Skip to Navigation

Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project

Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today

Below is the first chapter of Diana Raby's new book 'Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today'. In the chapter Raby argues that "Cuba and (especially) Venezuela represent the real revolutionary alternative for our times". The London book launch takes place on Wednesday October the 11th (click here for more info). To purchase the book click here.

Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today

By Diana Raby

Chapter 1

The Disinherited Left: From Dogmatic Orthodoxy to Romantic Anti-capitalism

* To view the books' table of contents click here.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left has been in crisis. The orthodox Communist model was discredited even among its traditional supporters, and as the Eastern European countries were seduced one after another by the siren song of capitalist consumerism, it soon became clear that Western Social Democracy had also lost its way. The ideological victory of supply-side economics and monetarism paved the way for what we now know as neo-liberalism, and with Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ leading the way, Social Democratic parties ceased to defend even a minimal degree of public ownership and became advocates of ‘Thatcherism lite’: the supremacy of the market with only a limited social safety net to protect the most vulnerable. Neo-liberal globalisation appeared to make the viability of any kind of socialism problematic: could any state, even the most powerful, resist or control market forces? With some transnational corporations being bigger than the GDPs of all but the largest countries, it was said that the state could no longer even regulate the economy, let alone control it.

In these conditions even traditional left-wing critics of Stalinism like the Trotskyists failed to benefit politically from the implosion of ‘really existing socialism’, and the neo-liberal consensus seemed to rule the roost in both East and West. The electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua early in 1990 seemed to confirm that even Latin America, with its vigorous independent revolutionary tradition, was not immune to the debacle of socialist values. Although Communist regimes survived in China and Vietnam, they appeared to be adopting capitalist market mechanisms with indecent haste, while the other case of East Asian socialism, North Korea, seemed to be locked in a Stalinist time-warp. It was in this context that Francis Fukuyama could write about ‘The End of History’ (Fukuyama 1992), presenting liberal capitalism as the final and universal goal of humanity, and in Latin America Jorge Castañeda could produce Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (Castañeda 1994), which amounted to a repudiation of that continent’s revolutionary heritage in the name of Blairite Social Democracy (and perhaps not surprisingly, Castañeda later became a minister in the government of right-wing Mexican President Vicente Fox).

Of course, the triumphalism of the neo-liberal advocates of the ‘New World Order’ was soon tempered by the rise of vigorous mass movements in opposition to the negative impact of market reforms. In Latin America the ink was scarcely dry on Castañeda’s book when in January 1994 the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas showed that the region’s revolutionary heritage was not dead and that popular opposition to the neo-liberal consensus could take militant forms. In Europe and North America the anti-globalisation movement revealed the hostility of a significant minority to the new orthodoxy and their allegiance to collective, egalitarian and anti-capitalist values. The rise of the PT (Workers’ Party) in Brazil and its innovative practices of local participatory democracy with such original initiatives as the ‘participatory budget’ was another hopeful sign, and within a few years the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre became the symbol of the convergence of the new Latin American popular movements with the anti-globalisation movement in the North, by hosting the first three World Social Forums. But none of these new movements presented a coherent alternative strategy: their strength was based on contestation and disruption of the neo-liberal consensus, and if they had a strategy it was almost anti-political or neo-anarchist, rejecting political parties and (as the Zapatistas explicitly proclaimed) repudiating the struggle for state power on principle, whether by armed or peaceful means. The spirit of the times is radically democratic and suspicious of self-proclaimed vanguards, or indeed of vanguards of any kind – but the apparent alternative favoured by many in the anti-globalisation, anti-war and anti-capitalist movements is a kind of idealistic anarchism, a conception which has not ceased to be profoundly problematic. Without a doubt the great strength of these movements, which have achieved such an impressive degree of support in Europe and North America, has been their loose, decentralised and flexible character. But such a structure (or lack thereof) may be very effective in an oppositional or contestational movement, yet thoroughly dysfunctional for a coherent political project, let alone a government exercising state power. Those who defend the actions and vision of Chávez in Venezuela or Lula in Brazil, or indeed of the Cuban government, are constantly greeted with the refrain that liberation, or socialism, or popular democracy, has to be the work of ‘the people themselves’ or ‘the working class itself’, begging the question of what kind of structure and leadership the Promethean people or working class might need in order to implement their sovereign will. Insistence on direct, unmediated popular protagonism is admirable, but it becomes a futile distraction if it is elevated to the status of absolute dogma, evading questions of representation, leadership, organisation and structure which are crucial to the success of any alternative movement. This romantic but ultimately defeatist approach has since been formulated in more elaborate philosophical form by John Holloway in Change the World Without Taking Power (Holloway 2002).

Today, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the neo-liberal consensus is increasingly questioned and the ‘End of History’ thesis is thoroughly discredited. The new geo-political polarisation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the aggressive strategy of the Anglo-Saxon powers in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has created a much more problematic situation not just for the Left but for the future of humanity as a whole. This has provoked the emergence of an unprecedented mass anti-war movement throughout the world, and particularly in  Europe, which has merged with the anti-globalisation or anti-capitalist movement to produce the embryo of a real alternative. But it still lacks a political strategy, a strategy for taking power and an alternative socio-economic model. This book will attempt to address the problem of a political alternative for the Left and the popular movement, an alternative which is not limited to cosmetic reforms of neo-liberal capitalism. Such an alternative is scarcely likely to emerge from within existing Social Democratic parties, which are so thoroughly incorporated into the system as to be incapable of renewal. Equally, in those countries where Communist parties still retain a residual strength and adhere to a traditional anti-system line (the Portuguese party is a good example), they may constitute admirable bastions of resistance to neo-liberal hegemony, but their almost total lack of theoretical renovation shows that they have failed to come to terms with the lessons of the Soviet collapse and have nothing creative to offer. With some exceptions, this also applies to most of the Communist offshoots – the many varieties of Trotskyists and Marxist-Leninists – who are still wedded to variations on the theme of the democratic centralist party, the ideological monopoly of dialectical and historical materialism and the centralised model of state socialism. This does not by any means imply a complete rejection of Marxism or indeed of some aspects of Leninism, but it does mean that it is essential to recognise that no single ideology, much less a single partisan organisation, can any longer lay claim to a monopoly of wisdom. Marx’s analysis of capitalism and of the dynamics of class struggle remains extraordinarily accurate, much of Lenin’s analysis of the state and of the need for a political vanguard remains convincing, but they cannot provide exclusive formulae for political organisation, strategy and tactics in today’s world, or for the alternative society to which we must still aspire.

It is here that many in the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements, and indeed in other social movements from the Zapatistas to the Argentine piqueteros or the Brazilian MST (Movement of the Landless), proclaim that a party or a vanguard is not necessary and that ‘the movement is everything’. Leadership is not necessary, the movement will constantly throw up new leaders and rotate them at will, or will function on the basis of spontaneous unanimity: ‘We are all Marcos!’ as the Zapatistas and their sympathisers declared when the Mexican government claimed to have discovered the true identity of their semi-clandestine and media-conscious spokesperson. But a decade later, not only have they failed to undermine the Mexican state or to dissolve its power from below, they have achieved only very modest results in terms of autonomy or improved rights for the native people of Chiapas who continue to be their main social base. The Argentine barrio movement has been very impressive in its capacity for non-partisan mobilisation and has contributed to the downfall of fi ve presidents, but when a serious political alternative finally emerged in that chronically divided country, it did so from a totally unexpected source: an establishment politician, Nestor Kirchner, who as President surprised almost everyone by adopting an independent foreign and financial policy and going some way to meet the demands of the barrio movement, which now gives him critical support while remaining suspicious of his ultimate intentions. The classic vanguard party and the Marxist-Leninist model of socialism may have produced unsatisfactory results, Social Democracy may have been completely assimilated by capitalism, but to proclaim the superiority of non-politics or Holloway’s ‘anti-power’ is in practice to leave the power of corporations and the capitalist state untouched myriad particular struggles and mass movements may come and go, and may in the best of cases achieve results on specific issues, but the power of the state – of the nearly two hundred nation-states around the world – and of the global economic system will continue as before. There is no alternative to the search for an alternative.

Another consequence of the fall of the Soviet bloc was the apparently universal conversion to ‘democracy’, and the conclusion of Communists and Marxists – again, with rare exceptions – that the road to power must henceforth be democratic. The Marxist critique of bourgeois democracy had too easily become an excuse for bureaucratic despotism in the name of socialism. But does this mean that the critique of bourgeois democracy has no relevance? Is the concept of revolution now to be consigned to the dustbin of history, now that the only revolutions that attract attention are those that overthrow bureaucratic state socialist regimes? We are all democrats now – advocates of democracy on the Western liberal model – and so revolution, or any political change that implies the use of force or direct action, is apparently out. In Latin America, with its rich revolutionary heritage of armed guerrilla struggle, where in the 1960s and ’70s the debate over the armed or peaceful roads raged fiercely, the same is apparently now the case: with the failure of the Central American insurgencies, the defeat of Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the peaceful transitions to democracy in the Southern Cone, only the Colombian guerrillas (the FARC, ELN and others) still hold out – and they are now unmentionable in polite company (or else they are dismissed as ‘narco-guerrillas’, a convenient distortion which permits US interventionism to disguise itself as counter-narcotics policy). The universal assumption that democracy is the only valid regime – accepted even by most ex-Communist parties – obscures the question of what democracy really means, of whether Western liberalism is the only valid form of democracy, and of whether revolutionary change is possible by democratic means. These are also central questions which will have to be addressed in the search for a political alternative.

At this point we come to the binary pair of revolution and reform: revolutionaries have traditionally been scornful of reform as an instrument of the system, as a means of assimilating and neutralizing popular struggle. Social Democrats are by definition reformist. But the violent seizure of power does not guarantee revolutionary change, and in most countries the technological capacity of the modern state makes defeat of the regular military an extremely costly, if not impossible proposition. But in countries with a vigorous revolutionary tradition, ‘reform’ is not necessarily seen as incompatible with revolution – and revolution is not necessarily equated with total armed struggle. In Cuba and Nicaragua – countries with a weak state, with corrupt personalist dictatorships – outright military victory was possible. But in most countries (even, in fact, in the two just mentioned) revolution has implied ‘the combination of all forms of struggle’, with an emphasis frequently on methods which are neither completely peaceful nor completely violent: militant demonstrations, political strikes, sabotage, occupations of landed estates, public offices and factories. Accumulation of reforms or of popular pressure may
lead to a situation of rupture with revolutionary implications; rather than overt confrontation with the military there may be splits within the armed forces and sections of the military may identify with the reformist/revolutionary process. In Latin America, when an individual is described as revolutionary, it does not mean that he/she is hellbent on taking up arms: it means that they are morally committed to the struggle for a better world, that they are prepared to accept any sacrifice necessary, that they will refuse to abandon the struggle. In this conception being revolutionary does not exclude negotiation and compromise; it does exclude acceptance of compromise as a permanent solution. Reforms are perfectly acceptable, indeed essential; reformism, on the other hand, means limiting the struggle to reforms within the system. On this basis, the debate on democracy and revolution acquires new meaning: democratic campaigns on specific issues have a validity of their own, and whether they become reformist or revolutionary depends on the broader strategic perspective. If a process of democratic change threatens to undermine the established system of power it will eventually lead to ruptures which imply at least some degree of violent confrontation, but the precise form this will take is unpredictable and cannot necessarily be determined by the movement or its leadership. Here, surely, closer attention to Gramsci and to his concepts of ‘hegemony’ and of the ‘historical bloc’ is in order (Golding 1992).

But the issue of democracy goes beyond this: it has also to address the question of direct and participatory democracy as opposed to liberal parliamentarism. In the nineteenth century democracy was not equated with liberalism: it was understood that liberalism was an elitist system of constitutional rule and division of powers, guaranteeing civil rights but not popular sovereignty as implied by democracy. One of the most telling aspects of the retreat of the Left in the past 30 years has been the way in which democracy has come to be seen as synonymous with parliamentary liberalism, and any idea of direct or participatory democracy is automatically dismissed as equivalent to the sham of the so-called ‘popular democracies’ of Eastern Europe. But if democracy does not include direct participation by workers, the poor, the marginalised and excluded of capitalist society, then it excludes all possibility of real change, of a genuine political alternative. As recently as the 1960s C.B. Macpherson could write his now classic Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Macpherson 1962), demonstrating how from its seventeenth-century origins liberalism was based on a market society of individual proprietors, and arguing that this was no longer an adequate basis for a theory of political obligation. But in the last two decades, in all the now fashionable literature on ‘democratic transition’ and consolidation’, it is as if Macpherson (not to mention Marx!) had never existed. In recent decades parliamentary liberalism has assimilated the Left in the name of democracy, when the real task is for the Left to reclaim democracy from liberalism.

It follows from this discussion that the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European models should not be taken as proof of the failure or irrelevance of all socialist or revolutionary experiences. Few would want to defend the Stalinist rigidity of North Korea, and the apparent acceptance of many aspects of robber-baron capitalism by China and Vietnam is cause for grave doubts about their continuing socialist credentials (although it has to be recognised that the jury is still out on their long-term evolution). But Cuba is still widely admired for its social achievements and its valiant resistance to US hostility, and its former association with the Soviet Union should not be taken as proof that its social and political model is identical or that it will suffer a similar fate. If Cuba has survived, it is precisely because its socialism differs in important respects and its revolution had different origins and characteristics; indeed, it will be argued in Chapter 4 that the true originality of the Cuban revolution has yet to be appreciated, and that its political relevance for the Left today is much greater than is normally assumed.

Along with Cuba, what are arguably the most original and most successful revolutionary experiences of our times have occurred in Latin America: the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua (until it was tragically destroyed by US sabotage), and today the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Together with one European case – Portugal and the ‘Revolution of the Carnations’ of 1974–75 – they offer the most interesting and inspiring examples of popular revolutionary politics in the past half-century, and will constitute the empirical basis of this book. None of these revolutions was made by a Socialist or Communist party; two were led by guerrilla insurgents and two by rebels from within the military establishment; all were inspired by original and apparently eclectic ideologies; all have involved a great emphasis on direct democracy and popular power; and all have featured the prominent role of one or a few charismatic individual leaders. The fact that much of the Left rejects Cuba and Venezuela, dismisses Nicaragua as a defeat without considering its contemporary relevance, and regards Portugal as no more than a demonstration of the success of the liberal capitalist model, only confirms the poverty of contemporary Socialist and progressive thought. It will be argued here that Nicaragua and Portugal in their respective revolutionary phases offered examples of popular and democratic politics which are still relevant, and that Cuba and (especially) Venezuela represent the real revolutionary alternative for our times. One other Latin American process which will be briefly considered, the ‘Popular Unity’ under Allende in Chile, serves in many respects as a counter-example, since it was a coalition of traditional political parties of the Left, with a conventional Marxist ideology and a leader who, however admirable, was singularly lacking in charisma.

It is not accidental that all but one of these examples arose in Latin America: that region of creative ferment, with a longer experience of colonial rule than any other, the ‘backyard’ of US imperialism, far more of an ethnic and cultural ‘melting pot’ than North America, also has a long and intense history of popular revolutionary struggle which is less contaminated by political and ideological distortions than that of any other continent. The wealth of revolutionary history in Europe, particularly in certain countries such as France and Russia, is constrained as a source of inspiration by the continent’s history of internecine strife and imperialist expansionism, and in recent times by the straitjacket of the Cold War. In most of Asia traditional cultures and social structures have remained too solid to permit the emergence of revolutionary movements transcending the nationalist and anti-colonialist phase, and the major East Asian exceptions are profoundly problematic. India is in the grip of right-wing Hindu nationalism, while other countries of South and West Asia appear torn between Islamic fundamentalism and Western neo-liberalism. In South Africa the African National Congress, once a totemic source of anti-imperialist inspiration, has embraced the free market, while the rest of the continent wallows in neo-colonial poverty, internecine strife and corruption, and progressive movements remain weak. Only in Latin America does the revolutionary impulse appear to flourish, so that in addition to Cuba and Venezuela we find the progressive governments of Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in Uruguay and powerful popular movements such as Pachakutic in Ecuador, Evo Morales and the MAS in Bolivia, the FARC and ELN as well as peaceful popular resistance in Colombia, the FMLN in El Salvador and in Mexico, the Zapatistas as well as the promising presidential campaign of Andrés López Obrador. Despite the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the neutralisation of the other Central American insurgencies, despite the apparent failure of the Zapatistas to achieve fundamental change in Mexico, popular and progressive movements in Latin America continue to show a vitality and creativity without parallel in today’s cynical, unipolar and terrorist-obsessed world.

Recent advances in Latin America have not come without problems. Lula was elected President of Brazil at the fourth attempt, but lacks a clear majority in Congress and has to negotiate any legislative project with a bewildering variety of political forces, and his government has been weakened by corruption scandals. Chávez survived the April 2002 coup and the subsequent strike/lockout but faces continuing harassment by an intransigent and sometimes violent opposition, and ill-disguised US hostility. Lucio Gutiérrez, a former rebel colonel whose electoral victory in Ecuador led some to compare him to Chávez, proved a disappointment and was disowned by the popular indigenous Pachakutic movement. But what distinguishes the region in today’s world is that the question of power for progressive movements is on the agenda, and has in fact been realised in some countries – something which on other continents is only a remote dream. Major problems remain for the Left in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina – how to consolidate revolutionary power in Venezuela, how far Lula’s reforms or those of the Frente Amplio can go in Brazil and Uruguay, whether or not Kirchner will really ally with the popular movement in Argentina – but the extraordinary and positive development is that for the first time since the defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, these issues are once again on the table.

The Cuban revolution is clearly the starting-point for contemporary Latin American revolutionary movements, yet remarkably little attention has been devoted to its political originality. Accounts of the armed struggle and the events of the revolutionary transformation are legion, and Cuba has been much discussed in terms of armed struggle and the foco theory of guerrilla action, and also with reference to the Guevarist concept of the ‘New Man’ and socialist theory; but the actual political process which led first to revolutionary victory and then to socialist transition has not been adequately studied. In the enormous literature on Cuba there is general recognition that the old Communist Party, the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), was incapable of making the revolution, both because it opposed armed struggle and because of its former compromises with Batista. It is also generally recognised that revolutionary victory was the work of Fidel Castro and the 26 July Movement, a broad, popular, nationalist and social-reformist movement which did not adopt a strictly defined ideological label and did not mention Socialism or Communism until more than two years after the victory of 1 January 1959. But the implications of this for revolutionary theory have never been adequately explored beyond vague references to the genius of Fidel (from admirers) or Castro’s duplicity (from detractors), coupled with correct but inadequate observations about the radicalising effects of US hostility. Surely the fact that a broad national movement with individual charismatic leadership was capable of leading one of the most popular and radical revolutionary processes in history deserves careful analysis. It raises fundamental questions about the concept of a revolutionary vanguard, about the role of political parties and the relationship between leadership and mass. Perhaps today’s distrust of political parties and of formulaic ideologies is neither so new nor so original, and the same questions (and possible answers to them) may have been raised in Cuba over 40 years ago – only to be lost in the rhetoric and the harsh realities of the Cold War.

A second crucial formative experience for the contemporary Latin American Left was Chile; the defeat of the Popular Unity, widely seen at the time as demonstrating the futility of the electoral road, offers other equally important lessons. It is currently fashionable to compare Venezuela under Chávez with Chile under Allende, but there are important differences. Certainly Pinochet’s betrayal and the brutality of the Chilean coup (the original ‘9/11’) confirmed the implacable hostility of imperialism and of local elites to any project of popular transformation, and the unreliability of the supposedly ‘constitutionalist’ Chilean military. The economic sabotage by Chilean business and the truckers’ strike have parallels in the recent opposition strike in Venezuela, and CIA involvement in the Chilean coup seems to be mirrored by the overwhelming circumstantial evidence of US complicity in the short-lived 2002 coup against Chávez. In both cases reliance on elections and constitutionalism seems to be undermined by the refusal of hegemonic interests to accept a democracy which they do not control. But the Chilean experience also underlines the fateful consequences of partisan divisions (the rivalries of Socialists, Communists, MAPU and other parties), and the dangers of attempting a transformational project without a clear popular majority. It must never be forgotten that Allende was elected in a three-way race with only 36 per cent of the popular vote, and although his support increased somewhat in subsequent municipal and legislative elections, he never had a solid absolute majority. Opposition control of Parliament also made it impossible for Allende to impose his projected constitutional changes. By contrast, Chávez has won massive majorities in no less than ten elections and referenda and was able to begin his term with a Constituent Assembly that led to a sweeping institutional transformation of Venezuela. Finally, although the jury is still out on the ultimate fate of the chavista project, Chávez’ own military origins and the less elitist characteristics of the Venezuelan military have so far guaranteed majority support in the armed forces for the Bolivarian process. If Chile demonstrated the hazards of the purely electoral road, that does not necessarily imply that armed insurgency is the only solution. The issue is much more complex, and cannot be reduced (as was often done in the 1960s and 1970s) to a matter of dogma, of being always and on principle ‘for’ or ‘against’ taking up arms.

Here it needs to be pointed out that  Latin America has an outstanding tradition of popular armed struggle which long predates the Cuban revolution, having its roots in the Independence Wars of the early nineteenth century. It is based on a concept of popular collective insurgency which has nothing to do with militarism or with the ‘individual right to bear arms’ of the US Constitution. The idea of the people taking up arms to achieve liberation is central to Latin American political culture, and it by no means excludes other forms of struggle and participation. It embodies a distrust of institutionalized politics and a radical rejection of all forms of paternalism: rights are gained by struggle, whether armed or peaceful, and not granted by benevolent authority. It is intimately linked to the concept of popular sovereignty, that sovereignty really does reside in the people as a whole and not in the propertied classes or in any hereditary group or privileged institution. The people, moreover, constitute themselves as political actors by collective mobilisation, not merely by passive reception of media messages or individualised voting. The secret ballot is undoubtedly regarded as essential, but as inadequate unless accompanied by mass organisation and mobilisation; and this will ideally be peaceful but may encompass an entirely legitimate recourse to arms if faced with repression or arbitrary authority. Hence the resonance of the term ‘revolutionary’ tends to be positive, unlike in contemporary Europe or North America where it has come to be associated with irrational violence or dogmatic sectarianism. For the same reasons, ‘democracy’ in Latin America is popularly associated with collective rights and popular power, and not just representative institutions and liberal pluralism. The concept is also indissolubly linked with the rights and cultures of oppressed ethnic and social groups, with indigenous, black and mestizo empowerment.

The Cuban revolution brought with it a reaffirmation of this tradition of armed struggle, and even if for a while in the 1960s and ’70s it became fetishised in the form of the isolated guerrilla foco, it also contributed to the rise of more substantial insurgent organisations organically linked to popular movements in several countries: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia. The Central American insurgencies of the 1970s and ’80s represented the internationalisation of the popular revolutionary movement, and precisely for this reason they were regarded as an intolerable threat by the United States. Victory in Nicaragua in 1979 revived the hope of continental liberation inspired by the Cuban revolution, and significantly it also came about in unorthodox form. As in Cuba it was a national uprising against a brutal dictatorship in a small and extremely dependent country, a client regime in a region which had suffered frequent US intervention. The Sandinista Front (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) was a broad movement of national liberation with three constituent tendencies and with ideological influences ranging from Marxism-Leninism to Social Democracy and liberation theology. The Sandinistas were opposed throughout by the small Nicaraguan Communist Party, and as in  Cuba, drew inspiration from national and Latin American revolutionary and anti-imperialist traditions. While expressing admiration for and gratitude to Cuba, they did not adopt the Cuban model (and much less the Soviet one), insisting on maintaining a ‘mixed economy’ and a pluralist electoral system combined with elements of direct democracy. The Nicaraguan agrarian reform and literacy campaign, and the rank-and-file organisational structure of the Sandinista Defence Committees (similar to the Cuban Committees for the Defence of the Revolution), clearly drew on Cuban experience, but were combined with efforts to work with the private sector and with a pluralist political system.

Sandinista defeat at the polls in 1990 was undoubtedly due above all to unrelenting US hostility and the devastating effects of the Contra war, but there were other contributory factors, notably internal divisions and the abandonment after 1986 of popular participatory and welfare policies in favour of conventional liberal democracy and an IMF deflationary package. The subsequent defeat or neutralisation of the Salvadorean and Guatemalan insurgencies was more straightforward, consisting essentially of the application by the US of overwhelming pressure in order to forestall revolutionary victory. These reverses, coinciding as they did with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, led to profound demoralisation and disorientation among the Latin American Left and contributed to the worldwide crisis of progressive ideas from which we are only now beginning to emerge. If a victorious armed revolution could be defeated in little more than a decade and two other apparently solid insurgent movements could be neutralised, what hope was there for radical social change of any kind? And since the final Sandinista defeat came at the ballot box, hope of progress through elections was also undermined. Were free elections and multi-party systems incompatible with revolutionary power? If the Sandinistas were to win elections again, would they – indeed could they – reinitiate the revolutionary transformation of 1979–84? It is no accident that after the Sandinista defeat, any prospect of a liberal ‘opening’ in Cuba was closed off indefinitely: the message for Fidel and the Cubans was that if they permitted political liberalisation, Washington and the Miami mafia would subvert the country’s institutions and buy the elections.

Further South, in the more socially and economically advanced ‘Southern Cone’ countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile), this period was more optimistic since it brought the end of repressive militarism and the gradual process of ‘democratic transition’. With the imposition of superficially democratic solutions in the Central American countries, and similar transitions occurring in Bolivia, Paraguay and even Mexico (with the PAN’s electoral victory in 2000 heralding the end of the PRI’s 71-year reign), the media and the dominant powers in North America and Europe were able to proclaim the universal triumph of liberal democracy in Latin America (the remaining Andean countries – Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela – remained formally democratic throughout this period). This was Fukuyama’s or Castañeda’s vision triumphant. Of course there remained the inconvenient exception of Cuba, but it was assumed that this ‘dinosaur’ – dismissed as a kind of tropical Albania – would fall into line at any moment.

But the crucial questions, both for the newly liberalised countries and those which had observed liberal constitutional norms over a longer period, related to the nature of the ‘democracy’ which had now become the continent-wide norm. With the universal imposition of neo-liberalism and with the Left in disarray, liberal democracy seemed to be reduced to a formal electoral game with little relevance to the real conditions of existence for the popular classes. The one significant exception was  Brazil, where the rise of the PT (Workers’ Party) ushered in major progressive changes, first at municipal and state levels and then, with Lula’s presidential victory, potentially at national level. What the PT has achieved, most notably in Porto Alegre, is of enormous significance for popular movements everywhere. The systematic practice of reporting back by elected representatives and the possibility of recall, and even more important, the participatory budget, together constitute a revolution in local government whose full consequences have yet to be worked out. While there is still no doubt some validity in the Marxist doctrine that true workers’ power, or popular power, is only possible at national level, the extent of change in some PT-run municipalities is very impressive both in material terms and in popular empowerment. But Lula’s achievements as President are so far very modest, as was to be expected given the lack of a majority in Congress and of any significant change in the judiciary, the armed forces or other institutions; the current Brazilian process is one of reform, not revolution.

In historical perspective it seems clear that Lula is subject to similar constraints to those faced by Allende – although it may be hoped that the final outcome will not be so tragic, both because Lula’s apparent goals are more modest and because neither the international climate nor the attitude of the Brazilian armed forces is favourable to an unconstitutional solution. However, the possibility of a radicalization of the popular movement, beyond the control of the PT government, could lead to a more complex situation. Both the MST (Movement of the Landless) and certain sectors of the PT have revolutionary positions which more truly represent the aspirations of the popular movement, but which also face violent hostility from the Brazilian oligarchy – and this could lead to a very dangerous confrontation with unpredictable consequences in the absence of a coherent unified strategy by the Government and its supporters. Given the lack of a serious transformative strategy on the part of Lula and the PT Government and the current corruption crisis, the prospects for Brazil are not encouraging.

If the Brazilian situation offers the prospect of no more than limited reform, it is in Venezuela that a revolutionary transformation is not only possible but is already well under way. It is also Venezuela which most clearly raises the theoretical issues formulated above: the relation of leadership and mass, the question of party versus movement, the problem of the true nature of democracy, and reform versus revolution. In Venezuela there has been a real (although still incomplete) change in the structure of power, with a new Constitution, a population which is mobilised and organised in a participatory democracy, a government of popular origin which is pushing forward an ongoing process of transformation, a political reorientation of the armed forces, and the beginnings of an economic restructuring with the effective renationalisation of the vital oil industry. An agrarian reform is under way, producer and consumer cooperatives are being promoted, and a reform of urban property is giving effective ownership and control to slum dwellers. ‘Bolivarian schools’ have brought education to over a million children previously excluded from the system, a literacy campaign has been initiated, and millions of people are organized in local land, water and electrical utility committees, ‘Bolivarian Circles’ and other grass-roots organisations of popular power. Yet this process was not initiated by a Socialist or Communist party, nor indeed by any party, but by a movement of military origin, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200) led by Lt-Col. (now President) Hugo Chávez Frías. Named for the bicentenary of liberator Simón Bolívar’s birth in 1983, the MBR-200 was a clandestine military and civilian movement for social and political change in Venezuela. In February 1989, when in the caracazo the people of the shantytowns rose up against the further impoverishment implied by an IMF economic package and were savagely massacred by troops on the orders of the corrupt Social Democratic President Carlos Andrés Pérez (CAP), Chávez’ movement was not yet ready to act. But three years later, on 4 February 1992, it was the MBR-200 which took the initiative in launching a military/civilian uprising against CAP, and despite the movement’s failure this action sounded the death-knell of the old Venezuelan pseudodemocracy. February 1989 and February 1992 between them set in motion a revolutionary dynamic which would lead, through Chávez’ two-year imprisonment, his amnesty under popular pressure, his resignation from the armed forces in order to enter civilian politics and create a broad civilian movement, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), and his election as President in December 1998, to the process of transformation which has been under way since his inauguration in February 1999. The comparison of Chávez with Allende as leading a radical transformation by electoral means fails in part because it ignores the insurrectional origins of the process: December 1998 was the electoral ratification of the events of February 1989 and February 1992, popular and military revolts which were temporarily unsuccessful but from which the old political system never recovered.

Once again, as in Cuba, we are faced with an extremely unorthodox situation: a genuine popular revolution which is not led by a Socialist party, which does not have (or did not appear to have until recently) a Socialist programme or ideology, which is headed by a charismatic individual leading a broad and somewhat amorphous popular movement, and in which the leader is (of all things!) a former military officer. Not surprisingly, it is Chávez’ military origins which have raised eyebrows, and initially provoked outright hostility, among many progressive observers in  Latin America and elsewhere. In a continent with a long tradition of reactionary militarism, most recently manifested in the brutal dictatorships of the Southern Cone and  Central America, the idea of a popular revolution led by the military seemed too absurd to contemplate. But there does exist a different military tradition in Latin America, a tradition of nationalist, democratic and anti-imperialist officers like Omar Torrijos in Panama, Velasco Alvarado in Peru or Francisco Caamaño Deno in the Dominican Republic. Indeed it is a tradition with deep roots, going back to the Socialist Republic of Col. Marmaduke Grove in Chile (1931), the Brazilian ‘tenentes’ (lieutenants) of the 1920s, and all the way back to the early nineteenth century liberators. Also, in the specific case of Venezuela, officer recruitment is much less elitist than in Argentina or Chile – Chávez comes from a provincial lower-middle-class family of mixed race – and crucially, most of the officers of Chávez’ generation were not trained in the notorious US ‘School of the Americas’ but in Venezuela, with political science courses taught by French-trained academics. The old stereotype has to be modified, and it has to be recognised that the military are not genetically reactionary; they are social beings subject to many of the same influences as civilians.

For me the issues raised by the Venezuelan process are less about the military as such and more about the character and leadership of revolutionary movements in general: the same issues raised by the Cuban experience. Once again, a successful popular revolution – at least, more successful to date than anything we have seen since Nicaragua – has taken place in a manner that was totally unexpected. Once again, the organised Left was totally irrelevant to the process, and only gave its support (in the best of cases – because several leftwing parties have joined the reactionary opposition) when victory was already at hand. Once again, the people recognised the revolutionary leadership long before the politicians or the intellectuals. And once again, victory was achieved by a broad, democratic national movement, ideologically flexible but united in action, with an individual charismatic leader with remarkable oratorical gifts and capacity for decisive action. This type of movement and this type of leadership inevitably raise the issue of populism – a term which is anathema to the organised Left, and which both the leaders themselves and most of their followers would indignantly reject. But if populism is understood not as opportunism or demagogy, nor as a specific ideology or programme, but rather as a style of political action, a methodology, a phenomenon which arises at critical conjunctures and which can have completely different political orientations and consequences depending on the specific context and class character of the movement, then perhaps it is legitimate to describe these processes as populist – as a revolutionary form of populism (Laclau 1977; Raby 1983; Cammack 2000). This is also one of the central theses of this book, and its implications for progressive politics are no less revolutionary than the political processes herein analysed, from Cuba to Venezuela.

There is another important revolutionary process of the contemporary era in which the military played a central role, not in  Latin America but in Latin Europe, namely the Portuguese revolution of 1974–75. Despite the very different context – a European colonial power, albeit small, peripheral and relatively poor – the Portuguese experience may be relevant to an analysis of the Venezuelan situation. Here also junior military officers, many of them of relatively humble origins, revolted against a discredited civilian regime (in this case a Fascist-oriented dictatorship) and identified with popular aspirations – both the aspirations of colonised African peoples for self-determination and the aspirations of the Portuguese people for democracy and social justice. The poetic moment of 25 April 1974 – when the people of Lisbon celebrated the liberating coup by placing red carnations in the soldiers’ rifles – quickly turned into a genuinely revolutionary process as the frustrations of nearly 50 years of repression burst forth in mass demonstrations, factory occupations, purges of police informers, housing occupations by slum-dwellers and the homeless, land occupations by rural labourers, and protests of every kind. For 19 months, until 25 November 1975 when a moderate but nevertheless counter-revolutionary coup restored bourgeois order in Portugal, the country was in turmoil, in a process of creative ferment which was the first truly revolutionary process in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

During the ‘hot summer’ of 1975 Henry Kissinger, throwing up his hands in horror, declared that Portugal was ‘the Cuba of Europe’, but the Portuguese esablishment, aided and abetted by European Social Democracy, the Catholic Church and the CIA, succeeded in putting the revolutionary genie back in the bottle. Throughout the process, the key events were played out in the popular movement and among the military, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) as the rebel military movement became known. During the 19-month upheaval, six weak civilian provisional governments succeeded one another, but real power was in the street, among the people – and in the hands of the MFA. Many officers quickly became radicalised and identified with the popular movement, and by early 1975 the MFA was talking of ‘popular power’, socialism and the ‘People–MFA Alliance’, and proposing a revolutionary system of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ committees, with a National Assembly of People’s Power as the ultimate goal. Observers talked of the ‘populism’ of the MFA, and with good reason: the personal leadership, charisma and oratorical capacity of Col. Vasco Gonçalves, Prime Minister of four of the six provisional governments, was rivalled by that of Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, operational commander of the 25 April coup. But the MFA was divided between a dominant pro-Communist sector around Gonçalves, a ‘moderate’ sector which was gaining in strength, and a radical sector personified by Otelo and aligned with the revolutionary Left. Conservative forces led by the Catholic Church dominated the North of the country, and allied with the political Right, the Socialist party and the MFA ‘moderates’ to confront the Provisional Government and the military radicals. The standoff led to a growing threat of civil war, which was resolved with the 25 November coup by the Centre Right. The military Left and the Communist Party decided not to resist in order to avert open war, and were rewarded with guarantees of political rights within a newly consolidated bourgeois state. Leftist officers were purged from the military; the popular movement, now effectively leaderless, was subjected to limited but effective repression; liberal norms were preserved and Portugal became a conventional parliamentary democracy, entering the European Union a few years later. But the real Portuguese revolution was destroyed, and the victors expunged from the official record the memory of the mass movement for popular power and socialism – now subject to ironic ridicule as the ‘PREC’, Processo Revolucionário em Curso or Revolutionary Process under Way – and replaced it with the myth of the heroic resistance of the democratic forces against the Communist threat. They cannot, however, destroy the folk memory of how, for a brief period at least, the Portuguese people in alliance with the radical military took matters into their own hands and created a vision of popular power and socialism which is without parallel in contemporary Europe.

These four revolutionary experiences – the Cuban, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan and Portuguese – all point in the direction of a broad, popular and democratic movement with a bold, charismatic and non-partisan leadership, ideologically flexible and inspired by national popular culture and traditions as well as different strands of international progressive thought, as the essential components of successful revolution. But this raises major questions about the role of political parties, the relevance of Marxism or any kind of socialist ideology, the relationship between revolution and democracy and the nature of the new revolutionary society. What are the implications of these processes for the future of the international Left? What relevance do they have to the Left in  Britain or other advanced countries? Is Socialism still the ultimate goal, and if so, what does Socialism mean in today’s globalised world? The attempt to answer these questions may produce some surprising, but ultimately inspiring, conclusions.