In recent years a major debate has emerged over the role that new social movements should adopt in relation to the progressive governments that have inspired hope in many Latin American nations. Before addressing this subject directly, though, I want to develop a few ideas.
The situation in the 1980s and ’90s in Latin America was comparable in some respects to the experience of pre-revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century. The destructive impact on Russia of the imperialist First World War and its horrors was paralleled in Latin America by neoliberalism and its horrors: greater hunger and poverty, an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, unemployment, the destruction of nature, and the erosion of sovereignty.
In such circumstances, many of the region’s peoples said “enough” and started mobilizing, first in defensive resistance, then passing to the offensive. As a result, presidential candidates of the left or center-left began to triumph, only to face the following alternative: either embrace the neoliberal model, or advance an alternative project motivated by a logic of solidarity and human development.
Social Movements against Neoliberalism
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet socialism left the parties and social organizations of the left inspired by that model seriously weakened. At the same time, trade unions were hit hard by the weakening of the working class, part of the larger social fragmentation produced by neoliberalism. In that context, it was new social movements, and not the traditional parties and social organizations of the left, that rose to the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism, in forms that varied widely from one country to another.1
In several cases, those new movements began by resisting neoliberal measures in their local communities, while others developed around gender, human rights, or environmental issues. Many then shifted their focus from isolated local issues to national matters, which not only enriched their struggles and demands but also gained them support from highly diverse social sectors, all suffering under the same system.
An early expression of this development was the campaign marking the 500th anniversary of indigenous, black, and popular resistance. The campaign signaled an important convergence of many different groups, united through new organizing principles, including horizontalism, autonomy, gender awareness, and “unity in diversity.” It gave rise to new social coordinating organizations, such as the CLOC-Via Campesina, and helped clarify national and international agendas.2
One such agenda was the campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which was particularly successful in Brazil and Ecuador, and which later led to the first historic defeat of U.S. policy in the region, at the Organization of American States Summit at Mar del Plata in 2005. Since then the problems of regional integration are no longer considered matters for governments alone, but have also become concerns of the masses.
The major element missing from Latin American politics in recent decades has been, with rare exceptions, the traditional workers’ movement, beaten down by flexibilization, subcontracting, and other neoliberal measures. While in some cases the labor movement has participated in wider popular struggles, it has not been on the front lines of combat.
The new social movements often start by rejecting politics and politicians, but as their struggle progresses, many gradually grow from an attitude of mere resistance focused on single issues, to an increasingly political approach that questions the established authorities. In the process they begin to understand the need to build their own political instruments, as in Ecuador with Pachakutik and in Bolivia with the MAS-IPSP.3
There are many lessons to learn from these mass struggles, but one of the most important is that they show the central importance of a strategy of solidarity that endeavors to unite the widest possible number around concrete objectives, building understanding even among groups with very different traditions and politics. Even when progressive governments are not elected amid such social mobilization, these struggles still exert an important influence, because the political maturity and broadened perspectives achieved in the course of those struggles endure in the consciousness of those involved.
The Road to Socialism—Difficult but Not Impossible
As we have said, faced with the forces of neoliberalism, some Latin American governments decided to take the road toward an alternative society, a turn which has been given different names: Twenty-First Century Socialism, communitarian socialism, the Buen Vivir (Good Life), the Society of a Life of Fullness (Sumak Kawsay in Kichwa, an indigenous language of the Andes). All envision a society that is not decreed from above but built by the people.
The big challenge for these movements is to advance toward socialism when they have conquered only the government—a strategy that conflicts with the classic Marxist vision, which has traditionally insisted on the need to destroy the bourgeois state, as in the revolutions of the twentieth century. Those revolutions, born from civil wars or imperialist wars, not only mastered but destroyed the inherited state apparatus. So it is understandable that some sectors of the left feel disoriented when they find themselves in such a different situation today.
Furthermore, electoral success captures only a part of the state. Control of executive power often initially comes without control of the parliament or judiciary. In addition, other capitalist-dominated institutions—finance, mass media, the military—remain intact. The issue, then, is how to work toward conquering these other areas of power, winning more people to the transformative project and ensuring that at every step they participate in building their own destiny.
Beginning the advance toward socialism under these conditions poses a number of challenges. Progressive governments must be able to confront the backwardness of their countries, knowing that economic conditions will oblige them to coexist for some time with capitalist forms of production. And they must do this starting from an inherited state apparatus that is designed for capitalism and hostile to any activity oriented toward socialism.
However, practice has demonstrated—contrary to the insistence of some sectors of the left—that if revolutionary cadres take over the existing state, they can use their power to begin building the foundations of the new institutions and political systems needed to replace the old state. Above all they can begin creating spaces for popular protagonism, preparing people to exercise power in all aspects of their lives.
But history has shown that the heavens cannot be taken by storm, that a protracted period is needed to travel from capitalism to the new society that we want to build. Some people speak of decades (Chávez), others of centuries (Samir Amin, Álvaro García Linera), and still others, like me, think socialism will be a goal toward which we must strive but that we may never fully achieve. This view is not as pessimistic as it sounds. On the contrary, a utopian goal, if carefully defined, helps to light the path and strengthen our determination to fight, and each step that we take toward it, no matter how limited, brings us closer to that horizon.
We in Latin America are living in a historical period that I call the “transition toward socialism.” However, while the goal can be shared, the form and methods used in the process of that transition must be adapted to the specific conditions of each country, depending not only on each nation’s economic characteristics but also on the existing configuration of class and political forces. This strategy of pursuing socialism through existing institutions is not only a long process but also one full of challenges and difficulties. Nothing promises uninterrupted progress; retreats and failures will occur as well.
We must be clear that by winning a presidential election we have won a major battle but not the war. Winning the war through institutions requires the creation of a significant national majority. Only with such a majority will it be possible to advance democratically toward a new society. Accordingly, not only is unity among revolutionaries fundamental, but it is also necessary to embrace and enlist all those who share an agenda dedicated to solidarity and social justice. This means we should summon not only the political and social left, but also the center and even some business sectors that may be willing to collaborate with the popular project.
At the same time, we must remember that the elites who were previously dominant respect the rules of the game only when it suits them. They are perfectly capable of tolerating and even favoring a left government if it implements their politics and limits itself to managing the crisis. What elites will always try to prevent—by legal or illegal means—is any program of profound democratic and popular transformations that challenge their own economic interests. Consequently, we must prepare to confront and defeat elite maneuvers meant to block the way toward socialism. One of those tactics may be to infiltrate progressive governments to undermine them from within. Another may be to win over union leaders in certain sectors, exploiting government weaknesses and errors, as occurred in Chile under Allende with workers in the copper-mining and transportation industries.
Unfortunately, progressive governments are often compelled to defend themselves, not only from elite obstructionism, but also from parts of the left who—failing to understand the complexity of the process and opposed to any tactical flexibility—attack them for not achieving profound social changes fast enough, treating them as if they, and not the elite, were the main enemy.
Unions and social movements also tend to take the same intransigent stance toward the state, regardless of its political-social orientation. We must find formulas to overcome this inherited attitude of reflexive opposition to any and all governments, even progressive ones. No less important a threat is the electoral agenda to which governments must often submit in order to legitimate themselves in the face of the ongoing attacks of the opposition. This agenda often collides with the agenda of participatory democratic construction, paralyzing or weakening popular power to make room for election campaigns.
Yet it is not easy to resolve the contradiction between political tempos and democratic processes. Prolonged discussions of law and procedure can unnecessarily endanger the future of the transformative process, as in Venezuela and Ecuador.
Thus, just as revolutionary leaders must use the state apparatus to alter forces they inherit and to build new institutions, they must also sponsor popular education on the limits or obstacles in their path—what I call a “pedagogy of limitations.” It is often thought that talking frankly to the people about such difficulties will discourage and demotivate them, but in fact it helps them to understand better the process underway and to moderate their demands, without, however, renouncing their socialist goals.
To ensure that these messages are communicated, the pedagogy of limitations must be accompanied by the promotion of popular mobilization and creativity. It must be acknowledged that there has been a tendency on the left to think of popular organizations as manipulable, mere conveyer belts for the party or government line. The orthodox Marxist-Leninist left attributes this idea to a reading of Lenin’s thesis on the role of trade unions at the start of the Russian Revolution, when there seemed to be a very close relationship between the working class, the vanguard party, and the state.
However, this ahistorical and incomplete reading of Lenin neglects the fact that the Russian leader himself abandoned this conception in the final years of his life when, during the New Economic Policy (NEP), he foresaw the development of potential contradictions between the workers and the directors of the state-owned enterprises, with dire consequences for the labor movement. Lenin argued that even in a proletarian state, unions had to defend workers’ class interests against the employers, if necessary using the strike as a weapon to combat bureaucratic distortions.4
This change, which has profound political implications, went largely unnoticed by Marxist-Leninist parties, which until very recently treated the concept of the conveyer belt as the definitive Leninist thesis on the relationship between parties and social organizations. First with the trade-union movement and later with the social movements, the leadership, responsibilities, and the platform of struggle—in short, everything—were seen by Leninists as matters to be determined by the party leadership. These were then handed down as a line for social movements to follow, without the latter being allowed to participate in the design or development of any of the things that most concerned it.
In stark contrast to this destructive approach, we must avoid any manipulation of popular movements and tolerate—what’s more, actively encourage—the pressure they exert, since it can help progressive government officials fight the deviations and errors that can arise along the way. It was in this spirit that President Chávez told a group of civil servants who had taken over the Ministry of Labor in Caracas, “Good, guys, there’s a lot of bureaucracy there.”
Only the combined influences of an organized, watchful people and a government that understands the need for mobilization and popular criticism can prevent the distortions that may develop from blocking the way. But while officials must welcome criticism, it must always be constructive criticism that helps address problems by offering concrete alternatives. For example, the FMLN government in El Salvador has been faulted for its use of army soldiers to provide security against criminal gangs. But what alternative do these critics propose in order to protect the population if the police alone are incapable of doing the job? If the security issue is not successfully addressed, there is a real danger that the former ARENA government will be returned to office.
As another example, progressive governments in Latin America have come under fire from left critics for their continued reliance on extractivism. It must be acknowledged that there are major problems related to extraction, but what alternative is posed as a means of freeing people from poverty without the extraction of at least some portion of our natural resources?
Both of these topics—problems of neighborhood security and problems related to extraction—demand a constructive national dialogue laying out arguments from all sides. One who feels secure in the validity of an argument does not fear debate; rather, that individual should see it as an opportunity to enlist popular support. Popular proposals will be welcome because progressive governments are deeply concerned about neighborhood violence. Furthermore, they are so determined to address problems of poverty that they believe it is necessary to engage in extraction as part of a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy, even though they share popular concerns about the risks of relying on extraction.
When it comes to dialogue, I would like to quote the words of Pope Francis who, when referring to this matter during his visit to Paraguay, said that this kind of dialogue cannot be
And since extractivism is one of the topics most debated today, I would like to join that debate by making two points. The first is that we should recognize that human beings have always had to extract from nature, and will likely have to continue to do so. The problem is not whether to extract but how to extract in a way that maintains what Marx termed the healthy “metabolism” between humanity and nature. The first human inhabitants of the planet extracted fruit from trees and fish from the seas, but they took from nature in a manner which maintained that healthy metabolism. However, with the advent of capitalism, the profit motive prioritized the exploitation of nature to the maximum, regardless of the effects, thereby destroying that healthy metabolism. In this context, more and more is extracted, and natural resources are depleted, with all the additional consequences that this behavior has on climate change. In southern Chile, for example, Japanese transnational corporations are cutting down our ancient trees and replanting, but not with indigenous species that grow slowly and are appropriate to that environment but rather with foreign, fast-growing species that consume a disproportionate quantity of water and deplete the soil, all so that they can be cut down again in a few years. And what can one say about the pollution caused by Chevron’s oil operations in Ecuador?
Second, it is essential to understand that the resources located in a particular territory—minerals, oil, gas, aquifer springs, forest reserves—should not be considered resources belonging only to the inhabitants of those places. We must be staunch defenders of the rights of indigenous people as well as those of workers. But the oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, the gas in Bolivia, and copper in Chile are a gift from heaven. They are resources that belong to society as a whole, and it is society as a whole that should decide whether to extract them or not. Of course it is necessary to engage in serious dialogue with those who live in the area and work in the industry to ensure that their concerns are addressed and their needs met. But we need to understand that interests are at stake in such situations that transcend the interests of particular communities and portions of the working class.
If we can reach agreement on the two previous points, what we then need to address is concrete proposals on how to use our natural resources at this time and under prevailing circumstances in order to advance, little by little, toward a model of economic development that will re-establish that healthy metabolism between human beings and nature.
But, to return to the question of criticism, it is important to establish channels by which people do not passively suffer their discontent, but can express it openly, thereby avoiding an accumulation of unease that explodes unexpectedly. If those channels are established, the problems that are identified can be corrected. (Interestingly, the Bolivian Constitution provides that organized people can and should react against any violation of or threat to their rights, including environmental rights, in what the Constitution terms “popular action.”6 Furthermore, it creates a specialized tribunal of agro-environmental jurisdiction—agriculture, forestry, ecological issues—whose magistrates are to be elected by universal suffrage.)7
Lastly, we have to ask ourselves why, if our proposed social agenda is so beautiful, profound, and transformative, and reflects the interests of a great majority, those who have proposed to implement it do not enjoy all the popular support they deserve. I think the explanation lies largely in the fact that a significant part of the Latin American population is not sufficiently acquainted with the true nature of the socialist project. The opposition wilfully misrepresent it, creating false alarms and fear about the future. But we socialists also contribute to this state of affairs. We tend to be deficient in communicating our project. We fail to devote sufficient time, resources, or creativity. And most seriously, our own ways of living often contradict some of the fundamental aspects of that project: we propose a democratic, transparent society free of corruption, yet we adopt authoritarian, clientelistic, selfish, and opaque practices. There is often a huge gulf between what we preach and how we live, and as a consequence our message loses credibility. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that important sectors of Latin American society still do not identify with the socialist project, and that it is necessary for us to make every effort to win them over.
And how can ever more people be won over? The first thing to understand is that it is not a question of imposing our views, but instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people. But we must also place special emphasis on winning the allegiance of the natural leaders of the various social sectors, which will in turn help win the people they influence.
A Constructive Collaboration
A new relationship between progressive governments and social movements must be established. The governments must not forget that behind their electoral triumphs is a long history of social struggles, without which their electoral success would have been impossible. The movements must understand that those governments are no longer the enemies of the past, but can be effective allies in the fight for their rights and the achievement of their aspirations. Provided that both parties are pursuing a profound transformation of the present society, their relationship should be one of mutual collaboration. However, for this relationship to be productive, a number of things must be considered:
1. Social leaders must not forget that they have won only partial political power, and that the processes of change can be very slow, and popular demands cannot be successfully addressed overnight.
2. Our governments must try to explain to citizens, and in particular to leaders of social movements, the limitations within which they are obliged to act, and people must learn to be patient, confident in the knowledge that everyone involved is pursuing the same progressive goals.
3. The collaboration between both sides cannot mean a loss of movements’ autonomy to the government. They must not be transformed into appendices of the government, but instead must be capable—while supporting the process of change as their joint responsibility—of criticizing government errors, so long as such criticism helps correct those errors by proposing appropriate alternatives. Only if the possibilities for dialogue are exhausted, or go unheard, should we consider other courses of action through which to express our defense of socialist progress.
4. Social movement leaders must overcome the impulse to oppose everything that comes from the government, or to refer to leaders who support the government as “government agents” or “apologists.” If they cannot overcome this destructive practice, those leaders will risk alienating their own social bases, who, seeing the positive effects of government policies in their day-to-day lives, will not understand such destructive opposition.
5. Our governments should take into account the culture they have inherited and be very flexible and patient in working with social movement leaders, clearly distinguishing between those who consciously use their mass influence to block social transformation and those who take mistaken positions because they lack sufficient information or because of the weight of old habits.
Are We Advancing or Retreating?
I want to end this article with some questions that will help provide a more objective vision of what our governments are doing to engage popular power:
- Do they strengthen the working class, eliminate subcontracting, create a universal social security system, bolster the unions, and facilitate workers’ education and professional development?
- Do they respect the autonomy of social organizations and trade unions?
- Do they understand the need for an organized, politicized people, able to exercise the pressure needed to weaken the inherited state apparatus, and thus drive forward the proposed process of transformation?
- Do they listen to the people and let them speak? Do they understand that they can rely on the people to fight the errors and overcome barriers that are encountered along the way?
- Do they give the people resources and call on them to exercise social control over the transformation?
To sum up, is the government contributing to the creation of a popular subject who is increasingly the protagonist and increasingly the real builder of its own destiny?
- ↩For further discussion of the experiences of social movements in various countries of Latin America, see Marta Harnecker, A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), chapter 2.
- ↩Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC).
- ↩See Marta Harnecker, Ecuador: Una nueva izquierda en busca de la vida en plenitud (2011), chapters 4 and 6. Available in Spanish at See also Marta Harnecker with Federico Fuentes, “” (2008). Available at
- ↩Vladimir Lenin, “Draft Theses on the Role and Functions of the Trade Unions Under the New Economic Policy,” Collected Works, vol. 42 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 374–86.
- ↩Spoken at a meeting with civil society representatives in Paraguay, at León Condou Stadium, Colegio San José Asunción, July 11, 2015. I excerpt only the essence; the Pope addressed the topic more fully.
- ↩Article 135: “The Popular Action shall proceed against any act or omission by the authorities or individuals or collectives that violates or threatens to violate rights and collective interests related to public patrimony, space, security and health, the environment and other rights of a similar nature that are recognized by this Constitution.”
- ↩. Available at