Anniversary Essay on Social Movements: Revolution, Reform and Reaction

September 25, 2007

Social movements have long been a fixture on the Latin American landscape. Indeed, at the very time that NACLA was founded in 1967, highland Peruvians were invading public lands in Lima to establish their highly organized squatters' com- munities, liberation theologians were organizing ecclesial base communities in cities and villages from El Salvador to Chile, Paulo Freire and his followers were using literacy programs to stimulate the Brazilian poor to engage in collec- tive struggle for land and social jus- tice, and impoverished Jamaicans were joining their neighbors in "share-pot" groups in the country- side and in Kingston slums. But it has only been in the last 15 years or so that the importance and potential of social movements have been Judith Adler Hellman is Professor of Political and Social Science at York University Toronto. She was involved in the founding of NACLA in 1967 and worked as a staff member in 1970-71. She would like to thank Barry Carr and Steve Hellman for their helpful comments. appreciated-if sometimes over- stated-by progressive analysts and activists who are looking for grounds for optimism. Thirty years ago, the focus of our attention and hope was the Cuban Revolution. The readers and writers of the NACLA Newsletter tended to view the future of Latin America and the Caribbean as resting on the possibility of reproducing some- thing like the Cuban model else- where in the region. Debates cen- tered on the viability of the guerrilla foco as a "road to revolution," the feasibility of guerrilla struggle in countries like Argentina and Uruguay that lack Sierra Maestra mountains, the relative advantage of rural or urban fronts, and the wisdom of Che's decision to open a South America-wide foco in Bolivia. The descant in this discussion were the loud notes sounded by those asserting that the electoral road to socialism was still viable or that the organized urban workers re- mained the vanguard class. Arguments raged over the relative The February 1976 cover of NACLA's Latin America & Empire Report. revolutionary potential of agricul- tural wage workers, small-holding peasants, tenants, sharecroppers, the urban industrial working class, and sometimes, even the "new middle classes" and the "progressive national bourgeoisie." What was taken as given, however, by almost all progressives concerned with Latin America, was that socialist revolution and the acquisition of state power were the goals, and the only open question was what would prove the most appropriate means to those ends. Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 199713 Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 1997 13ANNIVERSARY ESSAY/ SOCIAL MOVEMENTS The social movements that today are so central to our discussions and our hopes for a more humane future in Latin America were not entirely ignored, but they tended to be viewed simply as building blocks in the more elaborate project of the total revolutionary transformation of society. Squatters' movements, self-help or literacy groups, cooper- atives and community organiza- tions of every sort were seen as instances of "pre-political" people taking their first halting steps toward the kind of consciousness and the practical participatory skills that would eventually allow them to become protagonists in a revolu- tionary scenario.' The triumph of the revolutionary forces in Nicaragua and Grenada inevitably reinforced this view of social movements as building blocks. Grassroots groups, middle- class business associations, labor unions and peasant movements were all key com- ponents in the coalition of forces that brought the Sandinistas to power in Nica- ragua. In Grenada, the victory of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement was made possi- ble only after the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Edu- cation and Lib- eration (JEWEL), The March 1974 a social move- Latin America & Er ment comprised of community- level organizations and rural and urban workers, drew the multiclass participation of students, nurses, trade unionists and the Chamber of Commerce. Typically, when dis- cussing the social movements that gave support to the Nicaraguan or Fithin the short space of several years, mass organizations V have emerged in El Salvador capable of mobilizing hun- dreds of thousands thoughout the country; capable of articulat- ing the immediate demands of the people for land, water, jobs, justice; capable of unifying the struggles of many sectors and transforming them into a political movement. These mass orga- nizations, in combination with the political-military organiza- tions formed in the early 1970s, pose a clear challenge to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. -March/April 1980, Volt. 14, No. 2 The move to organize has the strongest possible support of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Yet major questions remain unresolved. What type of relationship should exist between the mass organizations and the FSLN, or the state? How will the newly introduced concept, "Popular Power," be put into practice? How will the immediate needs of the masses be balanced with the long-term goals of the revolution? How will the working class be unified? The ultimate character of the rev- olution will be determined by the way in which these questions are answered, not just in theory, but as real contradictions emerge that must be dealt with. -May/June 1980, Vol. 14, No. 3 Grenadian revolu- tions, what mattered to most commenta- tors was not the movements them- selves, but the con- tribution they made to the larger revolu- tionary project. ut as hopes for socialist revolution began to recede in the wake of the sav- age coups in Chile over of NACLA's and Grenada, the pire Report. defeat of guerrilla forces throughout South America and the electoral rejection of the Sandinistas, social movements began to be viewed in a different light. And once disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution began to set in as well, expectations of full- scale revolutionary transformation diminished, and interest and hope increasingly came to focus on small-scale, localized movements. 2 With the collapse of what could be called the "grand narratives," passions were transferred to a huge range and variety of activities that came to be grouped under the ever- broader heading of "social move- ments" or "new social movements." One form of movement included in this category is the neighborhood- based urban popular movement, which organizes to fight for housing and public services like electricity, potable water, sewage lines, paved streets, public transport and-at a more developed stage-schools, clinics and stores. Local self-help organizations, cooperative soup kitchens and literacy programs also figure on virtually everyone's list, along with ecclesial base communi- ties (CEBs) in which nuns, priests and lay Catholics organize among the poor to combine popular reli- gious practices with the struggle for collective goods. 14 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS c nF 14 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASANNIVERSARY ESSAY/ SOCIAL MOVEMENTS In addition to these initiatives, any comprehensive list of social movements would include human rights groups, environmental and indigenous peoples' organizations, youth, student and women's move- ments, gay and lesbian groups, debtors' movements and popular cultural associations. For some, the definition begins to stretch too wide when it goes beyond the "social" to include class-based and partisan struggles. 3 But increasingly, urban and rural-based trade unions and progressive political parties are also discussed in the context of social movements or grassroots organiza- tions. So too are the activities of cross-border solidarity organiza- tions, Internet-exchange groups, an immense array of often highly insti- tutionalized domestic and interna- tional nongovernmental organiza- tions (NGOs), micro-enterprises of every stripe and, sometimes, the entire informal economy, which outstrips the formal economy in size in many parts of Latin America. In effect, the definition of social movements is so loose that it not only responds to the needs of pro- gressive people in a post- Communist world who seek to invest their hopes and energies in an appropriate cause; it also serves the needs of apologists for neoliberal- ism who borrow World Bank lan- guage to pose self-financing or NGO-financed popular organiza- tions as the principal promoters of "development with a human face." In the neoliberal model, popular self-help organizations fill the vacu- um created by the withdrawal of state funding for social services. 4 Ironically, social movements are simultaneously acclaimed by enthu- siasts at opposite ends of the ideo- logical spectrum as an expression of popular resistance that may rescue the world (or at least movement par- ticipants) from the predations of neoliberal policies and as a tool through which neoliberal programs rEoday's popular struggles point to practical ways for the left to embrace democracy and to critique neoliberal ideol- ogy. In their struggle to broaden participation beyond the act of voting, people aren't rejecting elections, but rather making use of them. Similarly, the broad, autonomous and pluralist activity of the organizations of civil society have swept aside the old party structures and the social organizations tradition- ally linked to them. -Ruben Zamora, July/August 1995, Vol. 29, No. 7 The Mexican Student Movement of 1968 was without a doubt one of the most broad-based and powerful of the similar movements that shook many countries around the world that same year.... The past ten years of struggle by students, teachers and university workers have contributed to the forging of thou- sands of activists.... These ten years of struggles by campesinos, workers and students have formed the backbone of the oppressed classes' struggle for a new radically different nation. -SeptemberlOctober 1978, Vol. 12, No. 5 can be made to work more effec- tively. Under the circumstances, discern- ing the definitional boundaries of what constitutes a progressive social movement poses some real difficulties, especially for those who assume that anything "popular" is necessarily progressive. In reali- ty, the Christian right has enjoyed considerable success organizing at the grassroots in Latin America. And other organizations that fit the definition of "popular movement" may be as reactionary as the funda- mentalist evangelicals, while others with progressive potential may be turned to conservative purpose when they are captured by the state or by personalistic populist leaders. The concept of civil society is as difficult to define as social move- ments. There is general agreement that social movements arise and develop somewhere in something called "civil society." But at times, the definition that runs through such discussions is no more precise than to label as "civil society" all move- ments that we admire, and "not civil society" what we don't like or don't trust. For example, for most analysts and activists, autonomous trade unions are a part of civil society, but oficialista unions (and independent unions that have grown corrupt) are not. If we take Mexico as an exam- ple, unions affiliated with the offi- cial Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) would not be consid- ered part of civil society, but the "democratic currents" that arise within them would. Indeed, the problem of describing all popular organizations as civil society is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Mexico. If a union or associ- ation of some kind is organized from the top down in order to co- opt and manipulate people, it seems reasonable that we would not think of it as an element of civil society. But if it is organized from the bot- tom up, and only later is co-opted and captured by the state-as so many popular organizations in Mexico have been-then it is diffi- cult to know at what point we should no longer consider it part of Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 199715 Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 1997 15ANNIVERSARY ESSAY/ SOCIAL MOVEMENTS civil society and see it instead as part of the state apparatus. In an earlier essay in NACLA's thirtieth-anniversary series, Steven Volk adopts an inclusive definition stressing that "civil society is that civic space which lies outside the direct control of the state and the market.... Civil society suggests a complex assortment of nonstate organizations concerned with a vast array of issues and operating on myriad levels: from household life to trade unions, and from self-help movements and community associ- ations to political parties."5 In more general terms, NACLA has consis- tently looked on the widest possible range of activities as worthy of cov- erage. Appropriately enough, the May1992 issue on "The Latin American Left" included articles on women's organizations, environ- mentalism, autonomous peasant movements and the Workers Party in Brazil. Strikingly, the NACLA Report has devoted a great deal of attention to new movements of every kind. But it has also continued to place emphasis and confidence in %I 4QZ the progressive potential of political parties and electoral coalitions, as in the issue entitled "Introduction to Hope: The Left in Local Politics," which highlighted the Broad Front in Uruguay, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Farabundo Martf National Liberation Front in El Salvador, and the Movement Toward Socialism and Radical Cause in Venezuela. 6 f the image of social movements as the building blocks of social- ist revolution has largely been abandoned, it has been replaced by other expectations. Movements are credited with the capacity to trans- form consciousness and prepare their members to take a more active, militant, participatory role in soci- ety. They are posed as playing a key role in the process of democratiza- tion in Latin America. And peasant and indigenous movements are often seen as the only forces capa- ble of promoting appropriate tech- nology and sustainable develop- ment in the face of the destructive onslaught of global capital. Indigenous movements are grappling with a cen- tral question faced by "modern" society every- where: If we are to have democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-class societies, what sort of social and political organization can ensure equality and mutu- al respect? The answers they propose eschew both the separatist nationalism now ascendant in Europe and the seizure of state power that until recently inspired Latin America's revolutionaries. -NovemberlDecember 1991, Vol. 25, No. 3 The majority of homeless activists are women, and women's struggle has been at the core of the transition from local activism to politics on a grander scale.... Neighborhood activists have concluded that only national political change can resolve their prob- lems. As the drama of each country's crisis draws the movements into "politics," they face a dilemma: Will working with the government or various opposition parties compromise their autonomy, and their ability to work for fundamental change?" -November/December 1989, Vol. 23, No. 4 But these are tall orders to fill. While they have enormous transfor- mative potential, in practice, the outcomes of social movements are not always positive. For example, the process of "empowerment" that so many analysts celebrate is almost always confined to the realm of sub- jective feelings. To be sure, increased self-confidence and the development of organizational skills and practical knowledge (the elements that for most observers constitute the "power" in empower- ment) undoubtedly represent sub- stantial gains for a powerless per- son. Yet, rarely does empowerment involve the actual acquisition of economic or political power. What is more, with all the talk of empow- erment, there is little recognition that people may not only become empowered with the sense of their own expanded capabilities, but also "disempowered" and ultimately demobilized. This kind of disempowerment may occur when a movement is co- opted or repressed. But it may also occur when participants grow dis- couraged and disillusioned with the dynamics of group participation, the behavior of their co-activists who rise to leadership positions, or the bossiness of foreign or middle- and upper-class NGO workers-to cite but a few negative possibilities. Oddly, many analysts of Latin American social movements who have themselves experienced many periods of disillusionment in the course of their own lives of political struggle fail to acknowledge, or per- haps even to consider, that a neigh- borhood activist can get pretty fed up with her neighbors, or that such movements decline not only in response to repression or co-opta- tion, but to loss of enthusiasm for collective activity itself on the part of burnt-out social activists. In real- ity, women may not only emerge from the isolation of the patriarchal family to work together with others NACI6A REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 16ANNIVERSARY ESSAY/ SOCIAL MOVEMENTS November/December 1989 cover of NAC LA Report on the Americas. in a soup kitchen; they may also retreat back into the private sphere of the family-however oppres- sive-when relationships with co- activists become too difficult and complex to manage or even bear. , If the claims surrounding empow- erment as a one-way journey are sometimes exaggerated, so too is the confidence in the democratizing potential of social movements. While social movements played a direct role in the consolidation of democracy in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, elsewhere in Latin America the connection is not near- ly so strong. In Mexico, for exam- ple, the social-movement sector has been in constant and rapid expan- sion since 1968, while only painful- ly slow-and in some periods-no progress has been made toward institutionalizing a more democratic political system. Just as misleading is the tendency of some analysts to conflate the internal dynamics of movements with their impact on the political system as a whole. In fact, there is an important distinction to be drawn between a movement's internal practices (which may or may not be more open, less hierarchical and more participatory than those of traditional political for- mations) and its capacity to push the whole political system in that direction. As one author has noted, while the movements may "allow for some degree of internal democracy at some point of their trajectory...the democratization of social rela- tions does not necessarily entail democratization at the institu- tional level of politics."' Furthermore, at times the inter- nal structures of movements are not even very democratic. In- stead they may reflect the broader political culture and social relations in which they are embedded. For example, women and illiterate peasants often form the base of social move- ments in which leadership is exer- cized by men or middle-class intel- lectuals, and decision making may even reside in the hands of foreign NGO workers. In movements like those that have developed in Mexico-a political system domi- nated and shaped by patronage pol- itics-new organizations may chal- lenge the personalism of the old PRI-linked system of corruption and political control. But they often end up replacing the old networks with alternative channels that are clientelistic, rather than democratic, in their mode of operation. 8 Often, along with the belief in the potential of social movements to "empower" poor people and to democratize authoritarian systems comes the expectation that rural activists can point the way to a better future for all humankind. As such, hopes for the development of envi- ronmentally sustainable practices have come to rest on the shoulders of indigenous and peasant activists who have combined ongoing struggles for the recognition of their identity, autonomy and land rights with the revival or retention of traditional resource use. Although comprised of the poorest and most marginalized members of their societies, these rural movements have sprung to life throughout Latin America, reconfig- uring the ways in which we think about development and the environ- ment and capturing the imagination of people around the world. Not surprisingly, however, even when they are not repressed outright or demobilized by co-optation, indigenous and peasant movements may fail to live up to the expecta- tions others have of them as natural- resource managers or the guardians of the environment. Often it is the poorest, most isolated peasants who engage in traditional practices. Far from pointing a way toward a sus- tainable alternative to modem and destructive technologies, these practices are regarded by other cul- tivators, and sometimes even by those who engage in them, not as a viable alternative but as a form of backwardness to be abandoned at the first opportunity. 9 Still, notwithstanding this funda- mental contradiction, indigenous movements have emerged, both lit- erally and figuratively, at the fore- front of struggle in the Americas.' 0 In the face of the inability of politi- cal parties to develop a coherent alternative to neoliberalism, pro- gressive people around the world have looked to the most marginal- ized women and men in the poorest regions of Latin America to articu- late an alternative and spearhead the resistance. And, in a remarkable and largely unexpected development, it is precisely this that occurred with the New Year's Day uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas in 1994. From the day they said "no" to NAFTA, the Zapatistas assumed leadership of an international resis- tance to global capitalism, drawing activists from around the world to the Lancandon forest to formulate a Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JuNE 1997 17ANNIVERSARY ESSAY/ SOCIAL MOVEMENTS program to oppose the neoliberal project in all its manifestations. he vast array of activities that come under the heading of social or grassroots move- ments presents a full range of mixed and often contradictory possibilities. For example, the ecclesial base com- munities that emerged in Brazil gen- erally radicalized slum dwellers there while in Colombia, the CEBs evolved into a tool of the conserva- tive Catholic hierarchy and exerted a fundamentally conservative influ- ence over the poor people they orga- nized. 1 ' Or, to take another example, micro-enterprises, a favorite project of international-aid givers, may develop into democratically man- aged cooperative projects, or they may become a further source of inequality and stratification-not to mention tension and even violence-in poor communities. This variety of possible outcomes for movements makes the invest- ment of hope, energy and solidarity in grassroots activities a more com- plicated matter than was support for socialist revolution 30 years ago. Compared with our situation today, confidence in the outcome of social- ist revolution was straightforward and clear. In 1967, people on the left shared a considerable level of agreement on what a socialist revo- lution was bound to do once it came to power. It remained only for us to support revolution in Latin America anu Lto try to bring about the same at home. Today we are mostly focusing our hopes on more lim- ited endeavors. This was made clear by two former revolu- tionary militants who spoke to NACLA reporters about their transition from the comnrehen- OT VVorKers frowE sive political strug- gles of the past to the new politics of grassroots movements. These activists said they found it neces- sary to develop "a new discourse, one that was a good deal narrower and more concrete and with more opportunities for small success- es."' 2 The activists "brought certain agendas to communities which had agendas of their own," they said. In the course of the interactions, "new forms of political action emerged." This connection with popular strug- gles "has narrowed the organizers' agenda."13 Increasingly, then, the small-scale victories of social movements can be seen for what they are: the cul- mination of the courageous, ener- getic drive of powerless people to gain more control over their lives and immedi- ate circumstances. As long as they limit their efforts to the struggle for relatively narrow, con- crete goals, they are eas- ier to get off the ground and easier to sustain. As such, however, they risk political insignificance. The danger is that the movements "are local and small and fighting for the same small things," as a social movement leader himself explained. "These small organizations, if not linked to some larger project, lack political impact. They become competitive and parochial." 1 4 In short, these movements have the potential to evolve into more thoroughgoing, more radically transformative forces. But this potential can only be realized when their vision and goals are broadened, and when they manage to ally with others in a wider political organization-or even, a political party.E 1. Eric Hobsbawm describes as "pre-political" those "who have not yet found, or only begun to find, a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world. Though their move- ments are thus in many respects blind and groping, by the stan- dards of modern ones, they are neither unimportant nor marginal." Primitive Rebels (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1959), p. 2. 2. See Fernando Calderon, Alejandro Piscitelli and Jose Luis Reyna, "Social Movements: Actors, Theories, Expectations," in Arturo Escobar and Sonia E. Alvarez, eds., New Social Movements in Latin America: Identity Strategy and Democracy (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992), p. 19. 3. See Judith Adler Hellman, "The Riddle of New Social Movements: Who They Are and What They Do," in Sandor Halebsky and Richard L. Harris, eds., Capital, Power and Inequality in Latin America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 165-83. 4. See Laura Macdonald, "A Mixed Blessing: The NGO Boom in Latin America," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 28, No. 5, March/April 1995, pp. 30-5. 5. Steven Volk, " 'Democracy' Versus 'Democracy,' " NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 4, January/February 1997, p. 8. 6. "Introduction to Hope: The Left in Local Politics," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 29, No. 1, July/August 1995. 7. Renato Boschi, "On Social Movements and Democratization: Theoretical Issues," Stanford-Berkeley Occasional Papers in Latin American Studies, No. 9 (Spring 1984), p. 8. 8. See Judith Adler Hellman, "Mexican Popular Movements, Clientelism, and the Process of Democratization," Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 124-142. 9. Julia E. Murphy, "Rainforest Crunch: Anthropology, Environment- alism, Forestry and Maya in Central Quintana Roo, Mexico," Masters Thesis, York University, 1993. 10. In Canada as well, First-Nations people are often called upon to lead protests, as in the massive October 1996 "Days of Action" against the neoliberal program of Ontario's Conservative govern- ment. 11. Daniel H. Levine and Scott Mainwaring, "Religion and Popular Protest in Latin America: Contrasting Experiences," in Susan Eckstein, ed., Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 203-40. 12. David Barkin, Irene Ortiz and Fred Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance: The Remaking of Mexico," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 4, January/February 1997, p. 20. 13. Barkin, Ortiz and Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance," p. 19. 14. Francisco Saucedo, a leader of the Assamblea de Barrios in Mexico City, cited in Barkin, Ortiz and Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance," p. 26.

Tags: social movements, revolution, reform, repression, reflection

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