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Socialist Strategies in Latin America

Claudio Katz teaches economics at the University of Buenos Aires, does research at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (National Council of Scientific and Technical Research), and is a member of Economistas de Izquierda (Economists of the Left).
This essay originally appeared on and was translated from Spanish by Leonard Morin (ltmorin [at]

The Latin American left is once again discussing the paths to socialism. The correlation of forces has changed through popular action, the crisis of neoliberalism, and U.S. imperialism’s loss of offensive capability. It is no longer relevant to juxtapose a revolutionary political period of the past with a conservative present. The social weakness of the industrial working class does not impede anti-capitalist progress, which depends on the exploited and the oppressed uniting in common struggle.

What is crucial is the level of popular consciousness. The latter has forged new anti-liberal and anti-imperialist convictions, but an anti-capitalist link, which an open debate about twenty-first century socialism could foster, is still missing.

The constitutional framework that replaced the dictatorships does not impede the left’s development. But the left must avoid institutional co-optation without turning its back on the electoral process. Electoral participation can be made compatible with the promotion of people’s power.

Movements and parties fulfill a complementary function since social struggle is not self-sufficient and partisan organization is necessary. Yet it is essential to avoid sectarian posturing and to include immediate improvements as part of the revolutionary agenda. This principle governs all socialist strategy.

Socialist Strategies in Latin America

After several years of silence, strategic discussion is reemerging on the Latin American left, which once again is analyzing assessments and courses of action in order to advance toward the socialist goal. This reflection includes six major themes: material conditions, relationships of force, social subjects, popular consciousness, institutional frameworks, and organizing the oppressed.

Maturity of the Productive Forces

The first debate revisits a classic controversy. Have the productive forces in Latin America matured enough to permit undertaking an anti-capitalist transformation? Are the existing resources, technologies, and skills sufficient to initiate a socialist process?

The countries of the region are less prepared than the developed nations—but more pressed—to confront this change. They suffer more intense nutritional, educational, and sanitary disasters than the advanced economies, but have fewer material resources at their disposal to solve these problems. This paradox is the consequence of Latin America’s peripheral situation and its resulting agricultural backwardness, fragmentary industrialization, and financial dependence.

On the left there have been two traditional responses to this dilemma: promote a progressive capitalist stage, or initiate a socialist transition adapted to the region’s shortcomings. In a recent article I advocated the second option.1

But another equally important debate concerns the timeliness of this course. Recovering from a traumatic period of industrial slump and bank meltdown, Latin America is experiencing a phase of growth, boom in exports, and recovery of entrepreneurial profits. One could object that, under these conditions, there is no likelihood of a collapse that would justify anti-capitalist transformation.

But the socialist option is not a Keynesian program to turn around recessive market trends. It is a platform to overcome the exploitation and inequality inherent in capitalism. It seeks to abolish poverty and unemployment, eradicate environmental disasters, and put an end to the nightmares of war and the financial cataclysms that enrich a minuscule percentage of millionaires at the expense of millions of individuals.2

This polarization is evident in current Latin American market trends. The rise in profits and consumption of the well-to-do contrasts with terrifying indices of extreme poverty. These misfortunes that justify the battle for socialism become more visible in the pit of a recession. But situations of collapse do not furnish the only apt moment to uproot the system. The anti-capitalist turn is an option open for an entire epoch and can begin at different moments in the economic cycle. The experience of the twentieth century confirms this possibility.

No socialist revolution ever coincided with the depths of a financial crisis. In the majority of cases, it erupted as a consequence of war, colonial occupation, or dictatorial oppression. It was under such conditions that the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Mao succeeded in China, Tito prevailed in Yugoslavia, the Vietnamese drove out the United States, and the Cuban revolution triumphed. Many of these victories were consummated at the height of a postwar boom, that is, during a stage of intense capitalist growth. No mechanism, therefore, shackles the debut of socialism to an economic collapse. The misery that capitalism generates is sufficient to inspire the overthrow of this system in any phase of its periodic fluctuations.

Only catastrophist theorists see an unwavering link between socialism and financial meltdown. This supposed connection forms part of their habitual portrayal of capitalism as a system that always operates on the verge of final collapse. Waiting for this fall, they identify any banking slump as a global depression, and they confuse a simple stock market downturn with a general crash. These exaggerations ignore the basic workings of the system that they intend to uproot and make it impossible to tackle any of the problems of socialist transition.3

Globalization and Small Countries

One objection to the initiation of socialist processes emphasizes the impediments that globalization creates. It argues that the current internationalization of capital makes an anti-capitalist challenge impracticable in Latin America.4

But where exactly is the obstacle rooted? Globalization does not constitute a barrier to the socialist project, which has universal reach. Expansion across borders amplifies capitalism’s imbalances and creates greater objective bases for overcoming it.

Only those who conceive of the construction of socialism as a “competition between two systems” can view globalization as a great obstacle. This approach is a remnant of the theory of the “socialist camp” proclaimed by supporters of the old Soviet model. They gambled on defeating the enemy by means of a series of economic successes and geopolitical achievements, forgetting that one cannot defeat capitalism at its own game.

Peripheral—or less industrialized—economies in particular can never triumph in a competition with imperialist powers that have controlled the world market for centuries. The success of socialism requires a continuous sequence of processes that undermine global capitalism. Achieving socialism in a single country (or single bloc) is an illusion that repeatedly has led to subordinating the possibilities of revolutionary transformation to a diplomatic rivalry between two blocs of nations.

The portrayal of globalization as blocking the development of other models is an offshoot of the neoliberal vision, which proclaims the non-existence of alternatives to the right-wing path. But if one accepts this premise, one must also discard any scheme of regulated or Keynesian capitalism. It is incongruent to affirm that the totalitarianism of globalization has buried the anti-capitalist project, but that it tolerates interventionist regimes of accumulation. If one closes the first option, one also rules out chances for neo-developmentalist endeavors (since these depend on the power of the national state to resist externally imposed measures).

But since globalization is not in reality the end of history, every alternative remains open. What we are witnessing is merely a new period of accumulation, sustained by recovery of the rate of yield that the oppressed of every country pay. This regressive flow makes socialism an immediate necessity as the sole popular response to the new stage. Only socialism can correct the disorders created by the global expansion of capital in the current framework of financial speculation and imperialist polarization.

Many theorists recognize the global viability of the socialist option but question its feasibility in small Latin American countries. They believe that this beginning ought to be postponed—for example in Bolivia—some 30 or 50 years, to allow the prior formation of an “Andean-Amazonian capitalism.”5 But why 30 years and not 10 or 150? In the past, these time frames were associated with calculations of the emergence of national bourgeoisies in charge of carrying out the pre-socialist stage. But currently it is evident that the impediments to developing a competitive capitalist system in countries such as Bolivia are at least as great as the obstacles to initiating socialist transformations. One need merely imagine the concessions that the large foreign corporations would demand for participation in their project, and the conflicts that these commitments would generate with the popular majorities.

The difficulty is even greater if one conceives of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” as a model compatible with the reconstruction of indigenous communities.6 In any scheme that is driven by commercial competition, the abuses against these communities would persist. The step to socialism in countries as peripheral as Bolivia is complex, yet possible and desirable. It requires promoting a transition together with similar programs and alliances in other countries of Latin America.

What is the Correlation of Forces?

Socialist change depends on a balance of forces favorable to the oppressed. The popular majority cannot prevail over its antagonists if this balance is negative. But how does one evaluate this parameter?

The correlation of forces in Latin America is determined by the positions that are won, threatened, or lost by three sectors: the local capitalist classes, the mass of the oppressed, and U.S. imperialism. During the 1990s, capital carried out a global offensive against labor. This offensive weakened in the last few years, but it left a climate adverse to wage earners on an international scale. Nonetheless, in Latin America, one can note several peculiarities.

The capitalists actively participated in the neoliberal assault, but ended up suffering various side effects of this process. They lost competitive positions with the opening of markets and relinquished defenses against their external competitors with the denationalization of the productive apparatus. The financial crises also battered the establishment and reduced its direct political presence. The right thus ended up in the minority, and center-left governments have replaced many conservative governments in national administrations (especially in the Southern Cone). The capitalist elites no longer set the entire region’s agenda with impunity. A crisis of neoliberalism, which could lead to the structural decline of this project, has affected them.

Great popular upheavals, which precipitated the fall of several heads of state in South America, have also modified the regional relationship of forces. Uprisings in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Venezuela have affected the totality of the dominant classes. They have challenged ruling-class aggressiveness and have imposed in many countries a certain degree of accommodation with the masses.

The combative impulse differs widely. In certain countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Ecuador), one finds popular initiative (protagonismo), but in others (Brazil and Uruguay) there has been an ebb brought about by disappointments. What is new is the awakening of union and student struggles in countries that led the neoliberal ranking (Chile) and in countries asphyxiated by social abuses and the hemorrhage of emigrants (Mexico). The correlation of forces in Latin America varies greatly, but one can affirm a general surge of popular initiatives in the entire region.

At the start of the 1990s, U.S. imperialism embarked on the political recolonization of its backyard through free trade and the installation of military bases. This panorama also changed. The original version of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) failed because of three factors: (1) the conflicts between globalized corporations and those dependent on internal markets, (2) clashes between exporters and industrialists, and (3) widespread popular rejection. The counteroffensive through bilateral treaties launched by the State Department does not compensate for this setback.

Bush’s international isolation (the Republican electoral debacle, failure in Iraq, and the loss of allies in Europe) has left him less room for unilateralism and has incited the resurgence of geopolitical blocs adverse to the United States (such as the Non-Aligned Movement). The absence of a military response to the Venezuelan challenge is clearly symptomatic of this U.S. retreat.

The correlation of forces in Latin America has therefore undergone several significant changes. The dominant classes can no longer rely on their strategic neoliberal compass; the popular movement has recovered its street presence; and U.S. imperialism has forfeited its capacity to intervene.

The New Period

Changes in the domination from above, in the combativeness from below, and in the behavior of the external gendarme compel one to revise a common traditional diagnosis by various theorists of the left. This assessment tended to highlight the obstacles to socialism on the basis of a contrast between two stages: the favorable period that began with the Cuban Revolution (1959) and the unfavorable phase that opened with the fall of the Soviet Union (1989–91). The first cycle—revolutionary and anti-imperialist—gave way to the second phase of conservative regression.7 Is this scheme still valid?

The current political climate in many countries seems to contradict this vision at all three levels of the correlation of forces. First of all, the local capitalists have lost the aggressive confidence they had during the past decade. Unlike in the 1970s, they can no longer resort to dictatorial savagery. They have lost the instrument of the coup d’état as a means to avoid crisis and to crush popular rebellion with mass killings. In various countries, state terrorism persists (not only in Colombia but also in a selective form currently in Mexico), but in general, the establishment must accept a framework of institutional restrictions that they did not know in the past. This limitation constitutes a popular victory that works in favor of the exploited in the balance of forces.

Second, the intensity of the social struggles—measured by their magnitude and immediate political impact—has much in common with the resistances of the 1960s and 1970s. The uprisings that have occurred in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina, and the actions of students and the community rebellions in the entire region are comparable to the great upheavals of the past generation.

Third, the obstacles to intervention that imperialism confronts are very visible. While in the 1980s Reagan waged an open counterrevolutionary war in Central America, Bush has had to limit his operations in the region.

An analysis of the correlation of forces must take into account these three processes and avoid an outlook that pays attention only to the context at the top (relations between powers), omitting what happens below (social antagonisms). Such an outlook characterizes the traditional focus on the two stages, which sees a sharp break in regional history marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Based on this division, the socialist possibilities of the first period are idealized, and the anti-capitalist prospects of the second are minimized.

The existence or disappearance of the Soviet Union constitutes an element of the analysis that does not define the correlation of forces. It is worth remembering that a bureaucracy hostile to socialism commanded this regime long before its reconversion into a capitalist class. It confronted the United States in the international chess-game, but it supported anti-imperialist movements only as a function of its geopolitical interests. It was therefore not an engine of the anti-capitalist project. The differences with the ’70s exist and are significant, but they are not differences in the correlation of forces.

The Diversity of Subjects

The agents of a socialist transformation are the victims of capitalist domination, but the specific subjects of this process in Latin America are very diverse. In some regions the indigenous communities have played a leading role in the rebellions (Ecuador, Bolivia, and Mexico), and in others, campesinos have led the resistance (Brazil, Peru, and Paraguay). In certain countries, the protagonists have been urban wage laborers (Argentina and Uruguay) or precariously employed (in the Caribbean and Central America). Also striking are the new roles of the indigenous communities and the less influential roles of industrial unions. This multiplicity of sectors reflects the differentiated social structure and the political peculiarities of each country.

Yet this diversity also demonstrates the variety of participants in a socialist transformation. Since the development of capitalism expands the exploitation of wage labor and collateral forms of oppression, the potential agents of a socialist process are all of the exploited and oppressed. This role falls not only on the wage earners who directly generate business profits, but on all of the victims of capitalist inequality. What is essential is the convergence of these sectors in a common battle around constantly changing focal points of rebellion. Victory depends on such convergence against an enemy that dominates by dividing the popular camp.

In this struggle, certain segments of wage laborers tend to play a more influential role because of the place they occupy in vital branches of the economy (mining, factories, and banks). The capitalists benefit from the privations of all the dispossessed, but their earnings depend specifically on the direct labor efforts of the exploited.

This centrality is shown in the present phase of economic recovery, which tends to restore the significance of wage earners. In Argentina, the unions are regaining their influence on the street, in comparison to the role played by the unemployed and the middle class during the crisis of 2001. In Chile, the miners’ strikes are having an impact, in Mexico certain unions are growing in strength, and in Venezuela the influence exerted by the oil workers during their battle against golpismo (the attempted shutdown of the oil industry in 2002) persists.

Absent Subject?

Some theorists believe that currently “no subject exists to undertake socialism” in Latin America.8 Yet they do not clearly define what the missing conglomeration is. The implicit response is the weakness of the regional working class, which represents a reduced fraction of the population as a consequence of capitalist underdevelopment. This position argues for postponing the realization of socialism until a bigger and more extensive working class emerges.

But the development of contemporary capitalism is synonymous with high productivity, technological change, and the consequent spread of contingent work or unemployment. This evolution calls into question the traditional link between growing accumulation and massive increase of the industrial working class. If unemployment and informal labor make the battle for socialism impossible for now, they will also impede it in the future. It is evident that both scourges will continue to reinforce the army of the unemployed and the fragmentation of wage earners.

One must also bear in mind that an entirely uniform and homogenous proletariat has never existed and that the current expansion of the informal sector is an additional reason to favor socialism. The necessary actors for initiating this transformation are amply present in Latin America.

It is true that the working class does not possess the ideal profile for this change, yet neither does the bourgeoisie have perfect traits for capitalist development. For this reason, the neo-developmentalists intensely debate the degree to which this national business class exists and yet, whatever their conclusion, they never discard capitalism. For some theorists of the left, however, the quantitative limitations of the working class constitute grounds to argue for the postponement of socialism.

This difference of approach is instructive. While the dominant classes exhibit enormous flexibility in confronting adversities with different remedies (for example, increased state intervention), the response of some socialists is timid. They only see obstacles to the popular project, while their opponents attempt one model after another of capitalism.

With idealized conceptions of the industrial working class—as the sole architects of socialism—there will always be obstacles to conceptualizing an anti-capitalist agenda in the periphery. But if one abandons that narrow notion, there is no reason to question the viability of this project on the basis of class deficiencies.

The assimilation of traditions of struggle is more important for an anti-capitalist process than is the hierarchy of the participating subjects. If the experiences of resistance are shared, the potential for a revolutionary change increases. An example of such sharing was the conversion of Argentine ex-workers into militants of a great movement of the unemployed. Another case was the transformation of the ex-miners in Bolivia into organizers of informal workers.

The change of status (from the exploited to the oppressed and vice versa) does not make a major difference if the level of combativeness persists and if the channels of popular activism are constantly renewed. This second aspect is more relevant to the socialist project than any changes in social configurations. And so sociological analysis must not replace the political characterization of a revolutionary process.

The supposed absence of subjects has informed a great variety of arguments challenging socialism. In some small nations, this objection highlights the demographic scarcity of the proletariat, as in Bolivia where the latter suffered severe defeats since the privatization of the mining industry and its importance waned in relation to family agriculture.9

Yet all the anti-capitalist revolutions of the twentieth century were consummated in backward countries where wage workers were in the minority. The defeats suffered by the miners of the Bolivian Altiplano have been amply offset by a succession of popular rebellions. And agrarian communities are potential allies and not adversaries of socialist change.

The problem of the absent subject tends to generate sterile debates. Finding ways to guarantee unity between the oppressed and the exploited is much more important than settling which of them would be the greater protagonist in a leap toward socialism.

Problems of Popular Consciousness

The eradication of capitalism is a project entirely dependent on the level of consciousness of the oppressed. Only their convictions can guide a process of struggle toward socialism.

The primitive view of this transformation as a historically inevitable process has lost intellectual consensus and political appeal. No pattern of historical evolution of this type exists. Either socialism will be a voluntary creation of the great majorities, or it will never emerge. The experience of “actually existing socialism” illustrates how damaging it is to substitute the paternalism of functionaries for the initiative of the people.

But the consciousness of the oppressed is subject to strong mutations. Two opposing forces influence its development: the lessons learned by the exploited in their resistance to capital, and the discouragement they suffer as a result of burdensome labor, survival anxieties, and everyday alienation.

The inclination of wage earners to question or accept the established order arises from the changing outcomes of this conflict. Under certain circumstances, the critical view predominates, and at other moments resignation prevails. These attitudes depend on many factors and are reflected in very different generational perceptions of capitalism. The bulk of contemporary youth, for example, grew up without the expectation of improvement in labor conditions and education that prevailed in the postwar period, and view exclusion, unemployment, or inequality as normal operating patterns of the system. This outlook on the established order has not prevented the new generation of Latin Americans from resuming the combativeness of its predecessors.

The predominant image of capitalism influences socialist consciousness, but does not determine its continuity. In this regard, what is essential are the conclusions drawn from the class struggle and the impact generated by great revolutions in other countries. These benchmarks determine the existence of certain “average degrees of socialist consciousness” that translate into levels of greater enthusiasm or disappointment about the anti-capitalist project. The victories achieved in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and Cuba, for example, promoted a positive socialist perception, which the numerous defeats that also occurred in those periods did not dissipate.

The present generation of Latin Americans did not grow up like their parents in a context marked by revolutionary triumphs. This absence of a successful anti-capitalist reference—close to their immediate personal experiences—explains their spontaneously distancing themselves further away from the socialist project.

The great differences between the current period and that of 1960–80 lie more on this plane of political consciousness than in the realm of relationships of force or in the change of the popular subjects. It is not the intensity of the social conflicts, the willingness of the oppressed to struggle, or the capacity of the oppressors to control that has substantially changed, but the visibility of—and confidence in—a socialist model.

Ruptures and Continuities

The fall of the Soviet Union provoked an international crisis of credibility for the socialist project that has conditioned action on the left. Latin America was no exception to this effect, but some theorists exaggerate its repercussions and tend to suppose that it would rule out prospects for socialism for a long period. This view has given rise to the categorical distinction between a revolutionary period (until 1989) and a conservative one (from that date on).

This separation overlooks the fact that the Latin American left had distanced itself from the Soviet model before the collapse of the “socialist camp.” The disenchantment of the 1990s corresponded more to the inheritance left by the dictatorships, to the failure of the Sandinistas, and to the blocking of the Central American insurgency. In this dimension, the survival of the Cuban revolution constituted a significant counterbalance.

In any case, it is evident that an impulse to reconstruct the emancipatory program has replaced the climate of disappointment. The pro-socialist stance of various popular movements confirms this impetus. The big question to be answered at present is: To what extent has this project been assimilated by the new generations who led the rebellions of the last decade?

These groups’ overwhelming rejection of privatization and deregulation (much stronger than that observed in other regions, such as Eastern Europe) demonstrates the advance of anti-liberal consciousness in their ranks. One can also observe the rebirth of an anti-imperialist consciousness without the regressive components in terms of ethics or religion that prevail in the Arab world. In Latin America, a framework conducive to a revival of leftist thought has developed because the break with this tradition that one observes in various countries of Eastern Europe has not occurred.10

Yet the anti-capitalist nexus is the great missing link in the region, and this deficiency has up to now inhibited the radicalization of popular consciousness. In this regard, open debate about socialism in the twenty-first century can play a decisive role.

The Constitutional Framework

The Latin American left faces a relatively novel strategic problem: the general presence of constitutional regimes. For the first time in the history of the region, the dominant classes govern through non-dictatorial institutions in almost every country and have done so for a significant period. Not even economic collapses, political meltdown, or popular insurrections have modified this pattern of administration.

The return of the military is an option that the majority of the hemisphere’s elites have abandoned. In the most critical situations, old presidents are replaced by new chief executives with some kind of civilian-military interregnum government, but this substitution does not lead to the reinstallation of dictatorships to resolve the disintegration from above or the rebellion from below.

Most of the current regimes are plutocracies at the service of capitalists, and are thus completely removed from real democracy. The institutions of these systems have committed social abuses that many dictatorships never even dared to insinuate. These aggressions have robbed the system of its legitimacy, but they have not led people to reject the constitutional regime in the way they rejected the old tyrannies.

This change in the mode of capitalist domination has contradictory effects on the action of the Latin American left. On the one hand, it broadens the possibilities of action in a context of civil liberties. On the other, it imposes a framework marked by the confidence which capitalists have in the institutions of their system.

A regime that limits and at the same time consolidates the power of the oppressors entails a great challenge for the left, especially when this structure is seen by the majority as the natural modus operandi of any modern society.

This latter belief has been fostered by the right—which has seized the opportunity to pursue its course within the constitutional context—and also by the center left, which upholds the status quo with progressive pretences. Both sides incite false electoral polarizations to mask the simple alternation of the figures who hold power.

The current example of this complementary arrangement is the “modern and civilized left” that has acceded to government with Lula da Silva, Tabaré Vazquez, or Michelle Bachelet to perpetuate the supremacy of the capitalists. But other situations are more problematic because institutional continuity was broken up by fraud (Mexico) or by presidential resignation (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina).

In certain cases, these convulsions ended up reestablishing the bourgeois order (Néstor Kirchner). But in other countries, the crises led to unforeseen access to government by left nationalist or radical reformist presidents who are rejected by the establishment. This is the case with Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, and probably with Rafael Correa—because the crises and uprisings in these nations occurred initially outside the established institutions.

In these processes, the electoral terrain has proven to be a site of struggle against reaction and a setting for proposing radical transformations. This conclusion is vital for the left. One must not forget that in Venezuela, for example, from 1998 to the present, every election ratified the legitimacy of the Bolivarian process and transferred to the ballot box the defeats it had delivered to the right on the streets. The electoral sphere served to complement the victories of mass mobilization.

Answers from the Left

The constitutional framework significantly alters the context of leftist activity which for decades had been directed against military tyrannies. The battle within the current system is not simple because the current institutionalism renews bourgeois domination in multiple disguises.

This plasticity initially disconcerted a generation of militants prepared to fight against a very brutal but not very devious dictatorial enemy. Some activists were demoralized by these difficulties and ended up accepting the accusations from the right. They began to flay themselves for their former “underestimation of democracy,” forgetting that civil liberties were an achievement of popular resistance (and not of a bourgeois party regime complicit with authoritarianism).

The constitutional framework induced other militants to proclaim the end of “revolutionary utopia” and the beginning of a new era of gradual advances toward a post-capitalist future. They returned to the gradualist scheme and proposed to embark on the road to socialism through an initial consensus with the oppressors. They advocated taking this path to gaining hegemony for the workers.

But the vast trajectory of social democracy has proved the unreality of this option. The dominant classes do not give up power. They only co-opt partners to recreate the pillars of an oppression based on private ownership of the big banks and corporations. They will never permit this control to be corroded by the political or cultural weight of their antagonists.

For this reason, any policy that indefinitely postpones the anti-capitalist goal ends up reinforcing oppression. Socialism requires preparing and consummating anti-capitalist ruptures. If one forgets this principle, the strategy of the left lacks a compass.

But the confrontation with constitutionalism has also generated positive effects in recent years. It has allowed, for example, debate on the left about the form that a genuine democracy under socialism would adopt. This reflection introduced a significant change in the way of conceptualizing the anti-capitalist perspective. In the 1970s, democracy was a topic that the critics of the Soviet bureaucracy omitted or barely put forth. Now almost no one skirts this problem. Socialism has ceased to be imagined as a prolongation of the tyranny that reigned in the Soviet Union and has currently begun to be perceived as a regime of growing participation, representation, and popular control.

But this future also depends on the immediate responses to constitutionalism. Two positions prevail on the left: one focus proposes winning space within the institutional structure and the other promotes parallel organs of people’s power.11

The first path argues for advancing by climbing from the local to the provincial levels to subsequently reach the national governments. It follows from the experiences of community administrations that the Brazilian Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) and the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) of Uruguay pursued in the early 1990s. It recognizes the bitter concessions granted to the establishment during these administrations (business commitments and postponement of social improvements), but it construes the final outcome as positive.

Undeniably, this “municipal socialism” led to old activists turning into confidence men of capital. They debated at city halls, exhibited hostility toward the social movement, and ended up governing on behalf of the dominant classes. First they moderated programs, then they called for responsibility, and finally they changed sides.

The participatory budget did not counteract this regression. Discussing how to distribute a local expenditure limited by the constraints of neoliberal policy leads to imposing a self-adjustment upon the citizenry. Participatory democracy only awakens radical consciousness of the people when it resists and denounces the tyranny of capital. If it renounces this goal, it turns into an instrument for preserving the established order.

An opposite strategy to the institutional path exists that encourages social mobilization and rejects electoral participation. It denounces the corruption of the Workers’ Party or the passivity of the Broad Front and advocates the emergence of direct options for people’s power. It also questions the electoral traps which, in the Andean countries, have led to channeling resistance through the system.

This vision ignores the influence of the electoral arena and minimizes the negative consequences of abandoning it. Citizenship, voting, and electoral rights are not just instruments of bourgeois manipulation. They are also popular conquests achieved against dictatorships, which under certain conditions allow one to take a stand against the right. If elections were pure trickery, they would not have been able to fulfill the progressive role that they have played, for example, in Venezuela.

It is vital to denounce the circumscribed character that civil rights have under a social system governed by profit. But democratic advances must be broadened and not disdained. They constitute the basis of a future regime of social equality that will grant substantial content to the formal mechanisms of democracy.

Participation in the constitutional framework fosters the political practices necessary for the future socialist democracy. Rejecting electoral participation is as pernicious on a tactical level (isolation) as it is in terms of strategy (preparing this socialist future).

In the face of the false dilemma of accepting or ignoring the rules of constitutionalism, there is a third viable path: to combine direct action with electoral participation. With this approach, the expressions of people’s power—which any revolutionary process requires—would be made compatible with the maturation of socialist consciousness, which to a certain extent takes place in the constitutional arena.

Only Movements?

Popular consciousness translates into organization. The grouping of the oppressed is essential to creating the instruments of an anti-capitalist transformation, since without their own organizations, the exploited cannot gestate another society.

Movements and parties constitute two modes of contemporary popular organization. Both are essential to the development of socialist convictions. They reinforce confidence in self-organization, and they develop the norms for the future exercise of people’s power.

Movements sustain the immediate social struggle, and parties fuel a more fully developed political activity. Both are necessary for facilitating direct action and electoral participation. But this complementarity is frequently questioned by exclusivist advocates of movement or party. Some movement-oriented theorists—who subscribe to autonomist points of view—believe that party organization is obsolete, useless, and pernicious.12

But their objections apply only to the actions of certain parties and not to the general operation of these structures. No emancipatory project can evolve exclusively in the social realm, nor can it do without the specific platforms—the links between demands and power strategies—that party groupings provide. These groupings help overcome the limitations of a spontaneous rebellion. The party facilitates the maturation of an anti-capitalist consciousness that does not emerge abruptly from protest actions but requires a certain processing in order to transform the battle for immediate improvements into a struggle for socialist objectives.

The critics of parties have drawn support from the favorable climate toward movements that has predominated at the World Social Forums in recent years. Nonetheless, from Seattle (1999) to Caracas-Bamako (2006) much has changed. Confidence in the self-sufficiency of movements has declined, especially in the current Latin American scenario marked by electoral defeats of the right. The foundational “utopian moment” of the forums has shrunk, clearing the way for debating strategies that include parties. This change also reflects the turn of various movement-oriented theorists, who continue to aggressively question leftist organizations while now defending Lula or Kirchner.13 The rejection of parties also persists among authors who propose “changing the world without taking power.” They dissent from political organizations that defend the need to conquer state power, but without ever clarifying how a post-capitalist society lacking governmental forms would emerge. The state is the target of all social demands, and its transformation is the condition for any anti-capitalist transition. Not even the most basic democratic changes that we currently see in Latin America are conceivable without the state. This instrument is necessary to implement social reforms, create constituent assemblies, and nationalize basic resources. Those who deny this necessity have become disconcerted in the face of the new scenario that exists in Venezuela and Bolivia.

1.   Claudio Katz, “Socialismo o Neo-desarrollismo,” December 1, 2006,
2.   One percent of the planet’s population currently controls 40 percent of the wealth. Horacio Aizpeolea, “Como se reparte la torta,” La Nación, September 15, 2006.
3.   An extreme example of this conception—which assumes catastrophe as a quality—is set forth by Pablo Rieznik, “En defensa del catastrofismo,” En defensa del marxismo no. 34, October 19, 2006.
4.   Marta Harnecker describes how this debate arose on the left in the early 1990s in La izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI (Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno Press, 2000), second part.
5.   Alvaro García Linera, “Somos partidarios de un modelo socialista con un capitalismo boliviano,” Clarín (December 23, 2005), and “El capitalismo andino-amazónico,” Enfoques Críticos no. 2 (April–May 2006).
6.   Alvaro García Linera, “El evismo,” OSAL no. 19 (January–April 2006) and “Tres temas de reflexión,” Argenpress (November 4, 2006).
7.   This thesis was developed by Marta Harnecker, La izquierda después de Seattle (Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno Press, 2002) and La izquierda en el umbral (chapters 1 and 2).
8.   Heinz Dieterich, Hugo Chávez y el socialismo del siglo XXI (Caracas: Por los caminos de América Press, 2005), chap. 6.
9.   Alvaro García Linera, “No estamos pensando en socialismo sino en revolución democratizadora,” Página 12 (April 10, 2006) and “La gente quiere autonomía pero conducida por el MAS,” Página 12 (July 5, 2006).
10.   The breaks in wage laborers’ historic identification with the left, which one can note in the Old World, do not exist. See Francois Vercammen, “Europe: la gauche radicale est de retour,” Critique Communiste, no. 167 (Autumn 2002).
11.   Harnecker analyzes both strategies in La izquierda en el umbral, part three, chap. 6; James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Movimientos sociales y poder estatal (Mexico: Lumen, 2005), chap. 6.
12.   I quote various exponents of this vision in “Crítica del autonomismo,” Memoria, no. 197 (July 2005) and 198 (August 2005), Mexico.
13.   This is the case of Toni Negri and Giuseppe Cocco, “América Latina está viviendo un momento de ruptura,” Página 12, August 14, 2006; Toni Negri, “La derrota de EEUU es una derrota política,” Página 12, November 1, 2005; Giusseppe Cocco, “Los nuevos gobiernos no se entienden sin los movimientos sociales,” Página 12, (March 20, 2006).

2007, Volume 59, Issue 04 (September)
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