Re: [OPE] Putting humans back into socialism

From: David Laibman <>
Date: Tue Dec 07 2010 - 17:10:59 EST

Hey, guess what? Humans were *never not* in socialism! Socialism, the
entire tradition, has been about nothing if not human beings. No need
to "put them back." Did 20th-century socialism fail in some crucial
ways to meet human needs? Undoubtedly. Mike Lebowitz, however, has not
(yet?) been tested in the same way as was the leadership of (say) the
CPSU; nor have most of us western Marxist intellectuals. I have always
found it strange how people raised among the relatively privileged
strata in the heartlands of capitalist imperialism come to possess the
unique capacity to form moral judgments and set the standards for
everyone else in the world. One would think that proximity to the
generating centers of capitalist ideology has been an especially
advantageous position if one wants to attain that degree of socialist


On 12/7/2010 4:43 PM, wrote:
> Putting humans back into socialism
> Sunday, December 5, 2010
> By Federico Fuentes
> <>
> *The
> Socialist Alternative*
> Michael Lebowitz
> Monthly Review Press,
> 2010
> 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
> explanations
> 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
> understand
> 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
> attempt
> to unite their radical practice with theorising a radical,
> democratic
> 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,
> /The
> 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
> that
> 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
> needs&rdquo;.
> Instead, he places humans at the centre of its
> focus.
> 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.
> The
> 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
> communists
> 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
> revolutionary
> struggle produces a simultaneous&ldquo;changing of
> circumstances
> and of human activity or self-change".
> Put another way,
> &ldquo;without the protagonism that transforms people, you
> cannot
> 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
> other&rdquo;.
> 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
> them.
> 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
> impoverishment,
> 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
> education,
> tradition and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode
> of
> 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
> production.
> 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
> others.
> That is, the
> creation of a society based on solidarity, where there is
> an
> 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
> &ldquo;seize
> possession of the state&rdquo; and conquer political
> power.
> 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
> class.&rdquo;
> > From this position of power,&ldquo;the proletariat will use its
> political
> 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
> self-governing
> communes&rdquo;.
> So the struggle for a socialist
> transformation must unfold on two
> fronts: within the state that owns
> the means of production, and in the
> workplaces.
> But the
> struggle also unfolds within the context of an emerging new
> society
> 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
> the
> &ldquo;defects&rdquo; inherited from the old society and subordinate
> &mdash; rather
> than try to use&mdash; these defects to one&rsquo;s
> ends.
> 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
> transitional
> program for socialism in the 21st century.
> Lebowitz&rsquo;s starting point is that the transition towards socialism
> must
> 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
> counter-revolutionary
> 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
> socialism
> (&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
> struggle
> 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
> state?
> &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
> workers
> councils and neighbourhood councils as its cells.
> &ldquo;The
> 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
> obvious.&rdquo;
> &ldquo;Yet&rdquo;, Lebowitz argues adamantly,
> &ldquo;that tension is not the principle
> contradiction&rdquo;.
> 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
> essential&rdquo;.
> 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
> state
> &ldquo;is not capable at the outset of making essential
> decisions that require
> concentration and coordination of
> forces&rdquo;.
> 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
> time.
> 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
> movements.
> &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;
> /The
> 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
> everywhere.
> 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
> books&rdquo;
> &ndash; will provide much food for thought for ecosocialists in the
> battles that lie ahead of us.
> * ShareThis
> <>
> > From GLW issue 864
> <>
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Received on Tue Dec 7 17:12:58 2010

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