The following text is made up of
12 articles that were first published in Venezuela in 2004 and that
were slightly modified in 2016. They were written without a
predetermined order in mind and I have preferred to maintain this
order to facilitate discussion with my earlier readers. I recommend
starting from the topic that most interests you and then reading the
rest of the text. As it is impossible to develop all facets of an
idea in two pages, only by reading the whole text will readers be
able to fully understand each individual article.
Introduction by the Editors at Old and New:
July 2016—When we asked Marta Harnecker whether it would be OK to post her
“Ideas for the Struggle” (12 short articles about the left and the challenges it
faces) on the Old and New website, with an invitation to revolutionary activists
in the USA to discuss it, she said she would be delighted. But she also urged
that we write an introduction explaining why a piece that was originally
composed in 2004 is being reprinted today, with only a few modifications. That
question, however, seems relatively easy: not much has changed on the
revolutionary left since 2004 concerning the issues Harnecker is addressing in
these notes. They have not been adequately discussed or resolved, far from
Another question also seems significant: Why do we think a text inspired by
and considering the practices of the Latin American left will be helpful to
revolutionaries in the USA? This should also be obvious to readers who take even
a quick look at the topics Harnecker considers. Each one of her specific notes
points to a significant difficulty for the left in the USA and other “advanced”
nations too. The problems are not unique to Latin America.
Indeed, most of “Ideas for the Struggle” might have been written directly
about the US left and its experience without changing a single word. And even a
section that is more specific to Latin America, like article eight, merely requires
that we acknowledge a slightly different historical context: Latin America went
through a period, in the living memory of many present-day activists, in which
military or other forms of dictatorship were the governmental norm. The need to
develop a revolutionary movement which could work effectively, strictly outside
governmental institutions, left a strong imprint on the thinking of many
leftists. Its a legacy which (Harnecker tells us) needs to be reconsidered today
with the turn toward more “democratic” forms of rule throughout the continent.
In the USA, of course, the “democratic” form of rule is the only kind we have
known. And yet the set of problems that Harnecker discusses in this section of
her document is still relevant for us, as are many of her insights—precisely
because the political realities in Latin America are now much more like those in
There are two aspects of Harnecker’s thinking that we want to highlight in
particular, because they are so much in tune with what we are attempting to do
with the Old and New Project:
* Her understanding that there are general lessons to be learned from the
lived experience of the revolutionary movement in the 20th century, that we
cannot expect to rebuild the revolutionary left in the 21st century without
seriously studying and discussing these lessons, and yet we also need to avoid
any sense that our past experience creates rigid rules for us to follow. There
is no script. Even though the next set of revolutionary events, wherever they
break out, will share features with those that occurred in the past it will also
represent a unique experience, unlike that of any other country in any other
* Similarly, there is a dialectic between the development of an independent
mass movement and a leadership capable of successfully consummating the struggle
for power. Many in the late 20th century fetishized the question of leadership,
treating the mass movement as essentially subordinate. (This was even true of
political currents which, on a strictly theoretical level, would tell you that
the mass movement was ultimately decisive and ought to be in control.)
Recognizing this error some have more recently swung the ideological pendulum
too far in the other direction, fetishizing the spontaneity and creativity of
the mass movement to the point where the need for a cadre organization virtually
disappears. What is needed is a synthesis between these two extremes—a cadre
organization which is conscious of why it exists and therefore understands that
in the end it must be subordinate to the mass movement, not a force which can
dictate to or manipulate the struggle based on some superior “scientific”
knowledge. The task, as Harnecker notes in the title to section two of her
document, is to “convince, not impose.”
We do not want to suggest that Harnecker’s ideas are perfect. We should
never expect any individual human being, or collective of human beings, to sit
down and write the perfect text. There are aspects, even essential aspects, to
be added to what she has written, others that need to be further nuanced. This
will inevitably be an ongoing and collective project, one which will not come to
an end until the future world that we are striving to create has been
A collective development of this essential conversation, across political
tendencies and across generations, is, precisely, the project which Old and New
was founded to pursue. Harnecker contributes to that effort in an extremely
useful and creative way with her “ideas.” We are therefore gratified that she
has agreed to share them with us, allowing us to post her text on this website.
Our thanks also to Links, an
Australian on-line journal which first published these "ideas" for an
international audience, and which is also attempting to develop the
essential discussion about them.
Mass uprisings or revolutions? The role of the political instrument
1. The recent and
not so recent popular uprisings that rocked numerous countries across
the world have clearly demonstrated that the
initiative of the people, in and of itself, is not enough to defeat
urban and rural sectors, lacking a well-defined plan, have risen up,
seized highways, towns and neighborhoods, ransacked stores and
stormed parliaments, but despite being able to mobilize hundreds of
thousands of people, neither their size
nor their combativeness have been enough to move from mass uprisings
They have overthrown presidents, but they have not been able to
conquer power and initiate a process of deep social transformations.
3. On the other
hand, the history of triumphant revolutions clearly demonstrates what
can be achieved when a political
instrument exists that is capable of raising an alternative national
program to unify the struggles of diverse social actors behind a
common goal; that helps to cohere them
and elaborates a path forward for these actors based on an analysis
of the existent balance of forces. Only in this manner can actions be
carried out at the right place and the right time, always seeking out
the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.
political instrument is like a
piston in a locomotive that
takes compressed stream from the boiler and, at the decisive moment,
converts it into a powerful force. Of course, as Leon Trotsky said,
it is not the piston or the boiler, but the steam which drives the
5. In order for
political action to be effective, so that protests, resistance and
struggles are genuinely able to change things, to convert mass
uprisings into revolutions, a political instrument capable of
overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the
oppressed is required: one that can
create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their
differences, have a common enemy; that is able to strengthen existing
struggles and promote others by orientating their actions according
to a thorough analysis of the political situation; that can act as an
instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and
6. We are aware that there
are a number of apprehensions towards such ideas. There are many who
are not even willing to discuss them. Such positions are adopted
because they associate this idea with the anti-democratic,
authoritarian, bureaucratic and manipulative political practices that
have characterized many left-wing parties.
7. I believe it
is fundamental for us to overcome this subjective barrier and
understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not
thinking about any political instrument;
we are dealing with a political instrument adjusted to the new times,
an instrument that we must build together.
8. However, in order
to create or refashion this new political instrument, the
left has to change its political culture and its vision of politics.
This cannot be reduced to institutional political disputes for
control over parliament or local governments; to approving laws or
winning elections. In this conception of politics, the popular
sectors and their struggles are completely ignored. Neither can
politics be limited to the art of what is possible.
9. For the left,
politics must be the art of making possible the impossible. And we
are not talking here about a voluntarist declaration. We
are talking about understanding politics as the art of constructing a
social and political force capable of changing the correlation of
force in favor of the popular movement, to make possible in the
future what today appears impossible.
10. We have to think of
politics as the art of constructing forces. We have to overcome the
old and deeply-rooted mistake of trying to build a political force
without building a social force.
there is still a lot of revolutionary phase-mongering among our
militants; too much radicalism in their statements.
I am convinced that the only way to radicalize a given situation is
through the construction of forces.
Those whose words are filled with demands for radicalization must
answer the following question: what are you doing to construct the
political and social force necessary to push the process forward?
this construction of forces cannot
occur spontaneously; only popular uprisings happen spontaneously. It
requires a political instrument that is capable of consciously
building the required forces.
13. And I envisage this
political instrument as an organization capable of raising a national
project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors
that oppose neoliberalism. As an organization that is orientated
towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of the social
movements instead of manipulating them. And one whose militants and
leaders are true popular pedagogues, capable of stimulating the
knowledge that exists within the people—derived from their
cultural traditions, as well as acquired in their daily struggles for
survival—through the fusion of this knowledge with the most
all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer.
An orientating and cohering instrument at the service of the social
2. Convince, not impose
1. Popular movements
and, more generally, the different social protagonists engaged in the
struggle against neoliberal globalization both at the international
and national levels, reject—with good reason—attitudes that aim
to impose hegemony or control on movements. They do not accept the
steamroller policy that some political and social organizations
tended to use that, taking advantage of their position of strength
and monopolizing political positions, attempts to manipulate the
movement. They do not accept the
authoritarian imposition of a leadership from above; they do not
accept attempts made to lead movements by simply giving orders,
no matter how correct they are.
2. Such attitudes, instead
of bringing forces together, have the opposite effect. On the one
hand, they create discontent in the other organizations; they feel
manipulated and obligated to accept decisions in which they have had
no participation; and on the other hand, it reduces the number of
potential allies, given that an organization that assumes such
positions is incapable of representing the real interests of all
sectors of the population and often provokes mistrust and skepticism
3. But fighting
against positions that seek to impose hegemony does not mean
renouncing the fight to win hegemony,
which is nothing else but attempting to win over, to persuade others
of the correctness of our criteria and the validity of our proposals.
hegemony does not require having many people in the beginning.
There are a number of examples in history that demonstrate how, in a
revolutionary situation, a small group with clear ideas, one that
correctly analyses the balance of forces in dispute, that elaborates
a correct strategy and tactic, and that is armed with great passion
and the determination to put their ideas into practice can, within a
short timeframe, become a movement that mobilizes hundreds of
thousands of people.
5. It is more
important to put forward a political project that reflects the
population’s most deeply felt aspirations, and thus win their minds
and hearts, than to create a powerful party with a large number of
militants. What matters is ensuring that
its politics succeed in winning the support of the masses and
consensus in the majority of society.
parties boast about the large numbers
of militants they have, but in reality
they only lead their members. The key
is not whether the party is large or small; what matters is that the
people identify with its proposals.
of imposing and manipulating, it is necessary to convince and unite
all those who feel attracted to our project.
And you can only unite people if others are respected, if you are
willing to share responsibilities with other forces.
8. Today, important
sectors of the left have come to understand that their hegemony is
greater when they succeed in drawing more people behind their
proposals, even if they may not do so under their party’s banner.
We have to abandon the old-fashioned and mistaken practice of
demanding intellectual property rights against organizations that
dare to hoist our banner.
9. If an important number
of grassroots leaders are won over to these ideas, it is fair to
assume that their social base will more likely also be influenced by
these ideas. It is also important to win over distinguished national
personalities to the project, because they are public opinion makers
and will be effective instruments for promoting proposals and winning
over new supporters.
10. We believe that
a good way to measure the level of hegemony obtained by an
organization is to examine the number of
natural leaders and personalities that have taken up its ideas,
and in general, the number of people who identify with them.
11. The level of
hegemony obtained by a political organization cannot be measured by
the number of political positions they have won. What is fundamental
is that those who occupy leading positions in diverse movements and
organizations take up as their own and
implement the proposals elaborated by the organization, despite not
belonging to it.
12. A political
organization that genuinely does not seek to impose hegemony should
be able to propose the best people for different positions,
regardless of whether they are party members, independents, or members
of other parties. The credibility among the people of a political
organization will depend a great deal on the figures that it puts
13. Of course this is
easier said than done. Frequently, when an organization is strong, it
tends to underestimate the contribution that other organizations may
have to offer and tends to impose its ideas. It is easier to do this
than to take the risk and rise to the challenge of winning people
over. The more political positions obtained, the more careful we have
to be of not succumbing to the desire of imposing hegemony or
14. Moreover, as
life follows its own course, new problems arise, and with them new
challenges, the concept of hegemony should be a dynamic one. Hegemony
cannot be consolidated once and for all.
Maintaining it requires a process of permanently re-winning it.
To be at the service of popular movements, not replace them
1. We have
previously stated that politics is the art of constructing a social
and political force capable of changing the balance of forces in
order to make possible tomorrow that which today appears to be
impossible. But to be able to construct a social force political
organizations must demonstrate a great
respect for grassroots movements, and contribute to their autonomous
development, leaving behind all attempts at manipulation.
They must take as their starting point the fact that they are not the
only ones with ideas and proposals; on the contrary, grassroots
movements have much to offer us, because through their daily
struggles they have also learned things, discovered new paths, found
solutions and invented methods which can be of great value.
organizations have to get rid of the idea that they are the only ones
capable of generating creative, new, revolutionary and transformative
ideas. Their role therefore is not only to echo the demands of the
social movements, but also to gather ideas and concepts from these
movements to enrich their own conceptual arsenal.
3. Political and
social leaders should leave behind
pre-established schemas. They have to struggle to eliminate all
verticalism that stifles the initiative of the people.
The role of a leader must be one of contributing with ideas and
experiences in order to help nurture and strengthen the movement, and
not replace the masses.
4. Their role is to
push the mass movement forward, or perhaps more than push, facilitate
the conditions necessary for the movement to unleash its capacity to
confront those that exploit and oppress them. But
helping to push forward is only possible if we fight shoulder to
shoulder in local, regional, national and international struggles.
5. The relationship of
political organizations with grassroots movements should therefore be
a two-way street: from the political organization to the social
movement and from the social movement to the political organization.
Unfortunately, the tendency continues to be only in the former
6. It is important
to learn to listen and
to engage in dialogue with the people; it is necessary to listen
carefully to the solutions proposed by
the people themselves to defend their
conquests or struggle for their demands and, with all the information
collected, we must be capable of correctly diagnosing their mood and
synthesize that which could unite them and generate political action,
at the same time as tackling any pessimistic and defeatist ideas they
possible, we must involve the grassroots
in the decision making process, that is
to say we have to open up new spaces for people’s participation.
But people’s participation is not
something that can be decreed from above.
Only by taking the genuine motivations of the people as our starting
point, only if one helps them to understand the need to carry out
certain task by themselves, and only by winning over their hearts and
minds, will they be willing to fully commit themselves to the actions
8. This is the only
way to ensure that efforts made to help orient the movement are not
felt as orders coming from outside the movement, and to help create
an organizational process capable of involving, if not all, then at
least an important part of the people in the struggle and, starting
from there, win over little by little the more backward and
pessimistic sectors. When these latter sectors understand that, as
Che Guevara said, the aims we are fighting for are
not only necessary but possible, they
too will choose to join the struggle.
9. When the people
realize that their own ideas and initiatives are being put into
practice, they will see themselves as
the protagonists of change, and their capacity to struggle will
10. Taking all that
has been said above into consideration, it is clear that the type of
political cadres we need are not cadres
with a military mentality—today, it
is not about leading an army, which is not to say that at some
critical conjunctures this may and should be the case. Nor
do we need cadres that are demagogic
populists—because it is not about leading a flock of sheep.
Political cadres should fundamentally
be popular pedagogues, capable of
fostering the ideas and initiative that emerge for within the
11. Unfortunately, many of
the current leaders have been educated in the school of leading the
people by issuing orders, and that is not something that can be
changed overnight. Therefore, I do not want to create an impression
of excessive optimism here. Achieving a correct relationship between
the leaders and the grassroots is still a long way off.
4. Should we reject bureaucratic
centralism and simply use consensus?
1. For a long time,
left-wing parties operated along authoritarian lines. The usual
practice was that of bureaucratic
centralism, influenced by the practice
of Soviet socialism. Most decisions
regarding principles, tasks, initiatives, and the course of political
action to take were restricted to the party elite, without the
participation or debate of the membership
who were limited to following orders that they never got to discuss
and in many cases did not understand. For most people, these
practices are every day becoming increasingly more intolerable.
2. But in
challenging bureaucratic centralization, it is important to avoid
falling into the excesses of ultra-democracy, which results in more
time being used for discussion than action since everything,
even the most minor points, are the subject of rigorous debates that
frequently impede any concrete action.
3. In criticizing
bureaucratic centralization, the recent tendency has been to reject
all forms of centralized leadership.
4. There is a lot of
talk about organizing groups at all levels of society, and that these
groups must apply a strict internal democracy, ideas that we
obviously share. What we do not agree with is the idea that no effort
needs to put into organically linking them up. In
defending democracy, flexibility and the desire to fight on many
different fronts, what ends up being rejected is efforts to determine
strategic priorities and attempts to unify actions.
5. For some, the one
and only acceptable method is consensus.
They argue that by utilizing consensus they are seeking to not impose
decisions but instead interpret the will of all. But the consensus
method, which seeks the agreement of all and appears to be a more
democratic method, can in practice be something that is profoundly
anti-democratic, because it grants the
power of veto to a minority to such an
extreme that a single person can block the implementation of an
agreement that may be supported by an overwhelming majority.
6. Moreover, the
complexity of problems, the size of the organizations, and the
political timing that compels us to make quick decisions at specific
conjunctures make it almost impossible to use the consensus method on
7. I believe that
there cannot be political efficacy
without a unified leadership that
determines the course of action to follow at different moments in the
struggle. This also requires that a broad ranging discussion occur,
where everyone can raise their opinions and where, in the end,
positions are adopted and everyone respects them.
8. For the sake of a
unified course of action, lower levels of the organization should
respect the decisions made by the higher bodies, and those who have
ended up in the minority should accept whatever course of action
emerges triumphant, carrying out the task together with all the other
9. This combination
of a) a democratic debate at different
levels of the organization and
single centralized leadership based on whatever agreements are
arrived at by consensus or by majority vote is
called “democratic centralism.”
10. It is a dialectical
combination: in complicated political periods, of revolutionary
fervor or war, there is no other alternative than to lean towards
centralization; in periods of calm, when the rhythm of events is
slower, the democratic character should be emphasized.
11. Personally, I do
not see how one can conceive of successful political action if
unified action is not achieved around key issues. I
do not see any other alternative to democratic centralism for
achieving this, if consensus cannot been reached.
12. Only a correct
combination of centralism and democracy can ensure that agreements
are effective, because having engaged in
the discussion and the decision-making process, one feels more
committed to carry out the decisions.
13. And this
commitment will then translate, in practice, into a growing sense of
responsibility, dedication to work, aptitude for problem-solving, as
well as courage to express opinions, to criticize defects and
exercise control over the higher bodies of the organizations.
14. An insufficient
democratic life impedes the unleashing of the creative initiative of
all activists, with its subsequent negative impact on their
15. When applying
democratic centralism we must avoid
attempts to use narrow majorities to try and crush the minority.
The more mature social and political movements believe that it is
pointless imposing a decision adopted by a narrow majority. They
believe that if the large majority of activists are not convinced of
the course of action to take, it is better to hold off until the
activists are won over politically and become convinced themselves
that such action is correct. This will help us avoid the disastrous
internal divisions that have plagued movements and left parties, and
avoid the possibility of making big mistakes.
Minorities can be right
centralism implies not only the subordination of the minority to the
majority, but also the respect of the
majority towards the minority.
2. Minorities should
not be crushed or marginalized; they should be respected. Nor should
the minority be required to completely subordinate itself to the
majority. The minority must carry out
the tasks proposed by the majority at
each concrete political conjunction, but they should
not have to renounce their political, theoretical and ideological
convictions. On the contrary, it is the
minority’s duty to continue fighting to defend their ideas until
the others are convinced or they themselves become convinced of the
3. Why should the
minority continue defending its viewpoint and not simply submit to
the position of the majority? Because the
minority may be right; its analysis of
reality might be more accurate because it read the present
correlation of forces more correctly, or understood more accurately
the true motivations of specific social forces. That is why those who
hold minority views at a specific moment should not only have the
right, but actually have the duty, to defend their positions, to
fight to convince the maximum number of activists of those positions
through a healthy internal debate.
refer to a “healthy
because we have to start by recognizing that we never possess the
whole truth. Those who do not share our ideas can be correct. Also,
we should not personalize the discussion. Instead of trying to prove
right we should collectively try to work out what
is right. The best leaders are those who promote a process that
enables the collective to determine what is right.
5. Moreover, if
the majority is convinced that their propositions are correct, then
they have nothing to fear in debating ideas.
On the contrary, they should encourage it and try to convince the
minority. If the majority fears a confrontation of positions, it is
probably a sign of political weakness.
6. Is this not the
case if we look at some of the left parties and social movements in
Latin America? How many splits could
have been avoided if the minority view had of been respected?
Instead, on many occasions, the entire
weight of the bureaucratic apparatus has been used to crush them,
leaving them with no choice but to split.
7. Sometimes minorities
are accused of being divisive for the simple reason that they want
their ideas to be respected and be given space to debate them. Could
it be that the true splitters are those who provoke division by
leaving the minority with no other option than to split if they hope
to continue their struggle against positions they believe to be
8. The topic of
majorities and minorities also relates to the
disjunction or non-correspondence between representatives and the
rank and file. This phenomenon may
occur for different reasons, including: the organic incapacity of
those who represent the real majority to achieve better
representation in the mass organizations; the bureaucratic maneuvers
and dishonest methods of a formal majority to keep itself in
positions of power; the rapid change in political consciousness of
those who elected these representatives due to developments in the
revolutionary process. When such a shift in consciousness takes
place, those who only days before truly represented the majority, may
now no longer do so because the people have matured, they now see
that others who had proposed to represent them in a different way
were right after all. Under such circumstance, any majority now only
constitutes a formal majority. If new elections were to be held, new
people would be elected.
9. The new culture
of the left should also be reflected in a different
approach towards the composition of leadership bodies in political
organizations. For a long time it was
believed that if a certain tendency or sector of the party won the
internal elections by a majority, all leadership positions would be
filled by cadres from that tendency. In a certain sense, the
prevailing idea was that the more homogenous the leadership, the
easier it would be to lead the organization. Today different criteria
tend to prevail: a leadership that
better reflects the internal balance of forces seems to work better,
as it helps to get all party members, and not only those of the
majority current, feeling more involved in the implementation of
tasks proposed by the leadership.
10. But a plural
leadership, along the lines that we are proposing, can only be
effective if the organization has a
truly democratic culture, because if
that is not the case, then such an approach will produce a wave of
unrest and render the organization ungovernable.
11. Moreover, a real
democratization of the political organization demands more effective
participation by party members in the election of their leaders: they
should be elected according to their ideological and political
positions rather than personal issues. That is why it is important
that the different positions up for election are well known among the
party membership via internal publications. It is also very important
to ensure a more democratic formulation of candidatures and safeguard
the secret vote.
it is essential to understand that an internal democratic culture
practiced by the political organization, a level of internal
tolerance, an ability to act in a united way even if there are
disagreements, offer the social movements a positive example which
they can then try to imitate.
The need to unite the political left and the social left
rejection by a majority of the people of the globalization model
imposed on our continent intensifies each day given its inability to
solve the most pressing problems of our people.
Neoliberal policies implemented by large transnational financial
capital, which is backed by a large military and media power, and
whose hegemonic headquarters can be found in the United States, have
not only been unable to resolve these problems but, on the contrary,
have dramatically increased misery and social exclusion, while
concentrating wealth in increasingly fewer hands.
2. Among those who have
suffered most as a result of the economic consequences of
neoliberalism are the traditional sectors of the urban and rural
working classes. But its disastrous effects have also affected many
other social sectors, such as the poor and marginalized, impoverished
middle-class sectors, the constellation of small and medium-sized
businesses, the informal sector, medium and small-scale rural
producers, the majority of professionals, the legions of unemployed,
workers in cooperatives, pensioners, the subordinate cadres of the
police and the army (junior officers). Moreover, we should not only
keep in mind those who are affected economically, but also all those
who are discriminated against and oppressed by the system: women,
youth, children, the elderly, indigenous peoples, blacks, certain
religious creeds, homosexuals, etc.
Neoliberalism impoverishes the great majority of the population
of our countries; impoverished in the socioeconomic sense and
also in the subjective sense.
4. Some of these sectors
have transformed themselves into powerful movements. Among those are
women’s, indigenous and consumer rights movements, and movements
that fight for human rights and in defense of the environment.
movements differ in many ways from the classical labor movement.
Their platforms have a strong issues-based focus and they stretch
across classes and generations. Their forms of organizing are less
hierarchical and rely more on networks than those of the past, while
their concrete forms of actions vary quite a lot.
social actors have also appeared. What
is surprising, for example, is the capacity to mobilize that has
manifested itself among youth,
fundamentally organized through electronic means
(internet, mobile phones, etc.), with the object of rejecting
actually existing globalization, resisting the application of
neoliberal measures, promoting very powerful mobilizations against
war and military occupation, and spreading the experiences of
revolutionary struggle, thereby breaking
down the information blockade that had
been imposed on left and progressive ideas.
7. This growing rejection
is being expressed through diverse and alternative practices of
resistance and struggle.
consolidation of left parties, fronts or political processes in
opposition to neoliberalism is
undeniable in various countries. In others, powerful
social movements have arisen and
transformed themselves into major political actors, becoming
important oppositional forces that occupy the frontlines of the fight
against neoliberal globalization.
despite the depth of the crisis that the neoliberal model has
provoked in those countries where it is still in place, the breadth
and variety of affected sectors that encompass the majority of the
population, the multiplicity of demands that have emerged from
society and which continue to remain unmet—all of which have
produced a highly favorable situation for the creation of a very
broad anti-neoliberal social bloc with enormous social force—the majority of these growing expressions of resistance and struggle
are still far from truly representing a real threat to the system.
10. I believe that
one of the reasons that helps explain this situation is that parallel
to these favorable objective conditions
for the construction of a broad alternative social bloc against
neoliberalism, there are very complicated subjective conditions which
have to do with a profound problem: the dispersion of the left.
11. And that is why
I believe that for an effective struggle against neoliberalism, it is
strategically important to articulate the different left sectors,
understanding the left to
mean all those forces that stand up against the capitalist system and
its profit-driven logic, and who fight for an alternative society
based on humanism and solidarity, built upon the interests of the
the left cannot simply be reduced to that which belongs to left
parties or political organizations; it also includes social actors
and movements. Very often these are
more dynamic and combative than the former, but do not belong to or
reject belonging to any political party or organization. Among the
former are those who prefer to accumulate forces by using
institutions to aid transformation, while others reject that option.
13. To simplify, I
have decided to refer to the first group as the political
left and the second group as the social
left, even though I recognize that this
conceptual separation is not always so clearly defined in practice.
In fact, the more developed social movements tend to acquire
14. To sum up, I
believe that only by uniting the militant efforts of the most diverse
expressions of the left will we be able to fully carry out the task
of building the broad anti-neoliberal social bloc that we need to
help elect progressive candidates and, from there, advance in the
direction of being an alternative to capitalism. The
strategic task therefore is to articulate the political and social
left so that, from this starting point, we can bring the growing and
disperse social opposition together into a single colossal column.
Reasons for popular skepticism towards politics and politicians
1. I have said that
in order to wage an effective struggle against neoliberalism we must
articulate all those who are suffering its consequences, and that to
achieve this objective we must start with the left itself, which in
our countries tends to be very dispersed. But, there
are many obstacles that impede this task. The
first step to overcoming them is to be aware of them and be prepared
to face them.
2. One of these
obstacles is the growing popular
skepticism towards politics and politicians.
3. This has to do,
among other things, with the great constraints
that exist today in our democratic systems,
which are very different from those that existed prior to the military
low-intensity, controlled, restricted, limited or monitored
democratic regimes drastically limit the effective capacity for
action of democratically-elected authorities. The
most important decisions are made by unelected institutions which
therefore are not subject to changes produced by electoral results;
such is the case with national security councils, central banks,
institutions for economic advice, supreme courts, ombudsmen,
constitutional tribunals, media, etc.
5. Groups of
professionals, and not politicians, are responsible for making
decisions, or as a minimum have a decisive influence over the
decisions made. The apparent neutrality and depoliticization of these
entities conceals the new way in which the dominant class does
politics. Their decisions are adopted
outside the framework of parties. We
are dealing with controlled democracies, where the controllers
themselves are not subject to any democratic mechanism.
instruments for manufacturing consensus
such as the media—which are monopolized by the ruling classes—have been dramatically improved,
and condition to a great extent the way in which people perceive
reality. This explains why it is that the most conservative parties,
which defend the interests of a tiny minority of the population, have
been able to quantitatively transform themselves into mass parties,
and why the social bases that support their candidates, at least in
Latin America, were the poorest social sectors in the urban
peripheries and countryside. Happily this situation has changed in
the last decades.
7. Other elements
that explain this growing popular skepticism include, on the one
hand, the unscrupulous appropriation of
the language and discourse of the left by the right wing:
words such as reforms, structural changes, concern for poverty,
transition, etc., along with a questioning of the idea of the market
as the solution to all problems and support for a regulatory role for
the state, today form part of its everyday discourse. On the other
hand, there is the quite frequent adoption by some left parties of
political practices that hardly differ from the habitual practices of
8. We must bear in mind
that people are increasingly rejecting clientalist, non-transparent
and corrupt party practices carried out by those who reach out to the
people only at election time; that waste energy in internecine
fighting between factions and petty ambitions; where decisions are
made at the top by party elites without a genuine consultation with
the ranks; and where personal leadership outranks collective
leadership. People are increasingly rejecting messages that remain as
mere words and are never translated into action.
9. Ordinary people are fed
up with the traditional political system and want renewal, they want
positive change, they want new approaches to doing politics, they
want clean politics, they want transparency and participation, and
they want to regain confidence in politics.
10. This distrust of
politics and politicians—which also permeates the social left—is growing daily, but is not as serious
a problem for the right as it is the left.
The right wing can operate perfectly well without political parties,
as it demonstrated during periods of dictatorship, but the left
cannot do without a political instrument, be it a party, a political
front or some other formula.
11. Another obstacle to
the unity of the left—following the defeat of Soviet socialism and
the crises of welfare state promoted by European social democracies
and Lain American developmental populism—was that it has had great
difficulties in elaborating a rigorous and credible alternative to
capitalism that takes into account the new global reality.
12. Capitalism has
revealed its great capacity to re-invent
itself and utilize the new
technological revolution for its own ends: fragmenting the working
class, limiting its negotiating power, and creating panic over
unemployment. Meanwhile, on many occasions, the left has remained
anchored in the past. There is an excess
of diagnosis and an absence of remedy.
We often tend to navigate without a political compass.
13. Most of the obstacles
outlined above, that disrupt attempts to unite all of the left, are due
to realities imposed on us from outside, but there also exists
obstacles that come from within.
14. On the one hand,
during the last decades the political left has had many difficulties
in working with the social movements and winning over new social
forces. On the other hand, there has been a tendency within the
social left to dismiss parties and magnify their own roles in the
struggle against neoliberal globalization, an attitude that has not
helped in overcoming the dispersion of the left. Our next article
will focus on these issues.
The left should avoid allowing the right to set its agenda for
1. In the previous
article, I stated that a large section of the political left has
found it very difficult to work with
social movements and develop ties with
the new social forces in recent decades. This has been due to several
2. While the right
wing has demonstrated great political initiative, the
left tends to be on the defensive.
While the former uses its control of state institutions and the mass
media, as well as its economic influence, to impose its new model
that is subservient to financial capital and monopolies, and has
precipitated privatizations, labor deregulation and all the other
aspects of the neoliberal economic program to increase social
fragmentation and foment anti-partyism, the
political left—on the other hand—has almost exclusively limited its work to
the use of the existing institutionality,
subordinating itself to the rules of the
game imposed by the enemy, hardly
ever taking it by surprise. The level of absurdity is such that the
calendar of struggle of the left is set by the right.
3. How often have we
heard the left, after discovering that its electoral results were not
what it was expecting, complain about the adverse conditions it had
to face during an election campaign? Yet the very same left seldom
denounces the rules of the game imposed on it, nor does it propose
electoral reforms during its electoral campaigns. On the contrary,
what tends to occur is that—instead of carrying out an
educational, pedagogical campaign that
serves to increase the organization and awareness of the people—the left uses the same techniques that the ruling classes uses to
sell its candidates and seek votes.
4. On the other
hand, the current rules of the game imposed by the dominant classes
hinder the unity of the left and foment
personality-based politics. In some
countries, the left is forced to work to support its own party
instead of a broader front, because if it does not, its party tends
to disappear from the political sphere.
5. This means that
when electoral defeats occur, the frustration, tiredness and debts
incurred during the campaign are compounded by the fact that the
electoral effort does not translate into political growth, leaving a
bitter sense of having wasted time. The situation would be very
different if campaigns were conceived from a pedagogical point of
view, where election campaigns are used
to deepen awareness and popular organization.
Then, even if the electoral results are not the most favorable, the
time and effort invested in the campaign are not wasted.
6. It is not
surprising that some argue that the cult
of the institution has been the Trojan
horse that the ruling system has been able to introduce into the
fortress of the revolutionary left, thus attacking the left from
7. The work of
activists is progressively delegated to people who hold public and
administrative positions. Majority effort stops
being directed towards collective action and are redirected towards
parliamentary action or building a media presence.
8. Militant action tends
to be reduced to activities on election day, putting-up posters and
other such trivial public acts.
9. And, even worse,
party financing is increasingly relying
on the participation of party cadres in state institutions:
parliament, local government, election boards, etc., with all that
this entails in terms of dependency and undue pressure.
10. The political
activity of the left cannot be reduced to the conquest of
institutions; it must be directed towards changing those institutions
in order to be able to transform reality. A new correlation of forces
must be created so that the necessary changes can be implemented. We
have to understand that we cannot build
a political force without building a social force.
11. At the same
time, we must also avoid “partyising” all initiatives and the
social movements we relate to; on the contrary, effort must be made
to articulate their practices into a
single political project.
12. Additionally, the
political left has had a hard time adjusting to the new realities. On
many occasions it has remained firmly locked into rigid conceptual
frameworks that prevent it from appreciating the potentiality of the
new social forces, instead exclusively focusing efforts on forces
that have traditionally mobilized, such as trade unions, but that
today are much weaker due to a variety of factors.
13. Lastly, one of
the greatest difficulties for the political left in terms of working
with the social left has been the viewpoint that sees social
movements as conveyor belts for the party.
The leadership of the movement, positions in leadership bodies, the
platform of struggle, everything is decided by party leaders and the
line of march is imposed to the social movements, thereby not
allowing them to participate in the process of deciding upon the
matters that directly affect them.
14. Summing up, in
order for the political left to develop strong bonds with the social
left, the political left must renew
itself ideologically, change its political culture and work methods,
and incorporate into its arsenal the innovative forms of struggle and
resistance utilized by the social left.
9. Respect differences and be flexible in regards to activism
1. There continues
to be a difficulty within the left to
deal with differences. In the past, the
tendency of political organizations, especially parties that declared
they were parties of the working class, was always towards
homogenizing the social base within which they carried out political
work. If this attitude was once understandable due to the past
identity and homogeneity of the working class, today it is
anachronistic when confronted with a working class that is quite
differentiated, and with the emergence of a diversity of new social
forces. Today, we increasingly have to deal with a unity
based on diversity, on respect for
ethnic and cultural differences, for gender and for the sense of
belonging of specific collectives.
2. It is necessary
to try channeling commitments to activism by starting
with the actual potential of each sector, and even of each person,
that is willing to commit themselves to the struggle, without seeking
to homogenize these actors. It is important to have a special
sensibility towards finding all those points of agreement that can
allow for the emergence of a common
platform of struggle.
3. This respect for
differences should also reflect itself in our discourse. We must
break from the old style of attempting to take a uniform message to
people with very different interests. We
cannot think of them as an amorphous mass;
what exists are individuals, men and women who live in different
places, who do different things and who are under different
ideological influences. Our message has
to adopt flexible forms in order to be able to reach these real men
4. When all our
speeches and messages are cut from the same cloth and are transmitted
in the same manner and with the same words, pronounced in the same
tone and through the same megaphone, and when the years go by and the
posters and slogans don’t change, our
words lose their value. They can no
longer win the imaginations of anyone.
have to individualize the message, but without losing sight of the
6. I believe this
issue can help shed light on the issue of the crisis of activism.
Furthermore, everyone knows that over the last few years, a fairly
generalized crisis of activism has occurred,
not only among left parties but also in the social movements and
grassroots communities influenced by liberation theology. This is
something that can be explained by the changes that the world has
suffered. Nevertheless, in many of our countries, together with this
crisis of activism, we have witnessed a
parallel increase in the influence of the left in society, and an
increase of progressive sentiments
among popular sectors.
7. This leads us to
the conclusion that one of the factors present in the origins of this
crisis of activism is the type of demands
placed upon people in order for them to be able to involve themselves
in organized political activity. We
have to examine whether the left has been able to open up avenues for
activism and help nurture that growing progressive sentiment in
society, because not all people have the same activist vocation nor
do they all feel inclined to be active on a permanent level. This
fluctuates a lot depending on the political climate of the day. To
ignore this, and demand a uniform level of activism, is self-limiting
and weakens the political organization.
8. For example, there are
those who are willing to be active over a specific issue: health,
education, culture, and not within a local branch in their workplace
or community. There are others who only feel the need to be active at
certain conjunctures (elections, etc.) but are not willing to do so
all year round, even though during key moments of the political
struggle you can always count on them to be there, and in their daily
lives they are promoting the left’s project and values.
try to pigeonhole people who are willing to be active into a single
norm which is the same for everyone,
based on 24-hours-a-day/seven-days-a-week level of activism, means
excluding all these potential activists.
10. We have to
create a type of organization that can house the widest range of
militants, allowing for diverse levels of membership. Organic
structures have to abandon their rigidity and become more flexible
in order to make the most of the different levels of activist
commitment, without establishing a hierarchy between these different
11. To facilitate the
different levels of activism, it is necessary to adapt the structures
and grassroots units of the organization to suit the character of the
surroundings in which their political activities are carried out.
A strategy for building The unity of the left
1. I have previously
referred to the necessity of building unity among all left forces and
actors in order to be able to cohere a broad anti-neoliberal bloc
around them. Nevertheless, I do not
think that this objective can be achieved in a voluntarist manner,
creating coordinating bodies from above that end up being a simple
sum of acronyms.
believe that this unity can emerge through concrete struggles for
common objectives. That is why I think
that we can help create better conditions for this unity if we put
into practice a new strategy of anti-capitalist struggle.
3. I am talking about a
strategy that takes into consideration the important social,
political, economic and cultural transformations that have occurred
across the world in the last period. One that understands that the
new forms of capitalist domination go far beyond the economic and
state sphere, have infiltrated into all the interstices of
society—fundamentally through the mass media which has
indiscriminately invaded the homes of all social sectors, and in
doing so changed the conditions of struggle.
4. Today, more than
ever, we have to confront not only the bourgeoisie’s apparatuses of
political coercion but also the mechanisms
and institutions present in civil society that generate a broad
acceptance of the capitalist social order.
The capitalist elites tend to achieve a significant hegemony over
important popular sectors, a real cultural leadership over society;
they have the capacity to ideologically subordinate the popular
sectors, even those who are exploited by them. As Chomsky says,
propaganda is to bourgeois democracy what the truncheon is to the
5. In those Latin American
countries where the government is in hands of the conservative
classes, our challenge is to elaborate a revolutionary strategy
within the conditions of a bourgeois democracy that enjoys a level of
acceptance by an important part of the popular sectors which allows
it to maintain itself without having to recur to repression; what’s
more, we have to take as our starting point the recognition that
large parts of popular sectors accept as good coin the capitalist
leadership of the process.
6. For this reason,
simple propaganda about an alternative
society is not enough. The greater
complexity that domination has assumed, the presence of important
para-state factors that produce and reproduce the existing popular
fragmentation and that attempt to delegitimize the thought and
project of the left in the eyes of the public, means that we
must demonstrate that we practice what we preach.
7. To do so, we must
develop a process of popular
construction opposed to capitalism in the territories and spaces won
by the left, that seeks to break with the profit logic and the
relations this imposes and tries to instill solidarity-based humanist
8. We must promote
struggles that are not limited to simple economic demands –
although these need to be included – but that advance in the
development of a more global, social project that encourages
authentic levels of power from the grassroots.
9. What we are dealing
with is the construction of experiences in popular democracy that are
tangibly superior to bourgeois democracy. For example, the
elaboration of a project for a humanist and solidarity-based city in
a local government, promoting a diversity of spaces for participation
that allow local residents to transform themselves into active
members of their community. Or the construction of a community of
rural settlements where peasants can establish diverse forms of
collaboration among themselves, not only in agricultural production,
but in the industrialization and commercialization of their products,
in the education of their children and the formation of their cadre,
according to a model that foreshadows the new society. Or the
building of a student federation that defends the democratic
participation of students in the running of a university committed to
society. Or the construction of a trade union confederation that puts
an end to bureaucratic leadership separated from the grassroots, that
defends a social-political unionism, that overcomes simple economism,
and that proposes as its objective an active insertion in the
struggle for social transformation.
10. A strategy of this
type can enormously facilitate the cohering of all the sectors of the
left, both those that are members of parties as well as social
movement activists, because it involves a different type of call to
action. In order to be active, one does not necessarily have to
become a member of a party, a mass organization, a movement; one can
become an activist simply by participating in putting into practice
the project of an alternative model.
11. More than just a
propagandized utopia that is sterilely introduced into the minds of
men and women in a passive manner as enlightened education without
any practice in concrete construction, we are dealing with the
construction of popular democratic reference points that, given
they reflect different practices, tend to attract new sectors.
12. Moreover, it is only
through these practices that many people begin to understand why it
is that to expand their humanist and solidarity-based projects it is
necessary to put an end to the capitalist system that, with its
profit logic, raises enormous hurdles to any type of alternative
13. It is therefore an
urgent priority to put an end to the “tactics” of shortcuts, of
conjuncturalism, and thread together a practice centered on the
promotion of democratic struggles from the grassroots; in the local
construction of forms of power and popular democracy that allow us
to define the meaning and timing of electoral and other
forms of struggle. Otherwise, these practices will not overcome the
long string of immediatism that we have encountered over the past
14. But it is also
urgent that we overcome grassrootism,
localism, apoliticism, corporatism, all of which limit the struggle
of the popular sectors to trade union horizons or economic struggles.
11. Popular consultations: spaces that allow for the convergence of
1. I have previously
argued the case for the need to create a large social bloc against
neoliberalism that can unite all those affected by the system. To
achieve this, it is fundamental that we create spaces
that allow for the convergence of specific anti-neoliberal struggles
safeguarding the specific characteristics of each political or social
actor, common tasks can be taken up that
help strengthening the struggle.
2. In this respect,
I think that popular consultations or
plebiscites can be very interesting
spaces. These can allow us to mobilize
behind a single concrete task of
convincing—by undertaking door-to-door popular education—a
large number of people and youth who are beginning to awaken to
politics, who want to contribute to a better world, who very often do
not know how to do it, and who are not
willing to be active in the traditional way, because many of them
reject politics and politicians.
3. Moreover, this
concrete door-to-door work leads to
having to directly relate to impoverished popular sectors and their
arduous living conditions. Many can be
radicalized by coming into contact with so much poverty.
4. A recent example of
this was the referendum held in Uruguay on December 8, 2003, to
decide whether to repeal or ratify a law supporting the partnership
of the state oil company ANCAP—that has held a monopoly over oil
since its foundation in 1931—with foreign private capital. The new
company was to be managed and run by the foreign partner.
5. The vote to reject the
privatization of the state oil company won by a wide margin (62.02%
of the vote), and by a bigger percentage than was foreseen in the
polls leading up to the vote (50.2%).
6. The law had been
approved in 2002. Having proven that irregularities were committed by
the new managers of ANCAP, the left-wing political coalition, Frente
Amplio (Broad Front), and allied social and union organizations
decided to promote a campaign to collect signatures in support of a
referendum against the law. Around 700,000 signatures were required.
7. In the midst of
the petition campaign, the financial crisis of mid-2002 occurred: the
value of the dollar doubled within days, some people lost their life
savings, many bank accounts were frozen, there were massive company
closures and unemployment surpassed the historic high of 13%, rising
to 20%, something unbearable for a country like Uruguay. Social
discontent increased. The possibility of turning
the popular consultation into a symbolic act of rejection of the
government’s policies allowed the
campaign to grow, gain strength and motivate people.
8. Even though the
mass media was totally hostile and tried to ignore the existence of
the initiative, the house-to-house campaign to collect signatures
across the country was more powerful than the media blockade. The
strong point of the campaign, once again, was the work done in the
grassroots, shoulder-to-shoulder, talking with people in their homes
and using modest local radio stations that supported the cause.
9. The initial weight of
the campaign was shouldered more by the social organizations than the
political instrument [party], which was somewhat hampered by its
initial hesitations. But when the Frente Amplio joined the campaign,
it once again demonstrated its clarity in the debates and the great
potential of neighborhood, trade unionist and propagandistic
10. The initiative was
supported by all the tendencies in the PIT-CNT union confederation,
the FUCVAM (Unitary Federation of Mutual Aid Cooperatives)—which
carried out an important mass mobilization across the whole country—and the student movement (FEUU), also joined the campaign,
although with little force.
11. The right wing took
the initiative to start with (in relation to the referendum). It was
able to cover the walls of Montevideo with slogans attacking Tabaré
Vasquez, then FA presidential candidate, and in support of the law.
Within weeks, thousands of walls were recovered and the right
disappeared off the streets.
12. From that moment on
(August-September 2003) fractures began to appear in the traditional
parties: the Partido Nacional (National Party) mayor from Paysandú
(a large city and former industrial center on the border with
Argentina, today in ruins) declared himself in support of abolishing
the law. The same occurred with many local leaders from outside the
capital and some mid-level national leaders.
13. Another example, if we
focus on recent ones, is the consultation over the Free Trade Area of
the Americas (FTAA) held in Argentina in November 2003, where more
than two million votes were cast. It was organized by the
Autoconvocatoria NO al ALCA (Self-initiated No to FTAA), a diverse
and large space that brought together a growing number of movements
and trade unions, professionals, women, farmers, environmentalists,
religious and human rights groups, political parties, and
neighborhood, cooperative and business organizations.
when some of these consultations lacked legal backing, they still had
an important political effect. Proof of
this was the declaration made by Argentina’s then head of cabinet,
Alberto Fernández, who stated that the result of the consultation
should be taken into consideration by the government at the time of
making a decision concerning the FTAA.
15. On the other
hand, this experience allowed thousands
of activists from different backgrounds to work together in
carrying out the popular consultation. Participation within this
large and diverse space is what enabled
the proposal to reach different popular sectors that are usually
separated from each other, both geographically and socially.
Do not confuse desires with reality
there tends to be a lot of subjectivism in our analysis of the
political situation. What tends to occur is that leaders, driven by
their revolutionary passion, tend to
confuse desires with reality. On the
one hand, an objective evaluation of the situation is not carried
out, the enemy tends to be underestimated and, on the other hand,
one’s own potential is overestimated
2. Moreover, leaders
tend to confuse the mood of the most
radical activists with the mood of the grassroots popular sectors.
There exists a tendency in more than a few political leaderships to
make generalizations about the mood of the people based simply on
their own personal experiences, whether it is in the region they are
in or the social sector they are active in, or based on the
perception of those around them, who are always the most radicalized
that work with the most radicalized sectors will have a different
vision of the country compared to those that carry out their
political activities among the least political sectors. Revolutionary
cadre who work in a militant popular neighborhood will not have the
same vision of the country as those that are active in middle-class
4. The same thing occurs
in countries where both war zones and legal political spaces
co-exist. The guerrillas who are engaged in real confrontations with
the enemy, and who have been able to win control of certain zones
thanks to their military victories, tend to believe that the
revolutionary process is more advanced than activists who work in
legal political spaces in the large urban centers, where the
ideological power and military control of the regime is still very
5. The only
guarantee for not committing these errors is assuring that leaders
are capable of evaluating the situation
not on the basis of their mood, but rather by taking as their
starting point the mood of the bulk of the people,
the mood of the enemy and the international reality. Once this
evaluation is carried out, it is necessary to come up with proposals
that allow us to take advantage of the situation as a whole.
6. It would seem to
be a truism to say that it is important
for leaders to learn to listen. We
believe that this is fundamental. Nevertheless, what tends to occurs
is that some leaders are so impregnated by preconceived ideas
regarding the current state of affairs, of how things are, of what
can be done and what cannot be done, that in
their contact with intermediary leaders and the grassroots, they tend
more towards transmitting their vision of things than informing
themselves about the actual mood of the people.
7. What can therefore
occur is that, when one has to make an analysis of the situation,
errors are made, not so much due to the lack of information, but
because, despite information having been transmitted correctly and in
a timely manner by grassroots activists, the leadership has not
8. But it is also
important that grassroots activists and middle leadership layers be
objective in providing information. Sometimes they can misinform
rather than inform by providing, for example, inflated numbers for
certain mobilizations or actions.
tendency to delude oneself, to falsify data regarding mobilizations,
meetings, strikes, the weight of each organization, is quite common
in politics. For instance, saying that
thousands were mobilized when it was really only hundreds.
triumphalist focus is the product of the mistaken idea that we are
always right, that we are always the best, that everything we do ends
up in positive results for us.
11. It is not only in
regards to numbers where self-delusion exists; it also occurs when
evaluating actions that have been proposed. If the goal was to win a
certain amount of representation in parliament but this was not
achieved, recognition is not given to the fact that the number of
votes received was below the expectations that had been created;
instead, there is always an attempt to find a way to present the
event as a triumph, for example, stating that the number of votes
increased compared to the previous election. If a national strike is
proposed, but only a partial strike is achieved, this is not
recognized as a defeat; rather the success of the strike is talked up
because more workers did not go to work compared to previous actions
of this type, etc.
12. If leaders do
not listen—something that requires a large dose of revolutionary
modesty—and, at the same time, they receive falsified
information, then proposals are made which—taking false premises
as their starting point—are not adjusted to the real
possibilities of the forces on the ground. As such, battles
that are planned out can lead to significant defeats because they are
not based on the real correlation of forces.