[OPE] Putting humans back into socialism

From: <glevy@pratt.edu>
Date: Tue Dec 07 2010 - 16:43:18 EST

Putting humans back into socialism

Sunday, December 5, 2010

By Federico Fuentes

Socialist Alternative*
Michael Lebowitz
Monthly Review Press,
pp 192; US$15.95

The onset of the global economic
crisis in mid 2008, symbolised by the
collapse of some of Wall
Street&rsquo;s most iconic companies, led to soaring
sales of Karl
Marx&rsquo;s seminal work /Das Kapita/l, as many sought
to the tumultuous events unfolding.

Although written more than
100 years ago, this devastating and
insightful dissection of how
capital functions is still a powerful tool
for people looking to
understand and change the world.

Marx&rsquo;s aim was to
provide a handbook for working-class activists that
unravelled the
logic of capital and its inherently exploitative nature.
Marx said
this was necessary because as long as workers did not
that capital was the result of their exploitation, they would
not be
able to defeat their enemy.

Michael Lebowitz&rsquo;s latest
book, /The Socialist Alternative: Real Human
Development/ says it is
essential also to investigate the important
insights Marx made
regarding the alternative.

This easily accessible book is
written to provide young and
working-class socialist militants a
weapon in their struggle for a
better world.

It is hard
to agree more with Bill Fletcher Jr., when he says this book
&ldquo;should be the focus of discussion groups of activists as they
to unite their radical practice with theorising a radical,
and Marxist alternative for the future&rdquo;.

Lebowitz rejects the old saying that &ldquo;if we don&rsquo;t know where
we want to
go, any path will take us there.&rdquo; Rather, if you
don&rsquo;t know where you
are going, no path will lead you there.

Lebowitz says: &ldquo;The purpose of this book is to point to
an alternative
path&rdquo; focused on the &ldquo;full development of
human potential&rdquo;.

Pulling together the different threads
in Marx&rsquo;s various sketches on
socialism, and drawing on his
own personal experiences and studies on
&ldquo;real existing
socialism,&rdquo; social democracy, and most importantly,
Venezuela&rsquo;s struggle for a new socialism for the 21st century,
Socialist Alternative/ aims to &ldquo;develop a /general/
vision of socialism
and concrete directions for struggle&rdquo;.

Lebowitz&rsquo;s idea of socialism breaks from the dominant vision
prioritises &ldquo;the development of productive forces&rdquo;
that, supposedly,
will one day provide abundance and &ldquo;allow
everyone to consume and
consume in accordance with their

Instead, he places humans at the centre of its

The book does not set out to be about the Bolivarian
process in
Venezuela &mdash; Lebowitz has lived in Venezuela since
2004 &mdash; but many of the
ideas in it will be familiar to those
acquainted with the ideas being
debated today within a mass movement
where the idea of socialism has
gripped the mind of the masses and
converted itself into a material
force for change.

idea that self-emancipation and struggle are the keys to changing
the world and people is essential to Lebowitz&rsquo;s argument.

Citing Friedrich Engels, Lebowitz maintains that the aim of
is &ldquo;to organise society in such a way that every
member of it can
develop and use all his capacities and powers in
complete freedom and
without thereby infringing the basic condition
of this society&rdquo;.

The only way to do so is through
&ldquo;revolutionary practice&rdquo; because human
development is
not a gift given from on high. Marx explained that
struggle produces a simultaneous &ldquo;changing of
and of human activity or self-change".

Put another way,
&ldquo;without the protagonism that transforms people, you
produce the people who belong in the good society &hellip; and
understand that the development of the human capacities on the one side

[cannot be] based on the restriction of development on the

Capitalism offers no alternative in this regard.
Rather, it is a system
based on a &ldquo;vicious cycle&rdquo;.

People have real needs but do not possess the means to satisfy
They are therefore forced to work for those that do
(capitalists) and
compete against others in repetitive labour, so as
to be able to buy at
least some of the products they need.

Lebowitz says: &ldquo;Add to this the fact that workers&rsquo; needs to
consume grow
as a result of the combination of the alienation (the
the &ldquo;complete emptying-out) characteristic of
capitalist production and
the constant generation of new needs by
capital in its attempt to sell
commodities, and it is easy to see
why workers are compelled to
continually present themselves in the
labour market.&rdquo;

This vicious cycle never stops under
capitalism. Capital requires
workers to see the cycle as a
&ldquo;normal&rdquo; part of life.

&ldquo;The advance of
capitalist production develops a working class which by
tradition and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode
production as self-evident natural laws&rdquo;, wrote Marx in /Capital/.

Today however, capital is haunted by the spectre of
&ldquo;socialism for the
21st century&rdquo;.

Drawing on
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and what he calls &ldquo;the
elementary triangle of socialism&rdquo; &mdash; social ownership of the
means of
production, social production organised by workers, and
production for
communal needs &mdash; Lebowitz outlines what is at
the heart of this radical
alternative for the 21st century.

Private ownership of the means of production must be replaced with

social ownership of the products of social heritage and social
labour as
the &ldquo;only way to ensure that these are used in the
interests of society
and not for private gain&rdquo;.

But social and state ownership are not the same. A real socialist
alternative requires a &ldquo;profound democracy from below rather than

decisions by a state that stands over and above society&rdquo;,
where all
workers are able to develop their human capacities.

Critical to this is the second side of the triangle: social

In opposition to the command-and-obey workplace, a
socialist alternative
must be based on the replacement of the
division of labour between those
that think (intellectual labour)
and those that do (manual labour).

This artificial division
can best be overcome with collective democratic
decision-making in
the workplace.

To complete the triangle of social ownership
and worker management,
Lebowitz says productive activity must be
geared towards the needs of

That is, the
creation of a society based on solidarity, where there is
exchange &ldquo;not of exchange values but &lsquo;of activities,
determined by
communal needs and communal purposes&rsquo;&rdquo;.

The second half of the book deals with how we get there:
&ldquo;Knowing where
you want to go is only the first part;
it&rsquo;s not at all the same as
knowing how to get there.&rdquo;

Here again, Lebowitz puts stress on revolutionary practice. He
says the
impulse for the development of socialism must be the drive
of workers
for their own human development.

Workers need
not only &ldquo;seize possession of production&rdquo; to introduce
worker management and communal production. They also need to
possession of the state&rdquo; and conquer political

As the /Communist Manifesto/ says: &ldquo;The first
step in the revolution by
the working class is to raise the
proletariat to the position of ruling

>From this position of power, &ldquo;the proletariat will use its
supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the
bourgeoisie, to
centralise all instruments of production in the
hands of the state&rdquo;.

The experience of the Paris Commune
convinced Marx and Engels workers
could not use the ready existing
state for its own purposes; rather it
had to be smashed and replaced
by a new state of &ldquo;self-working and

So the struggle for a socialist
transformation must unfold on two
fronts: within the state that owns
the means of production, and in the

But the
struggle also unfolds within the context of an emerging new
that is, said Marx, &ldquo;economically, morally and intellectually,
still stamped with the birthmarks of the old [capitalist] society from

whose womb it emerges&rdquo;.

For the struggle to
succeed, it is vital to fight consciously against
&ldquo;defects&rdquo; inherited from the old society and subordinate
&mdash; rather
than try to use &mdash; these defects to one&rsquo;s

Lebowitz is opposed to a vision of socialism that
suggests it must pass
through distinct stages, where priority is
first given to developing the
productive forces to create a world of
abundance, and says this was not
Marx&rsquo;s view.

Chapter six, &ldquo;Making a path to socialism&rdquo;, offers a kind of
program for socialism in the 21st century.

Lebowitz&rsquo;s starting point is that the transition towards socialism
move forward simultaneously on all three fronts of the
socialist triangle.

He says every concrete measure must serve
to change circumstances while
helping to produce revolutionary
subjects and raise their capacities.

&ldquo;Only in a
revolution&rdquo;, wrote Marx and Engels, can the working class
&ldquo;succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become
fitted to
found society anew&rdquo;.

Threats to this
revolutionary process are always present from
capitalist elements, the tendency of bureaucrats
to &ldquo;seize
production&rdquo; for themselves and the tendency to rely on the
market to resolve problems.

To combat this, a
&ldquo;socialist mode of regulation&rdquo; is essential to allow
socialism to subordinate all elements of society to itself, and create

the organs it still lacks.

This encompasses an
ideological struggle against capitalism and for
(&ldquo;The Battle of Ideas&rdquo;); the creation of worker and community

councils where people can organise to change their circumstances and

themselves at the same time; and &ldquo;a state that supports this
ideologically, economically, and militarily and thus serves
as the
midwife for the birth of the new society&rdquo;.

At this point, Lebowitz asks a central question: &ldquo;What do we mean
by the

&ldquo;We have to talk about two states
here &mdash; one, the state that workers
captured at the outset and
that initiates despotic inroads upon capital,
that is, the old
state; and, second, the emerging new state based upon
councils and neighbourhood councils as its cells.

two must coexist and interact throughout this process of becoming.

&ldquo;The inherent tension between these two states &mdash;
between the top-down
orientation from within the old state and the
bottom-up emphasis of the
workers and community councils &mdash; is

&ldquo;Yet&rdquo;, Lebowitz argues adamantly,
&ldquo;that tension is not the principle

Given the presence of revolutionaries in the old state, it would
be an
error to act as if it was the same as the capitalist state.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to ignore the vices of the
old society
present in the embryonic forms of the new state.

The struggle against bureaucrats seeking to defend their
privileges or
ideological inertia will unfold within both states.

At the same time, Lebowitz says, &ldquo;interaction between
the two states is

The old state has
the advantage of being able to see the picture as a
whole and
concentrate forces, but it also has a tendency to act from
above and
prioritise expediency over revolutionary practice.

The new
organs can identify &ldquo;the needs and capacities of people and can
mobilise people to link those needs and capacities directly&rdquo;.

But there is also a tendency towards localism and the new emerging
&ldquo;is not capable at the outset of making essential
decisions that require
concentration and coordination of

Critical to all this is a political instrument
&mdash; or political party &mdash;
that can provide leadership. This
is needed because a society marked by
the vices of the old cannot
produce a process where all workers become
socialists at the same

But a new kind of leadership that &ldquo;fosters
revolutionary practice only
by continuously learning from below.
There is, in short, a process of
interaction, a dialectic between
the political instrument and popular

&ldquo;By itself, the former becomes a process of command from above; by

itself, the latter cannot develop a concept of the whole &mdash;
that is, it
cannot transcend localism.&rdquo;

Socialist Alternative/ is an inspiring and insightful contribution
to the discussion of rebuilding the socialist project in light of past

failures and the current challenges facing anti-capitalist activists


No doubt here in Australia, in the context
of the resources boom and the
growing environmental crisis, the
ideas raised in the book regarding
social ownership and the need to
struggle for transparency &ndash; &ldquo;open the
&ndash; will provide much food for thought for ecosocialists in the
battles that lie ahead of us.

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>From GLW issue 864


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Received on Tue Dec 7 17:05:16 2010

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