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The Only Road Is Practice: After the Venezuelan Referendum Defeat

Michael A.Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2006) and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming). This talk was presented to members of communal councils, oil workers, and state legislators, among others, at the Legislative Assembly building in Barcelona, Venezuela on December 15, 2007, shortly after the defeat of the referendum on constitutional reform in Venezuela.

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.

Some people have said lately that they don’t know what the word socialism means. That was certainly a question raised about the proposed reforms. There were people who were determined to generate confusion and fear, and they were asking, what is all this talk about socialism in the constitution? Are we talking about Stalinism? Are we talking about an authoritarian society?

No one who knows President Chávez’s speeches, however, should be confused about the specific socialist path that he has been stressing: it is a humanist socialism, a democratic socialism, a socialism from the bottom up. Look, for example, at his closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when he surprised many people by saying, “We have to re-invent socialism.” At that time, Chávez emphasized that “It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” Capitalism has to be transcended, he argued, if we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world. “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.”

That is precisely the central focus of socialism for the twenty-first century as it is being constructed in Venezuela—the explicit focus is on human beings and, in particular, upon the concept of human development, building new subjects. And not only in Venezuela; the echoes can be found elsewhere. For example, Rafael Correa has been talking about a “citizen’s revolution” in Ecuador and said recently that “to advance that citizen’s revolution, we need a twenty-first-century socialism.” And, Correa pointed out that although people have suggested that this project be called humanism, he commented that “we are not impressed by that word; rather, we call our project socialism because it coincides with the socialism of Marx and Engels.”

We should not be surprised by this emphasis. The goal of socialists has always been the creation of a society that would allow for the full development of human potential and capacity. You can see it in early nineteenth century socialists like Henri Saint-Simon, who argued that the goal is to ensure that all members of society have the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties. And this is what the Communist Manifesto says, too. In his early draft of the Manifesto, Friedrich Engels asked, “What is the aim of the Communists?” He answered, “To organize society in such a way that 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.” In the final version of the Manifesto, Marx summed it all up by saying that the goal is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”*

Think about that statement. It is saying that our goal cannot be a society in which some people are able to develop their capabilities and others are not; it is saying that we are interdependent, we are all members of a human family. This is our goal—the full development of human potential.

From his earliest writings, this was Marx’s vision. He talked about the development of what he called “the rich human being”—the person for whom her own development is an inner necessity, the person who is rich in both abilities and needs. This, for Marx, was real wealth—human wealth, “the developed productive power of all individuals.” He asked, “what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces…?” The goal, Marx insisted, is the “totally developed individual,” the “development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption,” the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities,” the “complete working out of the human content,” and the “development of all human powers” as “the end in itself.”

How can people develop their capacities? How do you get that full development of human beings? Marx’s answer was always the same—practice, human activity. This is precisely Marx’s concept of “revolutionary practice.” Revolutionary practice, he stressed, is “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change.” This idea that we develop our capacities and capabilities through our activity appeared in one of Marx’s earliest writings. It is a theme which runs throughout his work. He told workers that they would have to go through as many as fifty 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-century after he first began to explore this theme, he commented that workers know that “they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historical processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

Always the same point—we change ourselves through our activity. This idea of the simultaneous change in circumstances and self-change, however, was not limited to class struggle itself. It is present in all our activities. We transform ourselves in the process of production. For example, Marx talked about how 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.” In all this, there is the clear conception of the self-development of people through their activity. Marx commented 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.”

So, we cannot think about human development without human practice. If men and women are prevented from engaging in every kind of activity, how can they possibly develop fully? This should all be very familiar to you. It is all there in the Bolivarian Constitution. In fact, the first time I looked at the Bolivarian Constitution, I was struck by the relation of its central themes to Marx’s ideas. There, in Article 299, is the explicit recognition that the goal of a human society must be that of “ensuring overall human development.” Article 20 declares that “everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality,” and Article 102 focuses 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 constitution.

But human development is more than a goal in the constitution. A key characteristic of the Bolivarian Constitution is its focus upon precisely how people develop their capacities and capabilities—i.e., how overall human development occurs. Article 62 of the 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.” Let me stress that point: participation is the necessary way for your complete development, both individual and collective. And, the same focus upon a democratic, participatory, and protagonistic society is present in the economic sphere. This is why Article 70 stresses “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” and why the goal of Article 102, “developing the creative potential of every human being,” emphasizes “active, conscious and joint participation.”

So, is the existing constitution Marxist? Is it socialist? No, because although the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 focused upon the development of human capacity, it also retained the support for capitalism of earlier constitutions. That constitution guarantees the right of property (Article 115), identifies a role for private initiative in generating growth and employment (Article 299), and calls upon the state to promote private initiative (Article 112). Further, that constitution contained the special condition desired by finance capital’s policy of neoliberalism—the independence of the Central Bank of Venezuela. Why does imperialism want that in the constitution of every country? Because it says that it is not elected governments that should make critical decisions about an economy but bankers and those under their influence.

In fact, you can see how much support there was for continued capitalist development by looking at the 2001–07 plan developed for the Venezuelan economy. While rejecting neoliberalism and stressing the importance of the state presence in strategic industries, the focus of that plan was to encourage investment by private capitalists—both domestic and foreign—by creating an “atmosphere of trust.” To this was added the development of a “social economy”—essentially a program to incorporate the informal sector into the formal economy. It is necessary, the plan argued, “to transform the informal workers into small managers” and to create “an emergent managerial class.”

So, on the one hand, the constitution had a clear capitalist orientation. On the other hand, there was what I call the subversive element—the focus upon human development and practice. The 1999 constitution was a snapshot of the balances of forces at that time. But were these elements really compatible? Can you have overall human development with capitalism? If you are true to the goal of human development through practice, don’t you require the development of a democratic socialism, a humanistic socialism?

In fact, once you understand the logic of capital, you know that it can never lead to the full development of human beings. Why? Because the whole goal of capital is profits. That is what drives the system. To increase profits, capital does everything it can to increase its exploitation of workers by separating them and turning them against each other. It compels people, for example immigrants and impoverished people from the countryside, to compete for jobs by working for less. It uses the state to outlaw or destroy trade unions, or shuts down operations and moves to parts of the world where people are poor and trade unions are banned. From the perspective of capital, all this is logical. It is logical for capital to do everything possible to turn workers against each other, including using racism and sexism to divide them. Marx described the hostility in the nineteenth century between English and Irish workers in England as the source of their weakness: “It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.”

While it is logical for workers to want a little security in their lives, to be able to plan their future, and raise families without being in a state of constant uncertainty, the logic of capital points in the opposite direction. The more precarious the existence of a worker, the greater her dependence upon capital. Capital prefers the worker who is always worried that capital will abandon her, leaving her without a job and with an uncertain future. Capital, wherever possible, prefers the occasional, part-time, precarious worker, the one with no benefits who will accept lower wages and more intense work.

This is not the only example of how the logic of capital and the logic of human development are opposed. Think, for example, about nature and the environment. Human beings need a healthy environment, need to live with nature as the condition for the maintenance of life. For capital, though, nature—just like human beings—is a means for making profits. Treating the earth and nature rationally (from the perspective of human beings) is, Marx noted, inconsistent with “the entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented toward the most immediate monetary profit.” Capitalism thus develops, Marx pointed out, while “simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

And, there is so much we can add to this picture. What kind of people does capitalism produce? Think about the situation of workers: they work to achieve capital’s goal; they submit to the authority and will of capital; and they produce products which are the property of capital. Producing within this relationship is a process of “complete emptying-out,” “total alienation.” So we fill the vacuum of our lives with things—we are driven to consume commodities. Consumerism is no accident in capitalism, and capital constantly tries to create new needs in order to be able to sell commodities and make profits.

But that is not the only way that capitalism deforms people. Marx described the mutilation, the impoverishment, and the “crippling of body and mind” of the worker “bound hand and foot for life to a single specialized operation.” Did the development of machinery rescue workers under capitalism? No, it completes the “separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labor.” Now, “every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” is lost. The worker is distorted “into a fragment of a man,” Marx insisted. He is degraded and “the intellectual potentialities of the labor process” are alienated from him. In short, in addition to producing commodities and capital itself, capitalism produces a fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things.

How could anyone think that the goal of overall human development stressed in the 1999 constitution is compatible with capitalism? The logic of capital is the enemy of the logic of human development. Does not real human development require socialism? Does not the development of “the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society” called for in Article 102 of the constitution require socialism?

Consider what President Chávez has called the “elementary triangle” of socialism: (1) social ownership of the means of production, (2) production organized by workers, and (3) production for the satisfaction of communal needs and purposes.
How can we talk about the overall development of human beings without the social ownership of the means of production? It is the only way to ensure that our social productivity, the fruits of human activity, are directed to the free development of all rather than used to satisfy the private goals of capitalists, groups of individuals, or state bureaucrats.

Further, how can we talk about the development of our capacities without new relations among producers—relations of cooperation and solidarity in which workers organize production? As long as workers are prevented from developing their capacities to combine thinking and doing in the workplace and prohibited from planning their activity at work, they remain alienated and fragmented human beings whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things.

Further, if you are not producing for others, you are producing for yourselves. But if workers carry out production for their private gain (as in cooperatives) rather than for the people in their communities and society, are they not looking upon everyone else as customers or competitors—i.e., simply as means to their own ends? Don’t they remain alienated, fragmented, and crippled?
Understanding this elementary triangle of socialism is important because it points to the goal—human development. It is the only way to get there. If you don’t know where you want to go, no road will take you there. The question is: how do you get there from here? We can’t talk about socialism abstractly—it has to be built in specific societies.

How do you get there from an economy which has been deformed by global capitalism and neoliberal state policies—an economy with massive unemployment, both open and disguised in the so-called informal sector, and the obscene exclusion of so many people from basic prerequisites of human development like adequate education and health care? How do you get there from an economy with rich resources for manufacturing and agriculture but where both sectors have withered away because of the ease of importing with oil earnings? How do you get there from a society significantly characterized by patriarchy—one where women are overwhelmingly the poor, the excluded, the people lacking the basic premises for the opportunity to develop their potential? How do you get there from a rent-seeking society dominated by a culture of clientelism and corruption and by a state bureaucratic incoherence that almost defies belief?

Not easily. But there has been a beginning. We can see it in the redirection of oil revenues to the missions which are providing people with basic prerequisites for human development—education, health care, and adequate, affordable food. We see it in the training and support for the development of cooperatives (especially in agriculture) and the expansion of the state-owned sector by re-nationalization, joint ventures, and new state initiatives based upon existing resources.

And, we see it in the important steps taken to develop each side of the socialist triangle: expanding state property, which is one threshold to socialist property (because it is possible to direct state property to satisfy social needs); encouraging worker management in cooperatives and recovered factories, which is another threshold to socialism (because people in these enterprises develop their capacities and learn the importance of solidarity); and, especially, creating the new communal councils which alone are able to identify the needs of their communities.

That movement along the path toward a new socialism for the twenty-first century would have advanced further, too, with the proposed reforms to the constitution. These reforms were aimed at developing social property and encouraging the evolution of workers’ councils. They sought to promote the creation of free time so people could develop their capacities. And they envisioned the consolidation of the communal councils as organs of popular power within the constitution. These were reforms which would have moved considerably toward creating the democratic, participative, and protagonistic society that alone can achieve the human development which is the explicit goal set out in the 1999 constitution.

There are, of course, many obstacles along that path. We can see that immediately by the way that capitalist control of the media and the coordinated efforts of imperialist intervention and nurturing of an opposition were successful in frightening people. But we all know it was more than that; we all know that the combination of bureaucracy, corruption, and resistance to protagonism and decisions from below continue to disappoint people whose hopes have been raised by the Bolivarian Revolution.

When I write about developments in the process here in Venezuela, I always point out the obstacles: not only imperialism; not only the traditional capitalist oligarchy here with its enclaves of power in banking, media, latifundia, and import-processing; but also the corruption and clientelism within the Chavista camp which is the basis for the new “bolibourgeoisie.” These are people who I described last year as wanting “Chávez without socialism”—but who I think increasingly don’t want either socialism or Chávez. The other obstacle I always talk about, though, is the supporters of the process who argue that there is no place for worker decision making in strategic industries.

I stress this last point because when we think about the three sides of the socialist triangle, we have to recognize that the failure to develop one side of the triangle necessarily infects the others. As I said, if people are prevented from using their minds in the workplace but instead must follow directions from above, you have the continuation of the crippling of body and mind—producers who are fragmented, degraded, alienated from “the intellectual potentialities of the labor process.” And, it necessarily infects—as it did in the Soviet Union—the whole project of trying to build socialism. How can that not affect the socialism you are building? Because not only is there alienation in production but also there is the constant production of needy people, people who are driven by the need to consume. How is it possible to talk about producing for communal needs and purposes when the needs that are produced are alienated needs that constantly grow?

In other words, there are many obstacles to building a new socialism here. And, the defeat of the referendum may be a defeat that can be turned into an advance if people recognize that it points to the necessity to struggle against those obstacles. Socialism does not drop from the sky. It is not a gift from those who know about socialism to those who do not. It is not a Christmas present to those who have been good all year. When you understand the concept of revolutionary practice, that concept of the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change that is embodied in the 1999 constitution, you recognize that the building of socialism is the simultaneous building of socialist human beings. And, you recognize that it occurs through your own struggles, your own practice.

This is a point that President Chávez understands perfectly. On Aló Presidente no. 279 (March 27, 2007), he commented on my book, Build It Now, and he stressed the importance of building new socialist human beings and how there is only one way—practice. Specifically, he said that “We have to practice socialism, that’s one way of saying it, have to go about building it in practice. And this practice will create us, ourselves, it will change us; if not we won’t make it.”

So, how is it possible to build those new socialist human beings and new socialist relations now? I think the most important practice required at this time is to build the revolutionary democracy which is embodied in communal councils and workers councils. Not only are these steps toward identifying the needs and capacities of communities and workers but they also are a way of building the capacities of the protagonists and fostering a new social relation among producers, the relation of associated producers based upon solidarity.

When I call this a process of revolutionary democracy, I am definitely not talking about democracy in the sense of voting every few years for someone to make decisions for you. No—I mean democracy in practice, democracy as practice, democracy as protagonism. Democracy in this sense—protagonistic democracy in the workplace, protagonistic democracy in neighborhoods, communities, and communes—is the democracy of people who are transforming themselves into revolutionary subjects.

Think back to the elementary triangle of socialism: social property with social production organized by workers to meet the needs of society. Building those three sides is at the same time the process of building new socialist human beings—the rich human beings whose protagonism is necessary for “their complete development, both individual and collective.”


* Most of the quotations from Marx employed in this article are cited in full with source references in my books Build it Now (Monthly Review Press, 2006) and Beyond Capital (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

2008, Volume 60, Issue 02 (June)
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