By Marta Harnecker (June 2009)
The following text contains several articles from a longer series. For the full set of articles, visit the LINKS web site
I. REVOLTS OR REVOLUTIONS? THE ROLE OF THE POLITICAL INSTRUMENT
1. The recent popular uprisings at the turn of the 21st century that have rocked numerous countries such as Argentina and Bolivia — and, more generally, the history of the multiple social explosions that have occurred in Latin America and the rest of the world — have undoubtedly demonstrated that the initiative of the masses, in and of itself, is not enough to defeat ruling regimes.
2. Impoverished urban and rural masses, lacking a well-defined plan, have risen up, seized highways, towns and neighbourhoods, ransacked stores and stormed parliaments, but despite achieving the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of people, neither their size nor their combativeness have been enough to develop from popular revolt into revolution. They have overthrown presidents, but they haven’t 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 there is a political instrument capable of raising an alternative national program that unifies the struggles of diverse social actors behind a common goal; that helps to cohere them and elaborate 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 right time, always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.
4. This political instrument is like a piston that compresses steam at the decisive moment and – without wasting any energy – converts it into a powerful force.
5. In order for political action to be effective, so that protests, resistance and struggles are really able to change things, to convert revolts 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 struggle.
6. We are aware that many are apprehensive 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 manipulating political practices that have characterised many left parties.
7. I believe it is fundamental that we overcome this subjective barrier and understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not thinking of just any political instrument, we are dealing with political instrument adjusted to the new times, an instrument that we must build together.
8. However, in order to create or remodel 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 about a voluntarist declaration. We are talking about under-standing politics as the art of constructing a social and political force capable of changing the balance of force in favour of the popular movement, so as to make possible in the future that which 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.
11. Unfortunately, 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 radicalise a given situation is through the construction of forces. Those whose words are filled with demands for radicalisation must answer the following question: What are you doing to construct the political and social force necessary to push the process forward?
12. But this construction of forces cannot occur spontaneously, only popular uprisings happen spontaneously. It needs a protagonist.
13. And I envisage this political instrument as an organisation capable of raising a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism. As a space that directs it-self towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of the social movements instead of manipulating them, and 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 organisation can offer. An orientating and cohering instrument at the service of the social movements.
II. CONVINCE, DON’T IMPOSE
1. Popular movements and, more generally, the different social protagonists who today are engaged in the struggle against neoliberal globalisation both at the international and national levels reject, with good reason, attitudes that aim to impose hegemony or control on movements. They don’t accept the steam-roller policy that some political and social organisations tended to use that, taking advantage of their position of strength and monopolising political positions, attempt to manipulate the movement. They don’t accept the authoritarian imposition of a leadership from above; they don’t accept attempts made to lead movements by simply giving orders, no matter how correct they are.
2. Such [authoritarian] attitudes, instead of bringing forces together, have the opposite effect. On the one hand, it creates discontent in the other organisations; they feel manipulated and obligated to accept decisions in which they’ve had no participation; and on the other hand, it reduces the number of potential allies, given that an organisation that assumes such positions is incapable of representing the real interests of all sectors of the population and often provokes mistrust and scepticism among them.
3. But to fight 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.
4. To win hegemony doesn’t require having many people in the beginning, a few is enough. The hegemony reached by Movimiento 26 de Julio (July 26 Movement) led by Fidel Castro in Cuba, seems to us to be a sufficiently convincing example of this.
5. More important than creating a powerful party with a large number of militants is to raise a political project that reflects the population’s most deeply felt aspirations, and thus win their minds and hearts. What is important is that its politics succeeds in procuring the support of the masses and consensus in the majority of society.
6. Some parties boast about the large numbers of militants they have, but, in fact, they only lead their members. They key is not whether the party is large or small; what matters is that the people feel they identify with its proposals.
7. Instead of imposing and manipulating, what is necessary is convincing and uniting all those who feel attracted to the project to be implemented. And you can only unite people if the 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 will be greater when they succeed in bringing more people behind their proposals, even if they may not do so under their banner. We have to abandon the old-fashioned and mistaken practice of demanding intellectual property rights over organisations that dare to hoist their own banner.
9. If an important number of grassroots leaders are won over to these ideas, then it is assured that these ideas will more effectively reach the different popular movements. 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 the proposals and winning over new supporters.
10. We believe that a good way to measure hegemony obtained by an organisation 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 organisation cannot be measured by the number of political positions that have been won. What is fundamental is that those who occupy leading positions in diverse movements and organisations take up as their own and implement the proposals elaborated by the organisation, despite not belonging to it.
12. A test for any political organisation that declares itself not as not wanting to impose hegemony or control is being capable of proposing the best people for different positions, whether they are members of that very party, are independent, or are members of other parties. The credibility among the people of a project will depend a great deal on the figures that the left raises.
13. Of course this is easier said than done. Frequently, when an organisation is strong, it tends to underestimate the contribution that other organisations may have to offer and tend to impose its ideas. It is easier to do this than to take the risk of rising to the challenge to winning people over. While more political positions are obtained, the more careful we have to be of not falling into the desire to impose hegemony or control.
14. Moreover, the concept of hegemony is a dynamic one, since hegemony is not established once and for all. To maintain it requires a process of permanently re-winning it. Life follows its course, new problems arise, and with them new challenges.
III. TO BE AT THE SERVICE OF POPULAR MOVEMENTS, NOT TO DISPLACE 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 it is necessary for political organisations to demonstrate a great respect for grassroots movements; to contribute to their autonomous development, leaving behind all attempts at manipulation. They must take as their starting point that they aren’t the only ones with ideas and proposals and, 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.
2. Political organisations have to get rid of the idea that they are the only ones capable of generating creative, new, revolutionary and transformative ideas. And that therefore, their role is not only to advance demands that resonate with the social movements, but to also be willing to gather ideas and concepts from these movements to enrich its own conceptual arsenal.
3. Political and social leaders should leave behind the method of pre-established schemas. We 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 grow and strengthen the movement, and not displace the masses.
4. Their role is to push the mass movement forward, or perhaps more than push, facilitate the conditions necessary so that the movement can 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 organisations with grassroots movements should therefore be a two way circuit: from the political organisation to the social movement and from the social movement to the political organisation. Unfortunately, the tendency continues to be that it only functions in the first direction.
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 synthesizing that which could unite them and generate political action, at the same time as we tackle pessimistic and defeatist ideas they may hold.
7. Wherever possible, we must involve the grassroots in the process of decision making, 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 as our starting point the true motivations of the people, only if one helps them to discover the necessity of carrying out certain task for themselves, and only by winning over their hearts and minds, will they be willing to fully commit themselves to the actions proposed.
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 organisational process capable of involving, if not all, then at least an important part of the people into the struggle and, little by little, win over 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 realise that their own ideas and initiatives are being put into practice, they we see themselves as the protagonists of change and their capacity to struggle will enormously increase.
10. Taking all that has been said above into consideration, it becomes clear that the type of political cadres we need cannot be cadres with a military mentality. Today, it is not about leading an army, even if at some critical junctures this may and perhaps should be the case. Neither do we need demagogic populists, because it is not about leading a flock of sheep. Rather, political cadres should fundamentally be popular pedagogues, capable of fostering the ideas and initiative that emerge from within the grassroots movement.
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. Thus, I do not want to create an impression of excessive optimism here. Achieving a correct relationship with the social movements is still a long way off.
IV. 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 experiences of Soviet socialism. All decisions regarding criteria, 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, such practices are increasingly intolerable.
2. But in challenging bureaucratic centralisation, 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 criticising bureaucratic centralisation, the recent tendency has been to reject all forms of centralised leadership.
4. There is a lot of talk about organising groups at all levels of society, and that these groups must apply a strict internal democracy, ideas that we obviously share. What we don’t agree with is the idea that no effort needs to put in the direction of giving them a common organic link. In defending democracy, flexibility and the desire to fight on many different fronts, what is rejected is efforts to determine strategic priorities and attempt to unify actions.
5. For some, the one and only acceptable method is consensus. They argue that by utilising consensus they are aiming not to 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 some-thing 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 over-whelming majority.
6. Moreover, the complexity of problems, the size of the organisations and political timing that compels us to make quick decisions at specific junctures make it almost impossible to use the consensus method on many occasions, even if we leave aside the manipulating uses of the consensus method.
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 and to achieve this definition it is vital that a broad ranging discussion occurs, 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 organisation 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 members.
9. A political movement that seriously aspires to transform society cannot afford the luxury of allowing undisciplined members to disrupt its unity, without which it is impossible to succeed.
10. This combination of single centralised leader-ship and democratic debate at different levels of the organisation is called democratic centralism. It is a dialectical combination: in complicated political periods, of revolutionary fervor or war, there is no other alternative than to lean towards centralisation; in periods of calm, when the rhythm of events is slower, the democratic character should be emphasised.
11. Personally, I do not see how one can conceive of successful political action if unified action is not achieved, and for that reason I do not think that an-other method exists other than democratic centralism, if consensus has not been reached.
12. A correct combination of centralism and democracy motivates the leaders and, above all, the members. Only creative action at every level of the political or social organisation will ensure the triumph of our struggle. An insufficient democratic life impedes the unleashing of the creative initiative of all the militants, with its subsequent negative impact on their participation. In practice, this motivation manifests itself in the sense of responsibility, dedication to work, courage and aptitude for problem solving, as well as in the capacity to express opinions, to criticise defects and exercise control over the higher up bodies in the organisations.
13. Only a correct combination of centralism and democracy can ensure that agreements are efficient, be-cause having engaged in the discussion and the decision-making process, one feels more committed to carry out the decisions.
14. 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 militants are not convinced of the course of action to take, it is better to hold off until the militants 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.
V. MINORITIES CAN BE RIGHT
1. Democratic 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 marginalised; 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 junction, 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 other’s ideas.
3. Why should the minority continue defending its positions and not submit to the position of the majority? Because the minority may be right; their analysis of reality might be more accurate if that they have been capable of discovering the true motivations of specific social forces. That is why those who hold minority positions at a determined moment should not only have the right, but the duty, to hold their positions and fight to convince the maximum amount of other militants of their positions through internal debate.
4. 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 group. If the majority fears a confrontation of positions it is probably a sign of political weakness.
5. 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 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. 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 the 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 wrong?
6. The topic of majorities and minorities also has to do with the disjunction or non‑correspondence between representatives and the represented. 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 organisations; the bureaucratic manoeuvres 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 itself. Those who only days before truly represented the majority may today simply represent a formal majority because the revolutionary situation has demonstrated to the masses that the position of the minority was correct.
7. The new culture of the left should also be reflected in a different approach towards the composition of leadership bodies in political organisations. 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 organisation. 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.
8. But a plural leadership, along the lines that we are proposing, can only be effective if the organisation 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 organisation ungovernable.
9. Moreover, a real democratisation of the political organisation 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’s important that the different positions are well known among the party membership via internal publications. It’s also very important to ensure a more democratic formulation of candidatures and to safeguard the secret vote.
10. Finally, it is essential to remember that the internal democratic culture of a political organisation is the public face it offers to the social movements with which it wants to work. If it demonstrates, on the one hand, that its internal decision-making process occurs according to a democratic procedure based on tolerance and, on the other hand, that it carries out it work in a unitary manner, it can offers the social movements a model for successful action.
VI. THE NEED TO UNITE THE POLITICAL LEFT AND THE SOCIAL LEFT
1. The rejection by a majority of the people of the globalisation model imposed on our continent [South America] 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 marginalised, 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, [and others]. Moreover, we should not only keep in mind those who are affected economically, but also all those who are discriminated and oppressed by the system: women, youth, children, the elderly, indigenous peoples, blacks, certain religious creeds, gays and lesbians, etc.
3. Neoliberalism impoverishes the great majority of the population of our countries, those 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 defence of the environment.
5. These movements differ in many ways from the classical labour movement. Their platforms have a strong thematic accent and they reach across classes and generations. Their forms of organising are less hierarchical and rely more on networks than those of the past, while their concrete forms of actions vary quite a lot.
6. New social actors have also appeared. What is surprising, for example, is the capacity to mobilise that has manifested itself among youth, fundamentally organised through electronic means, with the object of rejecting actually existing globalisation; resisting the application of neoliberal measures, promotion very powerful mobilisations against war and now against military occupation, and spreading experiences of revolutionary struggle, breaking up 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.
8. The consolidation of left parties, fronts or political processes in opposition to neoliberalism is undeniable in various countries: Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, El Salvador, Bolivia. In some, such as Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico, powerful social movements have arisen, which have transformed themselves into major political actors, becoming important opposition forces that occupy the frontlines of the fight against neoliberal globalisation.
9. However, despite the depth of the crisis that this model has provoked, the breadth and variety of affected sectors that embrace 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 favourable 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 objective conditions which are favourable 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 of strategic importance 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 working classes.
12. Therefore, the left cannot simply be reduced to the left that belongs to left parties or political organisations; 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 organisation. Among the former are those who prefer to accumulate forces by using institutions to aid transformation, while others opt for revolutionary guerrilla warfare; among the latter, some attempt to create autonomous social movements and different types of networks.
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 recognise that this conceptual separation is not always so in practice. In fact, the more developed social movements tend to acquire socio-political dimensions.
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. The strategic task therefore is to articulate the party and social left so that, from this starting point, we can unite into a single colossal column the growing but still dispersed social opposition.
The author, Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuban Revolution, and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution. This translation was done by Federico Fuentes, for Links: A Journal of Socialist Renewal.