Confront Imperialism and Don’t Make Concessions: A Conversation with Nestor Kohan (Part 1)

An important Latin American political theorist suggests that Marxism and Bolivarianism together represent the solution to the continental crisis.

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Néstor Kohan is a longtime militant and a philosophy professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. (Venezuelanalysis)
Néstor Kohan is a longtime militant and a philosophy professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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More than any other living thinker, Argentinian intellectual Nestor Kohan has worked to recover the tradition of Latin American revolutionary Marxism, a trajectory that he argues stretches from Julio Antonio Mella and Jose Carlos Mariategui to Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Manuel Marulanda. Kohan has also developed a reading of Marx that considers commodity fetichism to be the centerpiece of Capital: Critique of Political Economy at the same time as it emphasizes the political and revolutionary character of all of Marx’s texts. Kohan has supported the Bolivarian Process from its beginning. In this interview, we asked him questions about crisis engulfing the whole continent, with Venezuela as its epicenter.

What is happening right now in Latin America seems to have a lot in common with Operation Condor, that aimed to rollback the revolutionary tide of the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, US imperialism wants to wipe out the “Pink Tide” that began at the start of the current century. Do you think the analogy is relevant?

In the decade of the 1970s Operation Condor was born. There is a lot of investigation about it and a lot of evidence. An Argentinian investigator, Stella Calloni, wrote a very good book about the Operation, and a Paraguayan victim of political persecution found documents in Paraguay that prove its existence. Intelligence agents of the Pinochet dictatorship also made declarations that ratify its existence, and finally there are declassified documents of the CIA that confirm it too. In effect, there was a coordinated international project put in place to carry out repression on a continental scale. In other words, there was a right-wing internationalism, a counter-revolutionary internationalism.

On a rhetorical level, the counterrevolution traded in nationalist language. In every country they even talked about defending the “national self” (el ser nacional). That was their preferred jargon, but their practice was internationalist, and their combatants and agents operated in many countries. For instance, the terrorist of Cuban-American descent Felix Rodriguez not only assassinated Che Guevara. He later participated in the counterinsurgency in El Salvador. There are films of Felix Rodriguez on a helicopter shooting at the troops of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador.

Another terrorist of Cuban-American descent, Luis Posada Carriles, put a bomb in a commercial airplane, killing many civilians. He also operated in several countries. Many of these terrorists did their work in several countries. The bomb that killed [Chilean economist] Orlando Letelier in the US itself was set off by agents of the Chilean intelligence. They were, arguably, internationalists.

The “clandestine detention centers” – that was the juridical terminology used in Argentina – also worked on an international level. In Buenos Aires, there was an extermination camp, a torture camp. (I call it that, because there’s no reason to use the juridical terminology, let’s speak without euphemisms.) Well, one of those camps for torturing and “disappearing” people was called “Automotores Orletti,” because it was run from an auto repair shop. They gathered there the foreigners they had kidnapped from countries nearby Argentina (Chileans, Uruguayans, Paraguayans), and they sent them back to their respective dictatorships. In other words, Operation Condor worked on a continental scale. Who directed it? The United States. One of its main heads was Henry Kissinger. That is a well-known fact.

So where did Operation Condor come from? The National Security Doctrine, that is how they called it, which was nothing other than a counterinsurgency doctrine, imported from the French torturers in Algeria. The United States applied it in Vietnam… The practice used by the US in Vietnam, for instance, of throwing prisoners alive from airplanes, which was part of the Phoenix Program. Well, that same practice was used in Argentina. They threw the revolutionaries captured by the military and the navy from airplanes into the Rio de la Plata. And they also combined it with the same form of massive torture that was used in Algerian torture camps – including the systematic rape of men and women – during the French occupation.

So those were the two doctrines, French and North American, that were taught in the counterinsurgency schools in Panama (run by the US military’s SOUTHCOM), and in the war school in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, after the 1964 coup, and in Buenos Aires too.

So what was Operation Condor trying to do in the broad sense? It was [imperialism’s] reaction to three things. First, to the huge revolutionary insurgency, the huge “social rebellion” of the 1960s, which went from the Vietnamese Revolution to the Algerian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution. It also included the youth rebellions that took place in Mexico, Tokyo, Rome, Berlin, Berkeley and Paris (which was the most famous one). So Operation Condor was a response to the 1960s social rebellion. It was a response, as well, to the emergence of Third-World national liberation movements, because many countries, nations and communities that had been French, English, Dutch, US, or Japanese colonies, gained independence between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, or even the end of 1970s, if we consider the case of Angola.

So this counterinsurgency doctrine that expressed itself in Operation Condor (but not only in it) was an organized response. First, it was a reaction to the “social rebellion” of the 1960s and the global emergence of Third World national liberation movements. Second, it was a response to the declining profit rate which was felt especially sharply with the oil crisis, or “petrodollar crisis,” of 1973 and 1974. That economic crisis was itself the outcome of the rebelliousness in the workforce. In effect, counterinsurgency tries to curb the consequences of the falling profit rate. Thirdly, there was the overall aim of disciplining the workforce, imposing mechanisms of super-exploitation on Third World workers, and finishing off with the welfare state (the so-called “golden age of capitalism” that had lasted little more than 30 years in Western Europe: from the end of World War II through the crisis of the early 70s). The aim was to be able to make a capitalism-in-crisis function again.

In sum, Operation Condor was imperialism’s political reaction to these three issues… It was a project that produced a strong social response and a lot of conflict. In other words, imperialism did not have an easy time implementing it.

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Portraits of missing persons, victims of Operation Condor during the Paraguayan dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. (Archive)
Portraits of missing persons, victims of Operation Condor during the Paraguayan dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. (Archive)

Are we seeing the same thing today then? Is there an Operation Condor of the twenty-first century?

Today, the counterinsurgency project continues. There is some continuity and some discontinuity. I believe that we are seeing a new attempt to apply the [old] counterinsurgency doctrine in different conditions. Why does this happen? Because rebellions reemerged, as responses to neoliberalism, which was applied at the end of the 1970s. The rebellions emerged after twenty or so years of neoliberalism.

First, there was the Zapatista rebellion in 1994. Then came Chavez’s emergence in Venezuela. There was also the ongoing political-military insurgency in Colombia and the survival of non-capitalist relations in Cuba. That wave of rebelliousness against neoliberalism extended to the World Social Forums in the early twenty-first century. And it got more radical when Chavez declared the Bolivarian Revolution to be socialist...To the Zapatista’s question, ”Is there a world where all other worlds fit?,” the World Social Forum responded: “Another world is possible.” Then Chavez raised the stakes. He said that other possible world must be a socialist one. And he added, it’s “Twenty-First Century Socialism.”

So what is “Twenty-First Century Socialism”? The question was an open one. In my opinion, it is a weakness of the progressive movements to not have defined Twenty-First Century Socialism, to have stopped short. However, I think we should be cautious in our answers, because from my point of view there are no pre-established models about to how to make the transition from capitalism to socialism, of how to initiate the transition to socialism. There are no models.

Many paths were proposed to Chavez. Some people suggested that using self-managed industries was the right path, as was done in Yugoslavia. Others proposed to follow the path of market socialism, as Deng Xiaoping had done in China. Still others, including me, suggested working with Che Guevara’s project and his Budgetary Finance System. In other words, a transition to socialism based on Popular Power, on participative democracy, but also with a centralized economy. Venezuela has an apparatus that offers certain advantages when it comes to applying this system. Its situation is more favorable than Cuba’s, where the economy was based only on sugar.

Venezuela has nothing less than [state oil company] PDVSA, which could, with its oil resources, coordinate a series of activities – not only those relating to the oil profits – but of collective, centralized socialist production, with a centralized banking system and a nationalizing [network of] large enterprises. But that had to be done not only in one isolated country, Venezuela. The proposal was that from ALBA, the Budgetary Finance System could be put in practice on a continental scale. If not in all of the countries, at least in a great many of them.

Hence I believe that President Chavez and Bolivarian Venezuela only went halfway, not because they were lukewarm or didn’t understand Marxism, or there was a shallow reading of it. They did so because there was and there continues to be an open debate. The debate is about the transition to socialism. It is not a new discussion. There have been at least three stages.

The first stage took place in the 1920s in Bolshevik Russia, where not everybody was in agreement as to how to move forward. On the one hand, Nicolai Buharin proposed market socialism. On the other side was Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, who proposed an economy with centralized planning. Meanwhile, Lenin tried to find a political solution, reconciling the two.

That very rich debate [about the transition to socialism] from the 1920s reemerges in the decade of the 1960s in Cuba, where Charles Bettleheim proposes market socialism together with Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, who had a somewhat more pro-Soviet attitude. On the other hand, Che Guevara, supported by Ernest Mandel, proposes the Budgetary Finance System. As Lenin had done before, Fidel opts for a political solution that tries to maintain the alliance between the two tendencies as Lenin had done in the Bolshevik Russia of the 1920s… He tried to keep the pro-market current and the central planning current both within the revolution’s sweep.

The third phase of this debate is the one that exists now. It’s the one that has been going on in Venezuela and I think in the Bolivian process too. It’s a debate that is going to happen in any Third World or peripheral country that wants to leave capitalism behind. It is an open debate. It’s not a failing or a problem that the debate is there. The progressive governments in Latin America – in the Venezuelan case it’s a government that stands out for it socialist intentions – have raised this debate. It is still an open one and has not been resolved.

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How is socialism built in a peripheral country like Venezuela? Here an image of a Caracas Barrio. (Archive)
How is socialism built in a peripheral country like Venezuela? Here an image of a Caracas Barrio. (Archive)

Following up on that, let’s look critically at our movements and political process in Latin America, which are all in crisis now. Would it be fair to say that these progressive movements are in trouble because of their failure to connect with the Latin American revolutionary tradition and with the practices that derive from Marxist theory?

Are you asking whether Marxism guarantees that we will have successes and triumphs? Is that what we are talking about? I believe that Marxism is a political identity, a conception of the world and of life. It is a multilinear and materialist conception of history, a philosophy of praxis, and a dialectical method, but in itself it does not assure [that we are on a] revolutionary path.

Marxism is a tremendous tool that allows us to understand how capitalism works and understand what are the elements that bring it into crisis. It allows us to understand the mechanisms of exploitation, domination, dependency, and imperialism. Yet merely appealing to Marxist texts does not guarantee a revolutionary outcome.

As an Argentinian, I know a tremendous number of Marxist intellectuals who can quote from classical Marxist works, but in practice they have reformist positions! And as far as Venezuela is concerned, they have very ambiguous positions! Some don’t know if they should support the Bolivarian Process. Or they don’t want to admit it because they are embarrassed by their own positions, but they support the imperialist offensive using quotes taken with tweezers from Marx’s texts. They don’t define themselves clearly against imperialism, and yet they employ apparently Marxist rhetoric. For that reason, appealing to Marxist texts is not sufficient to confirm that you’re going in a revolutionary direction.

I believe that revolutionary Marxism must be accompanied by a firm revolutionary project and not just a reading of the texts. In that sense, I believe that Bolivarianism is an emancipatory continental project that could [fill that role]. That is what Chavez tried and it what the Colombian insurgency tried to do (along with a lot of other people in the continent). I believe that the synthesis of Marxism and Bolivarianism is the best assurance that we can have a leftist solution to the crisis, one that questions capitalism. In other words, confront imperialism and not make any concessions. And that is not going to be achieved only by quoting the classical works of Marxism.

It is necessary to study Marxism, but it’s not enough. Marxism is needed because it makes things clear. It is necessary because it is a theoretical and scientific tool and critical method, but it must go hand on hand with clear political positions. Again, in Argentina there are political currents that quote Marxist texts, but when imperialism attacked Syria and Libya and now Venezuela, they have very ambiguous positions. They declare Maduro to be a tyrant. They declare Gaddafi to be a tyrant, whom they lynched! They say Saddam Hussein was a tyrant! In other words, in the name of Marxism they end up being the shock troops of imperialism. So studying Marxism is necessary, but it has to go hand on hand with revolutionary positions.