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What Is Socialism for the Twenty-First Century?

Michael A. Lebowitz is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Simon Fraser University. His most recent book is The Socialist Imperative (Monthly Review Press, 2015).

This article was prepared for a new program, Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, established in Cuba in 2016 with funds from the Libertador Prize for Marta Harnecker’s A World to Build (Monthly Review Press, 2015).

Socialism for the 21st Century website.

See Michael Lebowitz give his presentation at the ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’ Conference held in Sydney in May 2016, organized by the Socialist Alliance.

Often the best way to begin to understand something is to consider what it is not. Socialism for the twenty-first century is not a society in which people sell their ability to work and are directed from above by others whose goal is profits rather than the satisfaction of human needs. It is not a society where the owners of the means of production benefit by dividing workers and communities in order to drive down wages and intensify work—i.e., gain by increasing exploitation. Socialism for the twenty-first century, in short, is not capitalism.

Nor is it a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all initiative is the property of state office-holders or cadres of self-reproducing vanguards. Socialism for the twenty-first century rejects a state that stands over and above society and squeezes “the living civil society like a boa constrictor.”1 Also, socialism for the twenty-first century is not populism. A society in which people look to the state to provide them with resources and with the answers to all their problems leaves them as people who look to the state for everything and to leaders who promise everything.

Further, socialism for the twenty-first century is not totalitarianism. It is not a society in which the state demands uniformity in productive activity, consumption choices, or lifestyles. In particular, socialism for the twenty-first century does not dictate personal belief (through, for example, a state religion or state atheism). Nor does socialism for the twenty-first century worship technology and productive forces—a fetish that took the form in the Soviet Union of immense factories, mines, and collective farms to capture presumed economies of scale and destroyed the earth, our common home. Finally, contrary to its self-proclaimed inventor (Heinz Dieterich), socialism for the twenty-first century is not “essentially a problem of informatic complexity” that requires cybernetic calculation of quantities of concrete labor as the basis for an exchange of equivalents.2

The Key Link

So, let us explain what socialism for the twenty-first century is. There are lessons to be learned from the experiences of the twentieth century, and the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela, adopted in 1999, reflects many of those lessons. They are evident in Article 299’s emphasis upon “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,” in 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,” in Article 62’s declaration that participation by people is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective.” They are present in the identification of democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of society. They are visible in the focus in Article 70 on “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity.” Lastly, they can be seen in the obligations noted in Article 135 which “by virtue of solidarity, social responsibility and humanitarian assistance, are incumbent upon private individuals according to their abilities.”3

To understand this concept of socialism more deeply, we need to retrieve Marx’s focus upon human development. In his 1844 Manuscripts, Marx introduced the concept of a “rich human being”—a person who has developed his capacities and capabilities to the point where he is able “to take gratification in a many-sided way” and “in whom his own realization exists as an inner necessity, as need.” “In place of the wealth and poverty of political economy,” Marx proposed, “come the rich human being and rich human need.”4

Real wealth, in short, is not the accumulation of material possessions but, rather, the development of human capacity. “What is wealth,” Marx asked in the Grundrisse, “other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc.”?5 Accordingly, he stressed the importance of the “development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption.”6 This was Marx’s conception of socialism: the creation of a society that removes all obstacles to the full development of human beings. And he maintained this position in Capital: in contrast to the society in which the worker exists to satisfy the need of capital for its growth, Marx there explicitly evoked what he called “the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development.”7

Consider what the worker’s own need for development implies. In that inverse situation, each individual is able to develop his or her full potential: that is, the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities,” the “complete working out of the human content,” making the “development of all human powers as such the end in itself.”8 These are the productive forces of people, which have “increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly.”9 Rich human beings are the premise and result of this inverse situation.

How, though, are rich human beings produced? How do we ensure that everyone has the opportunity for the full development of their potential? It is not by giving people gifts from above. Marx was very clear on this point. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he insisted that people cannot be changed simply by changing their circumstances—for example, by creating new structures or new communities. On the contrary, he argued, it is really existing human beings who change circumstances, and they change themselves in the process. This is “revolutionary practice”—the “simultaneous changing of circumstance and human activity or self-change.”10

As with the goal of rich human beings, the central concept of human development through practice was already present in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. Commenting upon Hegel’s focus upon activity (activity only in ideal form), Marx repeatedly emphasized human activity as the way real, concrete human beings produce themselves, and he explicitly described “real man—as the outcome of man’s own labor.”11 This concept of the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change runs as a red thread throughout Marx’s work. For example, in the very act of producing, Marx argued in the Grundrisse, “the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language.”12

The link connecting revolutionary practice and human development is obvious, too, in the struggles of workers against capital, which transform “circumstances and men” and make workers fit to create a new world. Thus, Engels stressed that, through such struggles, the worker “is no longer the same as he was before; and the whole working class, after passing through it, is a hundred times stronger, more enlightened, and better organized than it was at the outset.”13 Similarly, Marx insisted that struggles over wages prevent workers “from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production”; indeed, without them, workers would be “a heartbroken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass.”14

What we do, in short, forms us—this is the point of Marx’s key link of human development and practice. We can remain dominated by the old ideas and can continue to be shaped by the inherited culture or we can construct ourselves as new people through our protagonism. Human development and practice, as the Bolivarian Constitution recognized, cannot be separated: the protagonism of people is necessary “to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective.”

The Second Product under Capitalist Relations

Once we grasp Marx’s key link, we understand that every human activity has two products—both the change in circumstances and the change in self, both the change in the object of labor and the change in the laborer. In addition to the material product of activity, there always is a second product—the human product. Unfortunately, that second product is often forgotten.

Accordingly, we need to ask a question that is rarely asked: what are the changes in the worker? What kinds of people are produced in the workplace? And the answer is that it depends. It depends upon the nature of relations within the process of production. That second product, under the appropriate conditions, can be positive. But, as Marx understood when discussing the failure of workers to struggle, the second product also can be negative.

Consider what occurs under capitalist relations of production. Within the capitalist workplace, people are subjected to “the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose.” And, this subordination to capital cripples and deforms workers. In Capital, Marx described the mutilation, the impoverishment, the “crippling of body and mind” of the worker “bound hand and foot for life to a single specialized operation,” which occurs in the division of labor characteristic of the capitalist process of manufacturing. Did the development of machinery, though, rescue workers under capitalism? No, he said, it completes the “separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labor.” It completes, in short, the crippling of body and mind.

And, in this situation, Marx explained, head and hand become separate and hostile, and “every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” is lost. “All means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion,” Marx accordingly indicated; “they distort the worker into a fragment of a man,” they degrade him and “alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labor process.”15

Rather than producing the all-round development of human beings, in short, capital deforms the workers into fragments; rather than producing rich human beings, capitalist production mandates the “complete emptying-out” and the “total alienation” of workers.16 The second product of capitalist production is the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things, the impoverished human being.17

Inverting the Capitalist Inversion

Capitalism, Marx stressed, inverts everything. Characteristic of capitalist relations of production is that “it is not the worker who makes use of means of production, but the means of production that make use of the worker.”18 Referring to this same inversion at another point, Marx noted that “it is not the worker who employs the conditions of his work, but rather the reverse, the conditions of work employ the worker.”19 In “this inversion, indeed this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production, of the relation between dead labor and living labor, between value and the force that creates value,” subjects become objects and means become ends.20 Within the capitalist system, Marx concluded, “all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers.”21

In contrast, Marx envisioned that inverse situation in which the means for development of production are not means of domination and exploitation. To build a society oriented to “the worker’s own need for development,” we must invert the capitalist inversion; we must end “this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production.” In doing so, we end the crippling and fragmentation of the producers and create the conditions in which the producers are able to develop their capabilities—the conditions in which the second product of productive activity is a rich human being.

Whereas the worker, under capitalist relations, “actually treats the social character of his work, its combination with the work of others for a common goal, as a power that is alien to him,” with the inversion of the capitalist inversion (i.e., the negation of that particular negation), the associated producers expend “their many different forms of labor-power in full self-awareness as one single social labor force.” In the “inverse situation,” rather than the crippling of workers, workers develop their capacities: “when the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.”22

For Marx, it was absolutely essential to invert the capitalist division of labor, the “dialectical inversion” that cripples the bodies and minds of workers and alienates them from “the intellectual potentialities of the labor process.” In the inverse situation, the producers in full self-awareness plan together and end the separation of thinking and doing. There is “no doubt,” he indicated in Capital, “that those revolutionary ferments whose goal is the abolition of the old division of labor stand in diametrical contradiction with the capitalist form of production.”23

By ending what Marx called, in his Critique of the Gotha Program, “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor,” the second product can become not a distorted “fragment of a man” but a rich human being.24 Ending that separation of thinking and doing is why he stressed the importance of the introduction of education into the workplace: this was seen as a method not only of “adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.”25

The Elementary Triangle of Socialism

Every day in which thinking and doing are separated is a day in which the second product is a fragmented and crippled human being. And that points to the necessity for worker decision making that breaks down the division between head and hand. In its absence, the division between those who think and those who do continues—as does the pattern that Marx described as one in which “the development of the human capacities on the one side is based on the restriction of development on the other side.”26 The recognition in the Bolivarian Constitution that the protagonism of people is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective” identifies an essential element of socialism for the twenty-first century.

Clearly, the activity through which people develop their capacities is not limited to the sphere of production as narrowly defined within capitalism. We produce ourselves through all our activities—not only in recognized workplaces but also in homes and communities. Thus, every activity with the goal of providing inputs into the development of human beings (especially those which nurture human development directly) needs to be understood as an aspect of production. Further, the conceptions that guide production must themselves be produced. Only through a process in which people are involved in making the decisions which affect them at every relevant level (i.e., their neighborhoods, communities, and society as a whole) can the goals that guide productive activity be the goals of the people themselves.

Creating the conditions in workplaces and communities by which people can develop their capacities, however, is only one side of the concept of socialism for the twenty-first century. How can the worker’s own need for development be realized if capital owns our social heritage, the products of the social brain and the social hand—i.e., if the results of social labor over time are monopolized by those whose goal is the growth of capital? And how can we develop our own potential if we relate to others as means to satisfy our individual material self-interest and to other producers as competitors and rivals in a market? Viewed as a connected whole, socialism, as a system of reproduction, contains not only social production organized by workers but also social ownership of the means of production and production for the purpose of satisfying communal needs and purposes.

In short, “the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development” is an organic system, a particular combination of production, distribution, and consumption, a system of reproduction. What Chávez called in January 2007 “the elementary triangle of socialism”—social property, social production, and satisfaction of social needs—is a step toward a conception of such a system. Social property, because it is the only way to ensure that our communal productivity is directed to the free development of all rather than the private goals of capitalists, groups of producers, or state bureaucrats; social production, because it builds new relations of cooperation and solidarity among producers and allows them to develop their capacities; and production for social needs, because instead of interacting as separate and indifferent individuals, we function as members of a community and begin from the recognition that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”27

These three sides of the “socialist triangle” mutually interact to form a structure in which “all the elements coexist simultaneously and support one another.”28 That very interdependence of the three sides, though, suggests that realization of each element depends upon the existence of the other two. 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. All three sides are needed because the absence of any particular side infects the whole.29 Thus, this particular organic system reproduces its premises only through institutions and practices by which people develop their capacities on all three fronts.

In this particular case, those institutions are workers’ councils and neighborhood councils and the means for integrating them horizontally and vertically. Those institutions are essential to ensure a process of production for communal needs and communal purposes in which protagonism within the workplace and community ensures that this is social production organized by the producers, and they constitute a state—a particular type of state, a state from below, a state of the commune type.30 Such a state, which Marx described as the “self-government of the producers,” is central to the concept of socialism for the twenty-first century—a point that Chávez grasped in describing the Venezuelan communal councils as “the cells of a new socialist state.” And this new state does not wither away; rather, it is an integral part of socialism as an organic system.

Subordinating the Old Society

However, an organic system does not drop from the sky.31 A new system never produces its own premises at the outset. Rather, when a new system emerges, it necessarily inherits premises from the old. Its premises and presuppositions are “historic” premises that are produced outside the new system. Hence the system does not develop initially upon its own foundations.

Therefore, every new system as it emerges is inevitably defective: it is “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society.”32 Accordingly, as Marx indicated, the development of an organic system “consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality.”33

Because of the particular defects it has inherited from the old society, socialism must proceed to subordinate those elements if it is to produce its own conditions of existence. However, that process will be subject to many variations because every society has its unique characteristics (its unique history, its level of economic development and its internal correlation of forces) and exists in a particular external conjuncture. Given differing starting points, the paths to reach the goal will differ. It is an “impossibly pedantic” conception of Marxism, as Lenin argued in 1923, to insist that there is only one way to build socialism.34

However, to assemble the elements of the new society, one step in every particular path is critical—control and transformation of the state. To end the rule of capital, it is necessary to take the state away from capital—i.e., to end capital’s ability to use the police, the judiciary, the army, legislative bodies, and its other oppressive mechanisms to enforce its rule. Without the removal of state power from capitalist control, every real threat to capital will be destroyed.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that, “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” and that workers would then use their “political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie.”35 The twentieth century demonstrated, however, that political supremacy of the working class is not achieved simply by winning elections or seizing the state. The real battle of democracy involves the creation of institutions that provide the space where members of society can develop their capacities through their protagonism.

Of course, that process cannot happen overnight and, indeed, may be quite lengthy. However, Marx understood that we must begin to remove the defects inherited from the old society immediately (“from the outset”). He made this point clearly in his Critique of the Gotha Program by introducing the matter of two specific “deductions” from the total social product before it is distributed to individual producers for consumer goods. Consider the first deduction—”the general costs of administration not belonging to production,” which is to say, the costs associated with state administration. Marx was unequivocal in indicating clearly that “this part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops.”36

But why is there this immediate reduction and why is this the measure of the development of the new society? Marx’s argument must be put in the context of what he learned a few years earlier from the Paris Commune. Those costs are “very considerably restricted” because the state, he explained, immediately ceases to be “a public force organized for social enslavement.” This was what the working class in motion discovered during the Commune: “from the outset,” state functions are “wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.”37 And, success of the struggle, Marx indicated, would have meant that, in place of the old centralized government, “all France would have been organized into self-working and self-governing communes.” Indeed, the result would be “state functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes.”38 “As the new society develops,” in short, the state would be converted more and more (in the words of the Critique) “from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.”

What happens with that old state with its “systematic and hierarchic division of labor” in which state administration and governing are treated as “mysteries, transcendent functions only to be trusted to the hands of a trained caste—state parasites, richly paid sycophants and sinecurists?” From the outset, it is “considerably restricted,” and the new society proceeds to create the new organs it lacks—those self-working and self-governing communes in proportion as it develops.39 The experience of the Commune, Marx declared, revealed “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labor.” In describing the course of the first of these deductions both “from the outset” and “as the new society develops,” the Critique of the Gotha Program reflected what Marx learned from the Commune.40

The second deduction points to the transformation in distribution of the total social product in the new society. “Secondly,” Marx indicated, there was “that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc.” In contrast to the first deduction, Marx indicated that “from the outset this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops.” Immediately, more and more of its total social product provides use-values for common satisfaction of needs; more and more of its output is deducted from the private claims of individuals. However, he noted, “what the producer is deprived of in his capacity as a private individual benefits him directly or indirectly in his capacity as a member of society.” In place of distribution in accordance with contribution, a conception of “right” inherited from the old society, as the new society develops, a new relation of distribution emerges in which our claim upon the output of society increasingly is as a member of society. The measure of the development of the new society is the expansion of the commons.

This emerging relation of distribution, however, cannot rest in mid-air. The concept of a “just” distribution cannot be imposed upon the producers. “Right,” Marx indicated in the Critique, “can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” Accordingly, to introduce new relations of distribution requires new relations of production. In place of their relation as individual owners of “the personal condition of production, of labor-power,” who demand an equivalent for their individual activity, there emerges a new productive relation. The condition for the new distribution relation is a relation in which the producers function consciously as members of a community (and their cultural development is “conditioned thereby”).41

To subordinate the bourgeois right based upon individual ownership, the associated producers must create new organs that ensure conscious cooperation of “activities, determined by communal needs and purposes.” As described in the Grundrisse, in this relation of associated producers “a communal production, communality, is presupposed as the basis of production.” And this new relation of production determines the relation of distribution: “its presupposed communal character would determine the distribution of products. The communal character of production would make the product into a communal, general product from the outset.”42

The relation of distribution, in short, is not changed by exhortation. Rather, it changes as the new society involves producers directly in a conscious process of planning as “determined by communal needs and purposes.” Through such communal organs, the result is “an organization of labor whose consequence would be the participation of the individual in communal consumption.” “In proportion as the new society develops,” it learns to “distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs.” As Marx noted in the Grundrisse, “economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labor time among the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production.”43 Planning by the associated producers, in short, is at the core of this economic structure—one in which “the instruments of labor are common property and the total labor is co-operatively regulated.”

This is how the new society develops upon its own foundations, how it proceeds to produce its own premises. It increasingly subordinates elements inherited from the old society and creates new organs for co-operatively planning the distribution of society’s labor in order to satisfy “the worker’s own need for development.” It does so by increasingly substituting for the old state, which stands over and above society, a new state based upon democratic institutions “completely subordinate” to society—i.e., through those “self-working and self-governing communes” through which people are able to develop all their potential (that all-sided “rich individuality”).

Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, understood in the context of the Grundrisse and what he subsequently learned from the Paris Commune, contains within it the elements of socialism for the twenty-first century—in particular the focus upon all-round human development and the creation of institutions that foster the protagonism necessary for “complete development, individual and collective.” Recognizing that socialism as it emerges is “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society,” His Critique identifies the process by which the defects inherited from the old society are transcended by the creation of new relations among the producers. “From the outset” and “in proportion as the new society develops,” every step must build the capacities of the working class.

Why Socialism for the Twenty-first Century?

Why, though, do we speak of socialism for the twenty-first century and not simply about socialism? Very simply, because there was a rupture. Marx’s critical emphasis upon human development disappeared in twentieth-century socialist experiments. Missing was a focus upon the key link of human development and practice—upon the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. And, with the failure to think specifically about the second product (positive or negative), the question of the nature of people produced under particular relations of production disappeared.

One departure in the twentieth century from Marx’s perspective was the theoretical interpretation of socialism not as a process but as a separate stage with specific characteristics that distinguish it from “communism.” A second was through the actual development of “real socialism.” These two twentieth-century departures shaped the popular understanding of the meaning of socialism and interacted to support each other.

Marx’s focus on socialism as a process directs attention, as we have seen, to consideration of those elements of the old society that must be subordinated, and to the process by which the complete development of human beings “both individual and collective” occurs. The idea of socialism as a specific stage, however, emerged in the course of the Bolshevik struggle for power and led to a quite different emphasis—one which stressed the centrality of the development of productive forces.

In the context of charges that the Bolsheviks were unrealistic utopians, in 1917 Lenin interpreted the distinction that Marx made in his Critique of the Gotha Program between communist society as it initially emerges (its “lower phase”) and the “higher phase” once it rests upon its own foundations as indicating the difference between a stage of socialism and an ultimate stage of communism possible only after “an enormous development of productive forces.”44 Marx’s distinction between two moments in the process in which the new society advances by producing its own premises (thereby tending to become an organic system) accordingly hardened into a difference between two systems: socialism and communism—each with its own strikingly different relations of distribution.

As noted earlier, when the new society emerges, one of the “birthmarks of the old society” is that workers remain the “owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power” and, as a result, consider themselves entitled to an equivalent in exchange for their activity. However, rather than focusing upon the development of new productive relations (a new economic structure) in order to create the conditions for removing this birthmark, the twentieth-century formula accepted and built upon this self-orientation by insisting upon a so-called “socialist principle” of distribution to individuals on the basis of their contribution. If people in this stage are inherently self-oriented, then according to this logic the most important thing is to ensure that they are provided the necessary economic incentives to induce them to work well.

No matter that Marx had already stressed in the Critique that from the outset and as the new society developed, a different distribution principle would increasingly prevail; no matter that he rejected a focus upon the right of distribution as an equivalent for one’s activity as “a right of inequality” and as a one-sided view of producers, treating them “only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored”; no matter that he declared that it is “a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it” (as opposed to focusing upon the mode of production)—all that the twentieth-century interpreters took from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program was their conclusion that distribution in accordance with contribution is necessary in the socialist stage!45

Transition with Capitalism’s “Dull Instruments”?

How precisely, though, does this “socialist principle” go beyond the economic, moral, and intellectual “birthmarks of the old society” to get to the higher stage of communism? If “right cannot be higher than the economic structure of society,” is it possible to proceed along a socialist path without changing economic relations among the producers? The twentieth-century answer was that development of the productive forces in the socialist stage, supported by material incentives, creates the conditions for abundance. And, in communism as that system of abundance, the labor of people would become “so productive that they will voluntarily work according to their ability” and that this abundance would allow a person to take freely “according to his needs.”46 New people, in short, emerge as a “trickle-down” effect of the development of the productive forces.

One would search in vain, however, for any suggestion from Marx that it is possible to get to a future stage of abundance by trying to build upon a defect inherited from capitalism. Indeed, the second product characteristic of producing under these conditions points in precisely the opposite direction. Since the owners of the “personal condition of production, of labor power” want as much as possible for their property in an exchange with society, they look upon labor as a means to obtain articles of consumption, and if they do not get what they consider their entitlement (the equivalent), they offer less labor. Alienated labor to obtain alien products, alienation from other members of society, and alienation from the socially owned material conditions of production, and thus potentially their theft as a means of securing more articles of consumption. Could abundance ever be reached under these conditions? If alienated labor leads to constantly growing needs to possess alien products, can there ever be an end to scarcity?

Lost in genuflection to the “socialist principle” is any understanding of how the particular relations of production in the so-called socialist stage may produce cultural development and consciousness compatible with the restoration of capitalism. As Che Guevara warned in his Man and Socialism in Cuba, reliance upon material self-interest is a dead end:

The pipe dream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments left to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, individual material interest as the lever, etc.) can lead into a blind alley. And you wind up there after having travelled a long distance with many crossroads, and it is hard to figure out just where you took the wrong turn.47

Indeed, once you accept and rely upon individual material interest as the lever, the solution to all that ails you is clear: use the lever more. From this perspective, the source of economic problems must be (as Gorbachev explained) “serious infractions of the socialist principle of distribution according to work.”48 The point is simple: if you try to create the new society by building upon its defects, what it has inherited from the old society, rather than building the new society, you are strengthening the elements of the old society. By elevating the right to an equivalent (that “right of inequality”) to a “socialist principle” that must be enforced, the concept of a separate socialist stage undermines the building of socialism as a process.

“Real Socialism”: The Soviet Model

Understanding the theoretical departure from Marx’s concept of socialism is important—especially for those who seek to understand the alteration in the Marxist legacy. Far more significant, though, in shaping the inherited view of socialism has been the experience of concrete socialist experiments in the twentieth century. Drawing upon what was then called “the rich experience of countries that have successfully built (or are building) socialism,” the concept of “real socialism” emerged in the 1970s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for the principal purpose of distinguishing the existing system there from theoretical or abstract concepts of socialism.49 “Real socialism” refers thus to the Soviet Union and countries which accepted, with variations, the Soviet model.

That model appeared attractive (especially in poor countries) because the Soviet Union succeeded in combining its large rural population with state-directed investments to build an industrial base and achieved substantial increases in the standard of living—and all in the context of external hostility. However, by the early 1960s, the deficiencies of that model became increasingly apparent—so much so that Che predicted the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union.50

Certainly the Soviet model explicitly rejected capitalism—in particular for its inherent tendency to generate unemployment, inequality, and insecurity. Thus, characteristic of “real socialism” was its emphasis upon full employment (and its protection of workers from dismissal), subsidization of necessities, protection from price increases, and the promise of future increases in the standard of living. These clear benefits for workers were part of a “social contract” in which workers in return acquiesced in the direction of the party and state over the workplace and society.

Despite those benefits (now a source of nostalgia in the countries that have restored capitalism), however, that social contract precluded the development of rich human beings. Characteristic of the model of “real socialism” is the conviction of the party/state that it alone knows how to build socialism, that it alone can see the whole picture and that, accordingly, it alone must lead. The perspective is that of the orchestra conductor who believes that spontaneity and the absence of predetermined unity produces disaster, that without direction there would be chaos and that, accordingly, the working class must be prevented from making mistakes.

Thus, in the workplace, it was not the workers who decided. Rather, it was “the powerful will of a being outside them” that determined how and what to produce. Nor was there an end to the separation of thinking and doing and the subordination of the individual to the capitalist division of labor; rather than developing the capacities of workers, “real socialism” produced “a fragment of a man,” one degraded and alienated from “the intellectual potentialities of the labor process.” Further, protagonism within the workplace and society that might permit the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change was discouraged. Transmitting its decisions downward through official social organizations (and marginalizing social activity outside these), the party/state precluded the opportunity for the working class (in the words of Rosa Luxemburg) “to make its own mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history.”51

After all, why follow such an uncertain and indeterminate path when the party/state could guide society correctly? Given the existence of juridical state ownership of the means of production (equated with socialist relations of production), the central task (as set out in the official theory) was to develop the productive forces and thereby to ensure passage to the stage of abundance in which distribution would be in accordance with need and labor in accordance with desire.52 Very simply, characteristic of “real socialism” was the premise that the circumstances of workers and workers themselves would be changed under the direction of the party/state.

Of course, this is precisely the perspective Marx rejected in his Theses on Feuerbach! Those who propose to change circumstances for people, he explained, forget “that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”

What was lost in “real socialism?” In an obvious reference to what was missing in the Soviet model, Che commented about Cuba in 1964: “For the first time in the world we have established a Marxist, socialist system, that is congruent, or approximately congruent, with one that puts man at the center, that speaks about the individual, that speaks about man and his importance as the essential factor in the Revolution.”53

Consider what happens when Marx’s key link of human development and practice (that “coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change”) is forgotten. Missing from “real socialism” was protagonism of the working class—protagonism in the workplace, protagonism in the community, protagonism throughout society. The result was predictable: alienation in the workplace, low productivity, and the desire for alien products; the result was “apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production.” “Real socialism” did not merely fail to produce rich human beings; its second product was a working class with neither the will nor the strength to prevent the restoration of capitalism. That path is a dead end.

Reinventing or Restoring?

President Chávez of Venezuela was determined not to follow that path and insisted upon a rupture with the model of “real socialism.” Explicitly rejecting the Soviet experience as state capitalism, he declared in January 2005 that “we have to reinvent socialism”; and, in subsequent months, he called specifically for the invention of socialism for the twenty-first century. “We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path,” he insisted, “but this must be a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.”54

At the core of his view of socialism for the twenty-first century was Chávez’s stress upon the key link of human development and practice. “Socialists have to be made,” he explained on Alo Presidente in 2007. “A revolution has to produce not only food, goods and services it also has to produce, more importantly than all of those things, new human beings: new men, new women.” Agreeing with Che’s point about the necessity of simultaneously developing productive forces and socialist human beings, Chávez insisted that the only road was practice: “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.”55

Precisely because he understood the importance of revolutionary practice, Chávez stressed the development of the communal councils where people transformed both circumstances and themselves, calling those councils the cells of a new socialist state. And, it is why, in his last reflection (when already seriously ill), Chávez stressed the absolute necessity of building the communes (“comuna o nada“) and argued that capitalist workplaces with their built-in hierarchical social division of labor should be replaced by one that involves the full participation of the associated producers and an appropriate means of coordination (and thus “radically different” from the organization of both the capitalist economy and the post-capitalist variety “presented deceivingly as ‘planning'”).56

For Chávez, the road was protagonistic democracy, protagonistic democracy in the workplace and community as the practice which transforms people. However, it is essential to grasp that this is not a reinvention. Rather, socialism for the twenty-first century is a revolutionary restoration—the return to Marx’s understanding of socialism. This renewed vision (as reflected in the “elementary triangle of socialism”) once again puts human development, the full development of human potential at the centre. It insists that:

(1) Everyone has the right to share in the social heritage of human beings—an equal right to the use and benefits of the products of the social brain and the social hand—in order to be able to develop his or her full potential.

(2) Everyone has the right to be able to develop his and her full potential and capacities through democracy, participation, and protagonism in the workplace and society—a process in which these subjects of activity have the precondition of the health and education that permit them to make full use of this opportunity.

(3) Everyone has the right to live in a society in which human beings and nature can be nurtured—a society in which we can develop our full potential in communities based upon cooperation and solidarity.

That renewed vision is desperately needed now because it can once again move people to struggle against capitalism and to “reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path.”


  1. Karl Marx, “First Outline of the Civil War in France,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On the Paris Commune (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 149–50, 154; see Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 193–95.
  2. Heinz Dieterich, interview with Cristina Marcano, Rebelión, January 2, 2007, Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi in MRZine March 1, 2007. In his talk at the 2005 World Youth Festival in Caracas, Dieterich stated that three objective requirements to construct a socialist economy are mathematical matrices (e.g., input-output tables), “complete digitalization of the economy,” and a computer science network between the main economic organizations.
  3. The explicit link between protagonism and human development in the Bolivarian Constitution is unique among twenty-first-century constitutions in Latin America. See the discussion of the Bolivarian Constitution in “The Revolution of Radical Needs: Behind the Bolivarian Choice of a Socialist Path,” in Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).
  4. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 302, 304.
  5. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage, 1973), 488.
  6. Marx, Grundrisse, 325.
  7. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), 772
  8. Marx, Grundrisse, 488, 541, 708.
  9. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Press, 1962), 24.
  10. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 4.
  11. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 305, 332–3, 342.
  12. Marx, Grundrisse, 494.
  13. Frederick Engels, “The Ten Hours’ Question,” in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 10 (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 275.
  14. Karl Marx, “Russian Policy Against Turkey.—Chartism,” in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1979), 169.
  15. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 548, 643, 799.
  16. Marx, Grundrisse, 488.
  17. Marx was emphatic, too, that capital destroys not only workers but also nature. Although a society can bequeath the earth “in an improved state to succeeding generations,” capitalist production “only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” Marx, Capital, vol. I, 638.
  18. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 988.
  19. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 548.
  20. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 425.
  21. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 799.
  22. Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981): 178; Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 447.
  23. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 619.
  24. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 24.
  25. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 614.
  26. Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1861–63, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 30 (New York: International Publishers, 1988), 191.
  27. For a discussion of the three sides of the social triangle and its logic as an organic system, see Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), chapters 1–4. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Collected Works, vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 506.
  28. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, 167; Marx, Grundrisse, 99–100.
  29. See, for example, the discussion of this problem with respect to Yugoslav self-management in Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative.
  30. For a discussion of the processes involved in planning from below, see “The State and the Future of Socialism,” in Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015). While some may not wish to call this set of institutions a “state,” because these are society’s “own living forces” and not “an organ standing above society” but “one completely subordinate to it,” it does not matter if they prefer to call these articulated councils a non-state or the “Unstate,” as long as all agree that socialism as an organic system requires these institutions and practices in order to be real. Karl Marx, “First Outline,” 152–53; Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 30.
  31. In socialism as an organic system, “every economic relation presupposes every other in its [socialist] economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system.” A slight paraphrase of Marx, Grundrisse, 278.
  32. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 23.
  33. Marx, Grundrisse, 278.
  34. V.I. Lenin, “Our Revolution,” in Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965).
  35. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 504.
  36. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program.
  37. Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,” in Marx and Engels, On the Paris Commune, 68–73.
  38. Karl Marx, “First Outline,” 155–56.
  39. Marx, “First Outline,” 154–55.
  40. Marx, “The Civil War in France,” 75.
  41. One of the “birthmarks of the old society,” Marx understood, was that initially there was only a partial passage beyond the “narrow horizon of bourgeois right.” Although the material conditions of production were now common property, workers remained at the outset the “owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power.” Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 23, 25.
  42. Marx, Grundrisse, 171-2.
  43. Marx, Grundrisse, 172-3.
  44. V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), 112–16.
  45. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 24-5; Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative, 70–72.
  46. Lenin, State and Revolution, 115.
  47. Carlos Tablada, Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism (Sydney: Pathfinder, 1989), 92.
  48. Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 138.
  49. Richard Kosolapov, Socialism: Questions of Theory (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979), 8, 11–2, 482.
  50. See the discussion of Che’s critique of the Soviet Manual of Political Economy in Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), chapter 9.
  51. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 108.
  52. In fact, development of the productive forces became the answer to all questions—not only how to move from one stage to another but also how to proceed through a single stage. What became important were matters such as the output of steel, the percentage of economic activity owned by the state—quantitative data meant to measure the advance of socialism. This perspective was so pervasive that the great intellectual question became whether a country with a low level of economic development could become socialist or whether it would have to wait—and wait.
  53. Che Guevara, cited in Yaffe, Che Guevara, 231.
  54. Cleto A. Sojo, “Venezuela’s Chávez Closes WSF with Call to Transcend Capitalism,” January 31, 2005,; Lebowitz, Build It Now, 109.
  55. Alo Presidente, episode 279, March 27, 2007.
  56. Hugo Chávez Frias, Golpe de timón (Caracas: Ediciones Correo del Orinoco, 2012). Translated as “Strike at the Helm,” April 1, 2015,
2016, Volume 68, Issue 05 (October)
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