Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎

LATIN AMERICA AND THE “SPECTRE” OF SOCIALISM by Sai Madivala

posted 19 Mar 2015, 19:47 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 19 Mar 2015, 20:00 ]

Sai Madivala
America is the Canaan of capitalism, its promised land.”

                                                                                 – Werner Sombart, 1906 –

Socialism, as a tangible political and economic project for organizing society, has been cast-off to the dustbin of history.  According to this reasoning, it is anachronistic to speak of contemporary movements rooted in a socialist tradition.  A serious consideration of non-western socialist traditions is in itself a revolutionary paradigm shift.  Socialism was never simply a logic developed in the west and assigned to the rest of the world.  Europe and the United States may historically have been the centers of capitalist production (and self-valorizing standards of Enlightenment and Reason), but the colonial peripheries generated enormous surplus value through forced labor and resource extraction.

Proclaiming itself as world's sentinel, the United States continues to insist that liberal-individualism and market fundamentalism is the way forward.  The claims of being a beacon of democracy and peace are overshadowed by a genocidal history and an expanding military-industrial complex.  A country founded on the principle of conquest in the first instance, it seems, can only be sustained if this principle becomes law and cannot be questioned.

There are numerous examples of US involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected governments, from Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala (1954) to

Patrice Lumumba captured by agents of Western Imperialism
Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1961).  The menace was socialism.  The threat of democratically elected communist governments spread so fast in Latin America that Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State, declared that the advanced capitalist states should not “watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people” (Kissinger, Meeting of the 40 Committee, 1970).

The Latin American experience provides a tapestry for sober reflection on the past, present, and future possibilities of continental movements against capital.  By the 1970's, Latin America became a laboratory for American imperialism.  Ruthless dictatorships spanned the continent, with the elimination of tens of thousands of suspected left-wing activists.  American presidents, like Ronald Reagan, remained committed to right-wing rebel groups in Latin America, often providing covert funding.  The 12-year civil war in El Salvador sparked by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and supported by the US military targeted union officials, clergy, and academics.  The US crimes against Cuba have been well-documented.

Despite decades of US aggression in the region, socialism returned to Latin America by the turn of the 21st century.  Fidel Castro fostered alliances and friendships between various leaders, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luiz Lula da Silva, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa.   Hugo Chavez looked to Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America from Spanish rule, for developing his indigenous socialism.

The resurrection of the democratic left in Latin America, despite Yankee intervention, remains a political force to reckon with.  Many of these leaders and intellectuals are seeking innovative approaches to socialism as a practical means of improving the conditions of their respective societies.  Socialism, as a philosophy that seeks to democratize resources, provides substantial tools for understanding the world, but also never accepted as a universal category.  These tools are constantly refined in the flames of struggle.

Non-western socialism comes in many shades.  It is a narrative that begs us to widen our lens for envisioning revolutionary movements that are not only against local conditions of oppression and exploitation (nationalist), but also internationalist to the core – a fundamental critique of western modernity, colonial morality, and imperial ambitions.

The movement of capital relations across the globe ossified social hierarchies along racial, gender, and religious categories.  Identifying the detrimental effects of such categorization and sub-alternization are some of the defining intellectual contributions of non-western socialists.  The injection of local cultures and histories impacts how an epistemology is interpreted and employed.  How can a national liberation struggle for self-determination also become a revolutionary movement for the abolishment of private property? In the case of Cuba, both stages were a part of the socialist project. 

Revolutionary socialist movements often coincided with struggles for national liberation, thus going against traditional understandings of class struggle.  Fidel Castro identifies as a nationalist socialist.  The socialism of darker nations could not afford the luxury of dogma.  The socialist insistence on materialism contributed to an existing politics of resistance that derived from multiple histories.  In the context of Latin America, the 'nature of the revolution' has been a central theme in discussions of indigenous socialism.  How can socialist revolution take place in a particular space, given its own historical and socio-economic contradictions?

This organic sense of a malleable socialism allows us to engage with history as a creative and collective process.  The leaders of national liberation struggles constantly questioned the ‘nature of the revolution’ because of their shifting circumstances.  These populist struggles maintained a devotion to uplifting the most oppressed and marginalized members of society.  For example, Liberation Theology, which became a relevant conflagration throughout Latin America, advocated for a fundamental shift in socio-economic relations of production (Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist").  In addition, the peasantry was considered an integral part of capitalist production and critical in the process of revolutionary change.

What historical lessons can be drawn from the success and failures of these revolutionary shifts in Latin America?  How has the nature of the revolution evolved in Latin America?  Do the failures of state capitalism (as CLR James recalled Soviet Russia) signal the end of socialism?  What does a “real” revolution look like?  How revolutionary can a revolution be?  The progressive elements and successes of Latin America's socialist turn cannot be denied, but the shortcomings of individualistic power struggles and the futility of achieving socialism through the bourgeois state are stubborn knots to be unraveled for the success of future struggles against capital.

The failures of the Latin America's “pink tide” provide gaps for critical insight.  The modern state is a bourgeois political association that assumes legitimacy by claiming a monopoly on violence.  The classic definition of a state is provided by Max Weber: “a state is a human community that successfully claims monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”  Latin America is no exception. Violence and coercion are integral to the project of modern state formation.  State sovereignty rests on the organized domination of the material forces of production necessary for mobilizing physical force.  The right to use physical force exists only to the extent that the state allows it.  

“We must bear in mind that imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism — and it must be defeated in a world confrontation. The strategic end of this struggle should be the destruction of imperialism. Our share, the responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capitals, raw materials, technicians and cheap labor, and to which they export new capitals — instruments of domination — arms and all kinds of articles; thus submerging us in an absolute dependence.

Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons and other men be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine-guns and new battle cries of war and victory.”

– Che Guevara, Message to the Tricontinental, 1967.

The teleology of modern states must be understood outside the bounds of liberal tolerance and political dogma.  The contradictions inherent to socialist revolutions of 19th and 20th centuries operated within a world order determined by capitalist relations.  Capitalist modernity invokes repressive violence as a necessary socio-political phenomenon.  The complexity of war and the politics of violence allow for the primacy of state policy, establishing violence as a decisive, often rationalized as necessary, means for political legitimacy.  Positivism and Absolutism are configured into the formulation of the state at inception.

Today, the spectres of socialism and revolution are haunting Latin America once again.  Citizens demand accountability from their democratically elected governments. These progressive developments and inspiring social movements, over the past two decades, point us toward a new horizon for revolutionary change.  Cuba and Venezuela are the heart of this tectonic shift. 

The days of Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy diagnosis for Latin America are finished.  The lapdogs of imperialism can no longer orchestrate sinister coups and implement exploitative policies in Latin America for the sake of profit, while crushing popular dissent with an iron fist.  

The failure of ‘free trade’ agreements, initiated by Western ex-colonial powers, establishes a new precedent for fighting capital on a global scale.  How did we become patriotic soldiers with a duty toward the state?  A deeper, historical understanding of non-western movements against capital, like the recent revolutions in Latin America, may help us navigate the inherent contradictions of the modern state, sail toward action, and slowly unravel the beast:

Comments