[OPE-L] "Completing Marx's Project" -- Interview of Mike L [Weekly Worker 608 - 1/19/2006]

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Jan 19 2006 - 14:22:41 EST

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Weekly Worker 608 - Thursday January 19 2006

      Completing Marx’s project

      Communist Party comrades in London recently began a collective study
of Beyond ‘Capital’, written by Michael A Lebowitz. The author
argues that Capital, taken alone, is one-sided, given Marx’s
intention to also write a book on wage-labour. The incompleteness of
Marx’s work has helped produce a left whose theory is distorted and
characterised by economism and programmatic narrowness. Mark Fischer
spoke to the comrade in Venezuela, where he currently lives. He
began with a description of his personal evolution as a communist

      I come from a working class background: my father was a machinist
and my mother was a book-keeper. Like many working class people, I
was determined to make money when I was young. I went off to
business school - although lack of money meant I had to work during
the day and attend school at night.

      I was studying economics with a focus on marketing research, so
ended up in an electrical manufacturing corporation doing market
research full-time. As I did this, I saw lots of contradictions. On
the one hand, the company that my father worked for - which was
anti-union - decided to move to the US south, where they could have
non-union operations. This left him basically unemployed for the
rest of his life, in and out of short-term jobs.

      At the same, there I was taking economics classes at night, learning
the neo-classical orthodoxy about how prices are set through perfect
competition and all that. Yet during the day I was working in a
corporation that was involved in price-fixing. I had access to lots
of information about that basic fact as I was doing their statistics
and forecasting, etc. That whole experience led me to conclude that
I was being lied to.

      I was living in New York city at the time and attending New York
University school of business in the evenings. Basically, I trailed
around to every left group. I didn’t associate with any of them, but
I came to a general identification with the left. I began to read
Marx. I was not yet an activist, however: it was a purely
intellectual rejection of the fact that I was being told lies about
the way the world worked.

      In 1960, I went off to graduate school in Wisconsin. I decided to
work in the areas of economic institutions and history rather than
pure theory, precisely in order to try to better understand what was
wrong with the theory. At the same time, I became an activist in
socialist politics - there was a non-sectarian socialist club
functioning at the University of Wisconsin. Also, I worked in
support of the Cuban revolution in the campaign, Fair Play for Cuba.
I became involved in a journal - Studies on the Left - which was
modelled on the New Left Review.

      I was at the founding Port Huron convention of Students for a
Democratic Society, where I was one of the people involved in the
drafting of the economic section of the final statement. I didn’t
really identify with the SDS, though; instead, I was there with the
arrogance of a Marxist intellectual. I was bringing the light of
truth to these poor confused liberals!

      In the early 60s, however, I got involved in the civil rights
movement and in anti-Vietnam war agitation. Both of those campaigns
were unique. With them, you could see a broadening out of the left,
a whole new layer of left-thinking people emerging out of society

      By 1965, when I left to teach economics in Canada, I was identifying
myself as an SDS activist. I was no longer the aloof Marxist
intellectual. I had been consciously trying to build a student
movement, but I was not aligned to any traditional left group or
current. I felt a lot of them were pretty silly and sectarian.

      There were points where I was drawn more or less into the orbit of
the Communist Party, but most of the people working alongside me on
Studies on the Left were young people who had been in and rejected
the CP. That was my key political reference point, I suppose.

      In Canada, I became active in the social democratic party - the New
Democratic Party - for years, as a constant part of the left
faction. I was the policy chairman during its period of government
in British Columbia, constantly pushing for policies that would lead
people to understand the role of their struggles.

      Thus, I didn’t just say, ‘Let’s nationalise the forest industry’. I
fought for the books of the forest industry to be opened to the
government and to working class scrutiny, for forms of workers’
control within industry. In other words, modes of struggle that I
saw would allow people to develop a greater understanding of how the
society worked and to make further demands, rather than simply
shouting the slogan, ‘Nationalise everything under workers’
control’, at them.

      Initially, work in the New Democratic Party was an interesting
experience because that was where the working class was. But
essentially, the thing was just another electoral machine rather
than a means of self-liberation of the working class.

      And somewhere along the way you came to the conclusion that not only
was much of the left ‘silly’ in its practice, but also one-sided in
its understanding of Marxism itself. How did that come about?

      I didn’t think there was anything missing for a long time. I looked
at Marx, and his theory concerned the analysis of capitalism and an
understanding of the nature of capital. Fine. Then, on the other
hand, there was political activity, and in that I had an entirely
different perspective. From my experience of working with student
movements and other campaigns, I saw the basic truth that people
transform themselves through their struggles. That idea became the
central concern of my political world view - how do you put people
into motion; how do you develop their capacity to self-transform?

      In Vancouver, I was very involved in local community organising.
When you bring people together and encourage them to make the
political connections, when they start to picket and adopt other
forms of struggle, you see how they change.

      So what I had was a completely compartmentalised conception of
politics. Here is economics, science, the analysis of Capital; here,
on the other hand, is politics. If there was any literature in
politics that I was drawn to, it was to Gramsci with his emphasis on
struggle for ideological hegemony and the need to create a new
common sense.

      EP Thompson writes of the way our class went through a process of
self-making economic, political and cultural struggle between the
years 1780 and 1832, through which “most English working people came
to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as
against their rulers and employers”.

      I would agree entirely. The only thing I would worry about is a
tendency to view it not as a class in itself. I think it is
incorrect to view it as a class only when it is a class for itself,
when it is in conscious struggle. What is critical, though, is the
process through which it develops into that class for itself.

      It took a long time before I could link the science and the politics
in my own head. In the 1970s, I read the Grundrisse and Hegel, and
was increasingly drawn to the notion that there was a missing side
in Capital and that the book on wage-labour needed to be written.
But it took me a long time to see the full significance of that gap.
I talked about it for years and little aspects of the picture kept
falling into place.

      I came to the conclusion eventually that this is an absolutely
critical aspect of Marx. What Marx was talking about in Capital was
not the whole of capitalism: it is simply a study of the nature of
capital as it operates in a capitalist system - the side of capital.
Yet this is only one aspect of capitalism.

      So, in this respect, some of the people I have the strongest
problems with are the academic Marxists. They simply seem to believe
that ‘Capital is truth’, it is the first and last word and anything
that is not in Capital doesn’t really count. They make themselves
into ‘the guardians of the book’ rather than open, critical
thinkers. What I say is missing is that whole side of Marx which
recognises the concept of revolutionary practice, that through their
struggles people transform both their circumstances and themselves.
Coming to understand that concept - which I had read about for
years, but never really grasped properly - allowed me to end that
compartmentalisation. That categorical division - here’s economics;
here’s politics - is fundamentally flawed.

      Again, Ellen Meiskins Wood - in her Democracy against capitalism -
observes that it is the nature of capitalism itself that produces
this. Capitalism not only apparently separates economics from
politics: it also separates economic militancy from political
consciousness. Class conflict under capitalism spontaneously finds
its first expression at the point of production, in the workplace,
and the relationship between employee and employer. In some ways,
the left spontaneously replicates this dichotomy in its political
practice. We therefore place a great deal of emphasis on the
struggle for democracy …

      Your point here is absolutely correct. What people who describe
themselves as ‘Marxists’ tend to do is look at capital, then at the
opposite of capital - which is the working class. But they
understand our class only as the ‘other’ in relation to capital,
only as its opposite. They only regard the working class in so far
as it relates specifically to capital - that is, when it is hired by
capital, is put to work by capital and constitutes a market for the
goods that capital sells.

      This is exactly what Marx rejected in 1844! The economists, he said,
look at the worker only in so far as s/he is a worker, and not as a
human being, a historical subject. This is the central problem: the
need to focus on the many-sidedness of the working class. We have to
attempt to understand all its aspects under capitalism. When you do
that, you don’t focus simply on the struggles of trade unionism. You
look at all the needs and struggles of the workers, all the ways in
which they attempt to satisfy their needs as humans in this inhuman

      Basically, I am saying that what characterises much of left activity
is economism. Lenin’s critique is relevant here: his struggle to
defeat the tendency to view the class struggle only in terms of
economic struggle. In so far as these tiny groups on the left do
engage in democratic struggles, it is often purely instrumental - it
is with a view to recruiting new members, new cadres. The ‘Marxists’
don’t have a genuinely Marxist approach to these struggles.

      I think the way you pose the question of democracy is therefore
wrong. You have to start with Marx’s conception of human development
and human capacity as the centre of the alternate society that must
be built. Plus, you have to recognise that he saw only one way of
moving towards that - through the process of practice, through
revolutionary struggles, through people transforming themselves
through their activity.

      If you start from that as your basic insight, then you recognise
that the question of democracy, as usually phrased, is incorrect.
Democracy is not a form: democracy is a practice. It is not a way of
making decisions: it is a way of people developing in struggle and
emerging as a class for itself through a process of
self-transformation. With that understanding of democracy as
practice, you see that it is through their activities that people
develop their self-confidence, self-worth and dignity.

      This is exactly the sort of thing that is happening here in
Venezuela at the moment. There are many contradictions and problems,
but the thing that is exciting is that the people are asserting
themselves from below, starting to articulate their own independent
demands, developing a new sense of themselves. They are doing that
in the context of a constitution that stresses the development of
human potential and that this is only possible through participation
and protagonistic activity.

      So the constitution which puts this forward as a goal functions in a
dialectic with masses of people who are trying to follow through the
logic of their own struggles. Chávez encourages these movements but,
as they develop, the pressures on Chávez from below grow, too.

      I see some of the things that are happening in Venezuela as exciting
because I think the stress on the development of human capacity -
and on this only being possible from below, through mass struggle -
is absolutely critical. There are many contradictions, but this is

      But what about the question of organisation? What you say about the
importance of mass self-transformation, the role of the subject in
history, must surely have implications for the type of political
organisations we create, as well as for their programmes?

      I think that if you see our struggle as a battle of ideas - which is
the term that the Cubans use all the time - then it does not take
place only in one sphere, only at one level. You have to challenge
the dominant ideas and culture in every area. In doing that, there
is a complementary process. If you make gains in one area, people -
the human subjects at the very core of the project - will take the
lessons they have learned there and apply them in other aspects of
their lives.

      You therefore can’t segment and say there is only one area of
struggle that is important - the wage struggle, the struggle around
the length of the working day or whatever.

      So, let’s take political organisations like the old German social
democracy, or - from my own experience - those described to me by
old socialists from the west coast of Canada. These had a breadth
that many sects lack today. They had their cultural clubs, their
sporting associations - in fact, they were also part of the old
Wobbly tradition. But does this lead to a particular notion of the
form of organisation that is required? I’m not so certain.

      I think it is important to bring together activists and to
articulate struggles. But - important as that form of leadership is
- the key question, nevertheless, is the theory that forms the basis
of that organisation. I remember talking over some of my ideas with
a good friend in Cuba. He listened to me go on about the need for
the focus on the self-development of people through their struggles,
but he then asked, “Michael - I agree with much of what you say. But
where is the place of the vanguard organisation in such a

      I replied that, in my conception, the vanguard organisation has to
create the space where masses of people can self-develop. In other
words, if your focus is on the development of militants, on the
self-development of people with a very different conception of
themselves and their role in contemporary society, that theory must
inform every part of your organisation.

      So how you engage in your internal struggles, your internal forms of
organisation - that is less relevant to me than the question of
whether your activity is allowing people to develop. In that, I
always come back to Rosa Luxemburg’s comment that the mistakes made
by a truly working class movement are infinitely more fruitful than
all the decisions made by an infallible central committee!

      That was Marx’s idea. The class engages in struggles, often may
lose, but it criticises itself and learns lessons for the next time.

      Do you see an international revival of interest in the ideas of the
genuine Marx? A reviewer of the first edition of your book wrote
that it appeared at the worst possible time - 1992. You suggest that
Beyond ‘Capital’ should be understood as a challenge to the retreat
from Marx evidenced on the left. Are you more optimistic now?

      Any revival of the interest in Marx is not a uniform phenomenon. I
think it is directly related to the revival of struggles. There is,
for example, a growing interest in Marx here in Venezuela. I’m sure
there is also a growing interest in the man in other parts of Latin
America where the struggles are emerging and people are coming

      Certainly, I don’t see the same thing in north America and I’m sure
you don’t see it in the UK! But that’s because the struggles are not
in those places.

      What I hope Beyond ‘Capital’ will contribute is its stress on the
absolutely vital need to go back to Marx and attempt to recover him
as a thinker. We need to fully understand that Marxism did not come
to an end with the writing of Capital. We have to complete Marx’s
work, a process that begins both with what he wrote and also with
what he left unfinished. So I suppose one of my hopes for the book
is to help people avoid the necessity of having to struggle, as I
did, through the Grundrisse or Hegel!

      Or, more seriously, to provide a new way of approaching Marx for
people newly emerging into struggle. When people begin to fight and
become more conscious of the problematic logic of capital and start
looking for genuine alternatives, they should not go back to the old
versions of ‘Marxism’. They have to return to what was Marx’s
genuine vision, his true conception of liberation.

      They have to try to complete Marx’s work. I hope I have emphasised
that this is not some dry, academic exercise. The ultimate
completion of Marx’s work is to build a communist future. I hope my
book can play a worthwhile role in that.

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