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Latin America & Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes

Marta Harnecker is a Chilean psychologist, writer, journalist and among the most prominent investigators and analysts of the experience of social transformation in Latin America. She was a student of Louis Althusser, translated his two most important works into Spanish, and is one of the key proponents of his ideas.

After her return to Chile in 1968 she began a life-long process of spreading the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, specifically in forms most likely to be of use in the training of revolutionary workers and peasants.

She is the author of more than eighty books, all of which can be found online at Her first book was Los conceptos elementales del materialismo histórico (The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism), which was published in 1969, and has been republished in sixty-six editions and translated into French, English, Portuguese, and Greek. A revised and expanded version was published in 1985.

After the imperialist counter-revolutionary coup against Allende in Chile in 1973, she moved to Cuba where she became Director of the research center “Memoria Popular Latinoamericana” in Havana.

Since the 1980s, she has dedicated a great part of her time to collecting the testimony of revolutionaries. Her book Haciendo camino al andar, which brings together various experiences of popular participation at the local government level in Latin America (Brazil, Venezuela, and Uruguay), won the 2006 National Book Prize in Venezuela.

She now lives in Caracas, Venezuela. Based at the Centro Internacional Miranda research institute, she serves as an advisor to various Venezuelan institutions. Among her recent publications is Hugo Chávez Frías: un hombre, un pueblo (2002), published in English by Monthly Review Press as Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks with Marta Harnecker (2005).

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank all who, in various ways, have helped to make this book possible. Special thanks go to my partner Michael Lebowitz many of whose ideas have been incorporated into this book; to my assistants Fred Fuentes, Militza Pérez, and Roselia Martínez; and to Janet Duckworth and to the comrades of the Centro Internacional Miranda.


Twenty years ago, left forces in Latin America and in the world in general were going through a difficult period. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union hurtled into an abyss and disappeared completely by the end of 1991. Deprived of the rearguard it needed, the Sandinista Revolution was defeated at the polls in February 1990, and Central American guerrilla movements were forced to demobilize. The only country that kept the banners of revolution flying was Cuba, although all the omens said that its days were numbered. Given that situation, it was difficult to imagine that twenty years later, left-wing leaders would govern most of the Latin American countries.

The defeat of Soviet socialism created a difficult situation for the Latin American left, especially the Marxist-Leninist left. During the 1980s, the latter learned a lot from the dictatorships in the Southern Cone and from the various forms of resistance that arose to fight them. Marxist-Leninists also learned from the struggles of Central American and Colombian guerrilla movements, and were beginning to eliminate a series of deviations and errors they had made in the 1960s and ’70s because of their uncritical adoption of the Bolshevik party model. I cannot go into this subject here, but there is a thorough examination of it in my book Rebuilding the Left.

I shall limit myself here to a brief mention of some of those deviations: (a) vanguardism, verticalism, and authoritarianism [through which the direction of the movement, the duties of the leadership, the platform of struggle, were all resolved by orders from the party, thereby trickling down to the social movement in question, which was thus prevented from participating in the planning of those things in its greatest interest*]; (b) theoryism and dogmatism, which led to strategism [great strategic goals were planned, e.g., the struggle for national liberation and socialism, but without any concrete analysis of the historical conditions]; and (c) a distorted “subjectivism” [reification of the historical subject] in analyzing reality—inappropriate strategies and tactics were used, based on an inability to see the historical uniqueness of the revolutionary social subject. (This included neglecting the struggles of ethnic and cultural movements and of popular revolutionary Christianity.) Other errors included thinking of revolution as an attack on power by a militant minority, which would then use the state to solve the people’s problems, not putting a high enough value on democracy. This even reached the point where a distinction was made between revolutionary forces and democratic forces, and the adjective “democratic” was applied to social-democratic allies, as if revolutionary forces weren’t democratic.1

In the decade prior to the defeat of Soviet socialism, leftists began to overcome these mistakes. I should like to mention here two other factors that also had an influence on the left’s maturing process. The first of these was the pedagogical vision of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. This engendered an important popular education movement in several of our countries, which clashed with the classic conception of left parties as a “vanguard,” current at the time. These parties were wont to consider that they owned the truth. The second were feminist ideas that emphasized respect for difference and rejected authoritarianism.

The first to assimilate these ideas and visions were the Central American politico-military movements. The Sandinista Revolution demonstrated the freshness of this new way of looking at things by the way it operated politically on its way to victory, appointing radical priests as ministers in the new revolutionary government, and by its political pluralism. A communist Salvadoran guerrilla comandante, Jorge Schafik Handal, was the first to insist that the new Latin American revolutionary subject could not be just the working class, that there were new revolutionary social subjects, and that, therefore, the revolutionary process could not be led by communists alone—that all these new subjects had to be included. A Guatemalan guerrilla group, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, was the first political organization to include indigenous people and to consider them to be the fundamental driving force of the revolution.

Thus, people began to understand that the new political organization had to be committed to society and to be immersed in the popular sectors. It had to overcome the tendency to homogenize the social base where it operates, by engaging in unity in diversity and respect for ethnic, cultural, gender, and other differences. They also began to understand that this respect for difference implied changing the language used, adapting the content and varying the form for different subjects, and that today, in the information and image era, audiovisual language is extremely important.

They decided to go beyond hegemonism [that is, imposing leadership from above, taking over positions and giving orders to the rest], and beyond the steamroller politics that impose lines and actions by force. They began to understand that it was a question of winning hegemony, that is, that wider and ever wider sectors of society accept as their own the policies of the given political organization.

The left matured, as well, in its relationship with the popular movements when it understood that they must not be treated simply as transmission belts for party decisions but must have increasing autonomy, so they can develop their own agendas for struggle. The left also began to understand that its role is to coordinate various agendas and not to elaborate one single agenda from above. It has come to see that its role is to give orientation, to facilitate, and to march together with, but not to replace, movements, and that a verticalist attitude that squashes people’s initiative must be eliminated. It now understands that it has to learn to listen, to make correct diagnoses of the people’s state of mind, and to listen carefully to the solutions suggested by the people. The left has also realized that, in order to help people to be, and to feel that they are, protagonists, it must move from the style of a verticalist military leader to one of a popular educator, able to release the power of all the wisdom the people have stored up.

In reaching the conclusion to abandon the workerist approach, which is only concerned with the working class, the left came to understand that the new political instrument must respect the plurality of the new subject and take on the defense of all discriminated social sectors: women, indigenous peoples, black people, young people, children, pensioners, people of diverse sexual orientations, people with disabilities, and others. The left realized that the point is not to recruit for one’s political organization. Rather than clasping to its bosom all the legitimate representatives of those who struggle for emancipation, the organization should be a body that coordinates all their different lives into a single project.

Finally, the left understood that democracy is one of the most beloved banners of the people, and that the struggle for democracy cannot be separated from the struggle for socialism because it is only under socialism that democracy can develop fully.2

If we keep this history in mind, I think we can better comprehend what has happened in Latin America in recent decades. Part one serves as an introduction to our discussion of twenty-first century socialism.


  1. *Bracket material has been added in the interest of clarity by the Monthly Review editors.
  1. Marta Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left (London: Zed Books Ltd., 2007), 45 et seq.
  2. A broader development of this idea can be found in Rebuilding the Left, 81 et seq.