Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 360 | Julio 2011


Latin America

Some thoughts for 21st-century socialists

This critical look at Latin America’s past revolutionary movements, including a review of the imprints Stalinism has left on them, offers a useful yardstick for measuring some of the risks Latin America’s current leftist governments face.

Klaus Meschkat

Revolutionaries almost always think that victory over their opponents means a total rupture with all past
history. In the best of cases they admit the existence of a distant pre-history, whose protagonists are evoked as precursors of their own political project. The French Revolution, for example, turned to ancient Rome, while German Socialists and Communists referred to the combatants defeated in the peasant wars of the 16th century. Similarly, the current representatives of Latin America’s leftist governments evoke great precursors: Hugo Chávez obviously evokes Simón Bolívar; Evo Morales the leaders of the 18th-century uprisings against the Spanish colony, Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa, among others; and Rafael Corea the leader of the Ecuadoran revolution and two-time President Eloy Alfaro.

Nonetheless, the relationship between leftist politics and its own history can’t be limited to celebrating and leaning on those great models. Karl Marx referred with irony to revolutionaries who decked themselves out in the garb of past eras and paraded proudly around in it. He also spoke of the burden of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service….”

The burden of history

At the time, Marx recommended that the future social revolution should leave its dead under ground and feed its poetry with the future rather than the past. Socialists and communists of today can’t simply follow that recommendation, because in the struggle against the current bourgeois order we must bear a burden unknown to Marx: the “really existing” socialism of the 20th century which, abusing the term “socialism,” provoked new forms of exploitation and oppression.

What role does this history play for the current Latin American governments that identify with a leftist anti-imperialism and announce their desire to execute a new “socialist” project? In order to responsibly use certain terms and words, one needs to know their history. If a party calls itself “communist” today, it is in fact linking itself to the history of the Communist movement and must consciously assume this legacy. Those who announce “21st-century socialism” must have an idea of what made 20th-century socialism fail. And if someone proclaims a new international, he or she would have to say what makes it different from the Third International, dissolved almost unnoticed by Stalin in 1943.

The echo of the Russian revolution

From the outset, Latin America’s revolutionary movement felt particularly inspired by the example of the October Revolution, even though the Mexican revolution preceded it. There were unquestionably huge differences in this inspiration between a country such as Argentina, whose huge numbers of European immigrants imported the traditions of the European workers’ movement, including the struggles between Socialists and Communists of all tendencies, and the Andean countries, which were not the destination of such massive immigration over the course of the 19th century. But everyone got the news that in far-off Russia a man named Lenin had brought down the power of the landowners and capitalists. The echo of the October Revolution soon encouraged all Latin Americans who wanted to initiate a struggle against their own exploiters and oppressors. “Long live Bolshevikism!” shouted artisan manufacturers in their 1919 protest march in Bogotá. And in that same year residents of Colombia’s capital were surprised to see the streets of working class barrios named after Lenin and Trotsky.

This evocation of a geographically distant revolution doesn’t mean that the leaders of the revolutionary movement based their actions on the writings of Marx, Lenin or Trotsky, whom most of them hadn’t even read. But even without these external instructions, they knew where the dominant dependent capitalist system in their countries could be attacked. In Colombia, for example, it was in the enclaves where US imperialism was penetrating—the oil exploitation centers operated by foreign companies, the banana-growing zones, the areas dominated by coffee cultivation as well as transportation of the beans to port. These were the places where they began with bold and creative organizational work. The emerging unions were at the same time the titleholders of the political struggle because, by pure luck, they had yet to receive any message from the Second or Third International insisting that they take the “necessary” measure of separating from the party.

Like Colombia, other Latin American countries witnessed major strikes and mass mobilizations in the early 1920s. It was a period in which revolutionary Socialists published excellent newspapers and magazines to exchange information and revolutionary ideas. Colombia had agitational “tours” and illustrative campaigns, feared and denounced by the depositories of power due to their subversive potential. One exceptional woman who played a very special role in all this was María Cano, the celebrated “Flor del Trabajo,” a teacher from Medellín who for many years was considered a kind of Colombian Rosa Luxembourg.

The revolutionaries of that first stage

The revolutionaries of that first stage also tried to place their illustrative and organizational activities in a global context. The Communist International (Comintern), founded by Lenin in Moscow in 1919, offered itself as the ideal center of the world revolution. But again there was a skew between the Southern Cone and Andean countries. Both Luis Emilio Recabarren, founder of the Chilean Communist Party, and Argentine leader José Fernando Penelón traveled to Moscow in 1922 as delegates to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. Recabarren wrote a very positive travel report about the Russia of the workers and peasants. The Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, in Europe between 1919 and 1923, participated in the activities of the French and Italian communists, through which he got close to the Comintern even though he had been unable to travel to Russia.

A broader discussion of Latin America’s problems got underway around the end of the twenties. At that time the Comintern’s Latin America official was Jules Humbert-Droz, co-founder of the Swiss Communist Party and an intellectual who contributed to a more in-depth understanding of the societies still referred to as “semi-colonies.” In the Comintern’s Sixth World Congress (1928), he presented an outstanding paper that anticipated many aspects of later dependency theories. Humbert-Droz also represented the Comintern in the first gathering of Latin American Communist parties, held in Buenos Aires in June 1929.

In my opinion, the minutes of that meeting are the most important document on the beginning of Latin America’s Communist movement. Fundamental problems of revolutionary strategy in the continent were discussed openly for the first—and unfortunately last—time, and everything was documented, including non-orthodox opinions later censored as “deviations.” That document, originally published as a book, is now circulating as photocopies among interested researchers. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to promote its re-publication as a book.

Stalin was the tragedy

The tragedy of Latin America’s Communist movement lies in the fact that this gathering of its leaders took place right at the moment in which the internal struggle for power at the center of the world revolution had already been decided in Stalin’s favor. Shortly beforehand, the future despot had managed to politically eliminate Nikolai Bukharin, his last potential opponent among the old Bolsheviks, ousting him from his post as Comintern president. At the same time he removed all of Bukharin’s old friends and likeminded thinkers from key positions in the apparatus, among them Jules Humbert-Droz, long hated by Stalin for having criticized his intervention in the internal affairs of the German Communist Party. Humbert-Droz was no longer in charge of Latin America and his valuable theoretical contributions were erased from the curriculum of the Comintern’s Lenin School.

A rapid Stalinization process began in mid-1929, both in the Comintern headquarters and in the different Communist parties of Latin America. It is necessary, however, to clearly differentiate between the imposition of certain of Stalin’s positions in a given historical moment and the lasting characteristics of the ideology and organizational reality that marked the world Communist movement from Stalin’s victory over his opponents until after his death and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Among the political positions Stalin wanted to impose on the entire world at the time, we must first mention the idea of a class struggle that excluded any policy of alliance with the progressive segments of the middle sectors and land-owning peasants, defaming Social Democrats as social-fascists who needed to be fought against with even greater fervor than genuine fascists. In Latin America, where the industrial proletariat was not yet very numerous, the emerging Communist parties had to proletarianize themselves at any cost: “pure” proletarians, not yet contaminated by ideological aberrations, were supposed to replace the always vacillating petty bourgeois elements in the party.

These ideas, which didn’t take Latin America’s actual class structures into account, were abandoned a few years later, replaced by the “popular front” concept that emerged out of the anti-fascist struggle: a broad alliance that even included part of the dominant class—the supposedly existing national bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, the popular front as promoted in the seventh and last World Congress in 1935 didn’t in the least undermine Stalinism, which shortly afterward reached its savage peak in the Moscow Trials and the Great Purge conducted in the Soviet Union.

The Stalinist legacies

Lasting characteristics of Stalinism can be identified independent of the circumstantial policy changes determined by Stalin. I’ll highlight four aspects: 1) the disparaging of the revolutionary movements’ own antecedents, 2) the denouncing of deviations, 3) the introduction of ritualized self-criticism, and 4) the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union.

All Communist policy was rooted in the idea of the need for a Marxist-Leninist party based on the criteria of “democratic centralism.” This party had to figure as a section of a world organization in a given country, following Comintern instructions. After the Second Congress of 1920, a party’s adhesion to the Comintern was dependent on the famous 21 conditions, which above all made the irreconcilable struggle against social democracy obligatory. Based on this concept, the Comintern in Stalin’s times ended up giving no credit to a revolutionary movement’s history prior to contact, considering it at best a prehistory marked by all manner of errors that were inevitable due to ignorance of Marxism-Leninism. The building of a genuine Communist party required the total obliteration of that error-burdened initial phase.

What then was to be done with the original leaders who had distinguished themselves in the revolutionary move¬ment’s first heroic phase without being instructed by Moscow? First, they were offered the chance to keep working in the party, in a subordinated position, as long as they were willing to recognize their responsibility for the errors of the past. Soon those errors became the center of attention and there was no longer any talk of their merits. Those who didn’t subject themselves a hundred percent and assume all “guilt” for past errors were kicked out. That happened in Colombia with Tomás Uribe Márquez, for years the key figure of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. His previous co-ideologist Ignacio Torres Giraldo, exiled in Moscow, was obliged to keep his distance and finally to suspend all correspondence with Uribe Márquez to make his break with the past credible.

The rejection of the historical leaders

This stigmatizing of the original leaders seems to have been of great importance for the cohesion of the “Stalinized” party. There are analogous processes in the majority of Latin American communist parties.

In Chile it happened to Manuel Hidalgo in an early phase, and in Argentina to Penelón. In Brazil, it happened to legendary revolutionary Luis Carlos Prestes, who after the failure of his efforts at an uprising was persuaded to join the Communist Party and then invited to travel to Moscow. In his case, the abdication of the past was even more absurd: as a reborn Communist of a Stalinist stripe, Prestes himself issued a call to fight “Prestismo.” In Peru, José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin America’s most important Marxist, was stigmatized and “Mariateguismo” proscribed shortly after his death in 1930, above all for his opposition to the founding of a Peruvian Communist party as a “proletariat class party.” Then there was Luis Emilio Recabarren, founder of Chilean communism, who was excommunicated post mortem in the thirties by the Comintern, which considered him responsible for the survival of opportunist and social democratic opinions in the Communist Party of Chile. “Luxemburguismo” and “Recabarrenismo” were similarly converted into an enemy ideology.

The denunciation of deviations

The public denunciation of deviations was an integral part of Stalinist ideology. While the practices of marginalizing and defaming opponents within the party had already played a preponderant role in Lenin’s written polemics, it was under Stalin that “dissidents” became enemies worthy of physical elimination. Obviously, the prototype was the great opponent Trotsky. As early as the late twenties, “Trotskyism” was considered the embodiment of evil. With the elimination of Bukharin, “right deviationists” (and/or conciliators) was added in 1929. The Bolshevik party’s correct line constantly had to be defended against both threats.

Only in the ongoing struggle against deviations could the Communists of all countries acquire consciousness and conserve their identity. They had to struggle against deviationists and dissidents even before they showed up in the different parties. For example, a significant communiqué of July 1, 1932, from the Comintern Caribbean office requested that the Communist Party of Colombia take up the struggle to denounce the anti-revolutionary nature of Trotskyism at a world level, even though there was no Trotskyist group in Colombia.

Latin American communism of the early thirties was characterized by the fact that the supposed ideological aberrations in the different countries were grouped into large deviations defined by the Comintern. In the class analysis the label “petty bourgeoisie” was used to identify and stigmatize dissident opinions, a practice that unfortunately had already been common in the Marxist polemic of the Second International. Intellectuals—themselves members of the petty bourgeoisie—often tried to invalidate the arguments of competing intellectuals by referring to the class to which they belonged. The fact that many of the first self-declared Communists—for example lawyers and literati who formed part of the intelligentsia—have been the first to desert to the “class enemy” (i.e. return to their class origin in the majority of cases) made it only too easy to apply this simplifying classification. Nonetheless, many intellectuals did not yield, just as some working-class union activists fell into the nets of the dominant power.

In any event, applying the slogan of “proletarianization” was particularly problematic in Latin America because it referred directly to a factory proletariat, which at the time was only a miniscule minority among the great mass of exploited people on the sub-continent. As a slogan, it doesn’t refer to a truly existing proletariat but to the myth of “proletarian” discipline, which at the end of the day was nothing more than submission to the instructions from headquarters. It was hoped that the “proletarians” not yet deformed by any “false doctrine” would renew the party, recognizing the all-powerful Stalin and the little Stalins of the different countries and parties.

The introduction of
ritualized self-criticism

Self-criticism played a central role in the domestication of the Comintern’s future Stalinist functionaries. New studies contain excellent analyses of the self-criticism mechanisms. One of them, the monograph of a colleague from Austria, compares Communist self-criticism with Catholic confession. The biographies of certain Colombian revolutionaries contain very illustrative examples. The evolution of the process—which begins with admitting some errors and ends with the total censure of one’s own history—can be precisely documented in the case of Ignacio Torres Giraldo.

A first self-criticism sent from Moscow wasn’t enough because Torres Giraldo only explained to his political comrades there the motives of his hurried departure from Colombia. He had to draft a second, much stronger self-criticism and finally a last bearing the suggestive title “Liquidating the past,” in which he exceeded the limits of self-criticism by accusing himself of having “objectively” acted at the service of the class enemy. The 1932 document anticipates the future excesses in self-blaming by the accused in the Moscow Trials of 1936-1938.

If we compare these procedures with the actions of Ignacio Torres Giraldo’s partner, we can see the degree to which these self-humiliations were also due to the atmosphere in Moscow at the time. In Medellín, María Cano learned of the accusations against the former leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in a party plenary in July 1930 and wrote a letter to the recently elected secretary general. Although she admitted certain errors, she defended herself clearly and with dignity against the defamation aimed at the previously recognized protagonists of the revolutionary upsurge of the twenties, a group she was part of.

A minimum of critical distance should have been expected from the functionaries sent to Moscow—exposed for a long time to daily Soviet life—above all because they had already proven their acute capacity as critical observers of society in their own country. Torres Giraldo, who lived over four years in Moscow (late 1929 to early 1934), left autobiographical notes that demonstrate how a revolutionary militant from a Latin American country perceived Russian reality just as it was presented in the official propaganda, seeing only the exemplary achievements of the socialism under construction. In his opinion those visible achievements were threatened by the sabotage of enemy elements and thus required extreme vigilance. He unconditionally joined the defamation of all opposition and even went so far as to defend the Moscow Trials.

The unconditonal defense of the Soviet Union

That same glorification of the Soviet Union and of the Communist International as the omniscient headquarters of world revolution was shared even by those first Commu¬nists who, like María Cano, dignifiedly refused to distort their own history. In the case of an alleged wrong decision by the Comintern, it was argued that it could only have occurred as a consequence of incomplete or false information and possibly even the infiltration of enemies of the party and their deceitful maneuvers.

Nor did it correspond to a disciplined member of a Leninist party to refer to the debates about tendencies occurring in the pinnacle of its world organization. It is thus no surprise that Tomás Uribe Márquez, by then excluded from the party, received no response to his extensive letter to the upper echelons of the Comintern calling attention to the errors committed by the top Colombian party leadership and requesting that a new delegation be sent from Moscow to renew the party. Here it can be seen clearly to what extent the “dissidents” of that time—whose exclusion obeyed Comintern logic—continued believing in the wisdom and absolute power of the world proletariat party headquarters.

Among some protagonists of that period, fidelity with the Soviet Union lived on even after its collapse. Two years ago I had the opportunity to talk in Quito with César Endara, co-founder of the Socialist Party, then Communist Party of Ecuador, about his stay in Moscow in 1929. He was 103 years old at the time of our talk. Endara told me he didn’t study in the Comintern’s Lenin School, as they offered him, but in the University of the Peoples of the East, because Latin Americans were taught in Spanish at the Lenin School and the young Endara preferred to study with the students from the East and learn Russian, Lenin’s language, the language of the October Revolution. He proudly showed me his library, which was full of books and journals in Russian. He didn’t want to let go of any of them. César Endara wanted to discuss with me why the Soviet Union had gone under, but I had to run to the airport and we left the subject for a future visit that never took place. César Endara died at the age of 105.

Why dig up this all these old memories?

A critical analysis of Stalinism based on previously unknown historical sources became possible in 1991, with the opening of Moscow’s Comintern archive. I personally had access to the previous works of historian Jürgen Mothes of the German Democratic Republic, who died in 1996. I also turned to the Moscow archives themselves in 1994. The result of these studies is the documentary book Liquidando el pasado (Liquidating the Past), prepared jointly with José María Rojas and published in Bogotá in 2009. The Chilean-based Russian historian, Olga Uljanova, had previously published a book based on the Soviet archives, which served us as an example. At her initiative, Latin Americans researching the Comintern have met over the past decade during international congresses, most recently during the Congress of Americanists in Mexico in July 2009. Similar documenta¬tions on Peru and Mexico were initiated in that Congress.

The re-conquering of this buried past isn’t of exclusive interest to historical researchers. From my point of view, it’s a tool to defend ourselves from the literature of renegades who select at their discretion and manipulate sources to defame all past revolutionary struggles. The obvious purpose is to make any current search for an alternative social order not based on exploitation and inequity seem useless and dangerous.

My proposal and that of my colleagues is to unearth the buried memory of Latin America’s first revolutionary movements as a source that will allow us to overcome the Stalinist deformations still embedded in the current movements and thus open roads to an emancipating politics.

Without experience of that repression

This analysis and the organizations’ own confrontation with the Stalinist past remained incomplete in Latin America. I assume there are understandable reasons for that. In the first place, Latin American revolutionaries were virtually unaffected by the purges that claimed innumerable victims in the Soviet Union in the thirties, among them not only most members of the original top Russian Bolshevik leadership, but also many exiled Communist party cadres.

Poland was an extreme case, with 25 of the 26 upper-level Polish cadres in the Comintern apparatus liquidated. None of them fell victim to repression by the class enemy in their own country but only one survived the Stalinist purges. The repression also cost many lives among the top cadres of the German Communist Party. Among the numerous Latin Americans who worked in the Comintern apparatus in those years or in the Lenin School of Moscow, however, the only known case is a Mexican who spent several years in a concentration camp, probably due to his friendship with a persecuted Russian Comintern functionary.

Nor were Latin American Communists affected by the wave of anti-Semite persecution against Communist leaders in Eastern Europe in the years prior to Stalin’s death (1949-1952). All this indicates that there were no direct experiences of the various forms of Stalinist repression.

Stalin’s imprint remains

Stalinism didn’t end with the man’s death in 1952. Khrushchev’s famous secret speech in the Twentieth Con¬gress in 1956 only led to a superficial de-Stalinization under the minimizing formula of getting over the personality cult.

There are sufficient reasons to classify the power structures of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries as neo-Stalinist right up to their collapse. The principle of the unlimited monopoly of power by the lead group of a state party—a concept already created under Lenin given the conditions of civil war in the young Soviet Russia—was maintained in their real power structure.

For Lenin, prohibiting all political parties in competition with the Bolsheviks, as well the forming of fractions within the Russian Community Party—proclaimed in 1921—was a limited or emergency measure in an exceptional situation, but never considered a permanent characteristic of a socialist democracy. Once the war was over, however, need became virtue and the Communist Party’s leadership role was defined in the Constitution.

The echo in Latin America

In the Cold War years, the Soviet example had an enormous effect in those Latin American countries where revolutionaries acting outside of Moscow-approved Communism won against the old order.

Summing it up adequately would be as pretentious as wanting to sum up the history and problematic of the Cuban revolution in a few sentences. In this respect, I would just like to refer to a recent article by our friend Boaventura de Sousa Santos [“Why Has Cuba Become a Difficult Problem for the Left?”, published in a special issue on Cuba by Latin American Perspectives in 2009 and available on Internet] which seems to me a new, very suitable starting point for a serious discussion about that country. Nor would it be possible to summarize here the experience of Chile’s Popular Unity, in which a Communist Party well anchored in a sector of the working class, in alliance with the Socialist Party and other leftist political forces, managed to get elected in free elections, form a government and prepare the transition to a socialist order.

The danger of stifling the debate

The development achieved in various South American countries after Hugo Chávez’s electoral victory in Venezuela in late 1998 was very encouraging for the Left around the world. How could a review of the past of Latin American’s revolutionary movement help find the right measure for better evaluating current progress and risks?

It seems to me that the great slogans are sometimes announced prematurely and with little vision. A backward look often allows us to avoid the risk of confusing the proclaimed ideals with existing reality and thus free us from consequently repeating past errors. It is unquestionably more comfortable to acclaim leaders who impress us and justify their words and actions without questioning them because they took on excessively powerful opponents. Similar tendencies exist among the German solidarity movements, sometimes even combined with a posteriori glorification of the pseudo-socialism that ceased existing in 1989.

I’d like to suggest that we also reflect on the relationship between the party and grassroots or civic councils. In the countries governed by progressive governments one currently observes a tendency to turn leftist parties that first emerged as instruments to win government in a representative democracy into something solider: into parties that can bring about the united and closed action of all progressive forces. In this desire, the issue of unity tends to be seen with exaggerated absolutism relative to the necessary diversity of the tendencies. From there it is easy to arrive—perhaps without even wanting to—at the model of a Marxist-Leninist party in which even forming fractions is prohibited.

The external threat argument can always be turned to as justification. As was said in 1920 and is still said today, powerful opponents immediately take advantage of any open debate that allows different opinions, entering through this weak point with their counterrevolutionary forces. History shows us the opposite: the stifling of vital debate is much more dangerous than any counterrevolutionary maneuver because debate always presupposes the possibility of freely articulating conflicting positions of representatives of different and even opposing tendencies debating within the party and thus helping define the best path to follow. While the debate must obviously produce results that permit concrete government action for a period of time, it must never be assumed to have concluded.

And the councils?

It is surely encouraging that the Venezuelan revolution’s spokespeople currently refer to the Councils with the aspiration of initiating a restructuring of the State from there. Nonetheless, any observer aware of history will promptly ask how far they are willing to advance with these Councils’ participatory democracy. Is there any chance it could get to the point at which the structure of Councils built from the bottom up eliminates the monopoly of power by those historical leaders who’ve been determining the country’s destiny for decades because they’ve been considered indispensable first by the population and finally also by themselves?

As is known, things developed in the opposition direction in the first years of the Soviet Union. The Councils, or Soviets, created at the outset lost their power step by step and the dictatorship of the proletariat ended up being simply the dictatorship of the state party. The real decision-making processes in this type of structure are determined by the lines of command of a centralist party that must obviously remain hidden from all outsiders. This situation also determines the weakness of many studies of “popular power,” which respect the taboo of everything having to be subject to sociological analysis except the real functioning of the governing party.

The very name “Soviet Union”—Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR—was false after the thirties because the Soviets had already been eliminated from the decision-making processes. How can this kind of involution be prevented from occurring in all countries where a centralized lead party, well endowed with resources, is surrounded by atomized grassroots councils that don’t relate to each other autonomously from the bottom up without direction from a permanent leader or lead party?

Between “good living” and “living better”

For some years now, 21st-century socialism has been proclaimed, patented by nothing more than the opportune writing of a book by the same name. If there is now serious talk of socialism, it must go beyond the sum of ideas of one or more Andean country Presidents, however visionary they may be at times.

There’s always the threat of a simple rebirth of certain elements of 20th-century socialism, which ended up so over-estimating itself that it defined itself as “really existing.” It’s also a favorite term of the bourgeois ideologies interested in permanently defaming any form of socialism.

Might there not be something like a principle of that “other world,” of a society worthy of being human to which we aspire, that could be useful to us as a guide? I believe we can discover such a principle today if we shake off a Euro-centrist focus. We should recognize that certain terms used in the languages of the Andean peoples constitute the best critique of an order whose suicidal nature became evident again with the financial crisis and the environmental destruction of extensive vital habitats through the oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after the election of Evo Morales I had the privilege of speaking with David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s new foreign relations minister, who explained to me the difference between “good living” and “living better.” We should all aspire to a good life while the idea of “ever better” refers to the crazy race following the logic of capitalist accumulation.

I may have been especially open to these truths because I recalled something of the distinction Marx made between “use value” and “exchange value” in his critique of political economy. In any event, I think I’ve understood what the “good living” that’s been embedded in the new Constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador means. Thanks to my knowledge of some of his writings I know that Boaventura de Sousa Santos is going down that same road.

Are we ready for a Fifth International?

It must be asked whether all this is sufficient to justify a new Fifth International. I have my doubts. In the first place the programs, and above all the practical policies, of Latin America’s current leftist governments already house the dispute between different and even opposing lines, and it doesn’t seem certain to me which of them will be imposed. It is possible to observe, for example, a strong conflict between the aspiration for an accelerated exploitation of nature via mega-projects that at bottom follow the logic of multinational consortiums and other meritorious initiatives, such as the Yasuní project in Ecuador, that are fighting to conserve nature. We hope this second line will win out, but blind identification with the leaders of the progressive governments doesn’t seem to me the best way to ensure that a new form of developmentalism doesn’t win out.

Could anti-imperialism alone be considered a secure base for a new international? I have reservations about this as well, and they are considerable. It is unquestionably necessary to resist the American superpower’s aggressive policy when the continuity of US imperialist policy can be observed, including under President Obama. This policy ranges from expansion of the military bases in Colombia to the continuing blockade against Cuba, passing through de facto support of the coup in Honduras. But for socialists this mustn’t mean that any enemy of the United States is automatically a friend and ally. There are oppressive governments whose representatives cannot be allies of any socialist, including the current illegitimate President of Iran.

Allies of Iran’s theocracy?

We independent socialists in Germany share a long history with Iran’s democrats, starting during the protests against the Shah’s visit to Berlin in 1967. After his overthrow, almost all his enemies who had returned to their country were expelled a second time by a new oppressive system, this time a theocratic one. I think that supporting the democratic opposition to a theocratic system was and still is obvious. A year ago, the entire Left in Germany welcomed the widespread protest movement against the electoral fraud in Iran and we were hugely disappointed when Hugo Chávez branded that movement counterrevolutionary.

The Scientific Council of ATTAC-Germany [Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens], to which I belong, published a declaration supporting the emancipation movement in Iran in July 2009 that also referred to the progressive leaders of Latin America. In it we said: “The position Chávez and others in South America took is in frank contradiction with the emancipatory ideals of ‘21st-century socialism.’ Universal rights must not be sacrificed to tactical geopolitical games.”

The evaluation of the events in Iran seems too important to me to remain silent about such grave differences. The friends and comrades of Iran who called for solidarity with their country’s democratic movement are also the firmest critics of the policy of the United States and Israel and never stop insisting on protesting Israel’s occupation policy and US war preparations. None of them favors the sanctions imposed on Iran or would oppose better economic relations between Iran and the progressive governments of Latin America. But declaring oneself in solidarity with a usurper and oppressor is something else entirely.

Recover the interred heritage

I don’t mean to sound too negative. The political development of the past decade in South America is very encouraging for Germany’s independent socialists. We should study it carefully and show all our solidarity, above all to defend against the negative policies of our own governments in Europe. But this must not take us back to the traditional forms of a solidarity limited to applauding official propaganda apparatuses with their worn-out rituals of friendship among the peoples in really existing socialism. It seems to me that we need to develop new forms of critical solidarity, to which each can contribute.

One of the priority tasks is recovering the interred heritage of Latin America’s revolutionary movements. I’m convinced that the memory of an emancipatory practice and its protagonists before the Stalinist deformation is important for the Latin American Left because a better understanding of the past can help orient us better in a difficult present. And it’s extremely important that the revolutionary movement’s outstanding figures be presented in their complexity and with their contradictions rather than being glorified as sterile heroes.

European historians who usually have more access to their archives and those of Moscow can sometimes assume tasks that are more complicated for their Latin American colleagues. As an example, I’d like to mention the biography of Augusto Sandino written by my friend and colleague Volker Wünderich, a work recently reissued in Nicaragua and praised by that country’s progressive historians. My colleague Christine Hatzky also achieved this with her biography of Julio Antonio Mella, co-founder of the Communist Party of Cuba, and the best news is that a translation of this rather unorthodox book was published by a Cuban publishing house in 2009.

Klaus Meschkat is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Hannover. This text is an abbreviated version of his contribution to the seminar “Democracia, Participación y Socialismo,” organized by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and held in Quito, Ecuador in June 2010.

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