A letter to intellectuals who deride revolutions in the name of purity
Revolutions do not happen suddenly, nor do they immediately transform a society. A revolution is a process, which moves at different speeds whose tempo can change rapidly if the motor of history is accelerated by intensified class conflict. But, most of the time, the building of the revolutionary momentum is glacial, and the attempt to transform a state and society can be even more slow.
Leon Trotsky, sitting in his Turkish exile in 1930, wrote the most remarkable study of the Russian Revolution. Thirteen years had elapsed since the Tsarist empire had been overthrown. But the revolution was already being derided, even by people on the Left. ‘Capitalism’, Trotsky wrote in the conclusion to that book, ‘required a hundred years to elevate science and technique to the heights and plunge humanity into the hell of war and crisis. To socialism its enemies allow only fifteen years to create and furnish a terrestrial paradise. We took no such obligation upon ourselves. We never set these dates. The process of vast transformation must be measured by an adequate scale’.
When Hugo Chavez won an election in Venezuela (December 1998) and when Evo Morales Ayma won an election in Bolivia (December 2005), their critics on the Left in North America and in Europe gave their governments no time to breathe. Some professors with a leftist orientation immediately began to criticise these governments for their limitations, and even their failures. This attitude was limited politically—there was no solidarity given to these experiments; it was also limited intellectually—there was no sense of the deep difficulties for a socialist experiment in Third World countries calcified in social hierarchies and depleted of financial resources.
Pace of Revolution
Two years into the Russian Revolution, Lenin wrote that the newly created USSR is not a ‘miracle-working talisman’, nor does it ‘pave the way to socialism. It gives those who were formerly oppressed the chance to straighten their backs and to an ever-increasing degree to take the whole government of the country, the whole administration of the economy, the whole management of production, into their own hands’.
But even that—that whole this, and whole that—was not going to be easy. It is, Lenin wrote, ‘a long, difficult, and stubborn class struggle, which, after the overthrow of capitalist rule, after the destruction of the bourgeois state.… does not disappear … but merely changes its forms and in many respects becomes fiercer’. This was Lenin’s judgment after the Tsarist state had been taken over, and after the socialist government had begun to consolidate power. Alexandra Kollantai wrote (such as in Love of Worker Bees) about the struggles to build socialism, the conflicts within socialism to attain its objectives. Nothing is automatic; everything is a struggle.
Lenin and Kollantai argued that the class struggle is not suspended when a revolutionary government takes over the state; it is in fact, ‘fiercer’, the opposition to it intense because the stakes are high, and the moment dangerous because the opposition—namely the bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy—had imperialism on its side. Winston Churchill said, ‘Bolshevism must be strangled in its cradle’, and so the Western armies joined the White Army in an almost fatal military attack on the Soviet Republic. This attack went from the last days of 1917 to 1923—a full six years of sustained military assault.
Neither in Venezuela nor in Bolivia, nor in any of the countries that turned to the Left over the past twenty years, has the bourgeois state been totally transcended nor has capitalist rule been overthrown. The revolutionary processes in these countries had to gradually create institutions of and for the working-class alongside the continuation of capitalist rule. These institutions reflect the emergence of a unique state-form based on participatory democracy; expressions of this are the Misiones Sociales among others. Any attempt to fully transcend capitalism was constrained by the power of the bourgeoisie—which was not undone by repeated elections, and which is now the source of counter-revolution; and it was constrained by the power of imperialism—which has succeeded, for now, in a coup in Bolivia, and which threatens daily a coup in Venezuela. No-one, in 1998 or 2005, suggested that what happened in Venezuela or Bolivia was a ‘revolution’ like the Russian Revolution; the election victories were part of a revolutionary process. As the first act of his government Chavéz announced a constituent process for the re-foundation of the Republic. Similarly, Evo affirmed in 2006 that the Movement to Socialism (MAS) had been elected into the government but had not taken power; it was later that a constituent process was launched, which was itself a long journey. Venezuela entered an extended ‘revolutionary process’, while Bolivia entered a ‘process of change’ or—as they called it—simply the ‘process’, which even now—after the coup—is ongoing. Nonetheless, both Venezuela and Bolivia experienced the full thrust of a ‘hybrid war’—from sabotage of physical infrastructure to sabotage of the ability to raise funds from capital markets.
Lenin suggested that after capturing the state and dismantling capitalist ownership, the revolutionary process in the new Soviet republic was difficult, the stubborn class struggle alive and well; imagine then how much more difficult is the stubborn struggle in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Revolutions in the Realm of Necessity
Imagine, again, how hard it is to build a socialist society in a country, in which—despite its wealth of natural resources—there remains great poverty, and great inequality. Deeper yet, there is the cultural reality that large parts of the population have suffered from and struggled against centuries of social humiliation. Little surprise that in these countries, the most oppressed agricultural workers, miners, and the urban working class are either from indigenous communities or from communities that descend from Africans. The crushing burdens of indignity combined with the lack of easy to access resources makes revolutionary processes in the ‘realm of necessity’ all the harder.
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), Marx makes a distinction between the ‘realm of freedom’—where ‘labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases’—and the ‘realm of necessity’—where physical needs are not met at all. A long history of colonial subjugation and then imperialist theft has drained large parts of the planet of its wealth and made these regions—mainly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—appear to be permanently in the ‘realm of necessity’. When Chavez won the first election in Venezuela, the poverty rate was an incredible 23.4%; in Bolivia, when Morales won his first election, the poverty rate was a staggering 38.2%. What these figures show is not just the absolute poverty of large sections of the population, but they carry inside them stories of social humiliation and indignity that cannot be made into a simple statistic.
Revolutions and revolutionary processes seem to have been rooted more in the realm of necessity—in Tsarist Russia, in China, in Cuba, in Vietnam—than in the realm of freedom—in Europe and the United States. These revolutions and these revolutionary processes—such as in Venezuela and Bolivia—are made in places that simply do not have accumulations of wealth that can be socialised. The bourgeoisie in these societies either absconds with its money at the moment of revolution or revolutionary change, or it remains in place but keeps its money in tax havens or in places such as New York and London. This money, the fruit of the people’s labour, cannot be accessed by the new government without incurring the wrath of imperialism. See how quickly the United States organised for Venezuela’s gold to be seized by the Bank of London, and for the US to freeze the bank accounts of the governments of Iran and Venezuela, and see how swiftly investment dried up when Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia refused to abide by the World Bank’s investor-State settlement mechanism.
Both Chavez and Morales tried to take charge of the resources in their countries, an act treated as an abomination by imperialism. Both of them faced rebuke, with the accusation that they are ‘dictators’ because they want to renegotiate the deals cut by previous governments for the removal of raw materials. They needed this capital not for personal aggrandisement—no one can accuse them of personal corruption—but to build up the social, economic, and cultural capacity of their peoples.
Every day remains a struggle for revolutionary processes in the ‘realm of necessity’. The best example of this is Cuba, whose revolutionary government has had to struggle against a crushing embargo and against threats of assassinations and coups from the very beginning.
Revolutions of Women
It is admitted—because it would be foolish to deny it—that women are at the centre of the protests in Bolivia against the coup and for the restoration of the Morales government; in Venezuela as well, the majority of people who take to the streets to defend the Bolivarian revolution are women. Most of these women might not be Masistas or Chavistas, but they certainly understand that these revolutionary processes are feminist, socialist, and against the indignity visited upon the indigenous and the Afro-descendants.
Countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, faced immense pressure from the International Monetary Fund through the 1980s and 1990s to make deep cuts in state support for health care, education, and eldercare. The breakdown of these crucial social support systems put a burden on the ‘care economy’, which is largely maintained—for patriarchal reasons—by women. If the ‘invisible hand’ failed to take care of people, the ‘invisible heart’ had to do so. It was the experience of the cuts in the care economy, that deepened the radicalisation of women in our societies. Their feminism emerged from their experience of patriarchy and structural adjustment policies; capitalism’s tendency to harness violence and deprivation hastened the journey of working-class and indigenous feminism directly into the socialist projects of Chávez and Morales. As the tide of neoliberalism continues to wash over the world, and as it engulfs societies in anxiety and heartache, it is women who have been the most active in the fight for a different world.
Morales and Chavez are both men, but in the revolutionary process they have come to symbolise a different reality for all of society. To different degrees, their governments have committed themselves to a platform that addresses both the cultures of patriarchy and the policies of social cuts that burden women with holding society together. The revolutionary processes in Latin America, therefore, must be understood as deeply cognizant of the importance of putting women, the indigenous, and the Afro-descendants at the centre of the struggle. No-one would deny that there are hundreds of errors made by the governments, errors of judgment that set back the fight against patriarchy and racism; but these are errors, which can be rectified, and not structural features of the revolutionary process. That is something that is deeply acknowledged by indigenous and Afro-descendent women in these countries; the proof of this acknowledgement is not in this or that article that they have written, but by their active and energetic presence on the streets.
As part of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela, women have been essential in re-building social structures eroded by decades of austerity capitalism. Their work has been central to the development of people’s power and for the creation of participatory democracy. Sixty-four per cent of the spokespersons of the 3,186 communes are women, so are a majority of the leaders of the 48,160 communal councils; sixty-five per cent of the leaders in the local supply and production committees are women. Women not only demand equality in the workplace, but demand equality in the social domain, where the comunas are the atoms of Bolivarian socialism. Women in the social domain have fought to build the possibility of self-government, building dual-power, and therefore slowly eroding the form of the liberal state. Against austerity capitalism, women have shown their creativity, their strength, and their solidarity not only against neoliberal policies, but also for the socialist experiment and against the hybrid war.
Democracy and Socialism
Left intellectual currents have been badly bruised in the period after the fall of the USSR. Marxism and dialectical materialism lost considerable credibility not only in the West but in large parts of the world; post-colonialism and subaltern studies—variants of post-structuralism and post-modernism—flourished in intellectual and academic circles. One of the main themes of this seam of scholarship was to argue that the ‘State’ was obsolete as a vehicle for social transformation, and that ‘Civil Society’ was the salvation. A combination of post-Marxism and anarchist theory adopted this line of argument to deride any experiments for socialism through state power. The state was seen as merely an instrument of capitalism, rather than as an instrument for the class struggle. But if the people withdraw from the contest over the state, then it will—without challenge—serve the oligarchy, and deepened inequalities and discrimination.
Privileging the idea of ‘social movements’ over political movements reflects the disillusionment with the heroic period of national liberation, including the indigenous peoples’ liberation movements. It also discards the actual history of people’s organisations in relation to political movements that have won state power. In 1977, after considerably struggle indigenous organisations forced the United Nations to open up a project to end discrimination against the indigenous population in the Americas. The La Paz-based South American Indian Council was one of these organisations, which worked closely with the World Peace Council, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as a number of national liberation movements (African National Congress, the South-West Africa People’s Organisation, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation). It was from this unity and this struggle that the UN established the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1981, and that it declared 1993 as the UN International Year of Indigenous Peoples. In 2007, Evo Morales lead the push for the UN to pass a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This was a very clear example of the importance of unity and struggle between people’s movements and fraternal states—if not for both the people’s movements struggles from 1977 to 2007, aided and abetted by fraternal states, and if not for the Bolivian government in 2007, this Declaration—which has immense importance to take the struggle forward—would have been passed.
Indigenous intellectuals from the Americas have understood the complexity of politics from this struggle—that indigenous self-determination comes from a struggle through society and the state to overcome bourgeois and settler-colonial power, as well as to find instruments to prepare the transition to socialism. Amongst those forms—as recognised by Peru’s José Carlos Mariátegui and Ecuador’s Nela Martínez almost a century ago—is the comuna.
The revolutions in Bolivia and Venezuela have not only politically sharpened the relations between men and women, between indigenous communities and non-indigenous communities, but they have also challenged the understanding of democracy and of socialism itself. These revolutionary processes not only have had to work within the rules of liberal democracy, but they at the same time built a new institutional framework through the comunas and other forms. It was by winning elections and taking charge of state institutions that the Bolivarian revolution was able to turn resources towards increased social expenditure (on health, education, housing) and towards a direct attack on patriarchy and racism. State power, in the hands of the Left, was used to build these new institutional frameworks that extend the state and go beyond it. The existence of these two forms—liberal democratic institutions and the socialist-feminist institutions—has led to the bursting of the prejudice of fictitious ‘liberal equality’. Democracy, if reduced to the act of voting, forces individuals to believe that they are citizens with the same power as other citizens, regardless of their socio-economic, political, and cultural positions. The revolutionary process challenges this liberal myth, but it has not yet succeeded in overcoming it—as can be seen in both Bolivia and Venezuela. It is a struggle to create a new cultural consensus around socialist democracy, a democracy that is rooted not in an ‘equal vote’, but in a tangible experience of building a new society.
One of the textbook dynamics of having a Left government is that it takes up the agenda of many social and political movements of the people. At the same time, many of the personnel from these movements—as well as from various NGOs—join the government, bringing their various skills to bear inside the complex institutions of modern government. This has a contradictory impact: it fulfils the demands of the people, and at the same time it has a tendency to weaken independent organisations of various kinds. These developments are part of the process of having a Left government in power, whether it be in Asia or in South America. Those who want to remain independent of the government struggle to remain relevant; they often become bitter critics of the government, and their criticisms are frequently weaponised by imperialist forces towards ends that are alien even to those who make such criticisms.
The liberal myth seeks to speak on behalf of the people, to obscure the real interests and aspirations of the people—in particular of women, the indigenous communities, and the afro-descendants. The Left inside the experiences of Bolivia and Venezuela has sought to develop the collective mastery of the people in a contentious class struggle. A position that attacks the very idea of the ‘State’ as oppressive does not see how the state in Bolivia and Venezuela attempts to use that authority to build institutions of dual power to create a new political synthesis, with women at the front.
Revolutionary Advice with no Revolutionary Experience
Revolutions are not easy to make. They are filled with retreats and errors, since they are made by people who are flawed and whose political parties must always learn to learn. Their teacher is their experience, and it is those amongst them who have the training and time to elaborate their experiences into lessons. No revolution is without its own mechanisms to correct itself, its own voices of dissent. But that does not mean that a revolutionary process should be deaf to criticisms; it should welcome them.
Criticism is always welcome, but in what form does that criticism come? These are two forms that are typical of the ‘Left’ critic who derides revolutions in the name of purity.
- If the criticism comes from the standpoint of perfect, then their standard is not only too high, but it fails to understand the nature of class struggle that must contend with congealed power inherited over generations.
- If the criticism assumes that all projects that contest the electoral domain will betray the revolution, then there is little understanding of the mass dimension of electoral projects and dual power experiments. Revolutionary pessimism halts the possibility of action. You cannot succeed if you do not allow yourself to fail, and to try again. This standpoint of critique provides only despair.
The ‘stubborn class struggle’ inside the revolutionary process should provide someone who is not part of the revolutionary process itself to be sympathetic not to this or that policy of a government, but to the difficulty—and necessity—of the process itself.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas; and is author most recently of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.
Ana Maldonado is in the Frente Francisco de Miranda (Venezuela).
Pilar Troya Fernández works at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
Vijay Prashad is Chief Editor, LeftWord Books.
Featured image credit: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters.