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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 244 | Noviembre 2001


Central America

New Ideas on Revolution and Socialism for Central America

The Marxism inherited by Central America’s leftist groups— what they opted for, what remains and what they must reconstruct—obliges them to participate in a reflection that is essential if we are to create a socialism that is valid today.

Carlos Figueroa Ibarra

Well before the enthusiasm that the Sandinista Revolution sparked among the world’s Left had waned, Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez Mercado wrote an incisive essay on his country’s bourgeoisie titled "The survivors of the shipwreck." At that time we in Central America were still dazzled by the illusion of a bright future and the spirit of the slogan shouted in the streets and fields, "If Nicaragua triumphed, El Salvador will triumph and Guatemala will follow!" Fifteen years on, the shipwreck survivors are no longer to be found among the Central American bourgeoisie, but rather among the world’s leftist movements. Ludolfo Paramio was not exaggerating when he used the image of the great flood to sum up the Left’s situation at the end of the 20th century.

The collapse of Eastern Europe’s version of socialism and the crisis of the welfare state put the finishing touches on what for some time was being referred to as the "crisis of Marxism." The collapse of the model of social transformation introduced by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution has wrenched a significant part of the Left away from a conception that emerged during the 19th century and fueled many of the social struggles of the 20th. The failure of what was distinguished as "real socialism" has profoundly affected Marxism, although there is a lot of truth in the suggestion that it to Marxism what the Inquisition was to Christianity.

The conservative times of the past several years have generated two attitudes. The first has to do with the renegade spirit that is now flourishing either in hard-line conservatism in the worst of cases, or in cynicism and skepticism in the best of cases. The second is related to the reflection on what can be rescued from the rubble of the old building and used in constructing a new one. This is the sense behind the following deliberations.

Socialism preceded Marxism

Given the influence that Marxism came to have on socialist thinking in the world during the last third of the 19th century, we tend to forget that socialist thinking came first and developed apart from Marxism. Thomas More published his communist "Utopia" during the second decade of the 16th century, the English Revolution had its Diggers in the 17th and the French Revolution produced Babeuf and his followers in the 18th. Utopian socialism emerged between the 18th and 19th centuries and the 19th century saw the emergence of Blanc, Proudhon and anarchism, a current of thought with socialist pretensions but which differed substantially from Marxism. The existence of all of these currents alongside Marxism demonstrates that modern society, which started to dawn in the 16th and 17th centuries, generated social conflicts that the English and French Revolutions failed to resolve. The French Revolution would lay the foundations for the establishment of legal and political equality through the creation of the "citizen," but neither that nor the way the 19th century unfolded involved any transformations of the social inequality. In fact, capitalist development in the 19th century tended to deepen such inequality, thus providing the context for the emergence of movements that challenged the capitalist order being established. These ranged from Luddism at the beginning of the century and the Chartist movement in the mid-1800s to the incipient struggles in Germany and, above all, the appearance on the political scene of the working class as a political subject through the revolutions of 1848, particularly the class struggle that took place in France between 1848 and 1850.

The transformation of society

Marxism, understood at this point as the work of both Marx and Engels, was constructed in the 1850s and 1860s as a critical line of thought that would both cast off and reclaim the set of economic, political and philosophical ideas that prevailed in the European societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Through its critique and recovery of classic English economics, Marxism established the "theory of value" as its cornerstone along with its natural consequence, the "theory of surplus value." In the philosophical field, the criticism and recovery of German philosophy involved recuperating Feuerbach’s materialism—along with his concept of "alienation"—and Hegel’s dialectical method. This criticism would give rise to the idea that the material prevailed over the spiritual, that "praxis"—the dialectical relation of the human being with the natural and the social—was the source of knowledge and, finally, that the economy was the ultimate—if not exclusive—source of social events.

On the political level, Marxism was constructed on the basis of the critique of various political positions, which explains several of its ideological features. The criticism of "utopian socialism" was one of the sources of the idea of revolution as an act of force to carry out the "essential transformation" of society as well as the conversion of socialism into a political and economic necessity rather than just a moral problem. The critical assimilation of the experience of English Chartism was one of the ways Marxism expressed the idea that the transformation of capitalist society into socialist society would have to be carried out by subverting the correlation of forces embodied in the bourgeois state rather than by struggling for reforms that at the best would only partially improve the workers’ economic and social situation. In its critique of Proudhon, Marxism argued that socialism should include socializing the ownership of the means of production, starting with the production that capitalist development had engendered. It discarded the idea, however, that this should occur by disseminating small-scale ownership, as Proudhon’s followers proposed, considering this a romantic and pre-capitalist vision. Finally, in its critique of anarchism, Marxism held that socialist parties should participate in politics and in the construction of a union movement—both of which Bakunin and his followers considered bourgeois politics—and that the state, while an expression of domination, would be necessary until the arrival of communism, when it could shift from dominating human beings to administering things. The experience of the Paris Commune also helped refine the idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as a transitional phase in the withering of the state, as opposed to its abolition as professed by the anarchists.

The inevitable revolution

These ideas gradually won over the European workers’ movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The powerful Second International, founded with Engel’s participation in the last third of the 19th century, was gradually hegemonized by Marxist ideas, in turn influenced by certain important changes in Europe. These included the defeat of the Paris Commune, the increasing political space conquered by the workers’ movement during that period, the restructuring of cities and the modernization and increased effectiveness of the armed forces. All of these events led Engels to revise the idea of proletarian insurrection and appreciate legal political struggle, parliamentary participation and the conquest of power as the result of a broad correlation of forces with the necessary collaboration of the armed forces.
These ideas and the vision that grew out of this context gradually gave rise to a moderate tendency within the Second International, first through Bernstein and later through Kautsky. But the unilateral appraisal of the union struggle and parliamentarianism and the idea of a peaceful transition to socialism slowly gave way to the idea of the inevitability of revolution as a necessary step on the road to socialism. The adoption of chauvinism as opposed to the idea of proletarian internationalism during the First World War gave birth to the Third International and the distinction between communists and social democrats.

Leninism and the events of 1917 represented the recovery of the revolutionary road to power and the construction of socialism. Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and the idea of the weakest link posited socialist revolution as a phenomenon that did not necessarily have to take place in the most developed capitalist countries. The concept of the active majority in nodal points of the class struggle turned socialism into something that would result from a "class majority" rather than the "majority of the people." The democratic centralist party turned the proletarian party into a vanguard of cadres whose job was to agitate the masses as opposed to a party of the masses. Leninism was built on the "actuality of the revolution" and Soviet socialism in its early years on the hope of "Western revolution." That these hopes were not realized gave rise to the idea of socialism in a single country, which was the source of one of Trotsky’s disagreements with Stalinism.

Reactions to real socialism

Gramsci proposed reformulating Marxism once again in the light of the frustration of revolutions in the West. The state had barricaded itself within civil society and thus had to be viewed as an arena for the union between coercion and consensus and between political society and civil society. The expansion of its hegemony made a long counter-hegemonic struggle necessary in which the war of movements—the Bolsheviks’ direct assault on power—had to be to replaced by a war of positions involving the construction of a workers’ counter-hegemony, turning democracy and socialism into a culture that would gradually invade each of the trenches surrounding the bourgeois state.

Gramsci’s ideas formed one of the theoretic pillars of what would later come to be known as Eurocommunism, although it was most strongly motivated by the practice of real socialism. The bureaucratic authoritarianism of socialism in the USSR and its periphery, which was evident in the daily life of all the countries involved, the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the experience of the Chilean transition that was destroyed in 1973, were just some of the events that inspired Eurocommunism. Events in Poland from 1980 on confirmed this perspective in the search for a "third way" between capitalism and authoritarian and bureaucratic socialism.

The Marxism we opted for

Schematically speaking, the Marxist matrix in Central America was based on the Soviet experience and the example of the Cuban revolution. Neither Gramsci’s reformulations nor the Eurocommunist experience—generally seen as a reformist deviation—formed the vision of the Central American revolutionary left. The Chinese Revolution and Maoism did have an impact, however, due to their relevance as Third World socialist experiences, as they represented the first example of the violent path of revolution in a predominantly peasant-based country with backward capitalist development.

The Chinese experience was one of the main pillars of the idea of "prolonged popular war," as important to the debate on which revolutionary path to take in El Salvador and Guatemala as it was to one of the tendencies of the FSLN in Nicaragua. But it would be the Vietnamese war of national liberation that would have a major impact on a large part of the Central American left, once Che Guevara’s "insurrectional foco" idea had been discarded and opposed by the idea of the "people’s war." Of course this generalization cannot be extended to the whole region; armed struggle was one of the main ideas debated in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, while Honduras and Costa Rica had no significant experiences of such action. In the latter country, in fact, the very idea of armed struggle ran against the grain of its state and its society.

What did have an impact on the entire region was the Cuban revolution, which embodied a long cycle of revolutionary activity starting with the defeat of fascism at the end of the Second World War and proceeding through the wars of national liberation in Africa and Asia, the development of a bloody but successful war against an incredibly powerful enemy in Vietnam, the visualization of a socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union as an effective counterweight to imperialism and the capitalist system, the insurrectionary outbreaks in Latin America inspired by the Cuban example, the 1968 student movements in Europe and Mexico, the Cuban presence in Angola and Ethiopia and the workers’ struggles and social movements in many parts of the world. All of these events around the entire globe created a correlation of forces that animated the full range of socialist forces, from social democracy to the extreme Left, passing through Eurocommunism, the Soviet-linked communist movement and national liberation movements.

In Central America, Marxism as an emancipating political theory was largely influenced by Leninism, the Soviet model and the Cuban revolution, although secondary influences included the Chinese example (Maoism) and criticism of the Soviet model (Trotskyism). Nonetheless, Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists and followers of Che agreed with the idea of the "violent path" of revolution, while radically disagreeing over how they visualized accumulating the forces that would lead to the moment of violent rupture. A brief summary of the different alternatives present to a lesser or greater degree in the different Central American countries includes the guerrilla foco; prolonged popular war; insurrection; an emphasis on either the urban classes or the rural ones; a combination of all forms of struggle, starting with peaceful, open and legal forms as the basis for later ones; and the creation of a revolutionary party or a political-military organization.

The violent path and the Leninist stamp

The majority of the Central American left accepted the truths consolidated by Marxism in its controversy with other currents: the ideas of the violent path of revolution, the proletariat as the revolutionary vanguard, the need for the revolutionary party or instrument that would penetrate the political sphere to achieve the essential transformation of society, the need for this party to be based on the action of the masses to reach this objective, the dictatorship of the proletariat as an inevitable step in the construction of socialism, and the state as the focal point in socializing the means of production.

Central American ideas were strongly influenced by Leninism: a monolithic revolutionary party or organization based on democratic centralism, the need for an alliance between the workers and peasants, the possibility of revolution in a country on the capitalist periphery, and imperialism, conceived of as the highest and final stage of capitalism, as the enemy to be defeated. In a region dominated by dictatorships and US imperialism, Leninism obviously provided a highly attractive apparatus of revolutionary theory for the revolutionary left forces. If the role of the peasantry sparked differences with Maoists in Honduras and Nicaragua, the nature of the revolution provided one of the main differences with Trotskyism in Costa Rica or Nicaragua. But these differences apart, revolution was generally conceived of as agrarian, anti-imperialist and a preparatory stage in the construction of a socialist society.

It is impossible to summarize in these few lines all of the nuances of or disagreements with all these ideas held by the different revolutionary forces in Central America, but we can establish one generalization. The idea of democratic and popular revolution as a step on the road to socialism was rooted in a vision of the correlation of world forces in which the socialist camp played a leading role, regardless of any critique of it. In the global chess match of capitalist-socialist confrontation, socialism aimed to continue eroding capitalism in the various regions of the world. This had been the tendency since 1917 and events in the second postwar period seemed to confirm that the trend would continue.

New paths for the Marxism we inherited

The collapse of eastern European socialism has called into question the Marxism that we inherited and thus opted for in Central America. But it is not only Marxism that took a battering in the final years of the 20th century. Social democracy, Christian democracy and the welfare state project were also hit hard by the neoliberal boom.

We are entering the 21st century with two utterly contradictory facts: the idea of socialism has been discredited with the collapse of its existing form on the one hand, while the social polarization of capitalism has increased, not just within capitalist countries but also at the very heart of the world capitalist system, on the other. Capitalism, even in its most savage version, is now an option in those countries that attempted a non-capitalist development model in the second post-war period. This is true of the former Soviet Union and its peripheral countries, while the economic reforms implemented in China also point in this direction even though they are being implemented by a party that still considers itself communist. Meanwhile, decolonization has been abandoned in those African countries in which the process had a socialist perspective, and in countries such as Cuba, where socialism has been fiercely defended, economic reactivation has involved adopting capitalist mechanisms that have generated a previously unseen social differentiation.

It is now commonplace to state that this reality forces all of us who still believe in socialism to rethink many Marxist ideas considered untouchable for a good part of the past two centuries. It is argued that we should extract from this reflection what is still objectively valid and discard what is outmoded and proven unviable. If it is to continue to exist, Marxism must reclaim from this reflection the critical capacity that brought it to life in the first place. It must abandon the religious statute that made it into the state religion called Marxist-Leninism, a name adopted by Stalin’s followers in their struggle against Trotsky. If the Left in Central America and the world as a whole wants Marxism to take its place once more among the main emancipating paradigms, at least these nine points need to be rethought:
1. There is not just one Marxism; Marx’s thought has lent itself to various interpretations. Nor is Marxist-based socialism the only form of socialism, as this ideal can also be based on an interpretation of Christianity or a nationalist revolutionary vision, for example.

2. Human beings do not unite only around class interests, contrary to what is emphasized in the Marxist classics. We can currently see that other binding factors are sometimes more powerful than class interests. The environment, gender, peace, the defense of human rights, nationalism, ethnic identity, religion and the different movements that grow out of such aggregated factors are enough to demonstrate that class struggle is not the only driving force of history.

3. The idea of the inevitable collapse of capitalism is wrong and has a religious content alien to Marxism. Perhaps it is pertinent here to quote Paramio’s question: "And what if socialism never arrives?" Despite Lenin’s vision of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism—if you remember he described imperialism as capitalism in decay—what in fact crumbled was eastern European socialism, not capitalism. And contrary to Marx’s own isolated formulations, capitalism will not be overcome for fundamentally economic reasons, but rather because overcoming it will become an urgent need and desire of men and women. The key for overcoming capitalism lies in the ideological sphere rather than the economic one.

4. The 20th century has perhaps confirmed the idea of Marx and Engel that socialism can only be constructed in countries with highly developed productive forces. Lenin’s heresy consisted of seeking to turn the "reign of need"—peripheral and backward semi-feudal Russia in the second decade of the 20th century—into the "reign of freedom." The defeat of the idea of revolution in the West after World War I made it necessary to construct what was known as "socialism in a single country," which, because it was backward and peripheral, created the conditions for the most aberrant phenomena, such as socialist accumulation based on Stalinist terror and all of the elements associated with an authoritarian and even totalitarian state. The news that any attempt to construct socialism in the world will inevitably depend on what happens in the countries central to the world capitalist system may be what makes us the most impatient.

5. The idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, so valued in the Marxist classics, is no longer viable. This is not only in light of Eurocommunism’s charge in the 1970s that socialism cannot exist without democracy and that democracy, whether in its direct, participatory forms or its representative forms, must be pluralist and respectful of human rights. To put it schematically, the socialist ideal will have to recover not only Marx but also Montesquieu, Rousseau, the best of the democratic forms constructed in recent centuries. It must also recognize that the dictatorship of the proletariat is now outmoded because the subordinate and oppressed classes and sectors are no longer restricted to the proletariat. The proletariat itself, following the general tendency of capitalist accumulation, has been shrinking, to such an extent that for some years now various Marxist theoreticians have been predicting its disappearance. This very tendency has been creating new social categories and broadening the marginalized masses. In Central and South America the informal economy and the mass of the population linked to it have been increasing, while social movements are extending significantly beyond class demands, following a tendency that may be universal.

6. The very idea that proletarian revolution is synonymous with socialist revolution is also outdated. If socialism is to regain credibility among those exploited and oppressed by big capital, this will be a heterogeneous population interested in socialism for reasons that transcend class. For example, feminism might question whether capitalism offers a viable alternative for its demands of equal salaries, equal work opportunities and the full incorporation of women into the working world. Ecologists might also question whether capitalism can possibly offer sufficient respect for the environment in the context of an economy that revolves around the quest for maximum profits. In a country like Guatemala, where racism has been associated with marginalization and exploitation, the ethnic movements will have to ask themselves whether ethnic oppression can be comprehensively resolved without first eliminating the oppression that provokes social polarization.

7. The idea of a revolutionary workers’ party is also antiquated. In Central America, where dictatorships forced leftist alternatives into clandestinity, Leninism as a party theory was justified by reality. Any revolutionary party or organization that confronted the dictatorship and acted clandestinely had to be centralized, with carefully selected cadres. The political reality that emerged from the stormy 1980s—the liquidation of military dictatorships and emergence of neoliberal democracies—implies that the left should organize into a party or front that is not based on cadres, is not centralized and is not exclusively working class.

8. Violence is not today’s road to the essential transformation of capitalist society, although it is always risky for an analyst to postulate absolute principles if we’re talking about visualizing the future. The idea of a socialist revolution resulting from an armed insurrection that seizes power was very important in the Central American tradition of struggle, and was as highly valued by Marx and Engels as it undoubtedly was by Lenin. In the central countries of the capitalist system—the European ones in particular—the defeat of the workers’ insurgencies in the first post-war period and the subsequent balance of power in the second post-war period with its bourgeois hegemony, level of democratic culture and neuralgic geopolitical situation led to the expression of other strategies, from Gramsci’s war of positions to the Eurocommunist formulations. On the capitalist periphery, while neoliberalism creates the conditions to attract certain sectors of the population to armed insurgency, the weight of the current world situation makes any socialist program based on insurrection unviable. Peru’s Shining Path managed to win considerable support among the masses at one time, but was nonetheless an unviable, even aberrant project.

9. Eastern Europe’s "real socialism" demonstrated that a centralized and planned economy based on state-owned production is not a viable socialism. In competition with the market economy based on the drive for maximum profits, this state-based socialist model proved inefficient, of limited productivity and not very compelling for the mass of workers who grew lazily used to the job security and the social securities offered. It is also fair to add that there were no incentives for the working masses of eastern-bloc socialism to increase their productivity or the quality of their production. In the absence of any real democracy and dazzled by the consumer patterns of advanced capitalist countries, the populations involved ended up hating their socialism. Technological gaps and bureaucracy appear to have completed the picture. With hindsight it is possible to say that if Proudhon’s petit bourgeois socialism was not viable, neither was its extreme counterpart. This should not necessarily be blamed on Marx or Engels who, as is often pointed out, left behind no blueprint for the concrete socialism they predicted.

Revolution or reforms?

One general feature shared by virtually the entire Central American Left was the idealization of real socialism, although this should be qualified. The Trotskyists, for example, were critical of the Soviet, Chinese and Cuban models, while the Maoists were critical of the Soviet and Cuban models, although not until the sudden removal of the Gang of Four did they begin to distance themselves from the Chinese paradigm. The left inspired by the Cuban Revolution had its differences with the Soviet model, but idealized Cuban socialism, overlooking the fact that the two were closely related.

The Communists thought that the socialism of the Soviet Union and its periphery, albeit with formally accepted errors and deficiencies, was, generally speaking, the path humanity should follow. Now that Soviet socialism is just a memory, Chinese socialism has turned out to be a mixture of bureaucratic authoritarianism and important pockets of capitalism, and the Cuban model has been forced by imperialism into being a precarious socialism, it is worth reviewing what is left of Marxism in order to restore it as an emancipating paradigm.

So far nothing suggests that the moment has come to reject the Marxist idea that work is the source of value and social wealth or, therefore, the idea of exploitation based on the theory of value, that is, of surplus value. The resulting expansion of social polarization is today an increasingly ferocious reality. In a very thought-provoking work, Immanuel Wallerstein has stated that, in addition to class struggle, Marxism’s proposal that ideas are socially determined remains valid and that a critique of "polarization" underlies the critique of "alienation." For Marx, social polarization starts with the theory of value, moves on to the theory of surplus value and then on to the general law of capitalist accumulation. Adam Schaff recently put forward an idea that brings both this cornerstone theory and its sequence into question. He says that robots and other forms of automation will bring humanity to a moment in which the production of value will no longer depend on human labor, exploitation will disappear with the disappearance of surplus value in the Marxist sense of the term, and the new socialism will thus have no need to abolish private ownership of the means of production. Reading Schaff it is hard to avoid the temptation to paraphrase the famous and extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso: "When he awoke the dinosaur was still there." Schaff makes it seem as though one day we will wake up and find socialism standing there… thanks to the disappearance of the working class due to the automation of work.

Unfortunately, automation will not stop polarization or make the world’s bourgeoisies more generous; nor will it stop "marginogenous" capitalism from attaining its fullest expression. Quite the contrary. It will further widen the gap between the countries at the center of the capitalist system and those on the periphery and will make the human masses increasingly dispensable. Thus exploitation will not disappear along with complete automation—which is still a long way off—but will rather assume new content and forms. Likewise, if socialism ever exists as a non-isolated reality, whether or not the labor-value theory remains valid, it will result from a political rupture in the sense of culminating a change in the correlation of forces between those who enjoy privileges and wealth and those who are marginalized from them.

This is a view of revolution that the Central American Left (or Lefts) can embrace: a qualitative leap that creates a new correlation of forces making it possible to begin to essentially transform society. This transformation cannot be seen as a general assault, but rather as successive waves of different magnitudes. Thus the emphatic distinction that previously existed between revolution and reform has also become antiquated. If by revolution we mean a general assault, the Central American Left cannot be revolutionary now. If we reformulate the concept of revolution, the Left will have to fight for reforms that could constitute a revolution over the long term.

Central America’s progressive are faced with the choice today between participating in a power that administers the status quo—where the European social democracies are ending up—and constructing an alternative power within civil society and the state within the framework of the prevailing legality and with a view to transforming the established order. The issue is to determine whether reforms, be they notable or insignificant, merely plug into a project that reproduces society or can become part of a project that essentially transforms it.

Agenda for the Central American Left

The agenda of reforms for which the Central American Left must fight is so long that it would be idle and sterile to end these reflections with a list that in any case must stem from the analysis of particular realities. But in general terms it is possible to say that this agenda should be linked to the struggle for citizens’ participation—direct or representative—in making decisions that affect the nation as a whole. It should be linked to the struggle to create and consolidate the rule of law—eliminating the apparatus of terror and electoral fraud, for example—and to forge a model of economic development in which responsibilities and social costs are fully shared by all classes and groups, which is in fact the struggle against neoliberalism. It should be linked to the struggle for demands raised by the different social movements—whether based on class, gender, ethnic identity, unions, sexual orientation, housing or age—and which at the end of the day are also a fight for equality. It should be linked to the struggle for a participatory state as the real incarnation of the public sphere, in the fight against corruption, for example, and for instilling the understanding that the public sphere is where various private interests link up into a national project.

In Central America—a region in which democracy was the real state of exception—the Left should embrace these unfinished struggles for larger objectives such as democracy, liberty, solidarity and equality. It must link them to the struggle for an intellectual and moral reform that dismantles the age-old culture of terror that has undermined the state and civil society and instills a democratic culture into both. Irradiating this democratic culture into society as a whole will be the essential stepping stone for rethinking socialism because socialism can only be reintroduced on Central America’s agenda if the socialist desire becomes the will of the majority of the nation.

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