What Future for Socialism?

September 25, 2007

IN THE "NEW WORLD ORDER" ANNOUNCED by George Bush the North-South conflict has dis- placed the East-West one at the forefront of international politics.' The ideological confrontation between capital- ism and communism was, apparently, easier to handle and eventually to overcome than the conflicts stemming from uneven access to productive, technical and financial re- sources and the ever-increasing imbalances in interna- tional development. From the South's perspective the New World Order is reminiscent of the order that reigned up to the beginning of the present century, when the colonial powers were on one side and the colonies and neo-colonies on the other. Germany dominates Europe, Japan the Pacific; the United Argentine social scientist Carlos M. Vilas has written extensively on Nicaragua. He is a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Center for Inter-disciplinary Studies in Humanities anda member of NACLA 's Editorial Board. States holds sway in Latin America, and the old and decadent Russian Empire seeks to retain control over the East through unstable, difficult alliances with the West. The twentieth century, which opened with the hope, or nightmare, of a socialist future, is about to close with the likely resurrection of Europe's Holy Alliance of 1815. From Latin America's perspective, what room is left in this new old order for economic development, structural reform, and political and social democratization? Under the New World Order, what does socialism mean-if it means anything at all? Until very recently Latin America's potential for tak- ing the socialist road was believed to depend on two factors: internally on the achievement of certain levels of economic development and class differentiation, and ex- ternally on the existence of a socialist bloc in competition with the capitalist system. 2 Orthodox socialist interpreta- tions of Latin American history tended to force the hemisphere's particular dynamics into the "universal" categories of European capitalist development, charac- ,,..,..,,,., ,,,..,,,,,...,.,,, VOLUME XXV, NUMB ) 13The Lefto4A The Left A I S. I revolutionaries, the Sandinistas had difficulty combining s economic dimensions of democracy with political ones. between people's aspirations and the pre- vailing orientation of political parties grows ever wider. OVER THE 1980S LATIN AMERI- ca's gross domestic product per capita fell by nearly 10%, Central America's by over 17%, Argentina's by over 24%, Venezuela's by over 20%, Bolivia's by over 23%, and so on. By the end of the 1980s some 183 million Latin Americans lived under the official pov- erty line, comprising 44% of the region's total population. This represents 71 mil- lion more than in 1970. Of these 183 million Latin Americans, nearly half live in so-called "extreme poverty." In 1980, the poorest 10% of Guatemala's popula- tion received 2.4% of the national in- come; today that 10% earns only 0.5%.5 This means that each of these nearly 900,000 Guatemalans earns an average of four dollars a month. The distribution of gains and losses over the past decade has been extremely unequal. Incomes have been transferred from the working classes to the most well-off, and from Latin America to the region's governments refused to attempt erizing as distortions and deviations the specificities of peripheral development. This sort of leftist thinking paid ess attention to the actual advances of the working and peasant masses than to the partisan and ideological names attached to them. If we admit that state socialism in the Soviet bloc was not the only, nor the best version of socialism, the Soviet collapse seems not so relevant to Latin America, from either an economic or a political perspective. [See sidebar, page 15.] People have used many different political strat- egies and experiences in their quest for a life of dignity, ustice and liberty. They hardly adhere to any defined political ideology. Revolutionary socialism enabled Cuba o achieve some of Latin America's highest levels of basic well-being and social participation. Costa Rican social democracy, too, has scored many successes. In Mexico and Argentina populist governments made great advances, although not to the same extent as in Cuba and Costa Rica.' Socialism may mean a great many things in Third World societies. 4 We must ask then not just about the prospects for a particular variety of socialism, but about the prospects for progressive social and political change n the region. As I see it, the main problem is that very few political organizations in Latin America are concerned with change, to say nothing of socialism. The gulf debt, they gave up the only instrument at their disposal for pressuring the international financial system to re- verse this trend. In order to service the interest on the foreign debt, Latin America's governments are selling off at bargain prices the economic patrimony of their respective coun- tries. Their well-crafted arguments about modernizing the state and economy and strengthening civil society can't hide the fact that their policies are designed not to encourage development, but to pay off debts. The re- striction of the activities of the state limits the region's potential for development, which has historically been linked to the dynamism of the public sector and to the state's capacity for creating favorable conditions for private investment and accumulation. 6 Governmental attempts to overcome the crisis are notoriously homogeneous: Alfonsin and Menem in Ar- gentina, Ortega and Chamorro in Nicaragua, Arias and Calder6n in Costa Rica, Fujimori in Peru, Collor de Mello in Brazil, Pdrez in Venezuela and Lacalle in Uruguay. With slight variations, the elected governments have turned to adjustment policies designed according to the same model, a model which has proved unable to resolve the problems we face, and which has had a disastrous impact on the living conditions of the poorest members of society. The fact that elected governments are carrying out these policies puts democratization itself in question. Massive protests, many of them extremely violent, indi- cate that such policies are not what people had in mind when they cast their votes. Attempts to put a democratic face on these policies by appealing to the elected nature of the regimes provoke even greater anger. People feel they have been tricked and made fools of-a situation that contributes little to the consolidation of democratic insti- tutions. The recent coup attempt in Venezuela and the sus- pension of democracy in Peru point to the difficulties of trying to build electoral democracies on empty bellies. To put it in a more sophisticated way: democracy is a global system, involving both political and socio-eco- nomic institutions and participation, as well as culture. Restricting it to any of its constitutive parts has always proved deceptive. Such efforts only reinforce authori- tarianism. People's unrest and upheavals do not necessarily lead to social change, nor to socialism. Economic instability and social deterioration may also lead to the acceptance of new forms of authoritarian rule: the oft-repeated wish for "strong government," notwithstanding its particular ideo- logical appeal. As one Buenos Aires taxi-driver told me many years ago: "What we need is a strong govern- ment...like Franco's, or Fidel's." FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES, SOCIAL- ism and even profound social change have been intimately associated with a particular political strategy: armed struggle. This association was the result of dictato- rial rule in many Latin American countries, under which those who sought democratic social change risked perse- cution, imprisonment, torture, exile or death. Except in the case of Chile and afew other countries, authoritarianism and minority rule made the pursuit of socialism, national liberation, participatory democracy and people's access to basic economic and social resources tantamount to armed struggle; and armed struggle became tantamount to radical change. Moreover, the Left appraised its political activities in terms of the means utilized, rather than the depth, scope and orientation of the objectives sought. Over the decades not a few revolutionary organiza- tions met greater success under dictatorships than under bourgeois democracies. Likewise, they have prospered by emphasizing the socio-economic dimensions of de- mocracy more than its political and cultural aspects. The shift to party politics and electoral democracy since the mid-1980s placed these semi-political/semi-military or- ganizations under enormous stress. They responded in essentially two ways: either they rejected these changes "from above" as false and as designed to cheat the masses; or they jumped into the new ball game, and abandoned hope of achieving socialist-oriented reform. In my opinion, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the M- 19 in Colombia took the latter course. Many would add El Salvador's FMLN to this list, even before the signing of the peace accords.7 To some, this ideological transforma- tion demonstrated political maturity; to others, it was political opportunism. In any case, it points to one of the real outcomes when an overall design for political and socio-economic change is reduced to a particular strategy for seizing power. ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING ASPECTS OF the mix of profound economic crisis and electoral democracy is the retreat of Latin America's governments and a good number of its intellectuals from their tradi- tional support of reform. After a decade of repression, persecution and censorship, the abdication of what was once known as "critical thought" is astounding. The fall of the dictatorships did not bring a return to the conviction that profound structural reforms are necessary to achieve development, democracy and equality. Cuba's President Fidel Castro. Among Latin American countries, only Cuba was profoundly affected by the Soviet collapse. The magnitude of the crisis has placed the economy at the center of current debate. Paradoxically, this is the point where Latin American critical thought is most vulnerable. Not a few progressive leaders and intellectu- als claim that no alternatives exist to the policies of structural adjustment now in force. The problem is not whether adjustment policies are inevitable, but whether the social cost of those policies must fall on the poor. The fact that this cost is being borne by poor and working people is not due to any technical requirement, but to their political weakness: the burden falls on those who are least able to defend themselves. Structural adjustment may well be inevitable, but who suffers its consequences is a matter of the class nature of policy decisions. In general Latin American critical thinking on eco- nomics has not progressed beyond generic proposals for broad state ownership of the economy. Much of what is conventionally considered socialist economic policy in the underdeveloped world is simply a leftist version of desarrollismo, the notion that technological advance equals development. Given the failure of state ownership to achieve any strategic breakthrough, the Left finds itself without proposals to counter neoliberal policies. The drastic adjustment program applied during the final years of the Sandinista government, at the expense of those who had fought and suffered to defend the revolution, was a dramatic illustration of this lack of progressive alterna- tives. Up to now Latin America's popular organizations have paid more attention to denouncing the negative effects of adjustment than to designing alternatives. More- over, little work has been done in the area of development strategy. Only sporadically have progressive Latin Ameri- can economists considered the notion that satisfying the demand for food, work, health and education could itself become a strategy for capital accumulation and social change. 8 This would have to involve a profound change in power relations and, without a doubt, a profound democratization of the economy and of development policies. The future of progressive change in Latin America is not a question of comparing the theoretical merits of different abstract social and political paradigms. It is a question of the gap between the growing number of people living in poverty and the increasing involvement of leftist political parties, intellectuals and politicians in what was for a long time known as "the establishment," and is now being termed "modernity." Socialism is the name that, since the nineteenth cen- tury, has been given to people's aspirations for a life of dignity, justice and liberty. These aspirations did not fall with the Berlin Wall or the statues of Lenin. But the deepening crisis and the new global geopolitics oblige us to search for new ways, new ideas, and new programs. The vitality of these aspirations-of socialism-lies above all in the Left's capacity to adapt to changing realities, and to accept the challenges of new times. What Future for Socialism? 1. This article was adapted with the author's permission from two separate pieces. 2. A debate has raged from the 1920s on about the potential for most Latin American societies to be involved in a transition to socialism, given their economic and technological backwardness, and their small and weak proletar- ian classes. See Manuel Caballero, La Internacional Comunistay la revolucidn latinoamericana (Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1987). 3. The level and scope of political participation also vary greatly. Nicaragua's Sandinismo refused to be identified as a variant of socialism during the successful initial years of mass organization, but adopted the label when orthodox adjustment policies became the main focus of its economic strategy. See Carlos M. Vilas, Transicidn desde el subdesarrollo (Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1989), ch. 3, and Alexander Cockbumrn's interview with this author in Z (Dec. 1988). 4. See Clive Y. Thomas, Dependence and Transformation (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974); Carlos M. Vilas, The Sandinista Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), ch. 1, and "Is Socialism Still an Alternative for the Third World?" Monthly Review, Vol. 42, No. 3 (July-Aug., 1990). 5. CEPAL, Balance preliminar de la economic de Amdrica Latina y el Caribe, 1991, table 3; UNICEF/SEGEPLAN,Andlisis de la situacidn del niuo y la mujer (Guatemala: UNICEF, Aug. 1991), p. 12. 6. Although in many cases nationalizations were carried out in the past in pursuit of particular interests which had nothing to do with national (to say nothing of people's) goals, wholesale privatization and drastic cuts in welfare expenses hit the poorest most severely. 7. See Carlos M. Vilas, "Nicaragua: A revolution that fell from the grace of the people," in Ralph Miliband (ed.), The Socialist Register 1991 (London: Merlin Press, 1991); Rafael Guido B6jar, "La crisis del socialismo en El Salvador," in Arturo Anguiano (ed.), El socialismo en el umbral del Siglo XXI (Mexico: Universidad Aut6noma Metropolitana, 1991); and Sara Miles and Bob Ostertag, "FMLN New Thinking," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXIII, No. 3 (Sept. 1989). 8. See Clyve Thomas, Dependence and Transformation (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974); also Carlos M. Vilas, Transicidn desde el subdesarrollo (Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1989), ch. 3. This would not neces- sarily imply some form of "delinking." Export capacity could be redirected to fit the new import needs of an economy based on satisfying popular demand. Samir Amin, Delinking (London: Zed Books, 1990). "Delinking" proponents seem to lose sight of the fact that what they recommend as a development strategy is actually an effect of imperialist aggression in the underdeveloped world. See Carlos M. Vilas, "Is Socialism Still an Alternative for the Third World?" in William K. Tabb (ed.), The Future ofSocialism: Perspectivesfrom the Left (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), pp. 205-218.

Tags: socialism, leftist politics, armed struggle, justice, neoliberalism

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.