Monday, July 20, 2015

My review of Marta Harnecker's "A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism"

Book Review

Challenges Facing the Latin American Left

According to Marta Harnecker







 
 
 





Marta Harnecker A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism. Translated by Fred Fuentes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015.

Published in Latin American Perspectives, July 2015, Vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 108-112

by Steve Ellner*

In this work, the prolific Chilean Marxist writer Marta Harnecker applies Marx’s and Lenin’s theories on socialist construction to twenty-first century Latin American left governments and at the same time points to the original aspects of the lessons drawn from those experiences. The book is divided into three parts: past developments such as the anti-neoliberal protests of the 1990s that helped change the political map in Latin America; the transition to socialism in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador; and the challenges faced by the left in power to achieving consolidation and hegemony. In each chapter, Harnecker discusses the effectiveness of mechanisms designed to bring about decentralization and popular participation in decision making. In some cases, she analyzes arrangements promoted by leftist governments such as worker cooperatives, community councils and participatory planning. In other cases, she presents proposals of her own, or those formulated by leftist activists and intellectuals. The latter includes Canadian economist Michael Lebowitz (2010), whose emphasis on “human development” under socialism is shared by Harnecker.

The book is enriched by Harnecker’s familiarity with concrete problems, challenges and successes of leftist governments in Latin America and her ability to draw on the lessons and theories derived from struggles over the last two centuries. Indeed, Harnecker’s diverse political experiences include her leadership involvement in the Christian student movement, her studies under famed Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, participation in the leftist movement that supported President Salvador Allende, her extended residence in Cuba where she founded and ran an institute on popular memory, and her numerous interviews with Latin American leftist leaders and activists throughout the continent.

Another of the book’s contributions is Harnecker’s analysis and conclusions on the thorny issue of the role of the state in the prolonged, democratic transition to socialism. Harnecker implicitly rejects the social-democratic vision of a unified state that presides over socialist construction in the absence of intense political conflict. She also discards the applicability of Lenin’s concept of dual power in which two state structures compete and confront one another, one representing the old system and the other the new one. In contrast, Harnecker envisions the relatively harmonious coexistence of an old state, with a large presence of revolutionary cadre, and a new emerging state in what she calls a “relationship of complementarity” (p. 140). The old state, however, is plagued by “bureaucratism,” which Harnecker calls “the greatest scourge” (p. 185) and one of the main impediments to the advancement of the revolutionary process. She attributes bureaucratism to “excessive centralization” (p. 185) and the attitude among civil servants that they are called upon to “make the decisions because… they are the only ones who have the expertise to do so” (p. 186).  She points to decentralization as the major corrective and quotes Marx in Civil War in France as saying “all that can be decentralized should be” (p. 81). Harnecker’s emphasis on bureaucracy is undoubtedly influenced by developments in countries where the radical left is in power, such as Venezuela, where inefficiency and corruption have become, along with the opposition’s disruptive tactics, major challenges facing leftists.

Harnecker insists that a “transition to socialism” is currently underway in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. To those who question the slowness of structural transformation in those nations, Harnecker argues that the “direction” in which the nations are heading and not the “pace at which [they]… are implementing change” is what counts since “the pace will largely depend on how they deal with the obstacles they encounter” (p. 10). In doing so, she takes issue with Valter Pomar, the Brazilian Workers’ Party leader and executive secretary of the Sao Paulo Forum, who claims that until the state is completely controlled by revolutionary forces, the current stage cannot be defined as anything other than the “struggle for socialism” (p. 105), as opposed to one of socialist transformation. Pomar, in effect, is warning against socialism’s immediate prospects throughout the continent. In contrast, Harnecker’s position implies that conditions in the three countries are ripe for structural change and that Chávez, Morales and Correa have gone beyond advanced welfare state policies by beginning to lay the groundwork for socialism. Elsewhere, Harnecker quotes Cuban Communist Roberto Regalado as saying that all three governments have implemented “reforms whose strategic direction and intent are anti-capitalist” (p. 48).

There are gaps and shortcomings in Harnecker’s analysis of the role of the state in socialist transformation and in her emphasis on the pitfalls of bureaucratism. At the theoretical level, she passes over the relationship between the state (referred to in Marxist terms as part of the “superstructure”) and the capitalist system (or the “structure”), which in all three countries continues to be dominant even though somewhat weakened. Regardless of the good intentions and revolutionary commitment of those in power, the state cannot be autonomous vis-à-vis the capitalist system. This fundamental principle is recognized by state theoreticians such as Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas belonging to distinct Marxist currents.

The tie-in between capitalist structure and state superstructure played out during and after the general strike that attempted to topple the Chávez government in 2002-2003. During the two-month shutdown when it appeared as if the Chavista government’s days were numbered, President Chávez relied on a group of businesspeople who refused to heed the strike call of the main business organization FEDECAMARAS. In the aftermath of that conflict, Chavez announced that he would favor the non-strike businesspeople, specifically in the authorization of preferential dollars (at favorable exchange rates) to finance imports. The ensuing unofficial alliance between the government and an emerging bourgeoisie outside of the fold of FEDECAMARAS made sense from political and economic viewpoints. Nevertheless, it was conducive to the abrupt accumulation of wealth by members of the new bourgeoisie and their unethical dealings, which were responsible for the banking crisis of 2009 followed by the arrest orders of over fifty bankers and the expropriation of thirteen banks (Ellner, 2014: 9). Both Presidents Chavez and Nicolás Maduro have called for an “alliance” with “productive businesspeople” in an attempt to isolate those members of the private sector who seek to destabilize the nation’s economy.

Harnecker’s analysis of the “old state” overlooks this aspect of the complexity of socialist construction through peaceful democratic means and the material basis for bureaucratism and government backsliding. Her call for bottom-up participation in decision making would have been strengthened by a recognition of the need to create democratic mechanisms to supervise the ongoing interactions of state officials with the private sector, a necessary relationship but one that runs the risk of undermining the efficiency and popular thrust of the public administration.   

Harnecker makes a distinction between the decentralization she proposes and anarchist-style and neoliberal-style decentralization. Unlike anarchists, she rejects the complete elimination of the central government on grounds that it is instrumental in bringing about a redistribution of the wealth. Unlike neoliberals, she prioritizes popular participation. In contrast to her detailed and informative discussion of popular participation, however, Harnecker places too much emphasis on decentralization as a corrective to bureaucratization. Indeed, decentralization can give rise to the same unwieldy bureaucracy that exists at the national level.

Viable mechanisms of popular participation – and not decentralization per se – are a sine qua non for combating inefficiency and corruption in the transit to socialism. Harnecker demonstrates the importance of popular participation even in the case of Ecuador, contrary to the assertions of some leftist scholars who question Correa’s commitment to authentic democracy. An example is the itinerant cabinets consisting of the interaction of the entire cabinet with mayors and the general populace in the form of workshops held throughout the country, especially in small towns, which are “prioritized over large cities” (p. 124). Harnecker claims that in these encounters “Correa is always careful not to make any promises that cannot be kept” (p. 125).

In general, Harnecker is a realist who recognizes that leftist strategy needs to take into account subjective and objective conditions, examples of which she points to throughout the book. In one example of the importance of objective conditions, Harnecker attributes the moderateness of Lula’s policies, in contrast to those of Chávez, largely to “the fact that Brazil depends to a much greater degree on international finance capital” (p. 55). She calls Chávez a “realist” (p. 8) and credits him with having taken “existing reality as [his]… starting point” (p. 8), which consisted of “the inherited state apparatus, the inherited economic system and the inherited culture” (p. 9). On the international front, Chávez realized that the changes brought about by globalization “required an alternative globalization” and he thus rejected the old notion of building “socialism in one country” (p. 9).

Subjective conditions, as defined by the level of political consciousness and commitment of popular and leftist forces, are harder to measure, but no less significant than objective ones. Indeed, the left in the era of Marx and Lenin tended to highlight objective conditions, but over the last half a century or more leftist political analysts and activists have assigned increasing importance to subjective conditions, which are a fundamental component of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.

Harnecker presents a realistic evaluation of political and subjective conditions prevalent in Latin America in order to determine what leftist governments can do and “cannot do, not because of lack of will but rather because of … limitations” (p. 54). In doing so, she takes issue with the “ultra-left” by questioning the viability of “things that more radical left sectors, which demand that their governments take more drastic measures, often fail to take into account” (p. 54). Thus she points out that company employees are not prepared to assume management responsibilities because “capitalism has never been interested in providing workers with the necessary technical knowledge” (pp. 85-86) to do so. Nevertheless, she underscores the importance of workers’ participation and notes that failure to incorporate them in decision making in the Soviet Union converted them into “mere cogs in the machine” and meant that a factory in that nation “differed little from its capitalist counterpart” (p. 84). At the same time, however, she questions the applicability of the term “state capitalism” to Soviet bloc nations.  

Harnecker’s evaluation of the correlation of political forces in Latin America leaves room for guarded optimism. Harnecker agrees with Valter Pomar that the new correlation of forces in Latin America is “capable of limiting foreign intervention in the region” (p. 30). She goes on to discuss numerous setbacks to U.S. domination, such as the rejection of the Washington-promoted FTAA trade proposal, growth in the region’s economic relations with China, Ecuador’s closing of the Manta military base, the OAS’s support for lifting sanctions against Cuba, Brazil’s decision to buy French rather than U.S. military equipment, and the growing number of international meetings and the establishment of new organizations and programs “without U.S. participation” (p. 34).  

A more somber leftist view, however, would point out that the radical leftist governments of Bolivia and Ecuador have always been politically volatile and that they lack an industrial base, while Venezuela is highly dependent on oil and lacking in a diversified economy. None of the nations with a more solid industrial base have joined the radical left camp. Harnecker’s position is that the governments of the moderate left such as those of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have failed to break with neoliberalism, even while they have implemented viable social programs.

Harnecker also identifies herself with a school of thinking sometimes labeled “eco-socialism,” which attempts to reconcile Marx’s materialist doctrine with ecological imperatives. She credits Marx with anticipating environmentalism, especially toward the end of his life when he moved away from the developmentalism and positivism that characterized some of his writing at an earlier date. After welcoming capitalism’s capacity to revolutionize productive forces including in the countryside, Marx and Engels began to warn that a new capitalist-driven agricultural revolution “would only worsen… problems” (p. 66), particularly as a result of soil depletion. This dimension of Marxism is particularly relevant due to the confrontations between progressive Latin American governments and indigenous populations opposed to megaprojects, which Harnecker very briefly discusses in the case of the conflict-ridden Huanuni tin mine in Bolivia (Fuentes, 2014: 112-117; Webber, 2013: 181-183).

In short, A World to Win is a valuable study of the twenty-first century Latin American radical left in power. Most important, it discusses a diversity of concrete proposals and experiences at the same time that it presents a theoretical framework to understand the transformation of the state in the process of structural change. If Harnecker’s reasoning regarding the socialist path of radical left governments is correct, her analysis is especially important because the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are presenting an attractive alternative to the forceful conquest of power undertaken by the communist movements that reached power in the twentieth century. Other studies that examine in detail the knotty problems confronting all three governments are required if these experiences are to be assimilated and useful lessons drawn. Future studies need to be empirically strong and theoretically grounded, as is A World to Win. Specifically, they need to focus on the contradictions inherent in the process whereby a government committed to socialism interacts with the capitalist class in order eventually to change the capitalist system.

REFERENCES

Ellner, Steve

2014 “Venezuela: Chavistas debate the pace of change.” NACLA: Report on the Americas 47, no. 1 (Spring): 4-9.

Fuentes, Federico

       2014 “‘Bad left government’ versus ‘good left social movements’? Creative tensions within Bolivia’s process of change,” pp. 103-125 in Steve Ellner (ed.), Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman an & Littlefield.  

Lebowitz, Michael A.

       2010 The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development. New York: Monthly Review Press.    

Webber, Jeffery R.

       “From left-indigenous insurrection to reconstituted neoliberalism in Bolivia: Political economy, indigenous liberation, and class struggle, 2000-2011,” pp. 149-189 in Webber and Barry Carr (eds.), The New Latin American Left: Cracks in the Empire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.  

Steve Ellner teaches economic history at the Universidad de Oriente (Venezuela). His latest book is his edited Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).


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