Latin America’s Radical Left in Power: Complexities and Challenges in the Twenty-First Century

The democratic, peaceful road to socialism, which has been pursued by the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and serves as an inspiration for much of the Latin American left, hardly represents a new approach.


The democratic, peaceful road to socialism, which has been pursued by the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and serves as an inspiration for much of the Latin American left, hardly represents a new approach. Social democratic movements worldwide grouped in the Socialist International were the foremost advocates of socialism by pacific means throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, while the three Latin American nations have been subject to intense political conflict and class and political polarization, the social democrats favored moderate policies designed to avoid discord and achieve broad consensuses. In this sense, the three leftist regimes in Latin America resemble Communist experiences in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and Cuba characterized by head-on confrontations with the opponents of far-reaching change as well as with institutions representing the old order. In contrast to Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, however, the official discourse of the Communist Parties in power discarded the possibility of the peaceful democratic transition to socialism in accordance with orthodox Marxist thinking on the inevitability of class warfare (Regalado, 2007: 232). (1)

      The term “twenty-first century Latin American radical left” (hereafter TFCLARL) is largely defined by the strategies followed in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and excludes more moderate movements both in power (as in the case of Brazil) and out of power. The positions of the TFCLARL contrast with those of the moderates in several basic respects. The governments of Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) are staunch critics of the capitalist system, if not advocates of socialism, unlike the moderate governments of Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay (Boron, 2008: 28-42). In addition, they took advantage of their advent to power and subsequent political victories by moving quickly against adversaries and deepening the process of change. This steady radicalization contrasts with Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who upon assuming the presidency designed more conservative macroeconomic policies than those called for by international lending agencies. Along similar lines, the TFCLARL, unlike the moderate left, has been reluctant to negotiate and reach agreements with, or grant significant concessions to, their adversaries. Thus in Mexico, social democrats and other moderates associated with the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) favored alliances with the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) both in 2000 and subsequent years, while leaders to their left such as Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Andrés Manuel López Obrador promoted leftist candidacies. Similarly, President Chávez broke with the tradition of creating tripartite commissions of peak business and labor organizations to resolve pressing problems and disputes.

      Other shared characteristics set the three TFCLARL governments off from the moderate leftist ones. In the first place, all three presidents won elections, referendums and recall elections with sizeable majorities, sometimes exceeding 60 percent of the vote. These triumphs provided them with mandates and greater maneuverability than was the case with moderate leftist presidents who received lower voting percentages. In the second place, Chávez, Morales and Correa initiated their presidencies with a call for a constituent assembly, which ended up overhauling the existing political structure. In the third place, the momentum generated by TFCLARL victories and the radicalization of positions invigorated the movement’s rank and file. This zeal at the grass roots level accounted for the ongoing mobilization that on different occasions proved essential to the government’s political survival. On foreign policy, TFCLARL governments were harsh critics of Washington, and through the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) acted as a bloc at international gatherings (Ellner, 2012a: 10). Finally, The three presidents headed relatively weak political parties, which, unlike in the case of Brazil and elsewhere, failed to establish solid links with the popular sectors outside of the electoral arena (Ellner, 2012b).

      Not surprisingly, this radicalization met with hardened resistance on the part of defenders of the status quo and set off an intense polarization, which was another distinguishing feature of the TFCLARL in power. Indeed, the political, social and economic groups opposed to TFCLARL governments represented a “disloyal opposition.” Not only did they condemn virtually all government policies and actions, but accused it of totalitarian intentions and at times resorted to violence in an attempt to set off a military coup.

      Finally, the TFCLARL has refrained from “red bating” or accepting the accusations of dubious veracity formulated by the right against leftists. Chávez, for instance, publicly declared that he was neither a communist nor an anti-communist, at the same time that his followers call one another “comrades” as a rebuke to McCarthyist-type stereotypes. Moderate leftist presidents in Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere have acted in a similar fashion. Not only do they reject the “good left”-“bad left” thesis promoted by Washington, but they have maintained exceptionally cordial relations with the TFCLARL in power. Nevertheless, there were exceptions to this principled behavior among moderate leftists. Thus, for instance, Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo in Colombia (and subsequently mayor of Bogota) called on his party to defend national interests by closing ranks behind right-wing President Alvaro Uribe in his attacks on Chávez for aiding the nation’s guerrilla movement (Informe 21.com, 2009). Occasional remarks by Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes against Chávez also appeared to serve as a statement of his government’s commitment to avoid radical change.

      Radicalization was not a linear process, notwithstanding the commitment of TFCLARL movements to far-reaching change and their marked differences with moderate leftist ones. As Héctor Perla and Héctor Cruz-Feliciano discuss in their chapter, the Sandinista government after 2006 joined ALBA and resembled the TFCLARL in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in other respects, but at the same time attempted to mollify the right. Having reached power with only 38 percent of the vote, the Sandinistas were intent on neutralizing and reining in diverse sectors. Not the least important of their concession was the government’s ban on abortion, a position which represented a complete reversal for President Daniel Ortega. In his chapter, Marc Becker describes how Rafael Correa appeared to turn his back on the principles of participatory democracy and ecological prioritization, which are embodied in the constitution of 2008, when he clashed with indigenous activists belonging to social movements that had been instrumental in his rise to power.  

      The TFCLARL experiences in office also contrast with those of democratic leftists such as the Allende government and the Sandinistas in the 1980s, who reached power in Latin America in the heat of the Cold War and were similarly committed to a radical break with the past. While less secure in power than Communists in the Soviet Union and China, the TFCLARL in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador exercises greater control of different state sphere, including the legislative and judiciary branches and the armed forces, than was the case of radical democratic leftists in the previous century. Consequently, the TFCLARL has been forced to grapple with thorny issues related to consolidation in the context of an extended transition to socialism. Neither Allende nor the Sandinistas in the 1980s faced a situation similar to Chávez in 2007 (and perhaps 2013), Correa in 2009 and Morales in 2010 after being reelected by wide margins, results which demoralized the opposition. During these periods of relative stability, the burden of demonstrating the viability of the new model they advocated was clearly placed on TFCLARL leaders.In contrast, the less secure grip on power of twentieth-century radical left governments due to ongoing disruptions including violence and sabotage and the wider support for U.S. interventionism during the Cold War years ruled out their consolidation and led to their overthrow. Allende, for instance, reached power with only 36 percent of the vote and was overthrown after just three years, while the Sandinistas in the 1980s focused much of their attention and resources on the U.S.-promoted armed resistance to their rule.

      The TFCLARL faces complex theoretical and practical challenges that are in fundamental ways distinct from those confronting social democratic and orthodox Marxist movements of the twentieth century. Indeed, TFCLARL theoretician Marta Harnecker has stated that “the situation facing our ‘left’ governments is even more complex than that which faced the Soviet government” (Harnecker, 2010:32). The outstanding characteristics of the continent’s twenty-first century left help explain this complexity. Most important, the electoral and gradual path to far-reaching change in the absence of a policy of compromise and concessions to the enemy involves an array of variables that complicates the process. The strategy opens space and provides opportunities for adversaries who in the context of sharp polarization are able to employ legal and extra-legal tactics to undermine government authority and impede the implementation of its economic policies. An example of this low-intensity warfare was the case of Venezuelan business resistance to price controls which, as Ellner shows in his article in this issue, produced a veritable tug of war between the Chávez government and the private sector, eventually leading to widespread expropriations. This type of face-off presents the left with the ongoing dilemma of whether to move forward with further radicalization or emphasize consolidation. At the same time, the gradual, peaceful road to socialism creates spaces for those on the left end of the political spectrum, some outside of the ruling coalition (particularly in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador) and others within it (as in Venezuela) who clamor for a more accelerated pace of change.

      These challenges are of a different nature and in some cases greater complexity than those confronting social democratic and Communist movements in power in the past.Social democratic thinking (as defended by the Socialist International) was underpinned by positivist assumptions regarding the inevitability of change in the absence of struggle (a fundamental theoretical difference between the father of positivism, Auguste Comte, and Marx). The social democratic strategy that attempts to minimize confrontation and achieve harmonious changecontrasts with the complex dynamic of radical policies followed by resistance from hegemonic forces and sharp political polarization within a democratic setting that characterizes the TFCLARL in power.

      The case of Communists who seized power in the twentieth century was also distinct in that all forms of opposition to the government were repressed and socialism was imposed without a long drawn-out struggle. This process was antithetical to the war of position of the TFCLARL in power in which hegemonic traditional forces have retained the upper hand in institutions such as the church, the media and even parts of the state sphere. Furthermore, in contrast to the rigid Marxist doctrine and formulas of Communist rule, the TFCLARL is admittedly eclectic and embraces and even celebrates a trial-and-error approach to socialism lacking in ideological clarity, which it views as a corrective to dogmatism (Acosta, 2007: 25-27). It thus lacks the ideological common denominators that characterized the Marxism underpinning twentieth-century leftist governments.

      The post-Cold War setting contributes to the complexity of the phenomenon of the twenty-first century left. The Cold War was conducive to simplistic conceptualization and strategies in that it pitted the pro-U.S. camp identified as democratic against the movements and governments favoring socialism, which was perceived to be a well-defined system. Pressure from both poles limited options and discouraged originality (as occurred in the case of Cuba in the course of the 1960s). The collapse of the Soviet bloc gave impetus to the equally simplistic, monolithic notions of neoliberalism and the related doctrine of the “end of history,” which labeled all alternatives to U.S.-style democracy and capitalism as obsolete.

      By the turn of the first century, the widespread protests against neoliberalism in Latin America encouraged greater political diversity including nationalist leftist movements which firmly opposed U.S. policies. These leftists rejected the policy of concessions to powerful economic groups implicit in the strategy of center-left alliances advocated by Castañeda during the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1990s (for a discussion of the center-left approach, see Ellner , 2004: 12-21).The emerging anti-neoliberal model associated with the TFCLARL combines representative democracy and radical democracy based on the Rousseaunian tradition of direct input in decision making. The two are not entirely compatible and have created internal strains due to paradigmatic differences, thus adding to the complexity of the challenges facing twenty-first century leftist movements (Smilde, 2011: 7-11).

      The TFCLARL in power faced two imperatives for which distinct and at times conflicting strategies were employed. On the one hand, pragmatic policies that promoted institutionalization were designed to foster efficiency at the same time that they prioritized economic over social objectives. On the other hand, widespread mobilization and social programs promoting participation in accordance with the TFCLARL’s goal of participatory democracy engendered popular enthusiasm, which was an essential element in advancing toward socialism and confronting adversaries on the right. The two sets of objectives were equally compelling.  Dogmatic or simplistic formulas and ideological formulations favoring one and ruling out the other were unlikely to be successful (Ellner, 2011b: 439-440, 445). The resultant path designed to achieve a synthesis – as opposed to more dogmatic recipes – was fraught with complexity.


       The social base and strategy of twenty-first century leftist movements diverge from traditional Marxist practice and thinking and are at the root of the complexity described above. Marx’s focus on production as the essential component of society’s “structure” (as opposed to the more superficial entity of the “superstructure”) led him to posit the proletariat as the key agent for change. Subsequently, orthodox Marxism minimized the role of other non-hegemonic classes and largely passed over their conflicting interests, a tendency sometimes called “workerism.” Marx questioned the revolutionary potential of the peasantry because of its property ownership aspirations. Lenin initially shared this distrust but then went on to call for a “worker-peasant alliance” without expressing concern over divergent interests or visions (a convergence represented by the symbol of the hammer and sickle). Similarly, orthodox Marxism denied the revolutionary character and political importance of the “petty bourgeoisie” in accordance with Marx’s prediction of social polarization, in which a majority of the middle class would sink into the ranks of the working class. Finally, Marx’s pejorative term “lumpen proletariat” has sometimes been conflated with the non-proletarian component of the urban lower classes that in Latin America largely consists of members of the informal economy.

      In a different vein, Mao Zedong recognized the multiplicity and complexity of internal contradictions (both old and new ones) under socialism as well as the “fairly long period of time” that it will take to resolve them (Mao, 1971b: 444, 464). The same contradictions also manifested themselves within and among the different sectors that support the revolutionary movement, as well as within the socialist state. Nevertheless, Mao characterized these contradictions as essentially “non-antagonistic” (Mao, 1971a: 127) and believed that the correct way to settle them was by “the democratic method, the method of discussion, of criticism, of persuasion and education” and by engaging in “self-criticism” (Mao, 1971b: 438-439, 442). He also considered the contradictions within the Communist party as a clash between “correct thinking” and “fallacious thinking,” which were themselves a reflection of class differences (Mao, 1971a: 126-127). These comments on contradictions would seem to fall short of the degree to which heterogeneity poses a complex challenge to twenty-first century socialism. (2)

      In contrast to orthodox Marxism, writers over the years coming from different traditions have pointed to the transformational or revolutionary qualities of non-proletariat classes in the third world while arguing against the vanguard role of the working class. In the 1920s, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre posited the middle class as the most revolutionary social group in underdeveloped countries since their members “are the first victims of imperialism’s economic offensive,” unlike the working class and rural work force that, at least in the short run, stand to benefit from foreign investments (Haya, 1976: 255).

      Similarly, Frantz Fanon emphasized the combative potential of the peasantry, which he contrasted with the self-serving political behavior of most of the urban population including the working class. He also recognized the revolutionary potential of the “lumpen proletariat,” which like the peasantry was further removed from, and therefore less corrupted by, the system of colonial rule (Fanon, 1963: 129-130). Fanon’s differentiation between the working class and the non-proletarian urban poor has become particularly compelling in the age of globalization (Laclau, 2005: 146-150, 231). Kurt Weyland and other scholars writing on neopopulism in the 1990s pointed to the conflicting interests between workers in the formal economy and those of the informal economy, the latter of whom – unlike the former – were adversely affected by the existing model of import substitution (Weyland, 1999: 182-184; Oxhorn, 1998: 200, 215-216). (3)

      Writers sometimes identified as postmodernists have also focused attention on the heterogeneity of non-hegemonic groups. Most of them have distanced themselves from Marxist thinking by not only rejecting the revolutionary role of the working class due to its widespread acceptance of bourgeois values and chauvinism, but also writing off class itself as a useful category. In its place they celebrate group “identity” largely based on political and cultural convictions and behavior, a focus that amounts to, in the words of theoretician Nancy Fraser, the “recognition of difference” (quoted by Burgmann, 2005: 2). Post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau goes beyond this line of thinking by centering his analysis of politics and political strategy on the irreconcilability of differences among subaltern groups. Laclau’s concept of the “empty signifier” attempts to demonstrate the profundity of the cleavages. According to Laclau, the successful leader (who he calls a “populist”) is one who ingeniously unites disparate underprivileged sectors by coining slogans (empty signifiers) which are interpreted differently by each group according to their own world vision and needs. In spite of their unifying role, the populist leaders at no time are able to bridge completely the gap between these different interpretations.

      In the 1980s, the celebration of “new social movements,” which were defined as those emphasizing identity and direct participation and which were associated at the theoretical level with Laclau (1985) and other post-Marxists and postmodernists, gained acceptance among some Latin American writers and activists. During these years social organizations and movements played a major role in democratization, and some of them facilitated the participation of previously excluded sectors on a massive scale including women and the indigenous population. The predominant role played by women activists in many of these activities (from soup kitchens to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo) spilled over to cultural fronts as gender equality in and out of the home rose to the fore leading to “discursive changes” from the originally expressed motives for participation (Feijoo and Gogna, 1990: 100; Jelin, 1990: 190; Ellner, 1994: 75-76). One prime example of the expression of identity politics was the Katarista movement in Bolivia which within the nation’s peasant movement formulated slogans related to ethnic oppression, a situation largely ignored by the 1952 revolution. One of the Kataristas, Alvaro García Linera, was jailed for his participation in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army and went on to become vice-president under Morales and a foremost TFCLARL theoretician. García Linera has labeled the Morales administration the “government of social movements” and has embraced the “vivir bien” model based on anti-capitalist tenets of indigenous culture, but at the same time he defends the overriding importance of economic developmental goals (as discussed by Lorenza Fontana in her essay). In another example of incorporation of excluded sectors by the TFCLARL, women have constituted the vast majority of the “spokespeople” of the estimated 30,000 community councils which are concentrated in the barrios and represent a major pillar of the Chávez government’s political model.

      The experiences of the TFCLARL in power and the class analysis of its defenders accord with the post-Marxist emphasis on heterogeneity and the irreconcilability of interests among those supporting the process of change (Harnecker, 2010: 65-66; Sader, 2008: 77-78). Some TFCLARL thinkers such as García Linera view the resultant tensions as conducive to “creative” outcomes (García Linera, 2011: 23-72). The cases of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador demonstrate the deepness of the strains among non-elite social sectors as well as among internal political currents, and the relationship that exists between the two. Not only are their interests different, but in some cases have entered into conflict.  

      The TFCLARL, in contrast to traditional leftist parties, reject the orthodox Marxist prioritization of the working class and the preference of twentieth-century Communist governments for heavy industry (Harnecker, 2007: paragraphs 115-116; Alvarez, 2010: 114-116; Boron, 2008: 122-130). Some Latin American leftist theoreticians point out that the “incredibly fragmented society” in the age of globalization even affects the working class, which has become “extremely heterogeneous” due in large part to the practice of flexibilization (Harnecker, 2010: 66). Such prominent twenty-first century leftist as Chávez and García Linera have argued that over recent decades the organized working class has failed to live up to the revolutionary expectations inherent in traditional Marxism (Blanco Muñoz, 1998: 392, 397; García Linera, 2010: 38-39; Boron, 2008: 123). As an alternative to proletarian workerism, the TFCLARL places all workers on an equal footing including the members of the informal economy, the rural work force, and employees in small business units (Goldfrank, 2011: 6).

      The slogans “inclusion” and “incorporation” embraced by the twenty-first century left is directed more at the members of the informal economy, who are largely excluded from labor legislation and lack organizational representation, than the organized working class. One leading twenty-first century leftist philosopher and theoretician, Enrique Dussel, underscores the “liberation” and the rights of the excluded by arguing that ethics implies empathy for “the other” or for the “victim”. He goes on to state that “the affirmation of their dignity and freedom… of their labor, outside of the system is the source of the very mobility of the dialectic (they affirm what is ‘unproductive labor’ for capital, but real in its own terms… the system considers them ‘nothing, non-being; and it is out of this nothingness that new systems are built)” (Dussel, 2003: 143; 2008: 78; 2012).  (4)

      Twenty-first century radical leftist theoreticians and political actors, while discarding the workerism characteristic of orthodox Marxist groups, do not reject class-based analysis. Argentine leftist Atilio Boron, for instance, argues that “the proliferation of social actors does not decree the abolition of the laws of motion of a society of classes: it only signifies that the social and political scene has become more complex” (Boron, 2008: 126).Furthermore, the twenty-first century left has placed a premium on demands and programs at the point of production, a focus which represents the essence of Marxism. Examples of these types of demands favoring non-proletarian sectors of the work force include support for the right of informal economy workers to choose the locations of their sales stands and of community councils to hire local residents for public works undertakings in their communities, legalization of the activity of small-scale coca growers (particularly in Bolivia), and government preference for worker cooperatives in the awarding of contracts, even though they may be less cost-effective. These issues involving the livelihood of workers outside large-scale industry produced controversy among leftists, some of whom favored a strategy based on economies of scale (Ellner, 2011b: 440-445; Ciccariello-Maher, to be published: Chapter 9). Some twenty-first century radical leftists posit production units and geographical locations (such as communities) as equally important sources of struggle and as the seeds for the construction of a new society (Harnecker, 2008: 66-67; Silva, 2009: 269-272).

      The decision of the TFCLARL to embrace social heterogeneity rather than prioritize a specific class or set of struggles presents it with special challenges. Most important, sharp social and political differences within leftist movements put to test the left’s commitment to internal democracy as vertical structures are seen by many as a corrective to acute internal discord. Historically, Latin American leftist leaders of multi-class parties, influenced by the Marxist principle of the inevitability of class conflict, confronted the predicament of conflicting internal interests by promoting centralism and tight organizational control. (5) Similarly, the main justification for the all-encompassing power of the national executive and the líder máximo in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua is that it guarantees political party unity essential to face powerful and aggressive adversaries.

      Twenty-first century radical left writers have embraced two models which deal with the problem of heterogeneity in different ways and presuppose different levels of political consciousness among the general population. Radical or “participatory” democracy, which was embodied in the new constitutions of twenty-first century leftist governments, celebrates participation and guarantees direct popular input in decision making. In doing so, radical democracy encourages the creation of a wide range of social movements and organizations that reflect a multiplicity of concerns and interests (Harnecker, 2010: 7). An example of direct democracy is the government-promoted community councils in Venezuela, Bolivia (specifically, the ayllus) and Nicaragua. Rather than supporting mechanisms to achieve class harmony, some of the advocates of radical democracy envision ongoing social conflict and political differences as natural and healthy, as long as they do not degenerate into head-on clashes (Mouffe, 2005: 120-121; Garzón Rogé and Perelman, 2010: 69-72, 82-83). Their view of the proliferation of sources of conflict in the course of the twentieth century lends itself to the “deepening of democracy” and participatory democracy in that ever larger numbers of people have been incorporated into the political arena (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 163). The optimism of these writers regarding the democratic capacity of the general population leads them to take issue with those who are apprehensive of popular energy and participation (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 171-175; Esteva, 2009: 48-53). Radical democracy under governments committed to far-reaching change presupposes advanced political consciousness in that organizational and political maturity is a prerequisite for direct participation in decision-making. In addition, a high level of consciousness helps combat economicism whereby the excessive corporatist demands of a given non-privileged sector blocks the achievement of long-term objectives in the interest of the entire population. Political maturity is thus an antidote to secondary contradictions or what Mao Zedong called “contradictions among the people” (García Linera, 2011: 24).

      A second model focuses on the “dialectical” relationship between the rank and file of movements on the left and charismatic leftist leaders, who are able to achieve the unity of a highly fragmented bloc of the non-elite. Diana Raby, influenced by Laclau’s writing on populism, points to the “internal contradictions” of “broad, popular and democratic movement(s)” that leaders such as Chávez attempt to overcome (Raby, 2006: 19, 189). Raby paraphrases Laclau by stating that the followers of the leftist populist leader become a “political subject” and develop “a political consciousness and identity,” but at the same time they assume the role of participants and not spectators (Raby, 2006: 240, 115). In contrast to the defenders of “crowd theory” and much of the original writing on populism in the 1950s (Germani: 1962), Laclau sees the populist leader as meeting his followers “only halfway” as he [or she] “will be only accepted if he presents in a particularly marked fashion, features that he shares with those he is supposed to lead,” a bonding process described as “investiture” (Laclau, 2005: 59-60).  Many TFCLARL activists and sympathizers describe this ongoing exchange as a “magical relationship” that facilitates democratic governance (as quoted in Ellner, 2011b: 435). In short, the non-privileged sectors of the population are highly divided but at the same time are far from impotent as they effectively assert their world vision, goals and specific demands.

      Nevertheless, those twenty-first century leftists who place the radical populist leader at center stage are less optimistic than the radical democratic model about existing subjective conditions, and specifically the capacity of popular sectors to act autonomously on an ongoing basis within an organizational framework (see Laclau, 2006: 119-120). Indeed, some of the writers who identify with the TFCLARL point to the concentration of power in hands of the lider máximo as a sign of backwardness and an impediment to open debate and popular input in decision making (Monedero, 2009: 190-192; Javier Biardeau, 2009: 66; Acosta, 2009: 12-13).

      The issue of social heterogeneity holds an important strategic implication for the Latin American left. If no one social group is the key agent of revolutionary change or receives priority treatment, and if political differences have a social base, then leftist governments need to reconcile different internal positions rather than follow a monolithic line in favor of a given political current or social group. A broad-based strategy of this type would even attempt to win over sectors of the middle class, specifically less privileged ones that support structural transformation, and would refrain from deriding their proposals on grounds of being “petty bourgeois.” Nevertheless, even with a well-balanced, flexible approach that attempts to achieve reconciliation, the government will not be able to (as Mao had hoped would happen) put an end to internal tensions which, as Laclau points out, are inevitable. The alternative for leftists is a movement rooted in the revolutionary hegemony of a given class or a tight-knit political vanguard, a dogmatic strategy that ignores the complexity of the challenges facing the twenty-first century left, much as the “two-left thesis” thesis does coming from the right. (6)


       The focus on the complexity of the twenty-first century left and the heterogeneity of its following is diametrically opposed to the simplistic concept of populism embodied in the “two-left thesis” formulated by intellectuals such as Jorge Castañeda and Mario Vargas Llosa. Their arguments are used by the U.S. State Department as part of the effort to isolate Latin American governments perceived to be “anti-American.” The two-left thesis classifies the TFCLARL as the “bad left” or “populist left,” which it contrasts with the allegedly responsible policies of the “good left,” namely moderates such as Lula. The bad left is distinguished by its radical rhetoric, intransigence and confrontational tactics. Examples include López Obrador, who created a shadow cabinet to protest the alleged fraud of the 2006 presidential elections, and Ollanta Humala (at the time of his first presidential bid in 2006), who, according to Castañeda, attempted to “invade” Chile in what was really a peaceful symbolic protest in April 2007 to draw attention to Peru’s border claims (Castañeda, 2008: 232). The two-left thesis emphasizes personal ambition, style and discourse and in doing so completely passes over the complex array of groups that form part of the twenty-first century left and the difficult decisions that have been thrust upon it as a result of its commitment to the pacific road to power.

      The “two-left thesis” points to the areas of convergence between TFCLARL movements and classical radical populist ones of a half century before, but in doing so simplifies both phenomena (Ellner, 2011a: 422). Undoubtedly the TFCLARL in some ways resembles classical radical populism of the 1930s and 1940s (Dussel, 2008: 76-77), whose salient features included charismatic leadership, organizational weakness, ill-defined long-term goals, nationalist foreign policy, socio-economic reforms favoring popular sectors, a tendency to bypass existing political institutions and a discourse that contributed to sharp political and social polarization. The complexity of radical classical populism (in contrast to pro-neoliberal neopopulism associated with Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s) stemmed from its far-reaching transformational potential which clashed with the intentions and interests of many of its original supporters (Laclau: 1979: 175, 190-191).

      TFCLARL movements, due to their pronounced internal diversity and contradictions, are even more complex, as is repeatedly recognized by Latin American leftist theoreticians (Boron, 2008: 126; Dussel, 2008: 72). Thus, for instance, they are committed (and have taken steps) to overcoming their organizational shortcoming and promoting participatory democracy while in many cases retaining the strong executive powers of an all-powerful líder máximo. Furthermore, while lacking the blueprints for long-term change of orthodox Marxism, twenty-first century leftists have defined themselves as socialists and have debated different socialist options, unlike the more ideologically vague classical populism of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, their ideological vagueness may be a logical response to the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, or in the words of Laclau “a precondition to constructing relevant political meaning” (Laclau, 2005: 17-18). In short the political agenda that lies behind the two-left thesis rules out a nuanced analysis of non-Communist transformational movements in Latin America both in the twentieth century and the present and is at odds with rich scholarly writing that demonstrates their complex and dynamic nature.

      Since the publication of Leftovers in 2008, the debate over the two-left thesis has centered on the degree to which the category of both the good and the bad left can be considered homogeneous. Several important books explicitly characterize Leftovers as simplistic for failing to recognize the diversity among governments in both camps. Thus, for instance, the essays by Juan Pablo Luna (2010: 30-31), Maxwell Cameron and Kenneth Sharpe (2010), Jennifer McCoy (2010: 99 ft.7) and Santiago Anria (2010:121-123) in Latin America’s Left Turn contrast the top-down decision-making flow of Chávez with Morales, who as a labor and social movement leader has allegedly been more in tune and willing to negotiate with his rank and file and the population in general. In the same volume Luna (2010: 28) proposes to unpack “the social-democratic type” to demonstrate fundamental differences among “good left” governments. Along similar lines, Steven Levitsky and Kenneth Roberts conclude their The Resurgence of the Latin American Left by stating “the Latin American Left is marked by considerable diversity” in that between Brazil and Chile with its “macroeconomic orthodoxy” and Venezuela with “openly statist policies and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance” there is a “wide range of intermediate cases” (Levitsky and Roberts: 2011: 399). (7)

      The debate over the “good left”-“bad left” thesis needs to be framed along different lines. Even if the premise of the two-left thesis regarding the basic similarities of “bad left” governments is accepted, the theory is fundamentally flawed. Regardless of the degree of diversity within the TFCLARL, the two-left thesis is simplistic because it ignores the complexity of the challenges they face. The complexity stems from three factors: the social and political heterogeneity of leftist government supporters, the spaces that democratic strategies open for critics both to the left and the right of leftist governments and the relative novelty of the approaches that are being followed. For this reason, the application of the framework of populism by Castañeda and others that highlights semi-authoritarian features and the weakening of institutions is misleading. Similarly, the two-left thesis’ assertion that TFCLARL policies are not sustainable simplifies the process of change underway in the continent and ignores the unmistakable inroads (Weyland, 2010: 11-12; 2011: 75-82; see also discussion in Levitsky and Roberts, 2011: 413-415; and Oxhorn, 2009: 228-230).

      In short, the relatively novel and complex dimensions of the TFCLARL experiences in power, in addition to contradicting the simplistic two-left thesis, have major implications particularly for leftist strategy. The trial-and-error approach embraced by the TFCLARL, for instance, is conducive to the rejection of dogmatic positions based on preconceived blueprints. In addition, the TFCLARL’s acceptance of heterogeneity in the absence of both vanguardism and the prioritization of one social agent over others points in the direction of a strategy that synthesizes different and at times conflicting interests and visions. Finally, the TFCLARL’s tendency ofrejection of dogmatism, celebration of diversity and eclecticism are ingredients that lend themselves to rich debate on the left as well as rewarding scholarly inquiry.


1. Marx and Engels argued against the possibility of the peaceful transition to socialism. In the closing paragraph of the Communist Manifesto, they wrote: “Communists… openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

2. The extent to which Mao’s theory of contradictions conforms to “orthodox” Marxism has been heavily debated, with a variety of favorable and unfavorable implications with regard to the impact of his thinking (Knight, 1997: 105-107). Liu Kang (1997) points to Mao’s concepts of specificity, the decisive role of ideological struggle and the multiplicity of contradictions at all levels as having informed the writing of Louis Althusser (often considered a precursor of post-Marxism). Althusser’s rejection of reductionism and his theory on the mutual dependence of the elements of the structure and the resultant relative autonomy of the superstructure (a principle he called “overdetermination”) underpin the complex nature of social relations and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. As this introductory essay attempts to demonstrate, the complexity of the process of change, as Mao acknowledged and Althusser emphasized, is fundamental to understanding the twenty-first century Latin American left. Significantly, one of the main theoreticians of the TFCLARL, Marta Harnecker, was a student of Althusser. Harnecker has acknowledged that Althusser’s refutation of dogmatic Marxism and his arguments regarding the complexity of the process of change left a profound impact on her thinking. Along these lines, she claims that Marx was still grappling with the definition of social classes when he died (Harnecker, personal email to the author, February 20, 2012).

3. The literature on the informal economy differs on the extent to which its members represent an underclass with little upward mobility. Hernando de Soto’s celebrated book The Other Path focused on their potential to become prosperous businesspeople (Soto, 1989). Other writers attribute the growth of the informal economy of recent decades to capitalism’s outsourcing strategies in the age of globalization, which imply a less marginalized status for many of its members including a relatively comfortable living standards for some of them (Castells and Portes, 12-13).  In contrast, Weyland and Fanon, by emphasizing the downtrodden conditions of those belonging to the informal sectors and their interests which conflict with those of the more privileged working class, imply a more crystalized status of exclusion. This essay, which characterizes large numbers of members of the informal economy as marginalized and unincorporated, also focuses attention on the differences in interests and visions between them and the working class of the formal economy.

4. Postmodernism shares this concern for the plight of the historically “excluded.” In addition, the TFCLARL’s glorification of the originality of Latin American thinkers, ranging from Simón Bolívar and Simón Rodríguez to the Aymara people, imply a rejection of Eurocentrism, as does postmodern writing.

5. As far back as the early 1930s, Rómulo Betancourt addressed the challenge of how to construct a multi-class party that took in the petty bourgeoisie and did not privilege the proletariat. He recognized the difficulty of achieving organizational unity among “individuals with disparate tendencies or ideologies that are… at times completely antagonistic representing antagonistic and irreconcilable class interests in order to bring them together in the struggle against a common enemy” (El Libro Rojo, 1985: 264). Betancourt’s answer to the predicament was the creation of tight-knit central leadership. He pointed out that “parties regardless of how doctrinaire and mass-based they may be, always move in the direction where their leaders take them” (El Libro Rojo: 1985: 143).

6. The TFCLARL’s acceptance of political diversity and pluralism manifested itself in Venezuela with Chávez’s failed effort to create the PSUV as “the Sole Party of the Left” (Partido Unico de la Izquierda) in 2007. Due to resistance from various sources, Chávez ended up backing down by creating the alliance “Gran Polo Patriótico” for the 2012 presidential elections. The Polo took in not only the Communist Party (the PCV) and the Patria Para Todos (PPT), both of which had refused to dissolve itself, but also social organizations that endorsed the Chávez candidacy with their own ticket. One Venezuelan leftist thinker applauded the decision on grounds that it “would generate greater richness of discussion,” whereas the existence of one hegemonic leftist party “would generate arrogance” (Acosta, 2009: 13-14).

7. In contrast, Kurt Weyland, Wendy Hunter and Raúl Madrid defend the two-left framework in their edited The Performance of Leftist Governments in Latin America. They justify their binary focus by contrasting the “contestatory left” represented by Chávez and Morales with the moderate left, which “has chartered a more promising, sustainable course which over time can produce greater economic and social progress in a well-functioning democracy” (Madrid, Hunter and Weyland, 2010: 180) (see Marc Becker’s book review essay in this issue). 


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