21st Century Socialism on the Move — Reflections on “The Path for Human Development”


Within an otherwise bleak reality of capitalist crisis, Mike Lebowitz has provided us with an eloquent restatement of the case for socialism — The Path for Human Development: Capitalism or Socialism?  This short text is now circulating widely in Venezuela, in Spanish, as a pocket-sized pamphlet, has been published in Monthly Review, and is about to be published in Canada in pamphlet format by Socialist Project.

This is not the first text Lebowitz has published on the need to argue, fight for, and build socialism.  The Path was written on the foundation of Lebowitz’s 2004 book Build It Now!   Both works were written with the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela in mind.  This is no accident.  Lebowitz, a professor from Canada, has been living in Venezuela for years and has been an active participant in the Bolivarian revolution.  The imprint of that revolutionary process is strongly stamped on this short work.

The Path argues that:

  1. Full development of creative human potential is the goal of life for human beings.
  2. This full development is impossible under capitalism.
  3. Socialism — protagonist democracy in the economy and all aspects of social life — is the path to human development.

Path-breaking: a Return to a Socialist Offensive

In the minds of many workers and anti-capitalist activists, the positive attributes of the socialist goal are obscured by the monsters of 20th-century bureaucratic states.  The general points raised by The Path stand as corrections to this legacy of Stalinist horrors.  Such states that claimed the mantle of communism have nothing in common with Lebowitz’s “development of human potential.”

The Path states, “Our goal cannot be a society in which some people are able to develop their capacities and others are not: we are interdependent, we are all members of a human family.  The full development of all human potential is our goal.”  This recalls the manuscripts of the young Marx, where he sketches the blocks capitalism puts up against the free development of the creative, “sensuous” life of people.  Lebowitz returns this theme in asking, “What do we all want?” and answers “To be all that we can be.”

From decades of defense and retreat, in which socialism has been defined by excuse or apology for Stalinist crimes, The Path forges, yes, a path.  It is a return to the offensive — defining the ideological terrain of 21st Century Socialism.

Internationalism at the Heart of The Path

There are no We workers and Those workers in The Path.  “The struggle between capitalists and workers (. . .) revolves around a struggle over the degree of separation among workers,” Lebowitz points out.  “The premise is not at all that we have the individual right to consume things without limit but, rather, that we recognize the centrality of ‘the worker’s own need for development.'”

And at the same time, “As a human being in human society, you also have the obligation to other members of this human family to make certain that they also have this opportunity, that they too can develop their potential.”  The Path does not draw any national borders around this human question.

For revolutionaries in imperialist countries this must sound loudly.  At a time of great capitalist crisis and especially given the organizational and public-political weakness of the left, there is a great danger that the angers of many workers be directed at constructed Others: immigrants, racialized people, and particularly at people racialized as Islamic.  The Path proposes “human society,” the “human family” — in other words, internationalism — as the axis of struggle.  It demands equal access by all to everything each needs for their personal development.

A Direct Appeal to Workers in Imperialist Countries

The Path‘s rejection of a purely economic measure of standards of living is especially prescient.  In the larger context of universal human development, he argues, money is not the point.  This does not cancel out the important and constant struggles for improvements in the economic sphere, but reminds us that these struggles are part of a bigger picture.  From that point of view, “Whether workers’ wages are high or low is not the issue any more than whether the rations of slaves are high or low.”

Lebowitz argues that the working class has in common — regardless of wage levels — a spiritual poverty based in alienation from the fruits of their labour.  He sees consumerism — even and perhaps especially for workers who make “good money” — as substitution for meaning, within an alienated condition: “We try to fill the vacuum of our lives with the things we are driven to consume.”

So, on top of its internationalist appeal, The Path challenges the “well-paid” worker to reexamine what we really want from life for ourselves and those we love and whether capitalism will allow these desires.  For those revolutionary activists (like me) who vacillate daily on the question of whether the imperialist/colonialist country working class has revolutionary potential, this challenge is encouragement not to lose hope amongst the details.

The Vicious Circle of Capital

Lebowitz points out the difficulty of advancing revolutionary ideas — even within capitalist crisis.  But where Jim Stanford, Canadian Union of Auto Workers economist, reaches for a neo-Keynesian outlook out of hesitations with socialism (see “Improve Capitalism or Replace It?” Socialist Voice, 17 February 2009), Lebowitz maintains that such difficulty is precisely why revolutionary ideas must be sown through practice.  “No crisis necessarily leads people to question the system itself.  People struggle against specific aspects of capitalism . . . but unless they understand the nature of the system, they struggle merely for a nicer capitalism, a capitalism with a human face.”

He outlines what he calls the “vicious circle of capitalism” where people without are compelled to sell their labour power to fulfill their material needs of survival.  Then, having consumed, they are compelled anew to “produce for capital’s goals.”  These “phases are interdependent, you cannot change one without changing them all.”

The Virtuous Circle of Socialism

Against the “vicious circle” of capitalism, Lebowitz advocates what he calls the “virtuous circle” of socialism.  Here his points may be less familiar to anti-capitalists and workers skeptical regarding socialism.

Lebowitz’s ideas begin with the concept of human development, are worked out through understanding the inhuman laws of capitalism, defined through working out its opposite, and developed by returning again to his premise of human development.  Lebowitz outlines how socialism can and must accommodate all levels of human need — not just the material.  The Path sees material security as the precondition for universal spiritual, cultural, creative development.

The Path outlines the “virtuous circle” of socialism: “We begin with producers who live within a society characterized by solidarity” who “enter into an association in order to produce for the needs of society and in this process develop and expand their capacities as rich human beings.  Thus the product of their activity is producers who recognize their unity and their need for each other.”

Protagonism, the State, and Socialist Struggle

Lebowitz paints a vivid and living picture of the formation of a post-capitalist society in utero, through Venezuela’s Bolivarian cooperatives and other base organizations.  He poses these revolutionary organizations as the foundations upon which post-capitalist society will be constructed.

He argues for the Venezuelan concept of “protagonism.”  By creating mass organizations (in workplaces and in the neighborhoods) people can take control over the direction of their lives and satisfaction of their desires.  Protagonism is a path to and, at the same time, the developing definition of a revolutionary democracy which can only be born of practice.

This is an important imaging.  It is critical that we conceptualize and live the revolutionary process as a great organism and not as a vanguard atop a complacent mass.  The Path asks and answers the question of why we should fight for socialism, but it is important to note some questions it leaves hanging.

Capitalist Protagonism

If workers and other oppressed people are not protagonist today — in capitalist society — then who is?  Workers’ protagonism (by “workers” I mean all working and oppressed peoples, to include Indigenous people, poor unemployed people, farmers, unofficial workers, etc.) can only be built through overturning protagonism as we know it — capitalist protagonism.  The Path does not fully deal with capitalist protagonism, or what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony, but many times Lebowitz points in this direction.

Capitalist protagonism is embodied in the state.  Lebowitz points out that “capital creates the state it needs.”  While Lebowitz talks about economic regulation and ongoing “primitive accumulation” or capitalist expropriation, it is also possible to extract a broader generalization.  The state includes the government and all its national and international institutions.  Through these protagonist bodies, the state is joined arm in sleeve with capital.

Whether the mass deregulation and privatization of neo-liberal reforms or mass bailouts of crisis-hobbled banks, auto companies and mortgage firms, the state carries out these demands of capital.  And when Chilean President Salvador Allende (to pick an example not so far from Venezuela) threatened the protagonism of capital within the government itself, another branch of the state — the army generals — smashed him and the Chilean socialist movement with terrible violence and murder.

The Venezuelan experience proves that it is possible for class struggle to be carried out within the halls of capitalist protagonism.  But it also shows the limits of the possible within a capitalist state apparatus.  What we see at play in Venezuela is a constant battle between opposing protagonisms — the capitalist and the workers — in open struggle for power.  This struggle must end with workers extending workers’ protaganist democracy to all aspects of life and all fields of production by depriving the capitalist class of the state, what Lebowitz calls “capital’s ultimate weapon.”  Lebowitz does not deal with this directly, but he does point out that capital “never stops trying to undermine any gains that workers have made either through their direct economic actions or through political activity.”

As Marx and Engels outlined it in the Communist Manifesto: “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”  Anything less than abolishment of the capitalist state leaves the capitalist class a ready weapon for counter-revolution, and leaves working people the prospect of losing at any moment all gains fought for and won.

The Path as Weapon against Capitalist Barbarism

In the introduction to The Path, Mike Lebowitz explains that he intended it as a weapon “in the struggle against barbarism.”  But a weapon is only effective if used.  The Path is written to be studied in groups, and it deserves such attention — both from seasoned veterans of the socialist and anti-capitalist movements and from people who have never read a Marxist essay or been to a demonstration before.  The Path educates and challenges in its reasoned appeals to revolutionary practice.

The publication of The Path can be important for the regeneration of the international socialist movement.  Today workers all over the world are afraid and wondering what will become of them and why.  The Path not only poses answers to the questions of why, but imagines how life could be different, how a better world is possible and what it might look like.  It could not have been published at a more critical time.

The Path for Human Development has been published online by Monthly Review at monthlyreview.org/090223lebowitz.php and by Socialist Project at socialistproject.ca/upload/lebowitz.pdf.

Read Ivan Druly’s blog Against Exceptionalism at <ivandrury.wordpress.com/>.  This article first appeared in Socialist Voice on 12 April 2009.