Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 298 | Mayo 2006



A Challenge to Leftist Parties: Return to Marxism but Look Beyond It

Marxism inspired the FSLN’s Sandinismo and it still lives in the thinking of all serious people who refused to jettison it when it went out of vogue. In Nicaragua the crisis of Marxism produced only silence while elsewhere in the world it has spawned tons of writings… In this fifth in a series of articles on Nicaragua’s political parties, Andrés Pérez Baltodano argues that Marxism’s evolution and crisis offer Nicaragua and the rest of Central America an opportunity to shed our ideological baggage without disparaging the formidable contributions offered by the Marxist tradition.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

What role can Marxist theory play in the reconstruction of the Latin American Left, particularly our Left here in Nicaragua? Is the Left’s future irreparably tied to Marxism? For some, the fall of the Berlin Wall buried Marxist thinking and theory beneath its rubble. For others, Marxist theory is still significant, although they recognize that it is in crisis and must be rethought. Still others cling tenaciously to the certainties of classic Marxism and expectantly await the “inevitable collapse of capitalism.”

It’s an error to idolize Marxism and assume that the collapse of the Berlin Wall didn’t have serious implications for the Marxist intellectual and revolutionary tradition. The failure of what was known as “real socialism” has theoretical implications that cannot be ignored.

It’s also an error, however, to assume that the collapse of real socialism invalidated all of the indispensable questions, responses, intuitions, methods and knowledge that Marxist theory offers to make sense out of the turbulent century in which we live. The crisis of Marxism gives us the opportunity to rescue from that vast and complex theoretical and political tradition everything the Latin American, Central American and Nicaraguan Left needs to create what Gabriel García Márquez called in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

Marxism’s three dimensions:
Ethics, science and organization

The Diccionario de Ciencias Sociales y Políticas, edited by Torcuato Di Tella et al., defines Marxism as the whole of the theories, concepts and methodologies that can be extracted from the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), which represent the maximum expression of socialist thinking by systematically formulating a conception of the world, society and politics in three basic fields: philosophy, through dialectic materialism; the social sciences, through historical materialism; and the specific analysis of the capitalist system.

We’ll use a broader vision of Marxism that transcends—without ignoring—its theoretical dimension to also cover its political, strategic and institutional proposals. To do so, we must disaggregate the Marxism commonly associated with real socialism into three essential components: its ethical dimension, its scientific-philosophical dimension and its organizational-institutional dimension.

The ethical dimension

Marx didn’t invent socialism’s ethical dimension. He wasn’t the first to establish the centrality of social justice and the critique of capitalist exploitation in socialist thinking. Before Marx, “utopian socialists” such as Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Robert Owen (1771-1858) and Charles Fourier (1772-1837) recognized, defended and promoted the rights of European workers and proposed the organization of egalitarian societies.

Both Engels and Marx severely criticized their proposals as idealist and voluntarist in that they assumed capitalist exploitation could be surmounted and just societies constructed merely by changing the mentality and values of European societies through the force of reason. Engels labeled their proposals “pure fantasy,” not because he rejected their ethical content but because he believed that exploitation could be ended only by defeating capitalism as an intrinsically unjust system, not as the result of any capitalist good will. For Marx and Engels, moreover, transforming and eliminating capitalism wouldn’t depend on the emergence of new values, but on the inevitable class conflict generated by capitalism, which they saw as an integral part of humanity’s historic evolution.

The scientific-philosophical dimension

The “scientific socialism” with which Marx and Engels opposed “utopian socialism” is the second dimension of what is popularly known as Marxist theory. Its fundamental underpinnings are dialectical and historical materialism. The first is a vision of reality in which matter is in a constant process of change generated by conflicting forces. The second derives from the first and is synthesized in Engels’ statement: “…it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange—in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period. Hegel has freed history from metaphysics—he made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded.”

The organizational-institutional dimension

Marx is only partially and indirectly responsible for this dimension, which refers to the practical structuring of the strategies of struggle and the ways of institutionalizing socialism proposed and implemented by Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924). Lenin attempted to adapt Marxist theory to the “age of imperialism” and to the social and historical conditions in late 19th- and early 20th-century Russia. More concretely, he articulated a set of organizational proposals that were implemented during the Bolshevik revolution and the institutionalization of Russian socialism following the revolutionary victory of 1917.

Two of these proposals stand out in particular. The first is the idea of the “vanguard party” as the force that should lead and guide the workers’ movement in the struggle to bring down the capitalist system and during the phase known as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The second is the notion of “democratic centralism,” a model of political organization and decision-making based on two principles of action: everyone has the right to debate and discuss the best ways to proceed with institutionalizing socialism, its policies and programs, but the party will make the final decisions, which must be respected by all.

In which of these dimensions did the crisis of Marxism occur? Which are still valid, which need to be modified and which should be discarded?

The three currents in
Central American social sciences

In their book, La izquierda revolucionaria en Centroamérica (2006), Carlos Figueroa Ibarra and Salvador Martí i Puig recognize that Central American Marxism is directly associated with the emergence of the region’s Communist parties between the first and second world wars. Starting with the triumph of the Cuban revolution, however, liberation movements would become the main expressions of Marxist revolutionary thinking and practice.

Both the social sciences and Marxist theory only debuted in Central America in the 1970s. Prior to that, says Joseph Kahl, social analysis was left to amateur essayists or thinkers who had been formed, and worked, as lawyers or bureaucrats.

Three main intellectual currents can be distinguished in the historical evolution of the Central American social sciences. The first is developmentalist functionalism. Social researchers who adopt this approach pay no attention to the historical foundations of the region’s social system. Their main objective is to promote greater technical capacity in disciplines such as economics, education and public administration to achieve “development.”

The second current is orthodox Marxism, based on a superficial and mechanical interpretation of Marxist thinking. The theoreticians of this current, as C.W. Mills wrote in The Marxists, “seize upon some ideological characteristics of Marx’s philosophy and identify these parts as the whole.” This group had considerable influence in the Central American political movements opposing the constituted order, including those who advocated a developmentalist vision of functionalism. Orthodox Marxism’s main influence was found in the visions and discourse of the region’s revolutionary leftist leaders, with practical consequences in the politics of the region’s liberation movements.

The third current is structuralist Marxism. Like the orthodox Marxists, those who hold this theoretical perspective question the basis, methods and objectives of develop-mentalism. Nonetheless, they make more flexible and intelligent use of Marxist theory than the orthodox Marxists. Some of them, Edelberto Torres-Rivas, for example, were influenced by the works of Gramsci, Althusser, Poulantzas and even Weber. This current was also influenced by “dependency theory,” which was developed by South American theorists Fernando Henrique Cardozo, Theotonio dos Santos and others. Despite its limitations, dependency theory was one of the most authentic contributions of Latin American leftist thinking.

In general terms, Central American leftists were “revolutionaries with little theory,” in the words of Torres-Rivas, himself an important Central American intellectual. He lists the proposals and stated principles of the region’s revolutionary movements as political democracy, agrarian reform, anti-imperialism and anti-bourgeoisism, and their goal as socialism.

1979: A critical milestone

The triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 was a critical milestone in the development of Central American social sciences. Both orthodox and structuralist Marxists began to center their analysis on the causes and consequences of the Nicaraguan revolution, as well as the revolutionary potential of the rest of Central America. The orthodox school of thinking interpreted the FSLN’s victory as the inevitable result of the “decay of capitalist imperialism” while the structuralists adopted a more sophisticated theoretical posture. Both schools, however, were equally unconditional in their support of the revolutionary government’s policies, leading them to ignore the crucial difference between critical thinking and emotional solidarity with a process that embodied the hopes of many Central Americans.

In Nicaragua, the functionalists quickly adapted to the country’s process of changes. Its traditional support for the reigning political system, whatever its ideological orientation, translated into collaborative relations with the Sandinista government. Even the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE) made a functional contribution to important revolutionary programs.

When the texts get out of context...

The collapse of the Soviet Union and failure of real socialism contributed to the downfall of the Nicaraguan revolutionary experiment and the exhaustion of the revolutionary struggle in El Salvador and Guatemala. All these events in turn had profound repercussions on the Central American social sciences, leaving them in a state of intellectual crisis. Central American Marxism has still not been able to adapt its theoretical schemes to elucidate the profound political and economic transformation that the world has been suffering since the eighties. For their part, the functionalists have accepted the “end” of history and assume that the only thing left for social scientists of the South is to facilitate their societies’ integration into the new world order created by globalization.

The current crisis of Central American Marxism isn’t just due to the collapse of real socialism, however. It is far more the consequence of its theoretical poverty and imitative nature. The end of the Cold War simply revealed the inauthenticity of many of the premises and concepts that influenced the production of social knowledge in the region.

From the outset, Central America’s leftwing social sciences assumed the universality of Marxist theory’s conceptual vocabulary, premises and postulates. This was expressed in the tendency of the region’s leftist intellectuals to acquire a “textual” grasp of European interpretations of social reality. The textual interpretation of ideas is based on the assumption that the text is the only objective of research and is self-sufficient. From this perspective, as David Bourher argues, diligent and repetitive reading of texts is considered an appropriate way to figure out their meaning. The context in which ideas appear is either ignored or treated as a historical curiosity. The study of ideas thus ends up mystifying both books and their authors, considered to have transcendental and supra-historical qualities.

Central American Marxist intellectuals either explicitly or implicitly ignored the fact that theories are influenced by the space-time contexts in which the researchers are operating and that knowledge of these contexts adds meaning to their theoretical explanations and facilitates an understanding of their limitations. Keys can be found in the context in which social theory is articulated that make it easier to understand why classic Marxism identified “social classes”—that construct that plays such a central role in Marxist theory—or generated the idea that capitalist class relations would trigger unsalvageable tensions and systemic contradictions. This theorizing of reality was rooted in the brutal conditions of the 19th century working class so powerfully reflected in Charles Dickens’ novels.

To summarize: neither classic Marxist theory nor any other social theory can be understood without considering the historical context in which it is generated because the very reality of that context is what the theory is trying to represent.

Central American Marxists copied European theory

By ignoring the weight of the context that generated Marxist theory, Central American Marxist theoreticians ended up imposing Europe’s history on Central America’s reality. The adopted theoretical and methodological instrumentation focused on the characteristic features of European history.

Undiscriminating application of European Marxist theory in countries such as ours can overlook certain dimensions of our own region’s reality because it was created to explain a different historical reality. A good example of this is the marginal position occupied by issues of indigenous political culture or the cultural-political significance of mestizaje [the identity resulting from European-indigenous miscegenation] in the region’s research programs.

Even in Guatemala, the social sciences have traditionally ignored the self-descriptions of its indigenous peoples—which account for over half of the total population—because analyzing them hasn’t been considered a typical or important sociological or political issue. Studying the indigenous question was left to anthropologists, relegating the indigenous population as a marginal segment of society.

Indiscriminate application of the Marxist social sciences in Central America has Europeanized aspects of the region’s social reality that have a formal European appearance, such as the state and the market. As a result, the main Marxist theoretical interpretations of Central American political development are based on falsified visions of the region’s social reality—as are neoliberal ones for the same reason.

Imaginary proletariat and bourgeoisie

The Central American social sciences in general and Marxism in particular have erroneously assumed that the modalities of the social conflict in Central America are determined by protagonists and social forces that act within the region’s states in ways that differ only slightly from those detected in European history. The study of the region’s social development is therefore almost always based on the implicit assumption that the history of Central American societies replicates the historical set of circumstances, actors, processes and values that brought Europe to its current institutional reality. These studies identify political periods (pre-capitalism, capitalism and even feudalism) and protagonists (national bourgeoisies, proletariats and even “peasant bourgeoisies”) that are virtually identical to those studied in Europe.

In European history, the concepts of “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie,” to mention just two examples, involve a long accumulated historical experience. As Eric Wolf explains so well, ownership of the means of production as a criterion to differentiate social classes is simply the legal expression of a complex historical phenomenon that is not only economic in the strict sense of the word, but also ecological, social, political and socio-psychological.

By conceptualizing Central American society as mainly consisting of the “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie,” the region’s Marxist social sciences took an image of European reality and overlaid it on our own. This turned social theory into the formulation of a series of images feeding an imaginary reality.
The theoretical prism through which Central American Marxism interpreted the region’s historical conditions filtered out its ethnic reality, unless the indigenous took on European features, “proletarianizing” or “de-peasantizing” themselves.

The Central American Left adopted a strategy of struggle based on these same Eurocentric interpretations of the concept of class, adding some rhetorical modifications that did nothing to resolve their scant authenticity. In revolutionary Nicaragua, the most lauded quote from Sandino was the one that seemed to bear the closest relationship to Marxist thinking: “Only the workers and peasants will go all the way; only their organized force will achieve victory.”

Such theoretical and conceptual distortions obviously have political consequences. The tragic relationship between Sandinistas and Miskitus in Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast after 1979 was based on this imitative Marxist theoretical tradition, which failed to recognize the Miskitu people’s historical reality or to grasp their particular cosmovision. In their effort to institutionalize a socialist revolution during the early years of the revolution, the Sandinistas treated the coast’s ethnic minorities as backward and reactionary segments of an imaginary national proletariat.

No valuing of the new actors
or of the subjective dimension

Central American Marxist theory was equally unable to recognize the specific significance of the demands of new social movements and actors such as the women’s movement. In revolutionary Nicaragua, women’s identity was almost always subsumed within class identity, as when reference was made to “working women.”

The Marxist revolutionary organizations in Central America thus attempted to represent the interests of the masses without articulating a body of thought that could express the values uniting the diverse social, ethic and gender groups of the region’s marginal society. This was one reason why the revolutionary efforts in late 20th-century Central America were crushed by the weight of a reality that remained pre-theoretized and thus detached from the revolutionaries’ political will.

The region’s Marxist theory also marginalizes or ignores the subjective dimension of Central American reality, since leftist theoreticians adopted a crude interpretation of historical materialism, which proposed that ideas are part of a marginal and dependent reality, with no constitutive force of their own. Thus, the crucial issue of Central American religion and religious values was relegated to being a sub-product of the society’s economic structure or, worse yet, simply condemned as “the opiate of the masses.” Similarly, the cultural dimension of sex life failed to penetrate the closed world of the region’s Marxist social theory. What Sofía Montenegro terms the “kingdom of lovelessness,” into which so many Central American children are born and raised, has no place in the vision of history and society dominated by a totalizing economistic vision.

In summary, Central American Marxist social sciences legitimated the use of European history as an appropriate basis for analyzing and evaluating Central American reality. They perpetuated a mental attitude in the region described by Antonio Gómez Robledo as a sort of philosophical surrender, a posture that that in the spiritual order is correlated to political surrencer.

FSLN: “The splendor of Marxist theory”

The FSLN’s political thinking was conditioned by the example of Sandino’s anti-imperialist heroism, the Cuban revolution and Marxist theory. Sandino’s heroic feat offered the FSLN a symbolic reference and historical justification for its struggle against Somocismo. The Cuban revolution inspired its guerrilla struggle and gave it an institutional model for its revolutionary project. And Marxism provided a theoretical rationality and a conceptual vocabulary with which to express its aspirations, as well as a political identity that facilitated its inclusion and participation in the solidarity networks of the world’s revolutionary Left in the Cold War context. It also fed the FSLN’s vision of history as a liberating process that could expand the limits of reality.

The FSLN adopted the vision of history and power articulated in classic Marxist thinking and theory, and this imitative thinking helped distort the specificity of Nicaragua’s history. Analyzing FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador’s student writings, Werner Mackenbach shows how the young revolutionary’s arguments reflected the influence of a unilinear conception of the historical formation of societies typical of non-scientific Marxism and mainly disseminated in Marxist-Leninist manuals.

The weight of orthodox Marxism in the FSLN’s political thinking remained after the 1979 revolutionary victory. The “72-hour Document,” drafted by the party’s National Directorate in 1980 as a theoretical framework to guide the revolutionary process, shows a mechanical, Europeanized and oversimplified theoretical vision of the national reality. In his memoirs, Sergio Ramírez recalls that “our rightwing adversaries, who had already begun to group together, and many of our allies inside and outside of Nicaragua, hit the roof when the document that became known as the ‘72-hour document’ was leaked.”

“In all the splendor of Marxist terminology,” he went on, “it was declared that our objective was to achieve socialist society based on the dictatorship of the proletariat, following a stage of alliances with the bourgeoisie, the shorter the better. And the very existence of the Government Junta was offered as the first example of such alliances, which sooner or later would have to end due to the dialectic destiny of history. The FSLN aspired to consolidate itself as a Marxist-Leninist party, declared itself in a fight to the death against Yankee imperialism, and proclaimed its adhesion to the socialist camp, into which we had to insert ourselves as soon as possible. The text was infused with a totalizing desire, because the FSLN had to win hegemony in all aspects of social and economic life, starting with the key means of production, which would have to start passing into state hands.”

The FSLN’s divorce between thinking and acting

In accord with the resolutions contained in the “72-hour Document,” the FSLN opted for a political discourse impregnated with the conceptual vocabulary of the Reconstruction Program as part of its effort to hide the revolution’s “strategic project.” In practice, however, it attempted to develop the Marxist-Leninist-inspired institutional model established in that document.

The divorce between Sandinista discourse and political practice came from a divorce between the FSLN’s thinking and revolutionary action. Sandinista thinking and its discursive expressions remained frozen within a theoretical scheme that lacked the enriching underpinnings of experience. At the same time, revolutionary experience degenerated into a political activism lacking in the theoretical references that the revolution needed to express the framework of historical limitations and possibilities within which our country was operating.

After the 1990 electoral defeat, the FSLN discarded Marxist theory, but never replaced it with any other theoretical vision of reality. The FSLN’s revolutionary activism degenerated into pragmatism, and later into a resigned attitude toward the weight of a pre-theorized national reality that remained immune to the ordering force of ideas.

Marxism: Fashionable garb or discarded rags?

The crisis of Marxism in Nicaragua is a silent one. Marx’s theory has disappeared without any debate about the reasons for its disappearance or any analysis of what was positive and negative in Nicaragua’s homegrown Marxist tradition. The only contribution is the ignorant critiques of Marxism made by our country’s Right, one of the most backward, unlettered and crass in all of Latin America.

Perhaps the Left’s silence reflects the superficial use that was made of Marxism in Nicaragua. That theoretical and political tradition seems to have been donned as the fashion of the day, then discarded like any old rag when it appeared to have passed from vogue. The Nicaraguan Left’s grave problem is that stripping off its Marxism left it naked in the cold, globalized world of the 21st century.

In these circumstances, some defend the advantages of such theoretical and even ideological nudity. Some even equate what they consider Marxism’s obsolescence with what they see as the Left’s inviability. They have conveniently stopped using fundamental Marxist concepts and principles such as “social class,” “class struggle” and “revolution” to adopt concepts imposed by international cooperation: “civil society,” “governance,” “democratic transition” and the like.

In a fascinating envío article on the weight of this language in Nicaragua, José Luis Rocha comments how some radical intellectuals “who wanted to turn the world on its head... became platonic Marxists, if that, and soon flushed down the toilet all the Konstantinov they had lapped up in the seventies or eighties, either directly or through Martha Harnecker. They went from Marxist fundamentalism to technocratic fundamentalism, crossing over from revolution to a happy adaptation to the given conditions, sometimes vacillating, emotionally ambivalent toward the FSLN, but always with resigned pragmatism or underhanded opportunism.”

Marxism’s ethical dimension must be saved

The Left precedes Marx, since it represents a political vision and practice fundamentally oriented to extending social justice. Although the political concept Left has unquestionably lost programmatic clarity, that must not force us to discard its political-ethical meaning, much less accept what the power of capital is currently imposing on us as inevitable reality. In a country like Nicaragua with so many poor and excluded, the Left’s principal banner of social justice must be converted into a national obsession.

From this perspective, the Nicaraguan Left’s objective should be to rearticulate its commitment to social justice rather than either abandoning or saving Marxism. Marxism must be critically evaluated to recover from its complex political and intellectual tradition whatever can help us deal with this century’s problems.

Who can argue against the ethical dimension of socialism? No one. You don’t need to be a Marxist to oppose exploitation or espouse social justice. Humanist or Christian—or Christian humanist—values are all that are needed to propose that any system that sacrifices people’s life and dignity, particularly the poorest and weakest members of society, must be condemned and replaced. Even an ultra-conservative like Pope John Paul II condemned the “savage capitalism” currently creating misery and indignity all around the world.

Marxism’s ethical dimension is still valid. Social justice and the defense of human dignity are still of fundamental value in a world in which 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day and surely in Nicaragua, the second most malnourished country on the American continent.

The weakest dimension is the organizational one

The institutional-organizational dimension is unquestionably the weakest element in the Marxist political-theoretical tradition associated with real socialism. The sociological-organizational knowledge of Lenin, the main articulator of this dimension of Marxism, was not very well developed and he was unaware of the power of organizational structures to generate, articulate and reproduce power. His two great innovations—the vanguard party and democratic centralism—were the main pillars of state organization following the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution. But the rigid hierarchical and top-down structure ultimately asphyxiated the participation of the very masses that the revolution claimed to represent. Moreover, it generated the conditions for the emergence of bureaucratic elites who ended up using the state to defend their own particular interests.

Lenin recognized all of this with concern before his death, but never grasped that the anti-democratic verticalism that was anguishing him derived from the very model of organization that the revolution adopted once in power. Thus, he went to the grave attributing the vices of “bureaucratism” to the old regime dismantled by the October Revolution. In the end, this top-down model of organization created the conditions for Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of state power, which he used to institutionalize a reign of terror that crushed the liberating humanitarian spirit of the Bolshevik revolution.

Weber predicted what Lenin couldn’t see

The Leninist organizational-institutional model strongly influenced the Central American revolutionary movements. In Nicaragua it had important effects on the relations established among the FSLN, the state and society, particularly the mass organizations. That model, noted former FSLN National Directorate member Luis Carrión, was supported by a “vanguardist concept of the single Leninist-style party,” which formed part of the revolutionary leadership’s “substratum of consciousness.”

Max Weber foresaw what Lenin was unable to visualize theoretically and politically. For Weber, the statizing of Russian society would only generate bureaucratization and, consequently, the consolidation of an anti-democratic, dictatorial system. Elimination of the private ownership of the means of production and the statizing of society, argued Weber, would bring about not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the tyranny of party and state bureaucracy.

Robert Michels took Weber’s argument further, elaborating what is known as the “iron law of oligarchy.” For Michels, bureaucratic organizations generate the right conditions for the formation and consolidation of elites. The more bureaucratic an organization, the more closed and powerful its dominant elites. This iron law, Michels argues, governs the life of bureaucratic organizations. The very existence of a bureaucratic organization necessarily implies the existence of an oligarchic power structure.

The core of the debate:
Is economic determinism valid?

We have seen the continuing validity of Marxism’s ethical dimension and the weakness of its organizational-institutional dimension. So what can be said about its scientific dimension? Between Marxist theory’s emergence in the 19th century and the end of the 20th century, it triggered one of the most bountiful reactions—both positive and negative—in the history of social thought.

Marxist theory offers a materialist and determinist vision of history, the essence of which is expressed in Marx’s phrase: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, it is their social existence that determines their consciousness.” The sense of this postulate, as any social sciences dictionary will explain, is that the social being is shaped by the economic relations of production, the mode of production of material life, which conditions beliefs, customs, religion, philosophy, etc.

The economic determinism expressed in this explanation forms part of a theoretical model in which the “structure” of a society (the relations and means of production) determines the nature and organization of the components of its “superstructure” (its laws, values, state organization, institutional apparatus, sense of politics, etc.).

The optimistic Karl Marx
and the anguished Max Weber

This materialist and determinist vision of history and society was criticized by Max Weber, who, while recognizing the economy’s enormous influence on the creation and development of society, refused to accept that the economic variable permanently and invariably determined the organization and nature of social life. Weber accepted that in some concrete historical episodes in specific societies the economy can be observed to determine society’s cultural and material organization, but argued that in others, culture, ideas and politics can even determine the mode of organization and functioning of the economy.

In one of his most misinterpreted and debated interpretations of European history, Weber argued that the emergence of capitalism couldn’t be attributed simply to the dislocations suffered by the feudal mode of production with the emergence of new technologies, new sources of social wealth and hence new forms of social organization and class relations. For Weber, it was the emergence of the “Protestant work ethic” rooted in the religious sense of Calvinist predestination that created the appropriate conditions for the generation and accumulation of capital.

Weber countered Marx’s model of unidirectional and determinist causality with a multidirectional and indeterminate model and his materialist determinism with a causal model in which values, ideas and culture could function as constitutive forces of history. For Weber, thinking and political practice were transforming forces of history that are not necessarily subordinated to an economic logic. Toward the end of the 20th century, Marxist theory would end up accepting the Weberian position, or at least some of its central elements. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The theoretical model of class struggle in Marx’s materialist and determinist model offered an optimistic vision of the future: the end of capitalist society and class relations. For Weber, humanity’s multi-causal and indeterminate historical development made any theoretical anticipation of its future impossible. The only things that Weber—whom Wolfgang Mommsen described as “an anguished Liberal”—dared predict were intensification of society’s bureaucratization, the “disenchantment of the world” and the consolidation of instrumental rationality in market society. His pessimistic vision clashed with the optimism of Marx, for whom classless society was more than just an ethical imperative; it was a historical inevitability.

The concept of “class” in
Marxist and Weberian theory

The Marxist concept of “class” is constructed around the place that individuals occupy within a society’s structure of production. In a capitalist system, the principal classes are the bourgeoisie, or owners of the means of production, and the proletariat, the class made up of workers who sell their labor power to survive.

In Marxist theory, the relations between these social classes is necessarily antagonistic. Social change is generated by the class tensions and contradictions that grow out of the disarticulation suffered by the modes of production—i.e. out of the relationship between the means of production available to society and the way in which its members are organized to produce.

Weber did not accept that the economy was always the main determining force of the organization of society and denied the validity of the theoretical class model based on economic determinism. He understood social conflict to be inevitable in any form of organization or community and its dynamic to be much more complex and indeterminate than Marx assumed. For Weber, the dynamic of social conflict and its stabilization responds to the forms of “domination” within which the conflicting actors and forces operate, understanding domination as the ability of power to legitimate itself and its institutions.

In addition, he argued that social power isn’t distributed exclusively in relation to the role individuals occupy within society’s sphere of production, but also according to the status and power they can achieve through multiple social mechanisms. While one such mechanism is unquestionably the possession of means of production, power was also distributed unequally in Soviet society, where no one owned these means, depending on its members’ capacity to gain access to the goods and services offered by the state or the party. From this vision, the elimination of private ownership of the means of production doesn’t necessarily eliminate the unequal distribution of power. It simply creates a society in which all are equal, but some more equal than others.

In Weberian theory, the concept of social classes is not defined simply by individuals’ relations within society’s productive apparatus, but rather as a function of the “life opportunities” they can grab. In this regard, the distribution of power in society can also depend on access to the means of distribution of material power, the symbols that bestow social status and other social goods. Feminism would later add yet another dimension missing from the Marxist interpretation of power: women’s reproductive role plays a crucial part in the creation of gender relations in any society. Inequality is therefore generated not only by modes of production but also by modes of reproduction.

Madness and common sense in capitalism

Marx’s social model and theory postulated the intensification of tensions and contradictions in the class relations of advanced capitalist societies. Nonetheless, capitalist society absorbed or neutralized many of these tensions and contradictions, reproducing itself and expanding until it even began to globalize in the second half of the 20th century. In response to the growing power of the organized working class, capitalist society institutionalized the welfare state, civic rights and social policies, which reduced the inequalities and frictions produced by the market dynamic. The development of capital also expanded the “middle class” by professionalizing and technifying an important segment of the labor market.

In addition, the ideological and coercive power of capital played an important role in the development of capitalism, which Marx had not foreseen. Thus, the success of capitalism cannot be attributed only to the use of force; it is also largely due to its capacity to legitimize itself to society.

Gramsci: A powerful explanation
of ideological hegemony

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) developed the concept of hegemony to highlight the causal role of ideology in the organization and transformation of society. Despite the recognition his work received, Gramsci did not substantially modify Marxist orthodoxy, which remained committed to the determinist materialism proposed by Marx.

Gramsci articulated a powerful explanation for capitalism’s endurance and its capacity to absorb the social tensions and contradictions that according to classic Marxism would break it apart. Weber would surely have agreed with him. Gramsci proposed that one of the keys to understanding this resistance of the capitalist system is its ability to impose the dominant class’ values—those that capitalism requires to function—until they are accepted as the “common sense” within which society functions.

To illustrate the power of this common sense, let’s ask ourselves how people with huge economic needs don’t think it perfectly natural, normal, human and Christian to go to a bank and ask for help in the name of God or of humanity. If a poor person visited a bank to ask for money to feed a starving family, the banker would say he was nuts, because it’s considered mad to think that the idea of “love thy neighbor as thyself” has any practical applications. The reasonable, correct, legal, acceptable idea instilled by capitalist common sense is to die of hunger respecting the profits accrued by bank managers and stockholders.

From this perspective, capitalism’s hegemonic control had to be fought with an alternative value system: the working class would have to develop its own system of hegemonic values to organize and normalize the functioning of society in line with its interests.

Gramsci revalued the subjective dimension of society and thus the constitutive power of politics, but did not abandon the Marxist principle of class struggle as the motor force of history. The radicalization of the concept of hegemony and its rupture with traditional Marxist economic determinism would come later.

Neo-Marxism: When reality overtakes theory

The inability to explain capitalism’s demonstrated capacity to survive and expand beyond what Marx himself was able to foresee, added to other theoretical problems derived from the development of capitalist society, exposed Marxism’s theoretical limitations. For example, the increasing complexity of capitalism in Western societies was accompanied by the emergence of social movements whose demands and nature did not mesh easily into the classic model of class struggle proposed by Marx.

Among them, the feminist movement began to take shape in the first half of the 20th century as a new universal social actor with demands that Marxist materialist determinism could not easily explain. Nor could the exploitation and marginality provoked by racism and the struggle against that type of social exclusion be clearly organized within Marx’s theoretical model. The same could be said of the environmentalist movement, the indigenous movements and the movements for gay and lesbian rights.

As historical and social reality pushed beyond the framework of Marxist theory, “neo-Marxism” attempted to retool the classic theory in the second half of the 20th century. This effort was initially condemned by both orthodox Marxists and some anti-Marxist theoreticians. Frank Parking, for example, sarcastically commented that inside every neo-Marxist is a Weberian desperate to get out. Behind the sarcasm, however, was a serious critique: neo-Marxists were coming closer to Weber’s rejection of the determinant role Marx assigned to the economy in constructing and developing society.

Confronting Marxism without rejecting it

Louis Althusser (1918-1990) and Nicos Poulantzas (1936-1979) are two of the main thinkers commonly recognized as “neo-Marxists.” To make sense of capitalist society’s increasing complexity, both tried to nuance determinist and historic causality and the dynamic of class struggle.

Althusser abandoned economic determinism with a reinterpretation of the relationship between ideology and economic structure that had important consequences for theorizing the role of class struggle and revolutionary politics. He argued that a society’s dominant ideology plays a much more determinant role than conventional Marxism had accepted. More concretely, he developed the Gramscian vision of hegemony, proposing a vision of the state as an institutional network that exceeds the simple public-bureaucratic-governmental institutionality to include what he called “ideological state apparatuses,” including all levels of the educational system, the media and different means of popular cultural outreach. According to Althusser, capital’s hegemony is reproduced through this network of ideological state apparatuses until it is accepted as the “common sense” of capitalist society. By revaluing the power of the ideas and values that become hegemonic within capitalist society, Althusser devalued the determinist weight of society’s economic structure and of class struggle as the motor force of history.

Nicos Poulantzas also criticized both the Marxist assumption of a simple and unidirectional relationship between the economic structure and superstructure, and the classic Marxist vision of the state as an instrument of the capitalist class and a causal derivative of society’s mode of production. He instead argued that the state has a degree of “relative autonomy” from the dominant class derived from the multiplicity of forces and variables that determine society’s organization and development. Within this multidimensional causal vision, the state can act with a considerable degree of independence.

Poulantzas even ended up redefining the concept of “mode of production” to include elements that classic Marxism viewed as superstructure. This led Frank Parkin to comment that Poulantzas had destroyed Marxism’s main explicative concept.

Economicism: An act of faith?

Either consciously or unconsciously, both Poulantzas and Althusser moved closer to Weber in acknowledging the growing complexity of capitalist society, its durability and capacity for expansion, the emergence of social movements and the autonomous strength of the subjective dimension of social life. Both, however, kept enough distance from Weber to be defined as still within the Marxist camp. In the final analysis, however, and without clearly explaining their arguments, both said that it is the economy that determines the multi-causal game that orients society’s development.

Their imprecise and purely formal explanations of the validity of Marxist economic determinism reduced the value of their arguments and sparked the mockery of theoreticians such as Parker. It seemed that for neo-Marxists, the ritual postulation of the economy as the over-determining causal dynamic of society was an obligatory act of faith, the formal confirmation of their Marxist theoretical identity and politics. They tried to confront the complex reality that had outstripped Marxism, but avoided separating themselves from this theoretic body of work.

The neo-Marxism of Althusser and Poulantzas is also known as “structuralist Marxism” because their theoretical models undervalued the role of social agents in constructing history, and hence of politics as organized and transforming action. What fundamentally determines the social dynamic in their models is the role played by the economic structure, the state and hegemonic thinking.

Post-structuralism: A radically new vision
of social reality that challenges Marxism

The 1960s would mark a new transformation in the development of Marxist thinking. It is frequently said that the abortion of the revolutionary student protest movements in France in 1968 helped trigger the rejection of structuralist thinking’s limitations and waverings and the emergence of post-structuralism.

Headed up by a group of French intellectuals, among whom the most distinguished were Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, post-structuralism proposed a radically new vision of knowledge and of what we call social reality that denies the existence of totalizing, essentialist and foundational factors in social reality.

For post-structuralism, there are no “true,” “certain” or “objective” factors in what we call social reality, only linguistic and discursive constructions. Even this “social” aspect does not in fact exist per se but is a representation and conjugation of elements that form part of life. “Social reality” is a mental construct that becomes normalized. In other words, it develops the capacity to appear as “natural.” When we say “that’s life,” we’re simply accepting as certain, genuine and objective something that in reality is one of the multiple arrangements that can be created by the mind and humanity’s capacity for action.

We construct and reconstruct realities

This doesn’t mean that exploitatidon doesn’t exist as a palpable material condition, or that hunger, death and malnutrition are not terrible and tangible realities. Nonetheless, the suffering, indignity and injustice that workers and peasants suffer acquire the sense of exploitation as part of a representation and meaning we assign to that reality.

We construct and reconstruct realities by making different representations of the same real event: the slavery that appeared legitimate and normal at one historical moment reappears as illegitimate and despicable at another not because the act itself has changed but because our representation of it and sense of its significance have changed. The same is true of poverty. For some, poverty is an historical inevitability. For Marxist theory it’s a product of exploitation and the existence of social classes. For the true Christian it’s an affront to the idea of God and to humanity.

Post-structuralism extends, radicalizes and explores the complexities of some of the basic principles postulated first by Weber and later by the sociology of knowledge, the central idea of which is that what we call social reality is simply a social construct. What is real is what we construct and define as good, bad, just, unjust, possible, impossible, tolerable, insufferable...

When theoretical certainties crumble...

Post-structuralism frontally challenges the basic principles of Marxism in that it denies the existence of what economic determinism assumes to be objective realities. From a post-structuralist perspective, “the economy” doesn’t exist as a hard and fast reality, but only as a discursive construction. Likewise, “social classes” are only articulations of the mind, expressed through concepts and theoretical explanations that can be translated into political and social “truths.”

Marxism’s totalizing and ordered reality, with its social models and causal postulates, has no objective basis according to post-structuralists, because “objective” itself doesn’t exist except as a definition. In this sense, the world is malleable, with no pre-determined shape, and only acquires form and “objectivity” when words are used to define it. The forms we see in reality are derived from the “word games” we employ to make sense of what we are and could be.

Let’s look at a few examples. The providentialism reproduced by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, which has created a vision of history as a process governed by God and miraculous saints and virgins, is the “reality” of history for many Nicaraguans. The words and sermons of the Catholic Church also contributed to the construction of a “social reality” that is profoundly unjust for women. Today, thanks to the new words and new discursive articulations created by feminist theory, we’re beginning to change that “reality.”

When the Berlin Wall fell...

The post-structuralist position was strengthened by the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that created a “crisis of intelligibility” in Marxism. In his book Verdades y Saberes del Marxismo, Elías José Palti refers to this crisis as a situation in which theoretical certainties collapse and the political horizon disappears. Nietzsche, Palti reminds us, referred to this type of profound crisis as “abysmal experiences” that provoke “a subjective disturbance.”

Fredric Jameson, one of the main post-structuralist theoreticians, analyzes the erasing of the old class identities and dissolution of the stable collective agents. In his view, “modes of production” and “social classes” aren’t objective realities, but discursive articulations.

Laclau and Mouffe: A theory to
make sense of a chaotic world

In 1985, Ernesto Laclau and Chantall Mouffe published their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, which for many marks the birth of Marxist post-structuralism. They present the three focal points of the post-structuralist position: the critique of philosophical essentialism, the new role assigned to language in structuring social relations and the reconstruction of the category “subjects” with respect to the constitution of collective identities. On this basis, they then articulate their proposal for what they call “the radicalization of democracy.”

It is important to note that Laclau and Mouffe acknowledge that the radicalness of their post-structuralist critique situates them within a post-Marxist current and implies a radical change in Marxist thinking and theory. Nonetheless, they claim a leftist identity associated with Marxism and believe that they have constructed a concept of hegemony that “can become a useful instrument in the struggle for a radicalized, liberating and pluralistic democracy.”

Their position is that Marxist truths don’t have to be discarded, but must be accepted for what they are: created or “contingent truths.” From this perspective, Palti argues that it’s not so much that Marxism’s fundamental postulates—the class nature of the social formations up to now and the project of a future society free of all domination—have been invalidated; they were just never anything more than mere postulates. This, however, leads to the conclusion that if a postulate isn’t valid, it must be tossed out.

For Laclau and Mouffe, revolutionary politics must be viewed as the construction of valid postulates for the Left’s transforming politics, a hegemonic practice that seeks to establish meanings in an intrinsically chaotic, formless world without objective underpinnings. Their analysis rejects the distinction between discursive and non-discursive practices. They argue that all objects are constructed as discourse and any distinction between what is usually referred to as the linguistic and the practical aspects of a social action are either incorrect or must be seen as differentiations within the social production of meaning that is structured as discursive totalities. With this position, they recover both the subject, marginalized in the weighty structuralism of Althusser and Poulantzas, and the role of politics as an activity that constructs its own meaning and objectives through an ethical and strategic evaluation of the existing reality.

Nothing is stable

They thus attempt to eliminate any form of objectivism in the way Marxism identifies and defines its principal reference points: social classes, the economy’s determinist role, the ordered and predictable vision of history, etc. Rather than these certainties, they offer a contingent world in which the Left must create and recreate meanings to structure the social subjects, their goals, the sense of what’s possible and history’s horizon. All this, aware that political activity occurs in a world in which nothing is stable and the Left’s hegemonic proposals must compete with others that will seek to structure and give meaning to the world in different, even contrary directions.

This is verifiable. Capitalism has proved capable of imposing a common sense on the world that is contrary to that of the Left, Christianity and even humanism. It has been able to legitimate poverty and social inequality, and continues doing so more successfully than ever in its current attempt to impose on humanity nothing short of the vision of globalized, unregulated capital as inevitable and natural.

Similarly, the patriarchic systems that dominate the organization of today’s societies impose on both men and women structures of meaning and significance that reproduce gender inequality. In her book, La revolución simbólica pendiente, Nicarguan feminist Sofía Montenegro states that politics “has a fundamentally sexual nature that, as a system of domination, actually consists of a series of mechanisms of self-designation to mark one’s belonging to the set of dominators, while at the same time designating space adjudications and definitions of the dominated (hetero-designation).”

“Because the patriarchy, as a masculine system of designation, intertwines with other forms of domination (basically that of classes),” she continues, “the important self-designation from the gender perspective is that of belonging to the whole of men. In their speeches, practices and definitions, men designate themselves as the ‘we-subject’ and hetero-designate what is feminine as the ‘they-object.’ The archetypal ‘man’ exists only as a phantom-idea that regulates men’s behavior and is defined in opposition to ‘woman.’”

Post-structuralism in general and the work of Laclau and Mouffe in particular have been criticized by authors such as Slavoj Zizek, who defends the existence of an order of political and causal importance in the multidimensional and theoretically infinite world of meanings and collective associations proposed by Marxist post-structuralism. Otherwise, suggests Zizek, Marxism falls into relativism. According to Palti, Zizek doesn’t accept that all elements that enter into the hegemonic struggle are equal at the outset; rather that in the series of struggles (economic, political, feminist, ecological, ethnic, etc.), there is always one that, while part of the chain, secretly outweighs the rest.

A more Liberating Left
more open to changes

Laclau shares Zizek’s fear of relativizing the sense of revolutionary politics and practice. But he insists that it’s useless to seek and defend the existence of an objective reality that can help us organize the world. Laclau sees the Left’s fundamental task as constructing languages able to provide that element of universality that can establish links of weight equivalence among the actors for change.

He sees hegemony simply as a type of political relation, not as a definable point in the field of social topography. In a given social formation, he argues, there can be a variety of “hegemonic nodal points,” some of which can obviously be more determinant than others. They can constitute “points of condensation” of a variety of social relations, and as such influence a multiplicity of totalizing effects, but given that the social aspect is an infinitude that can’t be reduced to a single underlying unitary principle, the mere idea of it having a center makes no sense.

Laclau and Mouffe offer an extremely important key to the structuring of the new Left that is attempting to intensify and radicalize democracy—or “democratize democracy,” to quote the title of Mónica Baltodano’s book on political participation. They argue that rejecting the idea of privileged points of rupture and the confluence of struggles in a unified political space, accepting the plurality and indetermination of the social aspect in its stead provide the fundamental basis on which a new political self-identity can be built that is radically liberating and has infinitely more ambitious objectives than that of the classic Left.

The Left’s two central points:
Liberty and social justice

What lessons can we extract from such a long historical review of Marxist theory? How can we use this extremely rich theoretical and political tradition without falling into the kind of analytical and conceptual rigidity or mechanistic imitation that limited the Central American Left, including the Nicaraguan one, in past decades? What relevance does the first world’s Marxist debate have for a country like Nicaragua?

Paradoxically, the so-called crisis of Marxism offers an opportunity for the Left in our region. The crumbling of Marxist theory and the conceptual certainties on which it was based offers a contingent and flexible vision of reality that facilitates recognition of the heterogeneity of humanity’s social conditions and the multiplicity of voices and actors on the political stage of the world’s societies. This makes it possible to recognize Nicaragua’s historical specificity and force the construction of theory based on readings, constructions and reconstructions of our own reality. This revaluing of the “specific national” aspect, however, must not ignore the necessary search for the universal dimensions of the “social” aspect.

Marxist post-structuralism reduces the temptation to base one’s reading of reality on a vision that, like the Eurocentric Marxist one, is arbitrarily imposed on the world, minimizing or even ignoring the importance of anything that doesn’t mesh: the demands of women, of marginalized ethnic groups, of homosexuals... It also avoids the mechanical inserting of workers and peasants into a rigid category that in the past impeded recognition of the heterogeneity of demands of what we too easily conceptualized as “the working class.” Finally, the flexible and contingent vision of what we call social reality proposed by Laclau and Mouffe revitalizes the sense of political practice as an exercise of social creation that must be guided by a concrete ethical position in order to be effective.

In the contingency of the world, the ethical principles embodied in the concepts of social justice and liberty are the only reference points that the Left must keep stable. Like everything else, these are obviously discursive constructions that must thus be subject to ongoing critique and revision, not simply to differentiate them from the definitions offered by the Right, but to ensure that they respond to the proposals and demands of the social forces and actors who are struggling against exploitation, poverty and discrimination.

We need a more flexible and creative vision

Recognizing the heterogeneity of humanity’s social condition and the vision of theory as a contingent reading of reality, and accepting politics as a creative and constructive practice centered around ethical principles both generate opportunities and impose a concrete responsibility on the region’s leftist movements.

The opportunities come from understanding that the chances of changing society depend not on inexorable laws but on the capacity of the political actors to create the conditions for change rooted in readings of reality that reflect its peoples’ feelings and aspirations. The responsibility has to do with the fact that history won’t save us unless we construct a future where we all manage to survive in peace and dignity.

The Nicaraguan Left can and must articulate the future as a utopia, even if the road there is not predetermined and can’t be theoretically blueprinted. The mental construction of the required utopia needs to be distinguished from its administration.

From this perspective two things should distinguish a leftist movement: its vision of the desired future—an unreachable target not because no progress can be made toward it but because we must assume from the outset that the need for justice is insatiable—and its capacity to define and put into operation the concrete forms of moving toward that future.

The degree to which we can politically approximate the Left’s ethical utopia will be determined by some unpredictable factors, including the possibilities and obstacles offered by scientific and technological development and by historical accidents that, as demonstrated time and again, modify the mentalities and visions of the world in which humanity operates. It will also be determined by other important factors that can help us progress toward the desired future which indeed can be evaluated today. One such factor is the resistance offered by the institutionalized structures of power.

The concept of institutionalization is important because it allows representation of those elements of the contingent reality that have successfully been institutionalized in what Laclau and Mouffe call “hegemonic nodal points.” These “condensation points” of social relations are real in that they are legitimized power relations. The market is an institution because it has been legitimized: hegemonic capitalist practice has successfully imposed it as part of humanity’s common sense. Unequal gender relations are likewise an institution because they have been legitimized and presented as “normal”—to both men and women. Both these institutions can and must be transformed, and indeed are being transformed.

With all voices and the best arguments

A leftist position for Nicaragua and the rest of Central America in this new century would have to recognize the nodal role played by the market and capital in these times of globalization. Not because the economic sphere is either an objective reality or an irresistible and unlimited causal force, but for its strategic value in linking up the ethnic, gender, racial and other dimensions that form part of our contingent and multidimensional reality. From this perspective, the economic sphere must be seen as providing an opportunity to articulate hegemonic strategies that harmonize the multidimensional social demands that form part of the political scaffolding of the region’s countries.

The economic sphere cannot be seen as a material structure. It must be understood as a discursive construction that includes the participation of multiple social actors and forces with diverse levels of organizational materialness and different social, political, economic and culture demands and proposals. The working class is one such force, but it’s not a determinant one in a country with Nicaragua’s industrial backwardness. Nor is the market a “thing,” but rather an institutionalized discursive articulation that can be modified. In this regard, it’s necessary to recognize that there’s no such thing as “the market,” but rather different market models that can be created through reflective political action.

The articulation of a leftist strategy for a country like Nicaragua would have to identify the different forces and actors operating in the national space and evaluate their respective transforming capacities, as well as the possibilities for links and alliances based on their specific identities and proposals regarding the neoliberal market that is generating poverty and marginality in our country today.

The Nicaraguan Left should also articulate a new hegemonic vision as an alternative to the one offered by neoliberalism, one rooted in a democratic harmonization of the interests represented by the forces opposed to neolib-eralism. The forms of communication among these forces must generate a “discursive democracy,” as Sofía Montenegro explains it, that ensures that “all relevant voices can be heard, that there is access to the best arguments available to us at the current level of knowledge and that agreement or disagreement by the participants must only obey the force of the best argument and not any other kind of force.”

All this implies abandoning past schematics and recognizing, with theoretical and practical seriousness, the real transforming weight of the Nicaraguan women’s movement and the potential power of its youth. It means an equally serious exploration of the capacity for objective and subjective transformation of other emerging social movements.

Recognition of these movements is indispensable to creating a new political self-identity that permits the Left to develop its transforming capacities. This doesn’t imply ignoring the workers and peasants included in the concept “working class,” but simply discarding the fixations expressed in the old slogan “Only the workers and peasants will go all the way.”

The immediate task is to halt
neoliberalism and delimit the market

The Left needs a utopia and the capacity to administer how to make it operational in time. The construction of this utopia as a long-term self-identity requires the contribution of actors who are banking on that desired future. Independent of any long-term vision of the Left, however, the immediate task for our country’s progressive forces is the delimitation of the market’s areas of influence.

Any process of leftist hegemonic construction has to halt the expansion of neoliberalism, a market model that’s attempting to invade all spheres of human action and impose its rationality as the normative framework within which society functions. It would, for example, have to prevent the organization and administration of health and education in line with market demands, and avoid the state using market efficiency to define what can and cannot be done in the field of politics and social services.

Delimiting the market requires recovering and developing the state’s social function. This implies promoting the development of the state’s social regulatory faculty and facilitating the creation of a social power capable of domesticating and democratizing state power.

The essential task:
The subjective is also political

Delimiting the market’s power also implies articulating a new subjectivity, a new social self-image that exposes neoliberalism’s dehumanizing and anti-democratic nature. In Sofía Montenegro’s words, it implies assuming “subjectivity as a political problem.”

One of the Left’s difficulties in combating the neoliberal market and articulating the basis for an alternative model of social organization has been its resistance to studying and elucidating the subjective dimensions of Latin American social reality. The social sciences, particularly the Marxist social theory that has nourished the spirit and programs of the Latin American Left, have focused on studying the objective dimensions of social phenomena, relegating or simply ignoring the role played by culture and values in the political actions and visions of our national societies. Worse yet, they have assumed that the division between the objective and subjective spheres is real. In other words, they have transformed an analytical division into a quasi-natural reality.

Neoliberalism hasn’t failed;
it’s institutionalized and legitimized

The objectivist leanings of the social sciences affect their ability to deal with neoliberalism as culture. The reality is that neoliberalism represents a system of values that has become institutionalized and enjoys an important level of normative legitimacy within not only the continent’s dominant classes but also an important part of the middles class and even the grassroots sectors of the region’s countries.

In this sense, neoliberalism hasn’t failed, as we often state when referring to the tremendous social cost it has generated. This social cost can only be seen as evidence of neoliberalism’s failure if we assume this system was actually an attempt to resolve the problems of poverty and exclusion in our continent and the rest of the world. What we can say is that despite its brutal social cost. neoliberalism has become institutionalized and legitimized precisely because it appears today as a normal and normalized order that pushes many to think the only alternatives are to accept it as is or “humanize” it.

Necessary reflection on the
victories of Latin America’s Left

The absence of an alternative proposal to the neoliberal model explains why many of the leftist parties and coalitions governing in Latin America today have gone from being anti-neoliberal militants in the opposition to resigned, pragmatic neoliberals as heads of state.

One of the most tragic consequences of this reality is that when the region’s leftist parties come to power they’re pushed to legitimize and even defend the neoliberal model that they attacked from the opposition. They’re obliged to propose reforms to a system that they should be trying to dismantle and replace. And they do so when, to paraphrase Foucault, they are forced to discuss reality from the truth imposed and reproduced by the neoliberal power structures.

The social discontent that neoliberalism produces, expressed today in the Latin American Left’s electoral victories, constitutes no real threat to the system since it is not accompanied by an alternative proposal that can orient people’s frustrations. The strength of neoliberalism has to be measured not just by the levels of protest it generates, but also by the demonstrated capacity of this economic, political and cultural system to keep grassroots discontent and protest corralled within the institutions, processes and norms created to reproduce capital.

Neoliberalism’s strength must also be appreciated for its capacity to push the Left to govern from states designed to reproduce the Right’s economic and cultural power. As Sofía Correa states with respect to Chile, “The Latin American Right’s great achievement is that it no longer matters whether it governs or the Left governs.”

We have to make our road
by walking…and thinking

The Central American Left’s political practice must recognize the contingency of the social sphere without falling into a subjectivism that pushes it to ignore the existence of institutionalized power structures. The Left must reject two equally defective visions: the voluntarist one of politics as a process that doesn’t recognize the limitations of history in constructing social justice and freedom, and the determinist vision that, like the traditional Marxist one, assumes that politics is marginal to the importance of laws or causal factors that inevitably push us toward a classless society as the representation of social justice.

Voluntarism stresses the role played by human volition in constructing history while determinism assumes that institutionalized power relations determine the course and nature of social development. The former doesn’t recognize the structural limitations that history imposes on individuals while the latter doesn’t admit the human capacity to overcome those limitations. From a determinist perspective, the social role of individuals is reduced to acting and deciding within the limits imposed by a historical logic that transcends human volition and organized political action.

There’s a third position, which is adapted to the contingent vision of reality and the constructivist vision of politics proposed by Laclau and Mouffe. This position accepts the existence of limits to human action, but also admits the contingent nature of reality and thus the existence of opportunities to transform and extend the limits of what is possible. This position assumes that human volition and the institutionalized power relations that establish limits to this volition are all part of the conditions and participant forces that contribute to the construction of history.

As my beloved teacher Alberto Guerreiro Ramos stressed, determinism and structural limitations coexist with human freedom. Without any structural limitations, freedom would have no meaning.

The course of Nicaragua’s history and society is conditioned by the existence of institutionalized social relations, practices and processes, but we cannot forget that these very social structures are created and reproduced by social actors with a capacity for reflection and action. Thus, understanding the frameworks of historical limitations and possibilities within which society operates, it is possible to assume that individuals can push out the boundaries of reality and of what is politically possible.

Tomorrow’s Nicaragua could be better, infinitely better than today’s. Poverty is not inevitable. Misery is not an insurmountable condition. It all depends on us. Neither a providential God nor a dialectic can rescue us from the abyss. All we have is our reflective capacity to mentally and practically construct the just and free Nicaragua we want. There is no road; we will only make it by walking. And by thinking.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, an Associate Researcher at the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centoamérica (IHNCA) and an envío collaborator.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Is Nicaragua’s Electoral Race Between Trivelli and Chávez?


“We’re Independent Leftists”

Do We Have the Police We Deserve?

A Challenge to Leftist Parties: Return to Marxism but Look Beyond It

Costa Rica
The Country Oscar “the Eagle” Arias Will Be Flying Over

The “Other Campaign” Is Forging a Path for New Ideas

América Latina
What Culture Are We Legitimizing In Our Classrooms?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development