Marxism for the 21st Century – a revolutionary tool or more scholasticism?

Michael A. Lebowitz

‘Save me from these so-called Marxists who think they have the key to history in their back pocket! Save me from disciples like those who followed Hegel and Ricardo!’ Few people understood better than Marx how a theory disintegrates when the point of departure for theoretical work is ‘no longer reality, but the new theoretical form in which the master had sublimated it.’

Happily for him, Marx was spared the spectacle of disciples scandalized by the ‘often paradoxical relationship of this theory to reality’ and accordingly driven to demonstrate that his theory is still correct by ‘crass empiricism’, ‘phrases in a scholastic way’, and ‘cunning argument’. Lucky Marx who (if Engels is to be believed) was before all else a revolutionary whose ‘real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society’ – he missed the affirmation by 20th Century scholastics that what the working class really needs for its emancipation is proof that he was right all along about the transformation of values into prices and the tendency for the rate of profit to fall!

How can we today follow Marx’s mission and contribute to the overthrow of capitalism? How can we help the working class become ‘conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation’?

In a talk several years ago, subsequently published in Monthly Review (June 2004) with the title, ‘What Keeps Capitalism Going?’, I stressed two main points. Firstly, if we understand anything from Capital, it should be that capital tends to produce the working class it needs – workers who look upon its requirements ‘as self-evident natural laws’. Why? The point is really simple: (a) the wage necessarily appears as a payment for a quantity of labour, thereby extinguishing every trace of exploitation; (b) all notions of justice and fairness are based upon this appearance of an exchange of labour for money; (c) capital, the product of workers, necessarily appears as the independent contribution of capitalists and thereby deserving of a separate return; and (d) workers, as individuals within capitalist relations, really are dependent upon capital in order to meet their own needs and, indeed, are dependent upon particular capitals.

Accordingly, in the absence of an understanding of the nature of capital, even when workers struggle, these struggles are for ‘fairness’, for justice within capitalist relations but not justice beyond capitalism – i.e., at best, they reflect a trade-union or social democratic consciousness which does not challenge the logic of capital. Given, then, that the spontaneous response of people in struggle does not (and cannot) go beyond capital, the responsibility of Marxists remains (as always) that of communicating the essence of capital to workers and thus the necessity to go beyond it. But, it’s not enough.

My second point was that ‘For those within the grasp of capital, however, more is necessary than simply to understand the nature of capital and its roots in exploitation. People need to believe that a better world is possible. They need to feel that there is an alternative – one worth struggling for. In this respect, describing the nature of a socialist alternative – and analysing the inadequacies and failures of 20th Century efforts – is an essential part of the process by which people can be moved to put an end to capitalism.’

Can anyone seriously deny this second point? Given the failures of ‘real socialism’ and the success of capital thus far in the battle of ideas – capital’s success in convincing people that ‘there is no alternative’, contributing to the overthrow of capitalism requires us to demonstrate to working people that there is a socialist alternative to the barbarism of capitalism.

Socialism for the 21st Century

There is a spectre haunting capitalism now. It’s not the socialism of the 20th Century – either real or theoretical. Rather, it is a challenge to capital that starts from the needs of human beings. At the core of the concept of socialism for the 21st Century is a focus upon human development. Marxists need to understand this spectre and its centrality to Marx’s thought.

The term, socialism for the 21st Century, entered general currency with Hugo Chavez’s declaration at the 2005 World Social Forum about the need to reinvent socialism: ‘We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.’

As I indicate in Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (Monthly Review Press, 2006), that vision – although not identified yet with socialism – was already present in the Bolivarian Constitution (1999) which talks about ‘ensuring overall human development’, and about ‘developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society.’ And, it was articulated when Chavez talked in 2003 about the nature of the ‘social economy’ which ‘bases its logic on the human being, on work, that is to say, on the worker and the worker’s family, that is to say, on the human being’ – an economy which ‘generates mainly use-value’ and whose purpose is ‘the construction of the new man, of the new woman, of the new society.’

This is a vision which rejects the perverse logic of capital and the idea that the criterion for what is good is what is profitable. It rejects the linking of people through exchange of commodities, where our criterion for satisfying the needs of others is whether this benefits us as individuals or groups of individuals. Istvan Meszaros expressed all this clearly in his Beyond Capital when he drew upon Marx to talk about a society in which, rather than the exchange of commodities, there is an exchange of activities based upon communal needs and communal purposes. And, Chavez explicitly embraced Meszaros’ perspective in July 2005 when he said ‘we have to create a communal system of production and consumption, a new system.’ We have to build, he insisted, ‘this communal system of production and consumption, to help to create it, from the popular bases, with the participation of the communities, through the community organizations, the cooperatives, self-management and different ways to create this system.’

The concept of socialism for the 21st Century which has been evolving in Venezuela combines three characteristics: (a) social ownership of the means of production which is a basis for (b) social production organised by workers in order to (c) satisfy communal needs and communal purposes. (I develop this point in ‘New Wings for Socialism’ in Monthly Review, April 2007.) At the heart of this concept and permeating all its elements, though, is the essential link between human development and praxis.

That focus on practice was present from the outset in the Bolivarian Constitution, which insists that participation and protagonism by people is ‘the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective.’ and in the identification of democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of society and ‘self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms’ as examples of ‘forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity.’ With the current development of communal councils (representing 200-400 families in urban areas) as the cell of a new form of state and with proposals for workers councils and worker management, there is definitely a deepening of the commitment being made in Venezuela to what Chavez called ‘a new type of socialism, a humanist one.’

Yet, as I indicated in Build it Now, given the many obstacles (both internal and external) to this process, it is not clear whether Venezuela’s attempt will succeed. Nevertheless, socialism is back on the agenda, a socialism for the 21st Century which has at its core Marx’s concept of ‘revolutionary practice’ – ‘the coincidence of the changing of circumstance and of human activity or self-change.’

All this should be recognized as a break with thinking about socialism in the 20th Century. In that view, socialism was considered to be the first post-capitalist stage – a society with its own specific characteristics and laws, which was distinguished from the higher stage, communism. Having passed beyond the exploitation and irrationality of capitalism, socialism would ensure the rapid development of productive forces and thus would prepare the ground for the communist society of abundance.

While this conception (and the resulting stress upon productive forces) corresponded to the immediate concerns of societies attempting to break with capitalism yet surrounded by more powerful capitalist enemies, the separate stage of socialism was presented as Marx’s view of the necessary step that all people would have to take. Marx’s own comments about the inherent ‘defects’ of the new society, further, were taken as a justification for building upon the basis of self-interest – ‘to each according to his contribution’ would have to be the rule until the development of productive forces had created the society of abundance.

But that wasn’t Marx’s perspective. Rather than two separate stages, Marx understood that the new society necessarily develops through a process – a process in which it transcends the economic, social, and intellectual defects it has inherited from capitalism. And, the specific defect that he identified was not that productive forces were too low but, rather, the nature of the human beings produced in the old society with the old ideas – people who continue to be self-oriented and therefore consider themselves entitled to get back exactly what they contribute to society. Building upon defects – rather than working consciously to eliminate them – is a recipe for restoring capitalism (as experience has demonstrated).

In short, just as capitalism developed through a process of ‘subordinating all elements of society to itself’ and by creating for itself the organs which it lacked, so also must socialism develop. In place of the logic of capital and self-interest, the new socialist society develops by inserting its own logic centred in human beings; rather than taking self-interest as a premise, associated producers work to develop new social norms based upon cooperation and solidarity among members of society.

Thus, building the new society stresses not the growing production of things but, rather, creation of the conditions for development of human forces – i.e., conditions which replace capitalism’s fragmented, crippled human beings with ‘the totally developed individual’ and permit people to develop through their own activity. With the ‘all-round development of the individual,’ all the springs of co-operative wealth would flow more abundantly.

This concept of socialism for the 21st century rescues Marx’s original idea of an ‘association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,’ a society focused upon the ‘development of all human powers as such the end in itself.’  It embraces Che Guevara’s stress in his classic work, ‘Man and Socialism in Cuba’, that in order to build socialism it is essential, along with building new material foundations, to build new human beings. Thus, it rejects the practice of ignoring the transformation of social relations and human beings in order to develop productive forces – an unfortunate characteristic of the top-down efforts at building socialism in the 20th century.

Marxism for the 21st Century

Is there a relationship between the Marxism of the 20th Century and the errors in the attempts to build socialism in the 20th Century? I think there are many. For one, Marxists need to assign the 1859 ‘Preface’ (with its formulaic economic determinism) to a book of proverbs and study instead the Grundrisse‘s insights into the ‘becoming’ and ‘being’ of an organic system, insights that will permit a better understanding of process. Further, grasping Capital‘s focus on how relations of production precede and shape the character of new productive forces would help to reduce the worship of technology and the development of productive forces.

However, I think there is a problem in 20th Century Marxism that flows from Capital itself. Why don’t Marxists automatically begin from the question of human development and the concept of ‘rich human beings’? Why do so many Marxists not grasp that Marx’s premise in writing Capital was his understanding that real wealth is human wealth, ‘the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption ‘and that he wrote from the perspective of a society in which the results of past labour are ‘there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development’? If Marx did not have the socialist alternative clearly in mind, how could he describe the situation where means of production employ workers as ‘this inversion, indeed this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production’? An inversion of what?

The problem originates in a misunderstanding of Marx’s Capital – in the view that Capital is Marx’s study of capitalism rather than an exploration of the side of capital, conducted through the beginning of a critique of the political economy of capital. When you fail to understand the limits of Capital (limits that Marx himself pointed out), it is not surprising that economic determinism, the view of the productive forces introduced by capital as neutral, the treatment of the proletariat as abstract, the inability to understand how ‘the contemporary power of capital rests’ upon the creation of new needs for workers, the failure to recognize the ‘general and necessary’ tendency of capital to divide and separate workers and the effective disappearance of class struggle from the side of workers all follow.

In Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave, 2003) and in the Deutscher Prize Lecture, ‘The Politics of Assumption, the Assumption of Politics’ (Historical Materialism, 14.2, 2006), I explore the implications of Marx’s failure to complete his epistemological project – in particular, the one-sided Marxism that flows from the failure to recognize implications of the missing book on Wage-Labour. Why didn’t he ever write that book? Marx was less interested, I proposed, in the completion of his epistemological project than in his revolutionary project.

Of course, as followers of Marx, we can do both. However, scholastics and disciples for whom the point of departure is ‘no longer reality, but the new theoretical form in which the master had sublimated it’ can do neither. We need to return to Marx’s premise – the vision of a society of  the ‘rich human being’, one in which there is the ‘absolute working out of his creative potentialities,’ the ‘complete working-out of the human content,’ the ‘development of all human powers as such the end in itself’. In short, we need to embrace the vision of ‘socialism for the 21st Century’.

And, as Marxists who live in this real world, we need to ask how precisely can we help the working class of the 21st Century become ‘conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation’? What are their needs? What are the barriers that 21st Century capitalism has created to the realization of those needs? What, given their actual conditions of life, are the ways for workers to struggle against capital now? What, indeed, is to be done?

We need, in short, to understand the conditions which global capitalism in the 21st Century has created. Obviously, they are not ones which we would have chosen. But, they are the only ones available in which we can make history.

This article was written originally for Junge Welt, a German left daily, in advance of a Berlin conference on Marxism for the 21st Century in April, 2007.

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