It Now": An Interview
With Michael A Lebowitz
By Radical Notes
03 March, 2007
[Michael Lebowitz's Build
it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century is not just
another book about the specificities of the Bolivarian Revolution. Like
the Communist Manifesto, its purpose is to identify the participants
in the ongoing class struggle - the fundamental struggle between the
needs of capital and the needs of human beings - underlying contemporary
capitalism and its crisis, exposing the contours of their practices.
It refreshes the classical Marxist notion of a continuous and uninterrupted
revolution of radical needs as practice of the working class, as its
struggle for self-emancipation.
We all know that the mechanical
dualisation of "objective conditions" and "subjective
intervention" (taken as reactive and external) has always come
handy in justifying the social democratic deferral of revolutionary
tasks. Build it Now disarms the ideology of such deferral, by stressing
"the need for activity, the need to struggle for [socialism] now".
But, then it also attacks the voluntarist tendencies of speculating
recipes for the society of the future, as "socialism doesn't drop
from the sky". Lebowitz finds both these ideological tendencies
as reflections of a period of disappointment and defeat.
The beauty of Build it Now
lies in presenting this dialectical critique as articulated within the
contemporary practice of the working class - in the demolition and building
of institutions and their discourses that impede and facilitate this
practice. Definitely, Latin America, especially Venezuela, is the centre
where this revolutionary class practice is present in its clearest form.
However, the Venezuelan context simply shows,
"There is an alternative.
And it can be struggled for in every country. We can try to build that
socialism now... So, today, let us say, "Two, Three, Many Bolivarian
Build it Now has several
implications for left practice throughout the globe, and the following
discussion with Prof Lebowitz is an attempt to bring out a few such
lessons relevant for our struggle.]
Radical Notes (RN):
You have been writing lately about the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
Are there essential aspects of the Bolivarian model of a "democratic,
participatory and protagonistic" society that would ensure a progress
towards socialism for the 21st Century? Further, there are left intellectuals
and leaders who assert that the Bolivarian revolution has been successful
mainly due to the Venezuelan oil revenue, and since others do not have
that advantage, its experiences cannot be emulated elsewhere. How far
do you think this allegation/explanation is valid?
the core of the process that we can see in Venezuela are two essential
elements: (a) the focus upon the full development of human potential
as the goal and (b) the explicit recognition that the necessary condition
for this human development is participation as subjects - i.e., revolutionary
practice, the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity
and self-change. This combination of vision and necessary practice is
present in the Bolivarian Constitution with its emphasis upon overall
human development and upon local planning and self-management and other
forms of economic activity 'guided by the values of mutual cooperation
and solidarity.' That combination is being realized at this very point,
too - the creation of the new communal councils, where people in their
neighbourhoods are beginning to direct activity toward the satisfaction
of communal needs, and the new emphasis upon the development of workers
councils demonstrate the definite deepening of this process.
However, nothing ensures progress towards socialism but struggle. Insofar,
then that the path the Bolivarian Revolution is taking is one of mobilising
and developing the capacities of masses, the potential to win that battle
is increased. Certainly, having oil revenue makes it possible to attempt
to deal with Venezuela's enormous social debt quickly. But, I suggest
that intellectuals and leaders who focus upon this unique characteristic
are just looking for excuses to do nothing (or, more accurately, to
follow the capitalist path). As I argued in Build it Now, 'most of what
stands out about the Bolivarian Revolution has little specifically to
do with Venezuela. The struggle for human development, radical needs,
the centrality of protagonistic democracy (within the workplace and
the community), the understanding that people are transformed as they
struggle for justice and dignity, that democracy is practice, that socialism
and protagonistic democracy are one - these are the characteristics
of a new humanist socialism, a socialism for the twenty-first century
RN: A central
theme in Build it Now is to reclaim a socialist vision based on human
needs, or as Marx would say, "the worker's own need for development".
In your work, we find this conception to be based on a critique of socialist
practice that prioritised the task of removing the fetters in the development
of means of production or technology. Thus, perhaps, it rejects the
whole logic of "catching up" with capitalism that dominated
the developmental discourse in the erstwhile 'socialist' countries.
In your socialist vision the notion of development loses its neutrality
and is redefined in terms of class struggle - as a struggle between
the needs of capital vs. the needs of human beings (or collective worker!).
me, everything loses its neutrality. In my book, Beyond Capital: Marx's
Political Economy of the Working Class, I argued that because Marx did
not proceed to write the volume on Wage-Labour, Marxists have tended
to forget about the side of workers, about workers as subjects struggling
for their needs. They have mistaken Marx's look at the side of capital
for a study of capitalism as a whole. Once you focus upon this second
side, the side in opposition to capital, it becomes clear that in order
for capital to succeed in achieving its goals, it must defeat workers.
Capital must divide and separate workers in order to defeat them. Everything
capital does, in fact, is permeated by its need to divide and separate
workers. (I develop this point further in the Deutscher Prize Lecture,
'The Politics of Assumption, the Assumption of Politics', later published
in Historical Materialism, 14(2):29-47, 2006) How then could we ever
think of technology or the means of production - and, indeed, any investment
decision by capital - as neutral? The means of production and technology
that capital introduces in the context of class struggle necessarily
embody capital's needs. So yes, in this respect, the notion of development
loses its neutrality.
In contrast to the productive
forces introduced by capital, the productive forces introduced by a
society oriented toward satisfying the needs of workers, satisfying
in particular 'the worker's own need for development,' are those which
permit the full development of all the capacities and potential of human
beings. No one could say that the kind of technology that capital introduces
permits this. So in this respect, my emphasis definitely is upon the
character of productive relations and how particular productive relations
shape the nature of productive forces. The issue, then, is not one of
catching up with capitalism. Rather, it is one of creating a new path.
RN: In your
work, you have also redefined the concept of endogenous development,
where you seem to move away from its general conceptualisation as import-substitution
efforts, welfarism and investment in "human capital"; you
seem to stress more on whether or not the exploited and oppressed classes
are subjects or protagonists of such development. You define endogenous
development as "the real development of human potential which occurs
as the result of human activity", as "the transformation of
people through their own activity, the building of human capacities".
Can you elaborate on this theme?
When you start from the idea that our real goal is the development of
all human potential, the development of rich human beings (the spectre
that haunts Marx's Capital and indeed is the premise for that work),
you recognize the inadequacy of a definition of development which focuses
upon specific sectors of the economy or, even upon investments by a
state in inputs for what some people call human capital. Rather, when
you start from the focus upon human development and you understand (as
Marx did) that real human development is the product of human activity,
then you recognize that real endogenous development is the development
of human productive forces.
Of course, characteristic of the Venezuelan focus upon endogenous development
is also the desire to produce things that have been imported previously.
Both agriculture and domestic industry in Venezuela have been stunted
by the ability to import these products cheaply because of oil revenues;
the result has been a warped economy - one in which, despite having
rich agricultural land, Venezuela imports 70% of its food. Now, some
would say this is just a case of comparative advantage - that this specialization
and exchange is economic efficiency. This is a prime example of the
idiocy of neoclassical economics - a theory whose concept of efficiency
does not take into account the effect upon human beings because it is
an economics of capital and not of human beings. That masses of people
are unemployed or in the reserve army that we politely call the informal
sector, that they have little access to education or health facilities
- these seem to be matters of minor concern; those who rationalize these
effects of the market are simply the hired prize-fighters of neoliberalism.
Venezuela's particular concept of endogenous development, then, is the
attempt to do two things simultaneously - transform circumstances and
transform the capacities of the human subjects. It is what I called
'radical endogenous development', radical because it goes to the root
which is human beings.
Through the encouragement
of cooperatives and new state sectors organized on the basis of worker
protagonism, Venezuela is attempting to build not only material productive
forces but new human productive forces; it is attempting to unleash
the potential of the masses. But, let me stress that this is not my
concept of endogenous development. It is the Bolivarian concept. I have
learned from this. And, we all should.
RN: Do you
think the three tenures of President Chavez can be divided into phases
of socialist construction? If yes, what are they?
is definitely a revolutionary process occurring in Venezuela, a very
uneven one which is propelled by struggle. It is a process of struggle
in which every advance can be reversed. I think that is the most important
thing to understand.
Even if specific, discrete
phases of socialist construction in Venezuela could be identified, I'm
not certain about the utility of doing so. I really think we need to
break away from schematic, stagist thinking. I am constantly amazed
by the extent to which people think they can judge the Venezuelan process
with the help of schema based upon the singular experience of the Soviet
Union. The last thing we need to do now is create a new schema based
upon the Venezuelan process. As I argued in 'Socialism Doesn't Drop
from the Sky' (published in Build it Now), we all start the process
of socialist construction from different places and, given our own particular
histories and circumstances, 'we would be pedantic fools if we insisted
that there is only one way to start the social revolution.' I went on
to say, though, that 'one step in every particular path is critical
- control and transformation of the state.'
Holloway asserts that in the last century the revolutionaries' stress
on state power was essentially based on a false understanding of state
as a mere instrument rather than as embedded "in the web of capitalist
social relations". In your critique of Holloway's notion of "changing
the world without taking power", you seem to reaffirm the "orthodox"
Marxist stress on the role of state power in the revolutionary process.
But you have ruthlessly criticized statism, populism and totalitarianism
too. So can you tell us briefly about the role of state power in the
process of socialist construction, which, as we understand, is essentially
a process of humanity's "self-change"? How can "the sovereign
people" transform themselves into "the object and the subject
of power"? What can we learn from the Bolivarian experience in
What Holloway had to say is not as interesting as the reception for
a book which begins by saying we don't know how to change the world
without taking power and, almost 200 pages later, ends by saying the
same thing. In both an extended on-line exchange with Holloway and my
article about his book ('Holloway's Scream: Full of Sound and Fury',
Historical Materialism, 13(4):217-231, 2005) I argued that his position
and the reception of his book reflect a period of defeat and demoralization.
I see it as an example of the 'morbid symptoms' that appear when the
new cannot yet be born.
In the exchange itself, I
proposed that to be consistent he either had to repudiate his argument
that the state is the 'assassin of hope' or attack the Bolivarian Revolution
because it was spreading 'the notion that society can be changed through
the winning of state power.' I find so much strange in the argument
he presents in his book. How does Holloway deal with the power of the
capitalist state (police, courts, armies)? As I demonstrate, he abandons
Marxism for pure idealism by dissolving the power of the capitalist
state through the power of logic. Of course, if you start from Holloway's
premise that capitalism is fragile and that we can huff and puff and
blow it down by shouting our 'No's', then I suppose it is consistent
to say that you don't need organization and you don't need the power
of the state.
So, it is definitely correct
to describe my position on the role of the state in socialist transformation
as traditional Marxism. I argue in both Beyond Capital and Build it
Now that using political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from
the bourgeoisie remains as critical now as when Marx and Engels wrote
the Communist Manifesto. Where my position may be less familiar, though,
is in my insistence that for working people to be the subjects of power
who can transform society, you need a state which provides the space
for revolutionary practice, the development of the capacities of people
through their activity. However, this is simply a return to Marx from
the crude historical materialism that Marx rejected: the focus upon
transformative practice is precisely why Marx embraced the Paris Commune
model as the political form 'at last discovered' under which to work
out the economical emancipation of labour.
Again, once you start from
the emphasis upon human development and the recognition of the centrality
of revolutionary practice, then it is self-evident that you must reject
a hierarchical state, populism and totalitarianism. As I said in Beyond
Capital, 'the form and the content of the workers' state are inseparable.
Only insofar as the state is converted "from an organ standing
above society into one completely subordinate to it" can the working
class "succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become
fitted to found society anew".'
How do you create such a
state? I think there is no magic formula. The process will differ everywhere.
In Venezuela, the impulse for the development of the communal councils
as the basis for a new state has come largely from Chavez and, given
the horror of the existing state, people have responded with enthusiasm.
But, I'm sure there will be many paths to this point. What is important
is knowing where you want (indeed, need) to go; the particular paths
to that point will depend upon where you start in any particular society.
RN: In a
situation of an unevenness of capitalist development throughout the
globe, we find that for a large section of established "third world"
left forces, the issue still remains that of greater industrialization
and overcoming underdevelopment, which for them essentially signifies
an insufficiency of national capitalist development. They also justify
their reformist politics and compromises with neoliberal forces by invoking
a kind of TINA rationale - the twin dangers of aggressive globalisation
and the ever-looming possibility of capital strike. Do you think your
critique of social democracy can also be directed against this tendency
within the "third world" left?
Within the Third World left, some groups which call themselves communist
or Marxist (as in China these days) have reduced this only to a particular
conception of the party - its internal practices and discipline and
the view that the party is the instructor of masses and social movements.
They continue to talk about socialism but in practice, as in the case
of Social Democratic parties, they see no alternative to capital; that
is, they accept the logic of capital. Thus, we see them evoking various
forms of the discredited stagist theory that insists that now (as always)
is the time for capital to develop the productive forces - thereby demonstrating
once again that history repeats itself as tragedy.
As I noted in Build it Now,
the failure of social democracy in developed capitalist countries to
break ideologically and politically with capital has meant that, despite
all the ideals it expressed historically about building a better world,
social democracy has enforced the logic of capital. The same is true
of those elements of the left in the South which are relying upon capital
to develop productive forces.
What can be done about that?
I think there are real limits to spending one's time attacking social
democracy in all its forms theoretically and polemically. Many good
working people are committed to these parties and tendencies because
of their past struggles and achievements and, thus, are defensive in
the face of such attacks. Rather, criticism in practice by the development
of organization from below both develops the capacities of people as
subjects and exposes the limitations of those who refuse to break with
the logic of capital. To paraphrase Fidel, we do not exclude these parties;
they exclude themselves.
(Build it Now: Socialism
in the Twenty-First Century - Monthly Review/ Amazon. In South Asia,
contact: Daanish Books, A-901, Taj Apartments, Gazipur, Delhi-110 096,
Tel: 011-5578 5559, 2223 0812, Cell: +91-98685 43637, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)