December 20, 2015

To Build a New World

R Arun Kumar

THE Left and progressive forces in the Latin American continent are passing through turbulent times. Marta Harnecker, in her recently published book, A World to Build, Monthly Review Press, (Indian edition by Aakar) 2015, discusses very briefly the background in which the present Left, progressive governments had come to power, their character, differences between these governments and the challenges they are facing. This dossier will help us in gaining an insight into the reasons for the setbacks to the Left and progressive governments in the continent.

However, what is interesting about A World to Build is, true to its title, it unveils a plan to build a better world. It starts with the premise that 'most governments in the region still hold to the general tenets of neo-liberalism', although 'very few defend this model'. This is indeed an important starting point to understand these governments. It explicitly recognises the fact that in spite of the desired and declared objectives of some of these governments (building 21st century socialism, etc), they are still grappling within the capitalist system, with a 'good intention' to better it. The book offers a way out of this limitation and suggests means to achieve the declared revolutionary objectives of these governments.

Harnecker appreciates the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez for identifying the limitations of the existing capitalist system and states that he had a vision to 'move towards a different kind of society'. Chavez' vision for the future consisted of three important features: “economic transformation; participative and protagonistic democracy in the political sphere and socialist ethics, 'based on love, solidarity and equality between women and men, everybody'”.

Harnecker agrees that there is a 'crisis of hegemony' in the continent and states that there are two ways to overcome this 'crisis'. One, to give 'capitalism a make-over', as is being attempted in Brazil and Argentina. The limitations of such attempts are getting exposed by each passing day in these two countries. Two, to work towards an 'alternate economic project', benefiting the 'majority of the people', for which, one needs to 'move towards a different kind of society'. Harnecker vouches for the second option, basing on her studies and experiences gained from her association with the 'transformative' project in Venezuela.

Harnecker's prescription for the 'transformation project' is, to mark Lenin's words, 'making the most energetic use of the revolutionary governmental power'. She argues that the inherited State can be used for the purposes of transformation to an extent, by making the revolutionary cadres head its institutions and make them work along with the organised sectors of the people. Of course she advices us not to fall under the illusion that 'governmental power' is a magic bullet that can solve all the problems. Her entire emphasis is on popular participation to ensure the success of this transformation project. As people begin to exercise power at all levels, a new State will be created in this process, from the 'below'.

Unlike Marxism that places the proletariat and its vanguard party at the forefront to lead the revolutionary transformation of the society from its present capitalist stage, Harnecker states that the historical actors working for the transition will differ in each country, depending on the class structure and the history of class struggles that took place. “In some cases, they might be working class parties, in others, indigenous and peasant movements, in others, a sector of military, and in others, charismatic leaders” (Page 107).

The transformation process of the society will be long and will not be a linear process, according to Harnecker. She acknowledges that there will be 'retreats and failures' in the process. History of the 20th century and the current developments in Latin America (the setbacks received in Venezuela and Argentina and the threat looming large over Brazil), vindicate her caution of 'retreats and failures'. So is also her assessment of the bourgeois ruling classes. Her analysis on the bourgeois control and influence over State power is very valid to understand the recent developments: “They (the right-wing) may tolerate and even help bring a Left government to power if that government implements the right's policies and limits itself to managing the crisis. What they will always try to prevent, by legal or illegal means – and we should have no illusions about this – is a program of democratic and popular deep transformations that puts into question their economic interests”. (Page 108) This is the reason why we say that in these countries, the bourgeoisie, though out of governmental power, is not out of State power and are actively destabilising these governments, once they feel that their economic power and overall hegemony over the society is under threat.

It is precisely for this reason that winning governmental power is not sufficient and one should move towards controlling State power. And herein lies the importance to transform the existing relations of production, a process she explains in detail. This change in the relations can be achieved only through the active participation of the people, who need to be trained, both through pedagogy and also through direct 'hands-on' experience. Here, she mentions about the community councils, a process initiated by Chavez in Venezuela. These communes are looked upon as the foundation stone for the new State that will ultimately evolve. The State institutions run by revolutionary cadre, who push it forward to change and the communes, an expression of popular power, will be 'complementing each other' and 'co-exist for a long time'. It is through the dialectical interaction between the 'two States', that a social transformation will be achieved.

But the optimist in her, somehow fails, when she calls herself as one who sees this transformation process as a “utopian goal that lights path that orients the struggle, but one that we will never fully achieve” (Page 107). Her judgment here is contestable.

In spite of having this understanding, Harnecker terms politics as an “art of constructing social and political forces that are capable of changing the balance of forces to the benefit of the popular movements, and making possible in the future what today appears to be impossible” (Page 167). The balance of forces can be changed only when the entrenched bourgeois values in the society that make it appear as if they are ruling through consensus rather than through force, are challenged and replaced. This necessitates a huge effort to bring in a 'cultural transformation' to build socialism, where the “individualist, consumerist, paternalistic culture of every person for him or gradually overcome” (Page 174). This demands a need for 'new ideas to go up against the old ideas'.

Contrary to various anarchist trends against a political organisation, Harnecker urges for the creation of a political body that creates “places where people can meet” and “understands it is not enough to create a huge organisation with hundreds of thousands of members” (Page 178). She specifies the requisite characteristics for this 'different kind of political organisation', which are:

·                     'Learn from the new social actors of the twenty-first century': “They are particularly sensitive to the topic of democracy. Their fights have generally had as a starting point the fight against oppression and discrimination. They reject being manipulated and demand that...they can participate democratically in the making of decisions” (Page 183).

·                     'Our own practice does not violate the values of the new society that we want to build': “ is of the utmost importance that we present a radically different ethical profile, one embodying values we exhibit in our daily lives. We must be democratic, show solidarity, be willing to cooperate with other, practice camaraderie, be honest at all costs and practice clear-headedness. We must project vitality and joie de vivre (excitement about life)” (Page 182).

·                     Leaders: “The members and especially the leaders of the new political instrument cannot have an 'I order – you obey' cast of mind...This is why the slogan 'order by obeying' is so wise” (Page 185). And, “...good leaders are those who create the conditions in which they become less and less indispensable. They should encourage the development of new leaders and the construction of a more collective leadership” (Page 178).

·                     'Bureaucratism, the direct negation of autonomous activity': “Any independent initiative, any new thought is considered heresy, a violation of party discipline. The centre must decide and supervise each and everything that is done. Nothing can be done if the order didn't come from the centre...This way of operating not only restricts the initiative of party members, but also that of non-party masses. The essence of bureaucratism is that someone else decides for you” (Page 187).

Similarly, she also suggests that the new political instrument should not be sectarian as “all manifestations of sectarianism, each high-handed attitude, will only serve to weaken the march towards socialism” (Page 183). She also points out that sycophancy too should not be tolerated as it is negative from both a 'moral point of view' and also 'political point of view', and presents 'wrong information about the situation' and prevents from taking 'necessary corrective measures' (Page 188). To counter the growth of bureaucratic tendencies and sycophancy, Harnecker advocates 'public criticism' as that will 'only help in strengthening the party and revolution'.

A new world can be built only by such a political instrument, which is democratic, open to new ideas, creative and welcomes criticism. Only such a party can 'convince' people rather 'impose its view' on them and this, according to Harnecker, is crucial to obtain 'hegemony', as people will be encouraged to be part of social transformation process, as active actors. Taking people into confidence, explaining to them, involving them and mobilsing them in defence of the transformation project is the only armour against the efforts of derailment. Any failure on this count will have disastrous consequences, as we are now witnessing.