In honor of our recently passed comrade, Michael Lebowitz, we republish this interview from the Monthly Review Press Blog, first published in July 2014.
Interview by Gülden Özcan, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, Carleton University (guldenozcan [at] gmail.com), and Bora Erdağı, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Kocaeli University (berdagi [at] gmail.com).
This interview was originally conducted in January 2014 for Kampfplatz (a journal of philosophy, published in Turkish in Ankara, Turkey) and its Turkish translation was published in February 2014. See Özcan, G. and Erdağı, B., “Michael A. Lebowitz ile Kapital, Reel Sosyalizm ve Venezüela Üzerine,” Kampfplatz 2:5, pp. 283-301. More information about Kampfplatz can be found on their website (in Turkish).
Gülden Özcan and Bora Erdağı: In some of the interviews you gave, you talked about your own everyday life experiences that led you discover that Marx’s total critique of capitalism is an unfinished project. In this discovery, you emphasized elsewhere that your class background and political struggle you were involved in have played an important role. Let’s first begin with your book Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 1992) in which you came to a conclusion that although Marx wanted to deal more deeply with the subject of “human needs,” it had never been realized as he focused more on his revolutionary project of “demystifying capital” than completing his epistemological project. Before getting into the details of your arguments in Beyond Capital, could you explain once again for your Turkish readers the road that took you to write this book?
Michael A. Lebowitz: First of all, let me stress that demystification of capital is an essential revolutionary project. Marx answered the most important question of all—what is capital, what is this world of wealth that stands opposite and over us? If we don’t understand what Marx revealed, then even when we struggle against capital, we are most likely to be struggling against ‘unfairness’—unfair wages, unfair working conditions, unfair distribution of income, unfair taxes, etc. And, in the absence of struggle, it’s likely that we will blame the victims—i.e., that we look upon problems as our own fault, the result of our own deficiencies and that therefore the burden is upon us if we want to do better.
That was certainly the atmosphere in which I grew up. I come from a working class family. My father was a machinist and my mother was a book-keeper, and the overwhelming feeling was one of failure. I did not recognise that as such, however. Rather, I was conscious of the desire to put a distance between my life and that of my parents. For many children from the working class, having more money and a better life is a natural goal.
So, I went to the School of Commerce at New York University, which offered night classes. I went initially to study accounting and law but was quickly attracted to economics, marketing and market research. After a few years, I was fortunate to get a job in market research in the electrical products industry. And, this was a real education because during the day I learned directly and intimately about price-fixing and the allocation of market shares among firms in the industry. Then I would go to my classes at night to learn (contrary to everything I could see for myself during the day) that prices are set by the anonymous market. At the same time, I was angered by the closure of the factory where my father worked in New Jersey because the corporation decided to move operations to the South to avoid trade unions. (Many of the angry songs of Bruce Springsteen, who is from New Jersey, are the product of this phenomenon which was occurring during the so-called ‘capital-labour accord’ and ‘Golden Age’.) The conclusion for me was clear: I am being lied to!
So, I began to search for the truth, and I read many works critical of mainstream economics (including, in particular, Marx and Thorstein Veblen). I had become a critical economist but not a political activist or a Marxist. This changed when I went to graduate school in Wisconsin, where I immediately became involved in activity around the Cuban Revolution, civil rights support, and the struggle in Vietnam; as well, I became an editor of Studies on the Left (a journal of the New Left in the US) and co-chaired the workshop on the economy at the meetings which produced the 1962 Port Huron Statement which founded Students for a Democratic Society. At the same time, I was studying Marx more seriously and thought of myself as a Marxist—but really, it is embarrassing to realise how little I knew and understood. I was an anti-capitalist, socialist and would-be Marxist.
My education continued after coming to Canada in 1965 to teach economics. I began to understand Marx by offering a course in Marxian economics (which I then taught for over 30 years) and, at the same time, I continued political activity, focusing upon workers control (influenced much by the Institute for Workers Control in the U.K.) and community organising—both outside and through involvement in a left faction of the New Democratic Party of British Columbia. (In 1974-5, I served as policy chair of the party, which had become the provincial government in 1972.) I slowly became conscious, though, of a dichotomy in these two parts of my life. In political activity (particularly, community organising), I could see how people grew in the process of struggling (often for immediate local reforms that meant much to them—like fighting a school closure or local rezoning or traffic patterns in their neighbourhoods) and how that opened them up to make links to larger issues. On the other hand, there was Marx’s analysis of capital—his demonstration that capital is the result of the exploitation of workers and that so much of what we observe is not accidental or unrelated but is, rather, inherent in the nature of capital.
Two apparently different worlds—a world of theory and a world of struggle. Of course, with the weapon provided by Marx’s analysis, one could approach people engaged in struggle to try to move them to an understanding of how capital was the barrier to their goals. But, why was the process by which people struggle missing in Marx’s Capital? Sure, there was his discussion of the struggle over the workday but there wasn’t even an examination of the wage struggle! And what about the transformation of people in the course of struggle? Didn’t that belong in Capital if it was a study of capitalism?
I began to find my answers once Marx’s Grundrisse became available in English. There, it became clear how much Marx focused upon needs, how he explicitly put aside critical questions (like changes in needs) for his planned book on Wage-Labour and how Capital was only part of Marx’s theoretical project. From that point on, I began to write articles about Marx’s theory of needs, the missing book on wage-labour and the silences of Capital. Theoretically, what drove me forward was Marx’s assumption of a constant standard of necessity (in a given period, in a given country) in Capital—the assumption that Marx repeatedly said would be removed in the book on Wage-Labour. What, I asked, if we relax that assumption as Marx intended? And, the more that I explored the implications of the missing book, the more that I concluded that there was not merely an absence and silence in Capital but also a deficiency. Very simply, we need to understand Marx’s Capital (and especially his method of deduction) in order to go beyond it to demonstrate that all those questions missing from Capital belong in the world of theory and are part of Marx’s theoretical project.