Socialism Doesn’t Drop From The Sky!

Talk presented to the National Conference of Revolutionary Students for the Construction of Socialism of the XXI Century in Merida, Venezuela on 22 July 2005

Some people think you can change the world without taking power. No, they argue, you must not even think about trying to make use of the state. Why? Because (as John Holloway asserts) ‘to struggle through the state is to become involved in the active process of defeating yourself’. No, they proclaim, the state (by definition) cannot challenge capitalism. Why? Because it is part of capital; indeed, as Holloway writes, ‘the state (any state) must do everything it can to provide conditions that favour the profitability of capital.’

Ideas like this are not new. But, they have been revived in certain quarters (especially in Latin America) because they reflect a period of disappointment and defeat. Disappointment and defeat because of the failure of the state-dominated society of the Soviet Union and its followers to live up to its promises to create a new world; and disappointment and defeat because of the tragedy of social democracy, which through its surrender to the logic of capital, has demonstrated that it offers only barbarism with a human face.

Yet, Holloway’s insistence that we must reject ‘the very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state power’ has been refuted in two very clear ways. It has been refuted concretely in a very dramatic and exciting way by the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Could we imagine the changes that are occurring here now without the power of the state?

And, this idea, too, has been refuted theoretically – by the understanding of economic systems in general and the conditions for the development of socialism in particular associated with the thought of Karl Marx. For Marx, it was self-evident that workers need the power of the state to create the conditions for a society that could end capitalist exploitation. Similarly, he refused to write detailed models, ‘recipes’ for the society of the future — those ‘fantastic pictures and plans of a new society’ that utopian opponents of capitalism offered. There was a critical reason for both: socialism does not drop from the sky.

Socialism as a Process

No new economic system drops from the sky. Rather than dropping from the sky or emerging pristine and complete from the conceptions of intellectuals, new productive forces and relations of productions emerge within and in opposition to the existing society. One implication is that the new society can never be fully formed at the beginning. Initially, that new society must build upon elements of the old society. The socialist society which emerges from capitalism, Marx stressed, is necessarily ‘economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society.’

At the core of Marx’s dialectical conception is the recognition that a new society comes on the scene necessarily in a defective form and that it develops by transforming its historical premises, by transcending its defects. Only when the new society stands upon its own foundations, only when it builds upon premises that it produces itself, can we realise the potential that was present in it from the beginning. Marx understood this as a process in which we struggle to liberate ourselves from the burden of the old society.

What exactly was the defect that Marx specifically identified in socialism as it first emerged? Not (as often is expressed) that the productive forces were too low and that therefore the principal task would be to develop the productive forces. The particular defect that Marx described was 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 believe that they have contributed to society. Such a society is characterised by a multitude of exchange transactions — it is one in which everyone calculates in his own self-interest and feels cheated if he does not receive his equivalent. This behaviour, Marx was clear, is an inheritance from the old society; it demonstrates clearly that we don’t yet think of society as a human family, as one in which liberation of all is the condition for liberation of each.

But, this self-orientation would not be the only defect present when the new society comes on the scene. The new society is economically, socially, intellectually infected: historic traditions of patriarchy, racism, discrimination and significant inequalities in education, health and living standards are among the elements which the new society may inherit. Rather than accepting these barriers to human development, however, these defects must be confronted through a process that understands them as defects.

When you recognize that socialism is a process, you understand that the answer to the existence of defects like self-orientation, racism and patriarchy is not to build institutions which incorporate them. Characteristic of most attempts to build socialism in the 20th Century, for example, was the conclusion that the inherent self-orientation of people means that the most important thing is to provide the necessary economic incentives to induce people to work. Bonus schemes, profit-sharing, various forms of monetary incentives became central; the underlying logic was that the resulting development of productive forces will have a ‘trickle-down’ effect — that the new people will gradually emerge.

In fact, the opposite effect occurs. When you try to create the new society by building upon its defects, what it has inherited from the old society, you are strengthening the elements of the old society which are inherent in the new society as it initially emerges. When you encourage selfishness, you strengthen a tendency for people to act in their own interests without regard for the interests of others — you reinforce and deepen divisions among individuals, groups, regions and nations, and you make inequality seem like common sense. When you legitimise the idea that getting more for yourself is in the interests of all, you create the conditions for the return to the old society.

How is it possible to build a new society based upon the principle of self-interest? How can you produce on this basis the people for whom unity based upon recognition of their differences is second nature? Obviously, we cannot ignore the nature of the people who emerge from the old society. Precisely because he understood that the subjects of every process are specific human beings, Marx recognised that you could not create immediately a society based upon the distribution principle of ‘to each according to his need’. Putting the old subjects into that new structure would inevitably produce disaster. He understood that we cannot go directly to the system of justice and equity appropriate to a true human society, to the human family. However, Marx definitely was not arguing that the way to create the new society was to build upon the defects it necessarily contains when it initially emerges.

Rather, the socialist process is a process of both of destruction and construction — a process of destroying the remaining elements of the old society (including the support for the logic of capital) and a process of building new, socialist human beings.

Human Beings and Socialism

No one articulated better in the 20th Century the importance of developing new, socialist human beings than Che Guevara. He understood that if you try to build socialism with the help of ‘the dull instruments left us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, individual material interest as the lever, etc.)’, the effect is to undermine the development of consciousness. To build the new society, he stressed, it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man.

We need to remember the goal. If you don’t know where you want to go, then no road will take you there. The world that socialists have always wanted to build is one in which people relate to each other as members of a human family, a society in which we recognise that the welfare of others concerns us; it is a world of human solidarity and love where, in place of classes and class antagonisms, we have ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

The world that we want to build is the society of associated producers where each individual is able to develop his full potential — the world which in Marx’s view would permit 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.’ The fragmented, crippled human beings that capitalism produces would be replaced by the fully developed human being, ‘the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn.’

But, those people don’t drop from the sky; there is only one way in which they are produced — through their own activity. Only by exercising both their mental and manual capabilities in every aspect of their lives do human beings develop those capabilities; they produce in themselves specific capacities which allow them to carry out new activities. The simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change (what Marx called ‘revolutionary practice’) is how we build the new society and new human beings.

Obviously, the nature of our institutions and relations must provide us with the space for such self-development. Without democracy in production, for example, we can build neither a new society nor new people. When workers engage in self-management, they combine the conception of work with its execution. Not only, then, can the intellectual potentialities of all the associated producers be developed but the ‘tacit knowledge’ that workers have about better ways to work and to produce also can be a social knowledge from which we all benefit. Democratic, participatory and protagonistic production both draws upon our hidden human resources and develops our capacities. But, without that combination of head and hand, people remain the fragmented, crippled human beings that capitalism produces: the division between those who think and those who do continues — as does the pattern that Marx described in which ‘the development of the human capacities on the one side is based on the restriction of development on the other side.’ Democracy in production is a necessary condition for the free development of all.

But, what is production? It’s not something that occurs only in a factory or in what we traditionally identify as a workplace. Every activity with the goal of providing inputs into the development of human beings (especially those which nurture human development directly) must be understood as production. Further, the conceptions that guide production must themselves be produced. The goals that guide production are distinguishing characteristics of societies. In capitalism, they are the goals of the individual capitalist — profits; in a society of associated producers, though, they are the explicit goals for self-development of people in that society. Only through a process in which people are involved in making the decisions which affect them at every relevant level (i.e., their neighbourhoods, communities and society as a whole) — can the goals which guide productive activity be the goals of the people themselves. Through their involvement in this democratic decision-making, people transform both their circumstances and themselves — they produce themselves as subjects in the new society.

This combination of democratic development of goals and democratic execution of those goals is essential because, through it, people are able to understand the links between their activities and between themselves. Transparency is the rule in the society of associated producers: it is always clear who has decided what is to be done and how that is being carried out. With transparency the basis for solidarity is strengthened. Understanding our interdependence makes it easier to see our common interests, a unity based upon recognition of our different needs and capacities. We see that our productivity is the result of combining our different capabilities and that our unity and the common ownership of the means of production make us all the beneficiaries of our common efforts. These are the conditions in which all the fruits of cooperation flow abundantly, and we can focus on what is truly important — creation of the conditions in which development of all human powers is the end in itself.

All of these characteristics and relations coexist simultaneously and support one another in the world we want to build. Democratic decision-making within the workplace (instead of capitalist direction and supervision), democratic direction by the community of the goals of activity (in place of direction by capitalists), production for the purpose of satisfying needs (rather than for the purpose of exchange), common ownership of the means of production (rather than private or group ownership), a democratic, participatory and protagonistic form of governance (rather than a state over and above society), solidarity based upon recognition of our common humanity (rather than self-orientation), the focus upon development of human potential (rather than upon the production of things) — all these are limbs of a new organic system, the truly human society.

But, how can we build this world?

The Process of Socialist Construction

Socialism doesn’t drop from the sky. It is necessarily rooted in particular societies. And, that is why reliance upon detailed universal models misleads us. (Think about how many left criticisms of the Bolivarian Revolution have their origin in the fact that it differs from the early Soviet Union!) Every society has its unique characteristics — its unique histories, traditions (including religious and indigenous ones), its mythologies, its heroes who have struggled for a better world and the particular capacities that people have developed in the process of struggle. Since we are talking about a process of human development and not abstract recipes, we understand that we proceed most surely when we choose our own path, one which people recognise as their own (rather than the pale imitation of someone else).

We all start the process of socialist construction, too, from different places in terms of levels of economic development — and, that clearly affects how much of our initial activity (if we are dependent upon our own resources) must be devoted to the future. How different, too, are the situations of societies depending on the strength of their domestic capitalist classes and oligarchies, their degree of domination by global capitalist forces and the extent to which they are able to draw upon the support and solidarity of other societies which have set out on a socialist path.

Further, the historical actors who start us on the way may be quite different in each case. Here, a highly-organised working class majority (as in the recipe books of previous centuries); there — a peasant army, a vanguard party, a national-liberation bloc (electoral or armed), army rebels, an anti-poverty alliance and variations too numerous to name or yet to emerge. We would be pedantic fools if we insisted that there is only one way to start the social revolution.

However, to construct a socialist society in reality, one step in every particular path is critical — control and transformation of the state. Without the removal of state power from capitalist control, every real threat to capital will be destroyed. The capitalist state is an essential support for the reproduction of capitalist social relations; and the army, police, legal system and economic resources of the state will be mobilized to stifle every particular inroad which can not be absorbed. Capital always uses the power of its state when challenged.

In contrast, a state determined to serve as the midwife of a new society can both restrict the conditions for the reproduction of capital and open the door to the elements of the new society. Winning ‘the battle of democracy’ and 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. By ensuring that the means of production come into the possession of the associated producers and are governed increasingly according to their logic and by using state mechanisms to channel resources away from the old and to the new, the workers’ state is an essential weapon for carrying out the struggle against capital.

Yet, as Marx knew, this process requires a special kind of state — not the inherited form of state which stands over and above society and is ‘a public force organized for social enslavement’. The state itself must be transformed into one subordinate to society, into the ‘self-government of the producers’. Without creating power from below, rather than the self-development which is at the core of the society of the associated producers, the tendency will be the emergence of a class over and above us — a class which identifies progress with the ability to control and direct from above.

It is important to recognize that Marx did not understand at first that the working class could not use ‘the ready-made state machinery… for its own purposes.’ But, he learned from history. In particular, he learned that workers in the Paris Commune had spontaneously discovered the necessary form of the workers’ state — a democratic and decentralised state from below. “All France, ‘ Marx commented, would have been organized into self-working and self-governing communes.’ And, he responded to the anarchist Bakunin’s doubts about the workers’ state: Yes, all members of society would really be members of government ‘because the thing starts with self-government of the township.’ Marx immediately recognised the insight of the workers of Paris because ‘revolutionary practice’ was at the core of his vision.

Revolutionary Practice

For many socialists of the 19th Century, the way to create the new society was to extract people from capitalism and to demonstrate that a non-capitalist alternative was a superior form of social and economic arrangement; and, those who argued this often looked to philanthropists or the state to provide the funds for these new demonstration projects. For Marx, such proposals, though, reflected a time when the horrors of capitalism were apparent but not the basis for going beyond capital.

Marx didn’t reject the goals of the Utopians. Rather, he argued that ‘only the means are different and the real conditions of the movement are no longer clouded in utopian fables.’ And, what was that different means that Marx described? ‘The militant organization of the working class.’

Look to what working people are doing, Marx argued. Through their own struggles to satisfy their needs, they reveal that the battle for a new society is conducted by struggling within capitalism rather than by looking outside. In those struggles workers come to recognise their common interests, they come to understand the necessity to join together against capital. It was not simply, though, the formation of a bloc opposed to capital which emerges out of these struggles. Marx consistently stressed that the very process of struggle was a process of producing people in an altered way; in struggling for their needs, ‘they acquire a new need—the need for society — and what appears as a means becomes an end.’ They transform themselves into subjects capable of altering their world.

This is what Marx identified as ‘revolutionary practice’ — ‘the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change.’ Marx’s message to workers, he noted at one point, was that you have to go through years of struggle ‘not only in order to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves’. Over 20 years later, too, he wrote that workers know that ‘they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’ In short, the means of achieving that new society was inseparable from the process of struggling for it — only in motion could people rid themselves of ‘all the muck of ages’.

Socialism, for this reason, could never be delivered to people from above. It is the work of the working class itself, Marx argued. That is why the Paris Commune was so important for him. Once we understand that people produce themselves through their own activity, it follows that only where the state as mediator for (and power over) workers gives way to the ‘self-government of the producers’ is there a continuous process whereby workers can change both circumstances and themselves.

Through a democratic revolution, revolutionary practice permits the self-development of people in all spheres and ensures the conditions for the growth of their capacities. We can judge the progress along that path of socialist construction by the growth in the capacity for self-management by workers, of democratic, participatory and protagonistic self-government by people in their communities and society as a whole, by the development of real solidarity among people.

When we understand the goal of this process — that society which allows for the full development of human potential, there is a simple question that can be posed of all efforts (regardless of their differing histories and situations). Are the new productive relations being built? The real measure as to whether we are going where we want to go is whether the steps being taken strengthen or weaken the new relation of associated producers. The only true foundation for the new society is the development of self-confidence and unity of the working class, its self-development. Without that, we are building castles in the sand.

Building Socialism of the 21st Century

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 life-styles 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 Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize for 2004, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. He is Director, Programme in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela.

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