(Reprinted from the November/December 1997 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas. For subscription information, email NACLA at nacla at nacla.org)
Twentieth century socialism is moribund. In the Americas, socialist- oriented movements were dealt severe blows by the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, the general impasse of Central American revolutionary movements, and the crisis of Cuban Communism with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Radical grassroots movements, as Judith Hellman noted in a previous anniversary essay, have by no means disappeared in the Americas, but those that enunciate socialist goals are few and far between.1
Can socialism be reborn? And if so, what might it look like? Over the years NACLA has played a critical role in reporting and analyzing the four major socialist or neo-socialist experiences in the Americas-Cuba, Chile, Grenada and Nicaragua. The latter two were not self-proclaimed socialist experiments, but the processes were anti-imperialist and the governments enacted policies designed to alleviate or eliminate economic and social inequalities. Moreover, the dominant political parties of these two revolutions-the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the New Jewel Party-were powerfully imbued with socialist concepts and ideals.
The reasons for the failure or demise of each of these experiences are varied, although if there is one overriding cause it is that U.S. imperialism proved to be very flexible and adaptive, developing a variety of interventionary strategies in the economic, social and political spheres. Interestingly, it was not direct U.S. military intervention that defeated them. The 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was an abysmal failure and led to the consolidation of Cuban socialism, while the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 came only after the revolutionary movement had self-destructed and executed its own leaders.
My general thesis is that twentieth century socialism has been defeated for two contradictory reasons. In those socialist experiments that were the most democratic, like Chile from 1970 to 1973, the United States was able to exploit relatively open political and economic processes to destroy them from within. On the other hand, in those centralized and verticalist socialist projects such as Cuba, the lack of authentic democratic processes weakened their popular support and led to the implementation of inefficient state-dominated economies. This provided grist for the ongoing U.S. ideological campaign against Communism and socialism.
Yet before a new socialism can be postulated, we need to understand the nature of late capitalism and imperialism as we approach the new millennium. Here, I maintain the starting point is that capitalism in recent years has undergone an epochal shift with globalization.2 Briefly stated, those who view globalization as a new stage of capitalism argue that the economies of the world are now integrated under the aegis of transnational capital and that the nation state is losing much of its autonomy to international institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The state is still a very powerful entity, but now it responds to the needs of transnational capital rather than national interests.
In a sense this newness is a matter of degree. A century and a half ago, Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto that capital was an inherently universalizing system that continually internationalized itself, breaking down regional and national barriers as it advanced. Certainly this process has deepened since Marx's time, but for over a century, the Manifesto's corollary-the growth of an international struggle for socialism generated by the expansion of capital and its contradictions- has been undermined by the nation state and its ability to coopt the working class into national and chauvinist conflicts among nations. Yet with globalization, the conditions that facilitated the cooptation of national working classes are changing, and we are seeing the emergence of an array of social movements, many of which have internationalist perspectives.
For socialists, the epochal shift to globalization also means that the historical argument of Lenin and other Marxists that imperialism nurtured a labor aristocracy is losing its validity. In the era of globalization, transnational capital is now free to roam the world, tapping the cheapest labor markets, thereby undermining wages and the standards of living in the core countries. The two wealthiest countries in the Western Hemisphere-the United States and Canada-have experienced a growing economic polarization and a decline of the influence of their working classes and trade unions. These processes have also had adverse effects on the middle classes of these nations. Both the United States and Canada have become "third worldized" due to the pauperization of certain sectors and the expansion of immigration from the Third World-a phenomenon also related to the process of globalization.
Simultaneously as capital becomes increasingly internationalized, it incorporates Third World elites into its fold. NACLA's recent Report on Latin American billionaires documented the extent of this process.3 These elites now view their interests in an international context and are increasingly opposed to national, protectionist policies-policies once favored by important sectors of the bourgeoisies in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
The shift to globalization has also altered the political paradigm that the
core countries are advocating for the Third World. As William Robinson shows in "Promoting Polyarchy," the United States has turned against many of the dictators it once nurtured, and has adopted a policy of supporting, and even imposing, controlled democracies in order to integrate the third world into a global neoliberal economy.4 The effort to oust Pinochet in Chile was the first manifestation of this new policy approach in the hemisphere. More recently, the invasion of Haiti to reinstall Jean-Bertrand Aristide served as a dramatic illustration of this policy shift. In general, the United States and the other imperial powers now recognize that dictators can be politically unstable and may not provide the best terrain for the advance of free trade and transnational capital.
Of course this approach does not prevent the United States from endorsing pseudo-democracies such as the Fujimori regime, which shut down Peru's Congress in 1992, ruled by emergency decree and then adopted a new constitution that granted President Fujimori virtual dictatorial powers. But it is important to note that even in these instances, the regimes do hold referendums and elections that give them a certain sense of legitimacy, both domestically and internationally.
The implications of this epochal shift for the future of socialism and socialist struggles are many. For one, it means that it will never again be
effective for socialists to build their movements around a verticalist Marxist-Leninist state or political party. Imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism, is now extremely adept at using the language, and even the basic forms of democracy to advance the interests of the transnational elites. Radical movements for change can only be successful to the extent that they are able to demonstrate that they are more democratic in their struggles and goals than the neoliberal democratic paradigm. In particular, they need to continually demonstrate that capitalist democracy is insufficient; that true democracy extends to the economic arena; and that the unregulated market advocated by neoliberals is incompatible with authentic democracy.5
Despite the limitations of capitalist democracy, the growing awareness among socialists of the importance of transparent elections and basic political freedoms explains why Cuba in recent years has ceased to serve as a model for socialist struggles in the Americas. It is not the economic difficulties Cuba is experiencing nor the U.S. blockade that has weakened the appeal of Cuba. In fact, Cuba's economic plight was much more severe in the late 1960s than it is today. But in the 1960s the revolution enjoyed extensive popular support because Cubans then had a sense of participation in the political and economic life of their country. It was during the 1970s that the Cuban Communist party and the state consolidated control over virtually all facets of the economy and exercised centralized control of the trade unions, the educational system and "mass organizations."
In recent years in Cuba there has been a devolution of many state enterprises to worker and peasant run cooperatives, particularly in the agricultural sphere. Few steps, however, have been taken to democratize the country as a whole, as Fidel Castro and the party insist on retaining total political power. The Cuban variant of socialism may survive into the foreseeable future, but until the political system opens up, the revolution will remain in a largely defensive position, unable to provide inspiration for a renewal of socialism in the Americas.
The Sandinista revolutionary leadership understood to a certain extent that the old socialist paradigm of single-party states was no longer viable and that democratic elections were necessary. Thus the Sandinistas, instead of monopolizing political power, brought other parties into the process in a coalition government and began holding open elections in 1984. But the Sandinista revolution was caught between the new and the old. While allowing pluralist elections, the FSLN was a vanguard party with a "national directorate" that exercised tight control not only over the party but also over the affiliated "mass" or social movements.
On the economic front, the Sandinistas advocated a "mixed economy," wherein some enterprises were controlled by the state while others remained in the hands of private interests. Those economic and political spheres that remained autonomous were thus in a position to undermine or sabotage Sandinista initiatives. In the end, the United States and its allies inside and outside of Nicaragua proved to be adept at tarring the Sandinistas with the "totalitarian" brush while manipulating public opinion and civil society. They forged a counterrevolutionary bloc comprised of a number of political parties, civic and business organizations, the Catholic hierarchy, and even trade unions and sectors of the peasantry. This bloc brought Violeta Chamorro to power in 1990.
Can the most democratic socialist experience in the Americas, Chile of the early 1970s, serve as a model for the future? Here it was not verticalism or the lack of democracy that debilitated the Popular Unity coalition, but the "invisible blockade" of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.6 The blockade undermined the economy, destabilized the political system, and laid the basis for the U.S.-backed coup by General Pinochet.
The government of Salvador Allende made one fatal mistake-it's failure in mid-1973 to retain General Prats as head of the military and to purge the officers who were conspiring against him. Such a move would also probably have required the arming of working-class civilians and the overnight creation of popular militias to fight with the loyalist sectors of the military. However, as Allende realized, a decision to back Prats with these measures would have provoked a civil war and required the suspension of the Chilean parliament and constitution. These measures were abhorrent to Allende and to most of the parties of the Popular Unity coalition, given their deep commitment to maintaining Chile's democratic institutions. It was this paradoxical choice between maintaining the Popular Unity's commitment to democratic institutions and procedures and the need to take military steps to destroy the opposition that makes Chile the most tragic socialist experience in the Americas and perhaps in the history of twentieth century socialism.
Many of the socialist leaders who survived the Pinochet years now argue that the economic policies of Allende's Popular Unity government may never have been viable. For some of them, especially those who have been incorporated into the center-left government led by the Christian Democrats, policies that would nationalize sectors of the economy are even more problematic in the era of globalization because any efforts to restrict or control the flow of international capital by a given government are immediately met by capital flight and economic crisis. This argument of leftists against any effort to revive such state socialist policies is perhaps best encapsulated in Jorge Castaneda's book, Utopia Unarmed, which argues that the left has to accept "the logic of the market" and limit itself to choosing what type of capitalist system it buys into-neoliberalism or the "social market" of Western Europe or Japan.7
While any economic alternative will have to deal with the realities of the global market, we cannot limit ourselves to choosing one variant of capitalism over another. The development of a new economic model is key to the resurrection of the left. Any new approach, of course, cannot be simply willed into existence; it will have to emerge out of concrete, ongoing economic and political struggles.
At this point in history, the left, instead of lamenting the lack of "grand
narratives" and an explicit economic alternative, can draw inspiration from the fact that there are so many local, unconnected movements occurring throughout the Americas. As James Petras points out in a recent essay, for example, there is a renewed insurgency among the peasantry of Latin America, as demonstrated by the landless movement in Brazil, the struggles of the coca farmers in Bolivia, and the Zapatista movement of Chiapas.8
These struggles are more than defensive. The landless movement in Brazil is developing alternative economic projects and securing limited international funding, often from non-governmental organizations. As for the Zapatistas of Mexico, a central plank of their struggle is that the indigenous communities of Chiapas are entitled to the resources necessary to carry out their own autonomous economic development. These are important self-help approaches, calculated to develop alternative, viable economies at the local and regional level.9
In fact these local and regional initiatives can be viewed as part of a deeper long-term process of creating alternatives to modern capitalism. Here it is important to recognize that the globalization process of transnational capital is both centripetal and centrifugal. It concentrates and integrates capital and trade, while at the same time casting off industries, peoples and even countries that it has no use for.
In the parts of the world that capitalism discards, a new mode of production is taking hold, which is comprised of what can be called "popular economies," or what we have elsewhere referred to as "postmodern economies."10 These economies do not and cannot compete head to head with transnational capital in the globalization process. Rather they lurk on the sidelines, seizing those activities that the transnational world decides to dispose of. This historic process resembles the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Then capitalism first took hold in feudalism's nooks and crannies, slowly gathering momentum until it became the dominant form of production.
The new popular or postmodern economies are still incipient in Latin America and other parts of the world, comprised of highly differentiated activities and economic islands that rise out of what capitalism discards. The most extensive of the economies, particularly in Latin America, consists of the informal sector-the ever more numerous street vendors, the flea markets, petty family businesses, and even garbage scavengers who recycle aluminum cans, cardboard and bottles while using what they can of the refuse. On a larger scale, the struggles of peasants and workers in post-Sandinista Nicaragua are reflective of another kind of popular economy: the selling off of large but weak enterprises to worker and peasant cooperatives. Over 350 enterprises of all sizes and types are now owned and run by the workers, many of which were controlled by the state under the Sandinista government. When the Chamorro government began to sell them off as part of the privatization process demanded by the IMF and World Bank, the workers on many of these enterprises simply occupied them, and/or began to negotiate for taking control of them. Today there is a national association of worker-run enterprises that facilitates their development and access to technical assistance and capital while lobbying with the government and the banks for their growth and expansion into new areas of the economy.11
All these areas of postmodern economic activity are growing in importance in Latin America and the Caribbean, not because they can compete in any significant way with transnational capital, but because they are the only option available to ever-increasing numbers of people. A subcontractor for a large corporation, a refuse scavenger, a worker- run cooperative, a micro-entrepreneur in the informal economy, a peasant or a street vendor-none of them abandon their activities because there is little else they can do to survive. While none of this constitutes socialism, these are all proto-socialist activities because they represent efforts by people to take control of their lives at the most fundamental, grassroots level.
The postmodern economies and their participants will continue to grow in importance because global capitalism excludes more and more people, and also because of inherent crises and contradictions within the system itself. Clearly these new economies need to advance in tandem with alternative political movements and with the struggles of workers and peasants. Popular economies can survive and grow even in the midst of a globalized world only if people become increasingly conscious of their need to struggle for them-building a "new politics" along with new economic activities.
Here the EZLN and the Zapatistas in Chiapas are particularly illustrative of how this process can unfold. Their political and economic demands are focused largely on the needs of Chiapas and its indigenous peoples. This is probably the first national liberation movement that did not proclaim as its objective a march on the capital city and the seizure of state power. Rather the Zapatistas have centered on civil society as the agent of change, calling for the mobilization of a wide array of civic associations and organizations to demand authentic economic and political democracy. The strength of the Zapatistas has not come from the "barrel of a gun"-in fact at times they have had only wooden guns- but from their ability to wage a political-ideological war against Mexico's ruling party and the state.
In the introduction to the recent NACLA Report, "Voices on the Left," which contained interviews with activists from around the hemisphere, the NACLA editors note the remarkable reality that "that in this age of doubt and cynicism, the activists interviewed maintain a radical commitment and enthusiasm." In the interviews with these activists, all of whom are "engaged in the struggles of their times and places," the editors note an emphasis "on democratic modes of development, mass participation in politics and structural, 'achievable' reforms."12
In other articles, I have argued that this constitutes a new, postmodern politics, a politics that is leading to the rise of postmodern socialisms.13 It is a socialism of place, a socialism with a local agenda, a socialism with a hundred faces and experiences, a socialism without a name or a grand narrative at present. The genius of these struggles is that every effort to raise consciousness or to develop self-help projects at the local level is innately part of the long-term process of building new socialisms. As Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas remarks, the Zapatista rebels "emerged without faces because they represent many unseen faces from elsewhere which are now emerging as new subjects."14 They exist here and now, even if socialism is not mentioned and capitalism retains control of the global economy and the formal political systems.
The concept of postmodern socialisms will not become a banner that people fight and die for; rather the term is a conceptual framework for viewing the diverse struggles that are growing throughout the hemisphere and the rest of the world. These movements over a period of time will have to frame and characterize their struggles from the ground up, creating local, regional and international ties to other struggles and movements. Only they have the capacity to create a grand new narrative capable of challenging capitalist globalization and replacing the state socialism of the twentieth century with a new emancipatory project.
1. Judith Adler Hellman, "Social Movements: Revolution, Reform and Reaction," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 6, May/June, 1997, pp. 13-18.
2. Roger Burbach, "Globalization as an Epochal Shift," paper presented to the International Conference on Critical Geography, Vancouver, Canada, August 10-14, 1997.
3. See "Latin America in the Age of the Billionaires," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 6, May/June, 1997.
4. William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
5. For an extensive discussion of democracy and its relationship to neoliberalism and the struggles of the left, see Steve Volk's anniversary essay "'Democracy' Versus 'Democracy,'" NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 4, Jan/Feb, 1997, pp. 6-12.
6. See especially one of NACLA's most important groundbreaking reports, Elizabeth Farnsworth, Richard Feinberg and Eric Leenson, "Facing the Blockade," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. TK, No. TK, October 1972.
7. Jorge G. Castenada, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 432.
8. See James Petras, "The Peasantry Strikes Back," New Left Review, No. 223, May/June, 1997, pp. 17-47.
9. While Petras argues for a revived peasant movement in Latin America, it is clear from his article that he does not believe the NGO's are useful in this process, nor does he place hope in the building of alternative economies among the peasantry as this essay does.
10. For an extended discussion of postmodern economies and postmodern socialisms, see Roger Burbach, Orlando Nunez, and Boris Kagarlitsky, Globalization And Its Discontents: The Rise of Postmodern Socialisms (London: Pluto Press, 1997). Orlando Nunez develops the concept of the popular economy in: La economia popular: asociativa y autogestionaria, (Managua: CIPRES, 1995).
11. Orlando Nunez, La Economia Popular, pp. 289-312.
12. "Voices on the Left," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 31, No. 1, July/August, 1997, pp. 5-6.
13. Globalization And Its Discontents, See especially Chapter 9, "The Long Transition To Postmodern Socialisms," pp. 153-169.
14. "Voices on the Left" NACLA Report on the Americas, p. 5.
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