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The Unifying Element in All Struggles Against Capital Is the Right of Everyone to Full Human Development

Michael Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan), Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (both on Monthly Review Press).

The following is a portion of an interview that took place in Caracas, December 4, 2009, published in Hak Mücadeleleri, edited by Yalçin Bürkev, Metin Özugurlu, Yasemin Özdek, and Ersin Vedat Elgur (Ankara: Note Bene Yayinlari, 2011)


Let’s start with your ideas about rethinking Marx, capital’s logic, and the logic of the working class? And how we can relate these subjects with today’s social movements?

For some time, I have argued that Marx did not develop theoretically the side of the working class. In his major theoretical work, Capital, he looks at the nature of capital and capital’s logic. But he doesn’t really develop the other side of capitalism which is the logic of the working class and the drive of the working class and its orientation. So, I always say that people have misinterpreted Marx in the sense that they think he has given a picture of capitalism whereas he has only given the picture of capital. That analysis is important because that knowledge is a weapon for the working class. But it’s not the whole picture. In much of his other work, he does talk about the working class; he talks about working-class struggles and how workers who do not struggle in fact produce themselves as apathetic, more or less well-fed instruments of production. You won’t find an examination of struggle, though, from the side of workers in Marx’s Capital. In particular, there is no discussion of the wage struggle. He just assumes that wages are given and that there is a given standard of necessity. Removing that assumption was to occur in a later volume that he never got around to writing, the planned book on Wage-Labour.

So that led me to explore the question of that other side. And in doing that, I constantly came back to the Marxist concept of revolutionary practice, that simultaneous changing of circumstance and human activity or self-change—how people transform themselves through their struggles. But not only through struggles; they produce themselves through their daily activity. People are formed by what they do. So, for example, a person who is a wage laborer under capitalism is produced and produces himself in a certain way, as a person who is alienated, as a person who simply wants to consume because of the emptiness of capitalist production. We always have to ask the question, “what kinds of people are produced under particular relations of production?” What kinds of people are produced in an exchange relationship, which is “I will do this for you, if you do that for me” as opposed to functioning in a communal society in which people act in solidarity? You produce certain kinds of people under those conditions.

Much of what I have stressed is the way people transform themselves through their activity. That is where social movements are absolutely critical. Because in social movements people transform themselves and they make themselves into different people. That’s what Marx says in a number of places. What he says is, “well, of course, wage struggle is not going to change things. But if workers were to give up the wage struggle, they would demonstrate that they would not be capable of anything larger.” Because it is only in that struggle that they make themselves fit to create a new society. Well, that’s the wage struggle. But it is true of every struggle. In every struggle, you are transforming yourself and making yourself fit, not only individually but also collectively.

After the post-2008 historical crisis of capitalism at a global scale, in which direction and under which forms do you think of the social movements should form and develop?

I don’t know. One thing that we have to think about is that we traditionally have looked at the organized working class as this main vehicle for building socialism. Certainly that’s what Marx talked about. He said trade unions were the main center of organization for the working class. But in the creation of workers’ movements, it wasn’t only their position as wage laborers that created the workers’ movement. They also lived in the same neighborhoods. They related to the communities and this was always an element. I think that it’s a big mistake to identify the working class as simply those who are wage laborers in large-scale industry. Other people are separated from the means of production and separated from the historical results of social labor. If you take Venezuela (and Venezuela is not unique in this), half of the working class is in the informal sector. They are not outside capitalism, though. Many of the people selling goods on the street are selling capitalist-produced goods; they are simply part of the sphere of circulation of capital. They just have a such weak position that capital manages to get them to bear the risk of selling, rather than just simply being wage laborers in the sphere of circulation.

Chávez’s main base is the urban poor. What do we mean by the urban poor? These are people separated from the means of production—members of the proletariat. We have to talk not simply about the exploited; we have to talk about the exploited and those who would love to be exploited but who in fact are excluded. They are in a common position in the sense that they lack access to the means of production, to the social heritage of human beings. They are all excluded. So they are in a common position in that respect. I think that so much of the current struggles (and this is certainly what I’ve being emphasizing in my work) is that these are struggles for people’s right to full development. That transcends particular cases and is a unifying factor. The idea of everyone having the right to full development and to development of their potential means, of course, adequate health facilities, adequate education, adequate food, etc. That is an element which can unify the whole working class.

My book The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development talks theoretically about issues that I’ve learned in this process here. But the book also looks at concrete measures. One of the central measures that has to be part of a struggle for building a socialist alternative is the struggle to expand the commons. What does neoliberalism, what does capitalism, do? Its whole focus is to commodify everything. Health care—commodify it. Schools—commodify them. Commodify everything. So what is the alternative for human beings trying to develop their potential? Decommodify everything and bring things under control. Of course, when you talk about decommodifing and about expanding the commons, the immediate question that comes up is “well we all know about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ so if we have everything free and available to people then it just leads to absolute tragedy.” Well, there’s no truth to that. Communities have managed common resources all the time. But the key element is community. You have to have a local community that is effective, one that can monitor the commons. In short, I argue that social movements and all movements to remove the power of capital can unite on one common point—the right of everybody for full human development. That’s the goal in the Communist Manifesto—the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

There are several criticisms about your opinions on human needs and human development. One of them is “Marx didn’t write too much about human needs because it’s a relative question and also it’s a problem of the communist society, so the theoretical basis of the human needs concept in the way you mention relates to utopian socialism.” What would you say about such criticisms?

First of all, Capital is written from the perspective of an alternative society, the inverse situation in which the products of society serve what Marx called “the worker’s own need for development.” I think the struggle for human needs, for the satisfaction of needs is not simply giving people gifts, but it is a whole process of people having the power to work together in the communities to produce for communal needs and communal purposes. That is the revolutionary demand and struggle. For those people who say “well, that’s communism (a utopian society), but socialism has a different principle—to each according to their contribution,” I say that’s a distortion of Marx. Marx didn’t have two stages: socialism and communism. Marx had one society which comes on to the scene defective initially because it inherits all these defects from the old society. But developing that new society cannot be carried on by building on those defects. That argument goes back to Lenin, who argued that until people are highly developed, we have to have the state control where they work, how much they get, and the “socialist principle” is to each according to his contribution. But the tendency to want an equivalent for everything you do is the defect inherited from the old world. That’s what you have to struggle against, not build upon. And it obviously can’t happen overnight. Because people culturally don’t immediately accept it. But you have to say “this is the goal.” How will we proceed to build that goal? And you can’t put off this ideological and practical struggle until a distant stage. We have to build socialist human beings while developing new productive forces—a point that Che made so eloquently.

They didn’t do that in the Soviet Union. They had a focus there on self-interest (bonuses in that case), and the same was true in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the same pattern is emerging in Cuba—a growing emphasis on how “we can’t have distribution of subsidized food, we can’t have cheap electricity, we can’t have all this inefficiency, it’s waste, etc.” These are things that have been part of the revolution which are now being rejected. The perspective reflects in general the idea that these are things for a higher stage (and it is not the only thing put off to a later stage—e.g., there’s worker management). I think that is a very unfortunate tendency which is going along with a re-emphasis upon distribution according to contribution. However, the whole concept of a separate stage of socialism and a separate stage of communism has been the way in which a principle alien to Marxism was introduced. Building on selfishness which is what distribution in accordance with contribution is (“I will give you this only if you give me that”) is not building anything except building the basis of return to capitalism.

Nowadays, it’s hard to mobilize people for their rights in our country or in many other countries, they don’t consider private property as a problem.

It’s not surprising that they don’t think it’s a problem. Because it only becomes a problem for them when they see that it’s an obstacle. So when they struggle for something they identify as a need—for example, to build communes—then suddenly the owners of private property say “this land belongs to us, you can’t take this land”; as soon as that happens, then you see that the obstacle is private property. Going around and announcing the slogan “the enemy is private property”—that’s only going to mobilize people who are already convinced. But really, you have to put people into motion and into movement for them to see it and to learn by themselves. The key thing for people is motion. Because they transform themselves in motion. Going around and simply saying in Venezuela “the problems here are all going to be solved if we nationalize the banks” means nothing to people in the communities. Do you think that people locally or in communities are worrying about that? In Venezuela, they are worrying about “why can’t we get the government to respond to our demand?” and “why are we faced with all these bureaucrats?” That’s their daily concern. So from their perspective, the real contradiction is not the private ownership of the banks, it’s the bureaucracy killing the revolution. That’s what they are thinking all the time.

There is a real problem on the left of rigid thinking. The traditional concept was that the organized working class is the sole body that can make the revolution. And the people continue to say that, when the effects of neoliberalism and globalization have reversed the pattern that Marx described at the time about how capital brings together workers, organizes them, disciplines them, etc. Capital now is separating and disorganizing workers in industry; it’s dispersing them in order to make them weaker. How do the people on the left not recognize that capitalism has created new conditions for new forms of struggle?! We can’t struggle the same way all the time.

So you say, we should make a redefinition of the working class.

Yes, yes. The working class is not a narrow category. There is a class (bourgeoisie) that has usurped all of the heritage of human beings. They have the control over knowledge, not simply the machines—everything; and everyone else is without it. So, we have to organize everyone else. We come back to the question of rights. In The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, I talk about Marx and the whole concept of human development. This is an absolutely central conception, and I end the book with a charter of human development which proposes that everyone has the right to use the benefits of our social heritage, to share its benefits. Everyone has the right to be engaged in developing their potential through protagonism in the work place and the community, and everyone has the right to live in a community which is based on solidarity. Those elements of a charter for human development then lead to a number of specific demands. Because when you have that conception of everyone’s right to human development, then you are going to say, “we can’t have private ownership of the means of production. We can’t have this, we can’t have that.” We can’t, for example, have workplaces in which workers have no power and all power comes from the top.

We have to have a whole program of demands which are seen as connected rather than a single issue. Often there’s a group struggling on this question, another group struggling on that question, and as long as they focus only on their question, they can’t succeed in making real changes. They end up with reforms at best. They don’t really change the system. But, when you see the connection between this struggle and that struggle and see that your struggle is part of the larger struggle, then you can transcend reformism. That’s why I argue that the unifying element in all these struggles is the right of everyone to full human development.