Putting humans back into socialism, by Federico Fuentes

Dandelion Salad

Posted with permission from Green Left Weekly

by Federico Fuentes
Green Left Weekly
December 5, 2010

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’s most iconic companies, led to soaring sales of Karl Marx’s seminal work Das Kapital, 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’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’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 “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”.

Lebowitz rejects the old saying that “if we don’t know where we want to go, any path will take us there.” Rather, if you don’t know where you are going, no path will lead you there.

Lebowitz says: “The purpose of this book is to point to an alternative path” focused on the “full development of human potential”.

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

Lebowitz’s idea of socialism breaks from the dominant vision that prioritises “the development of productive forces” that, supposedly, will one day provide abundance and “allow everyone to consume and consume in accordance with their needs”.

Instead, he places humans at the centre of its focus.

The book does not set out to be about the Bolivarian process in Venezuela — Lebowitz has lived in Venezuela since 2004 — 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’s argument.

Citing Friedrich Engels, Lebowitz maintains that the aim of communists is “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”.

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

Put another way, “without the protagonism that transforms people, you cannot produce the people who belong in the good society … and understand that the development of the human capacities on the one side [cannot be] based on the restriction of development on the other”.

Capitalism offers no alternative in this regard. Rather, it is a system based on a “vicious cycle”.

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: “Add to this the fact that workers’ needs to consume grow as a result of the combination of the alienation (the impoverishment, the “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.”

This vicious cycle never stops under capitalism. Capital requires workers to see the cycle as a “normal” part of life.

“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”, wrote Marx in Capital.

Today however, capital is haunted by the spectre of “socialism for the 21st century”.

Drawing on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and what he calls “the elementary triangle of socialism” — social ownership of the means of production, social production organised by workers, and production for communal needs — 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 “only way to ensure that these are used in the interests of society and not for private gain”.

But social and state ownership are not the same. A real socialist alternative requires a “profound democracy from below rather than decisions by a state that stands over and above society”, 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 “not of exchange values but ‘of activities, determined by communal needs and communal purposes’”.

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

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 “seize possession of production” to introduce worker management and communal production. They also need to “seize possession of the state” and conquer political power.

As the Communist Manifesto says: “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class.”

From this position of power, “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”.

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 “self-working and self-governing communes”.

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, “economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old [capitalist] society from whose womb it emerges”.

For the struggle to succeed, it is vital to fight consciously against the “defects” inherited from the old society and subordinate — rather than try to use — these defects to one’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’s view.

Chapter six, “Making a path to socialism”, offers a kind of transitional program for socialism in the 21st century.

Lebowitz’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.

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

Threats to this revolutionary process are always present from counter-revolutionary capitalist elements, the tendency of bureaucrats to “seize production” for themselves and the tendency to rely on the market to resolve problems.

To combat this, a “socialist mode of regulation” 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 (“The Battle of Ideas”); the creation of worker and community councils where people can organise to change their circumstances and themselves at the same time; and “a state that supports this struggle ideologically, economically, and militarily and thus serves as the midwife for the birth of the new society”.

At this point, Lebowitz asks a central question: “What do we mean by the state?

“We have to talk about two states here — 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.

“The two must coexist and interact throughout this process of becoming.

“The inherent tension between these two states — between the top-down orientation from within the old state and the bottom-up emphasis of the workers and community councils — is obvious.”

“Yet”, Lebowitz argues adamantly, “that tension is not the principle contradiction”.

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, “interaction between the two states is essential”.

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 “the needs and capacities of people and can mobilise people to link those needs and capacities directly”.

But there is also a tendency towards localism and the new emerging state “is not capable at the outset of making essential decisions that require concentration and coordination of forces”.

Critical to all this is a political instrument — or political party — 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 “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.

“By itself, the former becomes a process of command from above; by itself, the latter cannot develop a concept of the whole — that is, it cannot transcend localism.”

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 – “open the books” – will provide much food for thought for ecosocialists in the battles that lie ahead of us.

From the archives:

Does socialism exist in the world today? by Eric Ruder

Marx’s theory of working-class revolution by Alan Maass

The Latin American Revolution, Part 1: Venezuela: The Bolivarian Revolution

What Would Socialism Be Like? by Leela Yellesetty

19 thoughts on “Putting humans back into socialism, by Federico Fuentes

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  7. you want sociialism to be more human ? dont talk Marx. his work is a great critique on capitilaism , but a real danger to true socialism . his jargon is deadly . listen how the chinese use it to oppress the Tibetans . i am a socialist , and there can only be a humanization of it if it can walk a fine line between communism and capitilism .

    • Rocket, what exactly does Marx say on the subject of socialism that makes you think he is a danger to socialism and his jargon is deadly?

      As far as China and Tibet are concerned, I found an excellent Marxist analysis for you on the subject from the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Please follow title and link below comrade.

      China, Tibet and U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution: An objective look at the “Free Tibet” movement


      • Karl — thanks for the article . the flaw in the conclusion of the article is to see that the freedom of Tibet will turn into a vassal state for the west./ that can only happen in the Tibet independence movement , to which the Dalia Lama is not a part. for as you know since 1974 he decided to push for the Middle Way ..to broker a peace with China for it to stop its ”cultural genocide ”. not for Tibetan independence. the recent documentary on this tension between these 2 views really shows the wisdom and foresight of the Dalia Lama.

        in regards to what the Chinese refer to as ”past Tibetan serfdom ”, and the feudal state , which is mostly just rhetoric to keep their empire together , the Dalia Lama admits that it was a problem , but the Lama challenges every thinker to do their homework and go back in history and compare all nations in serf societys to the former Tibet , and see that Tibet was historically not as bad. he qualifys that statement with the fact that it should never go back to that again . Thomas Merton , Trappist monk in his last speech before he died said that Marxism can only be practiced in a monastery.Merton mentions in earlier books about something called ”monastic culture” that all can practice . they dont have to be monks . Tolstoy’s later life is a great example of this .

        in regards to the error of Marx in praxis : it comes down to his concept of consciousness being based on a social state of being instead of an inner change. this is a false messianic hope .

        also , Marx’s notion of socialism does not allow for volunteerism .

        Marx early writing have much to offer i regard to the alienation of the workplace during the industrial revolution , along with Goethe and Dickens , but Marx attempting to provide an answer ends up as a real disaster . as you know this is written about in a compilation called ”The god that failed”.

        • The first few paragraphs are revealing aren’t they:

          “The National Endowment for Democracy funds the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan opposition. It also funds or funded the pro-U.S. opposition to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the fascist opposition to former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the opposition to the Cuban Revolution. The NED also funded Ronald Reagan’s contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

          From 1995 to 2005, the NED gave $2,047,479 to opposition Tibetan publications, radio stations, organizations and other institutes.

          The Dalai Lama has a long history of working closely with the U.S. government. In fact, he and his supporters have been on the CIA payroll since the 1950s.

          The International Campaign for Tibet, the Tibet Fund, the Tibet Voice Project, the Tibet Information Network, the Tibetan Literary Society, the Tibetan Review Trust Society and the Voice of Tibet all advance the progressive-sounding call for a “Free Tibet.” They are all funded by the NED, which is itself funded by the U.S. State Department and the CIA.”

          So to is the clarity of the conclusion:

          “Tibetan “self-determination” under the present circumstances

          In the current epoch, it is not possible to speak of independence in an abstract sense. Since the triumph of the first socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 and the subsequent development of a socialist camp—including China—imperialist influence has not permitted any state or nationality to remain neutral.

          Every national struggle today contains within itself a class struggle. Tibet is not simply a nationality united by religion, culture and history. There are two classes deep in struggle.

          One of these classes is the former ruling landlord class, which never gave up its dream to reconquer its privilege. It is backed by U.S. imperialism, whose ultimate objective is breaking up China.

          The other is the vast majority of Tibetans, who—despite the shortcomings and mistakes of the central government—have greatly benefited from the Chinese Revolution, which ended feudalism not only for Tibetans but for all of China’s peoples.

          If the Tibetan separatists succeed, Tibet will become a vassal state under the control of the United States. Washington will have dealt a major blow to China and taken one more step toward the full overturn of the Chinese Revolution. For Tibet, this would not be “independence” at all, but a return to feudal and neocolonial servitude.

          It might seem hard to stand up in the United States against the maturing campaign against China. The corporate media blitz of disinformation and well-crafted propaganda is designed to delegitimize China while building credibility and sympathy for those favored by imperialism. This is all the more reason for progressive people and opponents of imperialism not to buckle under the pressure.

          Bush, the Pentagon and the Democratic Party leadership would prefer nothing more than U.S. students forming “Free Tibet” committees and protesting against China’s fictitious “cultural genocide” in Tibet while Washington continues its very real war and occupation of Iraq. The death of one million Iraqis does qualify as real genocide.

          The people of China, including the Tibetans, cannot be assisted by imperialist sanctions, covert operations and military intervention.”

        • karl , that is one of the reasons that the Dalia Lama has taken the middle path . because he does not want western imperialism to take over an independent tibet. this crucial to see. also , as he said ”i am a Buddhist monk first” . another salient point . he is a buddhist monk first and foremost . and he sees that it transcends all politics and government ideas. no doubt Iraq is genocide. imperial american insanity .
          but the Lama is talking about ”cultural genocide” , not genocide. the tibetan culture is buddhist. the chinese are trying to repress it.

          have you read chris hitchens work slamming the dalia lama . ?

          everyone is so under his spell that they seem to forget that when he said ”imagine no possessions ” that he was loaded with money while people were starving to death . what a hypocrite . i need a good solid marxist like you to back me on this one pal . cause everyone else is under the mans spell .

        • “The entire history of religion shows that it is bitterly opposed to reason and therefore to science. Let us recall the words of Martin Luther: “Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding.” Calvin held faith to be trans-rational or above reason. When revelation is considered self-authenticating, then it is above reason. Kierkegaard held that faith was both opposed to reason and was above it.” ~International Marxist Tendency

          “Power is not a product of the will of individual “great men”, as Nietzsche and others imagined, anticipating the ideology of Fascism. It is a reflection of the balance of forces between the classes in society. To use the army as a political force inevitably leads directly to Bonapartism. That is ABC for a Marxist. Bonapartism can only exist in certain conditions, normally when the contending classes in society are deadlocked. This creates conditions where the state apparatus lifts itself above society and acquires a certain degree of independence. Trotsky, just as Lenin before him, always placed his hopes in the working class.” ibid

          “What we have here is the expression in art of the striving for power of the weak Italian bourgeoisie and particularly the impotent petty bourgeois intelligentsia. As the sick Nietzsche glorified health and strength and projected his longing into the idea of the Superman, so the feeble Italian petty bourgeoisie expressed its burning and impossible desire to be strong. They longed for power, but in the end were only the lackeys of the big capitalists they pretended to despise. This is the eternal contradiction of the petty bourgeoisie, which imagines that it is a power but in reality is obliged to choose between the rule of the proletariat or that of the banks and monopolies. And the big capitalists made use of the fascist demagogues to get control of the plebeian masses.” ibid

    • More like a fraud with confusing backward ideas rather than a socialist comrade. xd

      anti-dialectical materialism
      anti-historical materialism
      counter-revolutionary supporter
      am i missing anymore?

      • you are missing the fact that science is very de-structive to the masses –the bomb , genetic engineering , you name it .
        us christians who take jesus literally are against the class system big time . we are also against dialectal materialism . we are not counter revolutionary . we are the real revolution . marx was radical up to a point , but christ and his TRUE followers owned NOTHING , and gave all. it cannot be topped.

        • one good 20th example of this is dorothy day and the catholic worker movement in new york . even the commies respected her work .

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  9. Workers would do well to quietly organize their efforts & means of production into self-sustaining collectives per The Take.

    Short of that become a self-made entrepreneur or farm out your services as an independent contractor.

    Yet the wage-slave model remains an addictive impediment.

    A practical ‘socialism’ concerns work & workers. It’s an individual/small group model & decision, and would be an enlightening, empowering, invigorating one.

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