What’s Next for the Left in Latin America?

Latin America has been the cutting edge of struggles worldwide against neoliberalism. Several alternatives to the dominant model of global capitalism appear to be emerging in the region. A new model of revolutionary struggle and popular transformation from below for the 21st century may be emerging, based on the Venezuelan experience, but more broadly, on mass popular struggles in Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere.

William I. Robinson

Latin America has been the cutting edge of struggles worldwide against neoliberalism. Several alternatives to the dominant model of global capitalism appear to be emerging in the region. A new model of revolutionary struggle and popular transformation from below for the 21st century may be emerging, based on the Venezuelan experience, but more broadly, on mass popular struggles in Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere.


Presidents Chávez of Venezuela, Morales of Bolivia, and Correa of Ecuador in indigenous garb after Correa's inauguration.

The “Bolivarian revolution” took Latin America by storm with the arrival to power in 1999 of Venezuela’s charismatic and enormously popular socialist president, Hugo Chávez. By putting forward an anti-capitalist alternative to the more reformist post-neoliberal proposals and by organizing a regional anti-neoliberal power bloc, Venezuela’s influence could tip the balance by encouraging social and political forces in Latin America to move beyond a mild reform of the status quo.

The Bolivarian revolution is the first radical, socialist-oriented revolution in Latin America – and indeed, the world – since the defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1980s. This has major implications for Latin America – and the world – because it has put socialism back on the agenda at a time when the ignominious demise of 20th century socialism seemed to discredit the very idea of a socialist project, and when the late-twentieth-century global justice movement stalled as it proved unable to move beyond a negative anti-capitalism.

The Bolivarian Revolution

Apart from the challenge it issues to global neoliberalism and U.S. interventionism, the Venezuelan revolution is significant on at least three counts. First, the Venezuelan revolution had impeccable bourgeois democratic legitimacy through repeated and resounding electoral victories. Second, the old bourgeois state was not “smashed” in the revolution. To the contrary, by winning the presidency through an electoral process in an established polyarchic system and a well-institutionalized capitalist state, yet with the mass support of the poor and the popular classes, Hugo Chávez initiated the Bolivarian project from the Miraflores presidential palace while leaving in place a state bureaucracy that would work over the next few years to resist and undermine that project. And third, the poor majority has been engaged in its own autonomous and often belligerent grassroots and community organizing, especially in the teeming slums of the capital city of Caracas, home to four million of the country’s 26 million people, and in other major urban areas.

The mass popular base of the revolution is not subordinated to a state and party at the helm of the process, as they were in most revolutionary experiences of the 20th century. What is unfolding in Venezuela is distinct from the old Soviet-statist model, in which political command (domination) emanated vertically from the state/party downwards, the means of production were nationalized and bureaucratically administered, and there was no autonomous space for the working classes and social movements.

The Bolivarian model also defies the anarchist-autonomist ideas influential in the global justice movement. Chavismo has opened up a remarkable space for mobilization from below. It is in fact the ongoing and expansive mobilization of this mass base that pushed the Chavista leadership forward and led the charge against the decadent capitalist state and social order. Class struggle is breaking out everywhere. Popular classes in civil society constitute a beehive of organizing and mobilizing. So too do counterrevolutionary right-wing forces, who have, nonetheless, steadily lost initiative.

Chávez first announced at the January 2005 World Social Forum meeting in Brazil that the Bolivarian revolution would construct a “21st century socialism.” “It is not possible that we will achieve our goals with capitalism, nor is it possible to find an intermediate path’, stated Chávez. “I invite all of Venezuela to march on the path of socialism of the new century. We must construct a new socialism in the 21st century.” Then after Chávez won the December 2006 presidential elections with nearly 63% of the popular vote he announced in a series of speeches in early 2007 that “a new stage in the Bolivarian socialist revolution has begun. The period between 1998 and 2006 was a period of transition. Now begins the stage of building Bolivarian socialism.”

Chávez called for what would amount to a revolution within the revolution – to an opening up of all branches of the state to “popular power” from below and to mechanisms that would permit a “social comptroller” role by the grassroots over state and public institutions. Chávez envisioned a deepening of the role of Communal Councils and their conglomeration locally, regionally, and nationally into a sort of alternative power structure from below, a Paris Commune on a national scale:

We must move toward the formation of a communal state and progressively dismantle the old bourgeois state that is still alive and kicking as we put into place the communal state, the socialist state, the Bolivarian state; a state with the ability to steer the revolution. Almost all states came into existence to hold back revolutions, so this is our challenge: to convert the old counterrevolutionary state into a revolutionary state.

If the Venezuelan revolution’s formal democratic legitimacy is impeccable this also presents it with a paradox. As popular sectors mobilize from below, and have become concientized, and politicized, they confront resistance from state institutions that act to constrain, dilute, institutionalize, and co-opt mass struggles, to reproduce the old order. The Venezuelan state is corrupt, bureaucratic, clientelist, and even inert; this was the state inherited from the ancien regime. The civil service bureaucracy and old elites have remained in control of much of the state.

It is likely that the popular sectors which achieved a foothold in the state will have to confront them and reconstitute the state on a much more profound level as the process deepens. The more than 20,000 Consejos Comunales, or community councils, that have been formed may be indicative of revolutionary possibilities here. Yet even though conceived as organs of popular power, some of these councils are subordinate to state directives and others have become co-opted by corrupt leaders or local bureaucrats.

Community leaders I met with spoke of the struggle to convert the councils into autonomous organs of community power that exercise power from below over state and party institutions, to avoid having these local organs appropriated (secuestrado or “kidnapped”) from above. The slogan among local activists in the barrios was: “no queremos ser gobierno pero queremos gobernar” (“we don’t want to be the government but we want to govern from below”).

Some on the left inside and outside Venezuela, while supportive, criticize Chávez as authoritarian and charge him with cultivating “personal rule.” These criticisms cannot be dismissed. An authoritarianism of the left, cults of personality, and usurpation from above of popular power from below in the name of subordinate class interests, remain just as much a danger in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. Yet the discourse critical of Chávez is somewhat contradictory. The prominent Venezuelan intellectual Margarita Lopez Maya acknowledges that “Chávez has successfully mobilized the poor and excluded to fight for first-class citizenship, and among the great majority of Venezuelans, who have never been able to participate in politics and society, many now feel like full citizens.”


One of Caracas' teeming shanties. (CC, Christian Madsen)

Popular mobilizations, Lopez Maya observed in a 2007 interview with NACLA, “have created very conflictive processes, and the country is now experiencing a very powerful polarization. Over the past few months it has tended to deepen as Chávez has proposed a new break with the past, essentially the destruction of the very state he himself brought into being with the Constitution of 1999.” This, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter. Polarization is less a consequence of Chávez’s authoritarianism than an objective and inevitable outcome of the attempt to effect revolutionary ruptures with the old order. If there is a strong personal link between Chávez and the masses, it may be explained less by Chávez’ desire to cultivate “personal rule” than by the historic failure of the institutional left in Venezuela and the chasm that exists between it and the popular majority.

Change Society Without Taking Power?

The Venezuelan problematic of revolution and socialism within a capitalist state underscores broader quandaries for popular alternatives to global capitalism in the 21st century. As the struggle for hegemony in global civil society heats up the issue of state power and what to do about it, including national states and the transnational institutions and forums through which they are connected with one another, cannot be avoided.

John Holloway’s book, Changing the World Without Taking Power has elevated to theoretical status the Zapatistas’ decision not to bid for state power. The claim that social relations can be transformed from civil society alone appears as the inverse of the old vanguardist model in which social and political forces mobilize through political organizations in order to overthrow the existing state, take power, and use the state to transform society. That model, pursued by much of the Latin American left in the 1960s and 1970s, often through armed struggles, has been recognized by most as a failure and as a dead-end in the new century.

In recent years the indigenous movement in Latin America has spearheaded a new model of horizontal networking and organizational relations in a grassroots democratic process from the bottom up. But at some point popular movements must work out how the vertical and horizontal intersect. A “long march” through civil society may be essential to transform social relations, construct counter-hegemony from the ground up and assure popular control from below. Yet no emancipation is possible without an alternative project, and no such project is possible without addressing the matter of the power of dominant groups, the organization of that power in the state (including coercive power), and the concomitant need to disempower dominant groups by seizing the state from them, dismantling it, and constructing alternative institutions.

The limitations of strict horizontalism have become evident in Latin America in recent years all the way from Mexico to Argentina. The Zapatista model generated hope and inspiration for millions throughout Latin America and the world in the 1990s. The January 1, 1994 uprising in Chiapas was an urgent and refreshing response to the capitulation by many on the Left to the TINA (“there is no alternative”) syndrome.

The Zapatistas insisted on a new set of non-hierarchal practices within their revolutionary movement and within the communities under their influence, including absolute equality between men and women, collective leadership, and taking directives from, rather than giving them to, the grassroots base, leading by following and listening, and so on. Such non-hierarchal practices must be at the very core of any emancipatory project. Yet they also hold strong appeal to the anarchist currents that have spread among radical forces worldwide in the wake of the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and the old statist-vanguardist Left, and that are unwilling to deal with the wider political system and the state. These currents have a strong influence in the global justice movement and the World Social Forum.

But Zapatismo has not been able to draw in a mass working-class base, and as a result it has experienced a declining political influence on Mexican society. It may still be a force of counter-hegemony or even of hegemony in some communities inside Chiapas, but the fact is that global capitalism has made major headway within Chiapas itself between 1994 and 2007 while the Zapatista movement has stagnated.

This conundrum came to a head when the Zapatistas refused as a matter of principle to participate in the campaign that the PRD and Manuel López Obrador waged for the presidency in the 2006 elections. As a result the Zapatistas were ill-prepared to throw their weight behind the mass struggles against the fraud perpetrated by the Mexican state and its two ruling parties, the PRI and the PAN. If it is true, as the Zapatistas observe, that there is no blueprint for revolution, then it is also true that revolutionaries need to be able to shift strategies and tactics as history actually unfolds. For the Zapatistas, horizontalism became a rigid principle rather than a general emancipatory practice.

In Argentina, the late 2001 uprising marked the beginning of a popular rebellion of workers, the unemployed and the poor, along with newly dispossessed sectors of the middle class. In the wake of the rebellion popular sectors created hundreds – perhaps thousands – of neighborhood assemblies, workers occupied and took over hundreds of factories, and the unemployed stepped up their mobilization through road blockades and other forms of grassroots struggle.

Horizontalist thought makes much of the fact that the rebellion erupted without leadership or hierarchy, and that political parties and elites played no role in the movement. Nonetheless, in the ensuing years the occupied factories have not been able to present even a remote alternative to the domination of transnational capital over the economy and the country’s ever-deeper integration into global capitalism, especially through the agro-industrial-financial complex based on soy, while assemblies and piqueteros (organized unemployed workers) have become divided in the face of expanding clientelist networks and cooptation by the state and Kirchner’s Peronist faction. The autonomist movement, with its strict horizontalism, has come no closer to challenging this structure of elite power, nor has it been able to hold back the onslaught of global capitalism.

To dismiss political organizations and the state because they are, or can easily become, instruments of hierarchy, control and oppression, is to emasculate the ability of the popular classes and their social movements and mass organizations to transform the institutions of power and to mount a systemic challenge to the social order. Without some political hammer or political vehicle the popular classes cannot operate effectively vis-à-vis political society or synchronize the forces necessary for a radical transformatory process.

As the case of Venezuela, and perhaps Bolivia and Ecuador as well, demonstrate, the situation of disunity between civil and political society is not as stable. Popular forces and classes must win state power and utilize it to transform production relations and the larger social, political, and cultural relations of domination, yet they must do so without subordinating their own autonomy and collective agency to that state. A confrontation with the global capitalist system beyond the nation-state, moreover, requires national state power.

The Global Context

In the age of globalization there are limitations to the reintroduction of a redistributive project at the nation-state level. It is not clear how effective national alternatives alone can be in transforming social structures, given the ability of transnational capital to utilize its structural power to impose its project even over states captured by forces adverse to that project. If the (capitalist) state as a class relation is becoming transnationalized then any challenge to (global) capitalist state power must involve a major transnational component.


Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho in La Realidad, Chiapas, 1999. (CC)

Struggles at the nation-state level are far from futile. They remain central to the prospects for social justice and progressive social change. The key thing is that any such struggles must be part of a more expansive transnational counter-hegemonic project, including transnational trade unionism, transnational social movements, transnational political organizations, and so on. And they must strive to establish sets of transnational institutions and practices that can place controls on the global market and rein in some of the power of global capital.

Efforts to reform the global order can only be successful when linked to the transformation of class and property relations in specific sets of countries. The formation of the South American Community of Nations (CSN) under Brazilian leadership in 2003 and the proposal that same year by President Lula and his Argentine counterpart Kirchner to move forward with the “Buenos Aires Consensus” have been touted by some among the Latin American Left as a step towards a progressive regional challenge to global capitalism.

But it is not clear that the CSN or the Buenos Aires Consensus are anything more than – at best – a mildly reformist path for regional integration into global capitalism. A regional program that attempts to harness market forces for more regionally balanced accumulation and limited redistribution would be an improvement over the rigid neoliberal model vis-à-vis the interests of popular classes, but is hardly a counter-hegemonic alternative to capitalist globalization.

Such an alternative would have to be founded on a more fundamental shift in class power at the national and regional levels in Latin America, and would have to involve a transformation of property and production relations beyond limited social redistribution. Local class and property relations have global implications. Webs of interdependence and causal sequences in social change link the global to the local so that change at either level is dependent on change at the other level. An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project involving strategies, programs, organizations and institutions that link the local to the national, and the national to the global.

“Revolution in one country” is certainly even less viable in the 21st century than it proved to be in the 20th. All national economies have been reorganized and functionally integrated as component elements of a new global capitalist economy and all peoples have experienced heightened dependencies for their very social reproduction on the larger global system.

In the case of Venezuela, the oil and financial system is thoroughly integrated into global capitalism. What this integration points to is the structural power that global capital can exercise and the possibility that this structural power will translate into local political influence. Global capital has local representation everywhere and it translates into local pressure within each state in favor of global capital.

Those groups most closely tied to global capital, transnationally oriented business groups, seek to gain increasing influence and quash a more radical transformative project. Indeed, to take the case of Venezuela, the greatest threat is not from the right-wing political opposition but that parts of the revolutionary bloc will develop a deeper stake in defending global capitalism over socialist transformation, that state managers will become bureaucratized as their own reproduction will depend on deepening relations with global capital.

The transformative possibilities that have opened up in Latin America cannot be realized without an organized Left and a democratic socialist program. Yet such possibilities will only end up frustrated if they fall into the pattern of top-down change by vanguardist command and the military fetishism, along the lines of the 1960s and 1970s when armed struggle was converted from a means into an end. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “military hypertrophy” described by Forest Hylton of the Revolutionary Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), which sees independent political mobilization as a threat to its own efforts to hegemonize resistance.

The transformative moment of the early 21st century in Latin America will depend on the Left’s ability to learn the lessons of the previous era of revolution, especially the need to relinquish vanguardism of party and state and to encourage, respect, and subordinate itself to the autonomous mobilization from below of the popular classes and subordinate sectors. In sum, the current round of social and political struggle in Latin America highlights the changing relation between social movements of the Left, the state, and global capitalism.

This is precisely why the issue of political organizations that can mediate vertical links between political and civil society is so important. What type of political vehicle can interface between the popular forces on the one hand and state structures on the other? How can internally democratic political instruments be developed to operate at the level of political society and dispute state power without diluting the autonomous mobilization of social movements?

The potential for transformation will depend on the combination of independent pressure of mass social movements from below on the state and also on the representatives and allies of those movements taking over the state. To reiterate, this is why a permanent mobilization from below that forces the state to deepen its transformative project “at home” and its counter-hegemonic transnational project “abroad” is so crucial.


William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global, and Latin American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author of the soon to be released Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective (John Hopkins Univ. Press: Spring 2008). This essay is adapted from the book’s chapter, "A New Cycle of Resistance: The Future of Latin America and Global Society," and the article, "Transformative Possibilities in Latin America" from the Spring 2008 issue of the Socialist Register.
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