Michael A. Lebowitz explores the obvious but almost universally ignored fact that as human beings work together to produce society's goods and services, we also “produce” something else: namely, ourselves. Human beings are shaped by circumstances, and any vision of socialism that ignores this fact is bound to fail, or, at best, reproduce the alienation of labor that is endemic to capitalism. But how can people transform their circumstances in a way that allows them to re-organize production and, at the same time, fulfill their human potential? These essays repay careful reading and reflection, and prove Lebowitz to be one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of this era.
“Marx was before all else a revolutionary. His real mission in life,” noted Frederick Engels at Marx’s graveside, “was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the forms of government which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the present-day proletariat.” Could the same be said about Marxist economists? That they are revolutionaries whose real mission is to contribute to the overthrow of capitalism?
Everyone understands that it is impossible to achieve the vision of socialism for the twenty-first century in one giant leap forward. It is not simply a matter of changing property ownership. This is the easiest part of building the new world. Far more difficult is changing productive relations, social relations in general, and attitudes and ideas.… To transform existing relations into the new productive relations, we need first of all to understand the nature of the existing relations. Only then can you identify the mechanisms by which the new relations can be introduced. At this time, there is a great variety of experiments and approaches to changing productive relations which are being pursued. There is no attempt to set out specific proposals here but only to provide the framework in which such changes should be explored in order to move toward socialist productive relations.
Those who conclude that the working class is not a revolutionary subject because capitalism has changed the working class reveal that they do not understand the ABCs of Marxism. The working class makes itself a revolutionary subject through its struggles—it transforms itself. That was always the position of Marx—his concept of “revolutionary practice,” which is the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. The working class changes itself through its struggles. It makes itself fit to create the new world.
[In my] examination of struggle…from the side of workers.… 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.
“When Chávez speaks, we listen. But we don’t listen to those around him.” This comment by a community activist interviewed by Iain Bruce, and integrated into his wonderful exploration of the Bolivarian Revolution from below, points to an essential characteristic — the unique link at present (“por ahora”) between Hugo Chávez and the exploited and excluded of Venezuela.
“If we believe in people, if we believe that the goal of a human society must be that of “ensuring overall human development,” our choice is clear: socialism or barbarism.” These concluding lines from “The Path to Human Development” appear on the back cover of one Venezuelan edition—a pocket-sized edition much like the widely circulated “Socialism Does Not Drop from the Sky” (chapter 5 of Build It Now). The other edition, together with an extended edition of that latter essay (including my “New Wings for Socialism” from the April 2006 Monthly Review), is being published as The Logic of Capital versus the Logic of Human Development for the communal council libraries in Venezuela.
“We are sinking in the Devil’s excrement,” wrote a close observer of Venezuela’s adventures in oil. Was Venezuela’s deep culture of corruption, crime, and clientalism imaginable in the absence of the oil rents which became the supreme object of desire? Was the truncation of industry and agriculture and the vast chasm between a privileged oligarchy and an impoverished mass inevitable-given the effects of oil wealth upon a poor, developing country?
In this concise volume, noted scholar and economist Michael A. Lebowitz considers the legacy of twentieth century socialist societies, or what some have termed “real socialism.” While these societies were able to claim major achievements in areas from health care to education to popular culture, they nonetheless met limited success in eroding what Marx called the “opposition of the worker as direct producer and the proprietor of the means of production.” That this opposition between workers and managers continued to exist in one form or another under “real socialism” means that, according to Lebowitz, a crucial aspect of the socialist project was lost.
I am certain that, like many people these days, the first thing on your mind is the question of the referendum on reform of the Bolivarian Constitution — what the defeat means and where do we go from here. What I want to talk about today is not on that topic specifically, but it is related.