Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay

On February 28th I got email from a Pluto Press representative about a new book by Jeffery Webber titled The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left that seemed very timely. Pluto did not quite come out and say it but the book appeared to be an obituary on the Pink Tide.

Since I remembered the sharp exchanges between Webber and Australian Socialist Alliance member and Evo Morales supporter Federico Fuentes in the pages of the British SWP’s theoretical magazine, I was curious to see what Webber had to say. As a self-described Marxist critic of the Bolivarian revolution and left-leaning governments in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, Webber would seem to be vindicated by recent events. Argentina and Brazil had new rightwing governments. Bolivian voters had rejected a referendum that would have permitted Morales to run for a fourth term and Lenin Moreno, Rafael Correa’s successor, was elected in Ecuador by the narrowest of margins. Finally, Venezuela was coming apart at the seams. Since I had written reviews of three books by Hugo Chavez’s one-time economic adviser Michael Lebowitz and a biography of Chavez by Richard Gott, it was the right time to revisit the 21st century socialism question.

Although Webber’s book purports to be unified thematically, it was not written from scratch. Instead, it is mostly a patchwork of  articles that have been published in JSTOR type journals such as The Journal of Agrarian Change. I was hoping for a systematic analysis of the Pink Tide but instead discovered an intelligent but frequently mistaken collection of chapters having little in common except the author’s rejection of a project with a clouded future.

The two chapters titled “Global Crisis and Latin American Tendencies: The Political Economy of the New Latin American Left” and “Contemporary Latin American Inequality Class Struggle, Decolonization, and the Limits of Liberal Citizenship” were newly written for the book and amount to an ideological frontal attack on the Pink Tide governments. Despite my disagreement with Webber’s analysis, I strongly recommend that people grappling with the political crisis of left governments in Latin America buy his book and pay close attention to his arguments. There is a dialectical contradiction between his views and those of the pro-Chavez left and a resolution on a higher level is only possible by engaging with both sides of the polarity.

Like many with sympathies for Trotskyism, Webber is always on the lookout for latter-day Kerensky’s. If you read him carefully, you will understand that Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 repeated the early stages of the Russian revolution when both the rich and the poor rallied around the Social Revolutionary Party leader who made promises about a better future for all even if he secretly sought to keep Russia part of the capitalist system. Like many on the left, Webber considers elections to be a trap. Instead he identifies with “extraparliamentary forms of social struggle—road blockades, strikes, land occupations, worker takeovers of abandoned factories, protests, and even quasi-insurrectionary waves of mass action that toppled neoliberal governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador.” In other words, these were the real revolutionary movements that could have seized power if only they had a party to represent them rather than ones led by scheming, neoliberal fakers like Chavez, Morales and Correa who “bent over backwards to capitulate to capital and ensure market confidence”. If neoliberal governments were toppled, the new ones remained neoliberal even if as they were leavened with populist good will and generous social programs. As a title of the book, “The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same” pretty much says it all. Like the classic Who song, Webber wrote something so we won’t get fooled again.

Unlike him, other academics have been bamboozled by the new left leaders. This Augean stable of fake leftists in thrall to social democracy and Weberian sociology includes names that were new to me: Richard Sandbrook, Marc Edelman, Patrick Heller, and Judith Teichman, who wrote an article for Dissent titled “Can Social webber1Democracies Survive in the Global South?”. They were obviously following the magazine’s Menshevik politics. While I am just as ready as the next person to denounce anybody writing for Dissent, I regret that Webber had so little to say in his book about people such as Federico Fuentes, Michael Lebowitz and Marta Harnecker who identified with the new left governments. By sidestepping Marxist supporters of Hugo Chavez and focusing on weak tea social democrats, he postpones the discussion that those of us within Marxism need to have. As it happens, the Dissent contributors were hostile to Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, nations they considered too far to the left. Since there are very few illusions on the left about Brazil, a country they consider a model, Webber leaves the reader wondering what he thinks about the leftist supporters of 21st Century Socialism, including Tariq Ali who made a documentary with Oliver Stone in 2009 titled “South of the Border” that hailed all the governments Webber fulminates against. If Hugo Chavez was never really opposed to capitalism, how did he manage to fool so many people writing for Monthly Review and New Left Review?

Webber has a chapter dissecting George Ciccariello-Maher’s “We Created Chavez” that is worth the price of the book. Apparently Ciccariello-Maher, whose project is synthesizing Marxism and anarchism, is fixated on “dual power” in Venezuela, a concept that is rooted in the experience of the Russian soviets but one he misunderstands. Communes do exist in Venezuela but they are formally connected to the state. Whatever else one might say about the Bolivarian revolution, its leaders never saw the state-subsidized communes as an embryonic form of a proletarian dictatorship—to use some Marxist jargon.

For Webber, the success of the Pink Tide governments can be reduced to two factors: the Chinese commodities boom and “extractivism”, which includes both minerals and agro-exports. He paints a picture of Latin America awash in wealth because of an insatiable need for oil, soybeans and other commodities that an expanding Chinese economy gorged on.

Closely tied to these economic processes is “redistributism”, the practice of providing subsidies to poor people both in Venezuela and more centrist states such as Brazil. Despite his hostility to the Evo Morales government, Webber cannot help but point out the difference cash-transfer programs funded by sales of commodities to the Chinese made. Poverty fell from 60.6 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2011, and extreme poverty from 38.2 percent to 20.9 in the same period.

While conceding the benefits of Venezuela’s “redistributive” policies to the poor, Webber sees it as just another rentier-state like those in the Gulf that squander capital on theme parks, skyscrapers and other wasteful projects. Venezuela’s government was different since it was “forced” into spending money on health care, housing, education and the like. However, since the cost of the underlying economic basis for such social benefits was being part of the global capitalist system, it amounted to a house of cards. Webber writes:

Perhaps the most severe paradox facing the Bolivarian process is that the social and participatory achievements highlighted above were not accompanied by equivalent structural transformations of the underlying economic structure or insertion of the country into the international division of labor. Indeed, oil dependency and the rentier-capitalist state have become still more entrenched under Chavez and Maduro. In 1998, oil’s share of total export value vas 68.7 percent, whereas in the last several years this has risen to 96 percent. industrial manufacturing was at 17 percent of export value in 2000, compared to 13 percent in 2013. There was a dramatic reorientation under Chavez of the distribution of a greater share of the oil rent to the popular classes, but the underlying model of accumulation was not altered, and thus the social gains of the Bolivarian process were always intensely vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of oil.

If in 1998, Hugo Chavez had undergone a transformation similar to Fidel Castro’s in 1960, declared himself a “Marxist-Leninist”, and nationalized every business in Venezuela down to the last bodega, he probably would have still been forced to produce for the world market. Cuba exported sugar and tobacco not because it thought such commodities were good for humanity (they certainly aren’t) but because they were a source of revenue. You can’t build hospitals and schools unless you have money in the national treasury.

It is also problematic to view the role of oil in Venezuela as some sort of neoliberal bogeyman best left “in the ground” as some anti-extractionists put it. In 2002, Chavez faced an insurrectionary challenge from the bourgeoisie and privileged layers of the state oil company (PDVSA) that organized a reactionary general strike. Massive demonstrations by Chavez’s supporters created a political momentum that eventually broke the strike and allowed Chavez to purge the PDVSA and transform it into a welfare fund for the overwhelming majority of the population rather than the privileged.

This confrontation had a lot more to do with Russia in 1917 than Webber would probably acknowledge. Was Chavez playing the role of a Kerensky determined to co-opt the mass movement and preserve capitalist property relations in Venezuela? A more dialectical approach would consider his role to be less than Lenin’s but a lot more than Kerensky’s. If Chavez was reluctant to follow the “Cuban” road, it was not necessarily because he believed in capitalism. It could have simply been his recognition that a socialist Venezuela would have been subject to the sort of embargoes that crushed the Sandinista revolution and that makes life in Cuba so difficult today.

21st Century Socialism might be a misnomer for a political project that stays within the limits of capitalism but it would be a big mistake to assume that this is a choice made without consideration of the relationship of class forces globally, a matter of some indifference to Jeffery Webber and most left critics of the Bolivarian revolution.

In chapter four, Webber describes himself as a “romantic Marxist”. I would say he got that right. If Latin Americans are desperate for answers on how to move forward to a more just society in the ashes of the failed Bolivarian project, they will find few answers in his book that mostly points out how rotten capitalism is, even when it is administered by men and women who call themselves socialist. What would a Bolivian peasant who has seen the land sold beneath feet to a soybean-producing multinational make of this:

The trajectory of Marxism after the death of Marx…has been dominated by a productivist, economistic, and evolutionist determinism, a “modernist” Marxism that “took over only one side of the Marxian heritage and developed an un-critical cult of technical progress, industrialism, machinism, Fordism, and Taylorism. Stalinism, with its alienated productivism and its obsession with heavy industry is the sad caricature of this kind of ‘cold stream in Marxism (to paraphrase Ernst Bloch).” A Romantic Marxism, a warmer stream that drew both from Marx and the revolutionary Romantic tradition, lived on, however, as a minority presence, insisting “on the essential break and discontinuity between the socialist utopia—as a qualitatively different way of life and work—and the present industrial society… look[ing] with nostalgia toward certain pre-capitalist social or cultural forms?” If the cold stream embraced Plekhanov, Kautsky, and the majority of the Second and Third Internationals, the Romantic Marxists included, in all their variety, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs, E. P. Thompson, and Benjamin—and, central for our purposes, Jose Carlos Mariategui.

With Venezuela being torn apart by rightwing mobs, how does this point toward a working-class victory? I am afraid that the audience for Webber’s book is the left academicians who read Historical Materialism rather than Venezuelan or Bolivian workers and farmers.

Let me conclude with my own take on what has been happening in Latin America. I have some experience dealing with revolutions in the global South as the president of the board of Tecnica, one of the leading solidarity organizations working in Nicaragua in the 1980s and 90s until Reagan forced the people to “cry uncle”. Our volunteers, a collection of programmers like me, engineers like Ben Linder, and other skilled technicians and tradespeople, were overseen by Paul Oquist who was Daniel Ortega’s chief economic adviser. Through consultations with him, we learned about difficult choices imposed on a poor country with few international allies.

Nicaragua was the last in a series of revolutionary governments that had followed through on Mao’s maxim “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The FSLN was the only guerrilla group that had successfully followed in the footsteps of the Cuban revolution. Like the July 26th movement, a government was formed that did not have to temporize with the bourgeoisie. The Sandinista directorate carried out an ambitious economic program that seized the properties of the Somoza wing of the bourgeoisie and put them at the service of the people just like Chavez did in Venezuela. Other sectors of the bourgeoisie were allowed to operate but only with the understanding that counter-revolutionary operations like those mounted against Chavez in 2002 were strictly forbidden. However, the revolution would eventually be exhausted by contra war and economic embargos close to the point of death. The death sentence finally came at the hands of the Soviet Union that happily traded Nicaragua’s future for a deal with the USA during “perestroika”.

As is now the case with the Pink Tide, the accusation that the FSLN “sold out” is absurd. We can certainly say that the Sandinistas abandoned a revolutionary perspective, but the pressures on them to do so were extremely powerful. They did not forsake revolution because of common class interests with the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, but because world capitalism and a rightward moving Soviet bureaucracy beat it into submission. The Nicaraguan revolution failed for the same reason that strikes sometimes fail: The boss is much stronger.

A more long term question is whether the era of “anti-imperialist” revolutions is past. Victor Tirado, a Sandinista leader, said it was and stirred up some controversy.

We as Marxists can not evade this question, however. It brings us back to the original understanding of the Russian revolution that Lenin and Trotsky had. They thought a revolution in Russia would trigger revolutions in Western Europe. Moreover, they believed that unless such revolutions happened, Soviet Russia would perish. Wasn’t Tirado expressing something similar when he raised this question? Without the aid of a powerful Soviet Union, revolutions in Third World countries will either become highly distorted or perish. The infant Soviet republic degenerated when Western European revolutions failed. For identical reasons, socialism remains a precarious venture today without Soviet aid.

Those were the realities that Chavez, Morales and Correa had to deal with. They were not very “romantic” but revolutionaries have an immense responsibility to the people in whose name they fight. The Pink Tide brought to an end the possibility of social transformation through the ballot box just as the overthrow of the Nicaraguan revolution brought down the curtain on guerrilla warfare.

The left internationally has to grapple with the question of how to take power in an epoch of capitalist decay. We have no experience using electoral politics to do so and the likelihood of people going into the hills of the Catskill mountains to form guerrilla focos is below zero. What is to be Done? That is the question we still face after 114 years.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.