves in the course of all their activities, the very process of engaging in democratic forms of production is an essential part of producing people for whom the need for cooperation is second nature.”  But, self-management in particular productive units is not sufficient.  You need, I argued, to replace a focus upon selfishness and self-orientation with a focus upon community and solidarity, a conscious emphasis upon human needs; i.e., the necessity to engage in collective solutions to satisfy human needs must be “recognised as a responsibility of all individuals.”  And, producing people with these characteristics could never be achieved by a state standing over and above civil society. “Rather, only through their own activities through autonomous organisations—at the neighbourhood, community and national levels—can people transform both circumstances and themselves.”  What, in short, was necessary was “the conscious development of a socialist civil society.”

Thus, rather than a focus upon the development of productive forces, I stressed the centrality of human beings and the development of the institutions which permit them to transform themselves.  This had not occurred in the Soviet model. “With its lack of democratic and cooperative production, its absence of a socialist civil society and its actually existing bureaucratic rule,” so-called real socialism had not produced the new human beings who could build a better world.  And, that, I proposed, was the lesson we had to learn from this experience.  Rather than concluding from the crash that socialism had failed and that no one would ever fly, the lesson for socialists was different.  My concluding line was: “No one should ever again try to fly with those things that only look like wings.”

A Confession, a Miracle, and a New Beginning

But, let me make a confession.  That argument sounds a lot more confident than I really was.  Nineteen-ninety was a time of demoralization.  However critical one might be about the inadequacy of the socialist experiments that had now crashed, no one who believed in a society of social justice could escape a sick feeling in the stomach from seeing the apparent victory of capitalism.  Cuba had not yet succumbed.  But, how long could it hold out by itself?  How long before we would hear the triumphant crowing of U.S. imperialism, finally able to destroy this challenge?  (A challenge both to its rule of the hemisphere and to its ideological rule.)  And, how long, how many generations, before we could try to fly again?  All of these worries were not mentioned in the essay.  After all, one purpose of the article was to keep the red flag flying rather than to join in a retreat.  But, the prospects were not at all encouraging.

Yet, this was all before what I think of as the “Cuban Miracle.”  Here was a small, poor country which had been blockaded for decades by U.S. imperialism and that had survived by establishing trade relations and economic integration with the Eastern “real socialist” bloc.  And, suddenly that bloc, which accounted for 80 percent of Cuba’s trade was gone.  How could Cuba possibly survive now?  How could it purchase the oil it needed to run industry and transportation?  And, there weren’t only the economic problems as the result of the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its allies.  There was also the accelerated political offensive initiated in the United States with new restrictive legislation such as the Helms-Burton Act designed to bring Cuba to its knees.

But, Cuba was not brought to its knees.  The Cuban people suffered.  The per capita income dropped a minimum of 33 percent, and in 1994 (when I went there for an international solidarity meeting) you could see the effects in the stores, the streets, and the general health of people.  But, what imperialism wanted did not happen: Cuba stayed firm—despite the suffering.  And, that is what I call the Cuban Miracle.  How did it happen?

Of course, it wasn’t really a miracle—if we mean by that something which drops from the sky and which cannot be explained as a product of human activity.  What happened in Cuba can be understood.  It reflected years in the development of a new common sense, one in which solidarity was stressed and nurtured (especially through the practice of international solidarity); it mirrored the development of dignity and a pride in the achievements of the Cuban Revolution (especially in the areas of health and education); and it embodied the existence of a strong leadership committed to socialism.  Cuba survived this period by building upon its best accomplishments and at the same time deepening its democratic practices through worker and community assemblies and congresses.

In a world where the mantra was TINA—that there is no alternative to neoliberalism—this was indeed a miracle.  It was a miracle in the literal sense: a wonderful thing to behold.  And, I think that we do not give this Cuban miracle sufficient credit.  Because it demonstrated that there was an alternative, an alternative based on concepts of solidarity and human development.  And, that example, an example which demonstrates the importance of the battle of ideas in building new human beings, has been essential especially in Latin America.  In this respect, I regard Cuba’s victory over imperialism in the Special Period not as the last chapter of twentieth-century socialism but as a new beginning—the first chapter of socialism for the twenty-first century.

The Vision of Socialism for the Twenty-First Century

What do we mean by socialism for the twenty-first century?  I think it is precisely what President Chávez called for when he spoke of the need to reinvent socialism: “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.”

That vision can be seen in the Bolivarian Constitution which talks about “ensuring overall human development,” about “developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society,” about participation being “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective,” and in the identification of democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of society and “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity.”

That vision was further articulated by President Chávez, when he talked in 2003 about the nature of the “social economy” which “bases its logic on the human being, on work, that is to say, on the worker and the worker’s family, that is to say, in the human being.”  This is the concept of an economy which is not dominated by the idea of economic gain and exchange values; rather, he stressed, “the social economy generates mainly use-value.”  Its purpose is “the construction of the new man, of the new woman, of the new society.”  This is a familiar vision: it is the ideal of the great religions, of humanist traditions, of indigenous societies—the idea of a human family, of human beings linked by solidarity rather than self-interest.

Certainly, too, this is a vision which rejects the perverse logic of capital and the idea that the criterion for what is good is what is profitable.  It rejects the linking of people, too, through exchange of commodities, where our criterion for satisfying the needs of others is whether this benefits us as individuals or groups of individuals.  This is a vision expressed so clearly by István Mészáros when he drew upon Marx to talk about a society in which, rather than the exchange of commodities, there is an exchange of activities based upon communal needs and communal purposes.  And, that vision was embraced by President Chávez in 2005 when he said “we have to create a communal system of production and consumption, a new system.”  We have to build, he insisted, “this communal system of production and consumption, to help to create it, from the popular bases, with the participation of the communities, through the community organizations, the cooperatives, self-management and different ways to create this system.”

Elements of the New socialism

But, how do you go beyond a vision to create this new system?  What steps do you take?  Mészáros emphasizes that in the complex dialectic of production-distribution-consumption, no one part can stand alone—it is necessary to radically restructure the whole of these relations.  If we think of socialism, like capitalism, as a “structure of society, in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another” (Marx), how can you build this new system?  How can you make any real change if you have to change all relations—and you can’t change them all simultaneously?

It must be done the same way that capitalism developed.  Capitalism developed through a process, a process of “subordinating all elements of society to itself” and by creating for itself the organs which it lacked.  The new socialist society similarly must develop through a process of subordinating all the elements of capitalism and the logic of capital and by a process of inserting its own logic centered in human beings in its place.  It proceeds by assembling the elements of a new dialectic of production-distribution-consumption.

What are those elements?  At the core of this new combination are three characteristics: (a) social ownership of the means of production, which is a basis for (b) social production organized by workers in order to (c) satisfy communal needs and communal purposes.  Let us consider each in its turn and their combination.

A. 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, however, is not the same as state ownership.  State property is consistent with state capitalist enterprises, hierarchical statist firms, or firms in which particular groups of workers (rather than society as a whole) capture the major benefits of this state property.  Social ownership implies a profound democracy—one in which people function as subjects, both as producers and as members of society.

B. Production organized by workers builds new relations among producers—relations of cooperation and solidarity; it furthermore 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” (Marx) that comes from the separation of head and hand characteristic of capitalist production.  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.  Further, as long as this production is carried out for their private gain rather than that of society, they look upon others (and, indeed, each other) as means to their own ends and thus remain alienated, fragmented, and crippled.  Social production, thus, is a condition for the full development of the producers.

C. Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes has as its necessary condition a means of identifying and communicating those needs and purposes.  Thus, it requires the development of the democratic institutions at every level which can express the needs of society.  Production reflects communal needs only with information and decisions which flow from the bottom up.  However, in the absence of the transformation of society, the needs transmitted upward are the needs of people formed within capitalism—people who are “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society” (Marx).  Within the new socialist society, the “primacy of needs” is based not upon the individual right to consume things without limit but, rather, upon “the worker’s own need for development” these are the needs of people in a society where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.  In a society like this, where our productive activity for others is rewarding in itself and where there is all-round development of individuals, society can place upon its banner: to each according to his/her need for development.

As consideration of these three specific elements suggests, realization of each element depends upon the existence of the other two—precisely Mészáros’s point about the inseparability of this distribution-production-consumption complex: Without production for social needs, no real social property; without social property, no worker decision-making oriented toward society’s needs; without worker decision-making, no transformation of people and their needs.  The presence of the defects inherited from the old society in any one element poisons the others.  Thus, we return to the essential question: how is a transition possible when everything depends upon everything else?

Building Revolutionary Subjects

In order to identify the measures necessary to build this new socialist society, it is absolutely critical to understand Marx’s concept of “revolutionary practice”—the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change.  To change a structure in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another, you have to do more than try to change a few elements in that structure, you must stress at all times the hub of all these relations—human beings as subjects and products of their own activity.

Every activity in which people engage forms them.  Thus, there are two products of every activity—the changing of circumstance or things (e.g., in the production process) and the human product.  This second side of production is easily forgotten when talking about structural changes; however, it was not forgotten in the emphasis of the Bolivarian Constitution upon practice and protagonism—in particular, the stress upon participation as “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective.”

What is the significance of recognizing this process of producing people explicitly?  First, it helps us to understand why changes must occur in all spheres—every moment that people act within old relations is a process of reproducing old ideas and attitudes.  Working under hierarchical relations, functioning without the ability to make decisions in the workplace and society, and focusing upon self-interest rather than upon solidarity within society—these activities produce people on a daily basis; it is the reproduction of the conservatism of everyday life.

Recognizing this second side also directs us to focus upon the introduction of concrete measures which explicitly take into account the effect of those measures upon human development.  Thus, for every step two questions must be asked: (1) how does this change circumstances and (2) how does this help to produce revolutionary subjects and increase their capacities?

We are back, then, at the question of what was missing in the old efforts to build a new socialist society.  In forgetting what Che knew—the necessity to build new socialist human beings simultaneously, those early attempts tried to fly with things that only looked like wings.  When you begin, however, from the centrality of human subjects, you never forget that democratic, participatory, and protagonistic practices are at the heart of creating the new socialist human beings and a new socialist society.

Let me return explicitly to the subject of my book—or, more accurately, to its title.  We have learned from the failures of the past.  And, we no longer accept the story that man will never fly.  Venezuela has a wonderful opportunity to build this new society.  It is blessed with important natural resources; it has begun upon a path of developing a new common sense based upon protagonism and solidarity, and it has strong socialist leadership.  Build it now.

* Bertolt Brecht, “Ulm 1592,” quoted in Michael A. Lebowitz, “The Socialist Fetter: A Cautionary Tale,” in Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch, eds., Socialist Register 1991, Communist Regimes: The Aftermath (London: Merlin Press, 1991).

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