Building Socialism of the 21st Century

[The following is the concluding section of Michael A. Lebowitz’s talk “Socialism Doesn’t Drop from the Sky,” presented to the National Conference of Revolutionary Students for the Construction of Socialism of the XXI Century in Merida, Venezuela on 24 July 2005. — Ed.]

In the same way that Marx was prepared to change his own views in the light of the Paris Commune, we have to think about socialism now in the light of the experiences of the 20th Century.

We need to understand that socialism of the 21st Century cannot be a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all initiative is the property of state office-holders or cadres of self-reproducing vanguards. Precisely because socialism focuses upon human development, it stresses the need for a society which is democratic, participatory, and protagonistic. A society dominated by an all-powerful state does not produce the human beings who can create socialism.

For the same reason, socialism is not populism. A society in which people look to the state to provide them with resources and with the answers to all their problems does not foster the development of human capacities; rather, it leaves them as people who look to the state for all answers and to leaders who promise everything.

Further, socialism is not totalitarianism. Precisely because human beings differ and have differing needs and abilities, their development by definition requires recognition and respect for diversity. Neither state nor community pressures for uniformity in productive activity, consumption choices, or lifestyles support the emergence of what Marx welcomed as unity based upon recognition of difference.

We need to recognize, too, that socialism is not the worship of technology — a disease that has plagued Marxism and which in the Soviet Union took the form of immense factories, mines, and collective farms to capture presumed economies of scale. Rather, we must acknowledge that small enterprises may both permit greater democratic control from below (thus developing the capacities of the producers) and also may better preserve an environment which can serve the needs of people.

We can learn the lessons from the experiences of the 20th Century. We know now that the desire to develop a good society for people is not sufficient — you have to be prepared to break with the logic of capital in order to build a better world. And, we know now that socialism can not be achieved from above through the efforts and tutelage of a vanguard which seizes all initiatives and distrusts the self-development of the masses. “The working class,” Rosa Luxemburg wisely stressed, “demands the right to make its own mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history.” When we begin from the goal of a society which can unleash all the potential of human beings and recognise that the path to that goal is inseparable from the self-development of people, we can build a truly human society.

I suggest, in fact, that many lessons of the 20th Century have been learned and are embodied in the Bolivarian Constitution. In Article 299’s emphasis upon “ensuring overall human development,” in the declaration of Article 20 that “everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality,” in the focus of Article 102 upon “developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society,” in Article 62’s declaration that participation by people is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective,” in the identification of democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of society and the focus in Article 70 upon “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity,” and in the obligations noted in Article 135 which. “by virtue of solidarity, social responsibility and humanitarian assistance, are incumbent upon private individuals according to their abilities” — the elements of a Socialism of the 21st Century are there in ideal form.

The struggle now is to make them a reality.

Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada and is the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), winner of the 2004 Deutscher Memorial Prize.