by Michael A Lebowitz
On the occasion of the presentation of El socialismo no cae del cielo: un nuevo comienzo at the 2010 Havana Book Fair, 18 February 2010
The Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela incorporates this concept. It stresses that the goal of society must be the full development of every human being and that participation and protagonism is "the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective." In 2007, President Chavez of Venezuela reinforced this vision by introducing what he called "the elementary triangle of socialism." Social ownership of the means of production, social production organized by workers, and production for social needs and purposes make up this triangle.
This is the vision of the society we want to build. This is where we want to go. And if we don't know that, no road will take us there. However, knowing where you want to go is not enough. It's not true that if you do know where you want to go, any road will take you there. Isn't there a relationship between the goal and the road you take to get there? Are these independent of each other? For example, can you get to the goal by going in the opposite direction? Do you build social ownership by relying upon capitalist ownership of the means of production and the capitalist monopoly of our social heritage and of the products of our labor? Do you build a society of associated producers and social production by preventing decision-making by workers and retaining the gap between thinking and doing? Do you build a society based upon solidarity, where production is for social needs, by stressing selfishness? In other words, do you go forward by going backwards?
Maybe. Maybe sometimes it is necessary. Socialism does not fall from the sky. It is necessarily rooted in particular societies. We all start from different places -- in our development, in our histories. Therefore, there cannot be one single path. All paths will be different. Some will be longer than others. Some will be relatively straight, while others will require switchbacks because of the obstacles along the road. As we have learned, the biggest mistake is thinking that there is one road and one model.
I agree with that in principle. But I also believe that we need to learn from historical experience that the party is not itself immune, that it does not stand outside society and thus does not always point to the true North. This was certainly the case, for example, in Hungary, Yugoslavia, and China. And, not only there. I have just returned from an intense month in Vietnam. There is no question in my mind that, under the conditions facing Vietnam in the 1980s, it was essential for them to make a significant change in the path they were on.
By developing an economy which they describe as a market economy with a socialist orientation, they have succeeded in lifting their people from significant poverty. Whereas previously people were facing starvation, now Vietnam exports food. This is a very important achievement. They have also begun a process of industrialization.
However, there are serious problems. Young people are overwhelmingly oriented toward capitalism. They say openly that Vietnam needs more foreign investment, and they credit that foreign investment with ending poverty. They want capitalism, and they look upon Marxism as having no relevance to their lives. I stress this point because the students we met were not selected randomly. They came largely from the young communists.
And the dominant views increasingly are in fact no different from those in other countries in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Malaysia, and other nearby countries relying upon foreign investment and export-oriented industrialization are the basis of constant comparison in Vietnam. In other words, capitalism is winning in Vietnam. There is growing inequality, there is the emergence of millionaires (not as many as in China so far), and there is a significant process of privatization of state-owned industry (which is called equitization).
There is an infection in Vietnam, and the party is not immune to that infection. I suspect that the next Party Congress will involve a struggle over this direction. Some party leaders are very worried about these tendencies. Certainly, the direction of change in the party in recent congresses has been to strengthen capitalist tendencies -- for example, they have removed the prohibition on membership in the party by capitalists.
Something has been missing in Vietnam. Missing so far has been a sufficient emphasis upon that participation and protagonism that is "the necessary way" to ensure the complete development of human beings, "both individually and collectively." While there has been some focus upon grassroots democracy (for example, in Ho Chi Minh City), there has been very little decision-making by workers in workplaces (outside of annual congresses in state-owned industry), and there has been little emphasis upon conscious production for social needs. And, the results are predictable. In the absence of social production organized by workers and production for social needs, the third side of the socialist triangle, social ownership, is withering away. And, increasingly, the human product is people who embrace the logic of capital.
I suggest that, through such a process of producing rich human beings with confidence and dignity, both the people and the party will be inoculated against the infection that can prevent us from reaching the socialist goal. That won't be achieved, however, by a one-sided focus upon developing productive forces. In short, we should never forget the essential insight of Che Guevara -- the necessity simultaneously to build productive forces and socialist human beings.