Making the Impossible Possible

By Marta Harnecker

In the final decades of the 20th century, we are living through an ultraconservative period. For historian and political analyst Immanuel Wallerstein, the historical crisis of the system is so profound that it will take many years at least two decades before a coherent strategy to fight the system can be developed.

It wasn't just that Soviet socialism failed; capitalism demonstrated a surprising capacity to adapt to new circumstances and to use to its advantage the advances of the new scientific-technological revolution. Meanwhile the socialist countries, after having initially achieved remarkable economic development, fell into stagnation and wound up in the disaster we are familiar with. On top of this were the problems that the European social democratic governments and their "welfare states" began to experience: stalled economic growth, inflation and inefficiency in production.

Simultaneously, Latin America due to the painful restructuring of the 1980s has begun to incorporate itself into the new global economy, and the most dynamic sectors in all these countries are embroiled in international competition to sell their goods and attract capital.

The price of this incorporation has been very high: a considerable portion of Latin America's population has been excluded from these dynamic sectors, as producers and as consumers. In some cases, peoples, countries and regions have resorted to reliance on the informal local economy (black and grey market) and illicit export and smuggling as a means of compensating for this exclusion.1

We need to recognise that we live in distressing times, full of confusion and uncertainty. The deterioration of the standard of living of the majority of the planet's population, including ever broadening sectors of the middle layers or what has become to be known as the globalisation of poverty2 is alarming. The threat of unemployment is a constant concern in the developed countries as well as the poor ones. Social and organisational fragmentation have reached their highest levels, while the dreams of constructing a new society have been reduced to their most timid expression.3 The degradation of the environment threatens the survival of future generations. Burgeoning corruption is producing widespread demoralisation. 4

War, including nuclear war, is and will continue to be an ever present danger despite advances in the march toward peace, detente and disarmament, as long as the causes which stem from the capitalist character of the reigning international and socioeconomic order are not eradicated. Political action is like an orphan without a role model because the majority of the old models have fallen apart and the new ones haven't been able to demonstrate their effectiveness in terms of growth with equity.5 Efforts to reverse the backward motion generally end in frustration and impotence. And for many there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.6

An alternative option call it socialist or whatever you want is needed more than ever unless we are prepared to accept this whole culture of waste material and human. That culture, as Cuban sociologist Juan Antonio Blanco says, doesn't just produce garbage that can't be recycled ecologically, but also produces human cast-offs that are difficult to recycle socially.7 Social groups and entire nations are pushed toward collective despair.

The challenges before us are enormous, and we are not in the best shape to take them on. One must remember that the left in South America has been beaten down by long years of military dictatorship. And the left in Central America, which was the vanguard of the struggle following the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, has been deeply affected by the electoral defeat of the FSLN and the brutal change in the global correlation of forces that followed the disappearance of socialism in the countries of Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Difficulties for an alternative model

To my understanding, among the most interesting alternatives are the social experiments that the left is undertaking in various places in Latin America. But there clearly is a lack of any theoretical work to pull together all these experiences and give form and coherence to the diverse practices.

We know that the alternatives won't be worked out overnight in a meeting or over a conference table, because any alternative today must take into consideration increasingly complex techniques that require specialised knowledge. And at this moment, the Latin American left has few of its own intellectuals ready and willing to take on this task.

Together with the absence of a precise and credible project, there are two other elements that render it difficult for the left to outline a program. One is that the right has appropriated the language of the left. This is especially clear in programmatic approach. Words such as reform, structural change, worrying about poverty, transition, are employed now in the discourse of the oppressors.8 On the other hand, the left is used to adopting political practices that are very different from the customary practices of the traditional parties, both right and centre.

All this produced a growing popular scepticism about politics and politicians. People are tired of non-transparent and corrupt political practice; they don't want to hear more promises that are simply words that are never put into practice. Coherent action needs to accompany the discussion. "Indifference is ferocious", writes Viviane Forrester. "It is the most active party; without a doubt, the most powerful."9 And the worst thing is that this general indifference constitutes from the point of view of the ruling classes a greater victory than whatever partisan loyalty they might garner.

In spite of the difficult situation of the left, it is possible that it could win important local governments elections in some Latin American countries as has occurred and furthermore, it could even win national elections resulting from the people's rejection of neo-liberal measures. But a very important danger exists: once in government, the left might restrict itself to resolving the crisis using the same politics as the parties of the right. This attitude would not resolve people's suffering, and, even worse, it could destroy the future possibilities of the left for a long period.

Is it possible to pose an alternative?

Can the left pose an alternative despite the enormously unfavourable correlation of forces in the world? Of course the ruling ideology has to say that no alternative exists.10 In this, the reigning groups don't just settle for words; they do everything possible to make every alternative that crosses their path disappear. This is what happened to the Popular Unity in Chile and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and it's what they have tried to do for 40 years unsuccessfully to the heroic Cuban revolution.11

Unfortunately, given today's unfavourable correlation of forces, some sectors on the left, arguing that politics is the art of the possible and, seeing that it is impossible to change things immediately, have decided that they must be "realistic" and recognise this impossibility by adapting themselves opportunistically to the current situation. Politics thus conceived excludes de facto every existing effort to pose an alternative to capitalism.12

Politics not as the art of the possible, but as the art of making the impossible possible

The left, if it wants to be that, can't define politics as the art of the possible. It has to counterpose to "realpolitik" a policy that, without ceasing to be realistic and without denying reality, seeks to create the conditions to change that reality.13

Gramsci criticised "excessive" political realism. For the Italian philosopher, it is diplomats not politicians who must move about within the current reality, because their specific activity is not to create a new balance, but to preserve within certain legal limits the status quo.14 He was thinking of the true politician as being like Machiavelli: a party man, of powerful passions, a politician of action who wants to create new correlations of forces and for that reason can't stop thinking about what "should be" (not in the moral sense, of course).15

But this politician doesn't emerge from a void; he comes from existing reality. He dedicates himself to creating a new balance of forces using whatever progressive elements exist and reinforcing them. He always moves on the plane of current reality in order to control it, overcome it, or contribute to it.16

For the left, politics must therefore be the art of discovering the potential that exists in today's concrete situation in order to make possible tomorrow that which now seems impossible. What that means is to construct a balance of forces favourable to the popular movement starting from what in the midst of its weaknesses constitutes its strength.

Let's think, for example, about the workers of Marx's time, subject to the immense power of their capitalist bosses who could, at the drop of a hat, leave them out in the street without a means of survival. Struggle under these conditions was suicide. What was to be done then? Accept exploitation, submitting meekly, because at the moment it was impossible to win the battle? Or fight to change the situation, taking advantage of the possibilities inherent in their exploited condition: the existence of large concentrations of workers, their capacity for organisation, their identity as an oppressed class? The organisation and unity of the workers, numerically far superior to the enemies of their class, was their strength. But it was a strength that had to be developed, and only by following this course did what initially seemed impossible become possible.

Changing the traditional vision of politics

1) Reducing politics to the institutional level

To think about the construction of forces and the correlation of forces is to change the traditional vision of politics. This vision tends to reduce politics to the struggle over judicial and political institutions and to exaggerate the role of the state. Immediately one thinks of political parties and the fight over the control and orientation of the formal instruments of power.17

The most radical sectors focus all their political action on the conquest of political power and the destruction of the state. The reformists focus on the administration of political power and the exercise of government as the fundamental and sole form of political practice. The popular sectors and their struggles are the ignored colossus. This is what Helio Gallardo calls the "politicism" of the Latin American left.18

2) Overcoming the narrow conception of power

To think about constructing forces is also to overcome the narrow vision that reduces the concept of right-wing power to that of the repressive aspects of the state. The power of the enemy is not only repressive but also, as Carlos Ruiz says, constructive, moulding, disciplining. If the power of the dominant classes were only for the purpose of subjecting the left to censorship, exclusion, obstacles or repression, it would be more fragile. Its strength derives from the fact that, in addition to eliminating those things it doesn't want, it is capable of creating what it does want: building channels, producing knowledge, rationales and consciousness. It is the power to impose its own way of being seen and of looking at the world.19

To think about how to construct forces is also to overcome the old and deeply rooted mistake of trying to build political forces whether through arms or the ballot box without building social force.20

3) Politics as the art of building social force in opposition to the system

The rise of a social force opposing the system is what the ruling classes fear most. That is the source of their narrow conception of politics as the struggle to win positions of power within the institutionalised judicial and political apparatus.

For the left, on the other hand, politics must be the art of building social force in opposition to the system. The left must not, therefore, see the people or popular social force as something given that can be manipulated and only needs to be stirred up, but as something that has to be built.21 22

This means that among the left's fundamental tasks are overcoming the dispersion and atomisation of the exploited and dominated and the construction of unity of the people.23 And to achieve these, recovering the ability of coming together is basic.24

Now, to agree that politics is the art of building popular social force means, at the same time, rejecting two types of political style that get in the way: the populist tricks of the right and the "spontaneist" call of the traditional left.25

When I speak of "spontaneist call", I have in mind a political style that is limited to action on already existing situations, subordination to social explosions that appear spontaneously in different social sectors and that vary according to the general situation in the society (strikes, land seizures, all kinds of street demonstrations). This is the style of the political agitator who deals with possibilities that appear and that are at hand. He does this not as a result of his own initiative or action, nor as the result of a global political analysis that allows him to pick and choose opportunities. This is what gives his conduct its spontaneist character.26

A political style that flows from the concept of politics as the art of building popular social force, on the other hand, starts from the premise that social force isn't a given, but must be built, and that the ruling classes have a resolute strategy to prevent that. This implies that one can't be moved by conditions but must act on them, picking and choosing where to concentrate one's energies from among the existing space and conflicts in pursuit of the central objective: the construction of popular power. This development doesn't happen spontaneously. It needs a subject who is a builder, a political subject able to orient his or her action based on an analysis of the totality of the political dynamic. But where does the left stand in this regard?

A political subject up to the new challenges

In my view, the left isn't facing simply a theoretical and programmatic crisis. There is also no political subject up to the new challenges.

I agree fully with the assessment of Chilean socialist leader Clodomiro Almeyda that the parties of the left are in an obvious crisis today, not just from the point of view of the deficiencies or failings of their plans and programs, but also and in no small measure in terms of their organic nature, their relations with civil society and identification of their actual role and how to carry this out.

This crisis of the currently constituted parties of the left expresses itself as much in the loss of their capacity to attract and mobilise the people and especially the youth as in the clear dysfunction of their current structures, customs, traditions and ways of doing politics in relation to the demands that social reality makes on a political actor of a popular and socialist character in the process of substantive renovation.27

Why the left can't do without a political organization

This disappointment with politics and politicians that grows day by day is not serious for the right, but it certainly is for the left. The right can do perfectly well without political parties, as was illustrated during the dictatorial periods. But the left, insofar as it needs to build social force in opposition to the system, can't do without a political instrument, whether that be a party, a political front or some other formation.

There are two reasons for this. First, a transformation won't happen spontaneously. The ideas and values that prevail in capitalist society and that rationalise and justify the existing order permeate all of society and especially influence the sectors that are least armed with the theoretical weapons to distance themselves critically28. Second, because it is necessary that we be able to defeat immensely more powerful forces that oppose this transformation. And this isn't possible without a formulated political platform of proposals able to inspire millions of human beings with a single will29 while at the same time unifying and articulating the different methods of achieving emancipation.

Copying the Bolshevik model and the deviations it led to

While recognising the importance of political organisation in order to achieve the objectives of social change, the Marxist left, nevertheless, has done very little to adapt itself to the demands of new times. During a long period this had a lot to do with copying uncritically the Bolshevik model of the party, ignoring what Lenin himself said on the subject. It isn't odd that this model was so attractive to the Marxist political cadres of Latin America: it had been an effective instrument for making the world's first successful revolution of the oppressed against the power of the ruling classes. Heaven appeared to have been taken by storm.

For the well-known English historian, Eric Hobsbawm, the "new party" of Lenin was an extraordinary innovation in social engineering of the 20th century, comparable to the innovation of the monastic Christian orders of the Middle Ages. It made it possible for even small organisations to be proud of extraordinary efficiency, because the party received from its members a large contribution and sacrifice as well as military discipline and total concentration on achieving positive results at any price based on the decisions of the party.30

But, unfortunately, this great "work of social engineering" which was so effective under conditions like those in Russia, a very backward society with an autocratic political regime was transposed mechanically onto the Latin American landscape, a very different reality. Not only this, but it was also transposed in a simplified and dogmatic form. What the majority of the Latin American left knew was not Lenin's thought in all its complexity, but the simplistic version offered by Stalin.

The uncritical copying of the Bolshevik model of the party led to a series of errors, deviations and failings: vanguardism, verticalism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, theoreticism, strategism, class reductionism, sectarianism etc.

A political instrument to fit the new challenges

It seems to me necessary to say that, for all the deviations and errors that have been made, we shouldn't throw everything overboard and start from scratch.

There is a very great tendency especially among the youth to destructively criticise everything that exists and to think that something perfect can be put together if we start all over again, without looking backward. A lot of times we think that we can build the organisation, the party, the society of our dreams, without understanding the efforts made by many other generations who tried to get things done, who worked, made mistakes and rectified their errors, and who gave their lives for this ideal. I believe it's vital that we understand their course and learn from those forces.

To forget the past, to fail to learn from the defeats, to set aside our traditions of struggle, is to play into the hands of the right. They have the most interest in erasing the historical memory of our people, because this is the best way to cause us to fail to accumulate forces, to repeat the same mistakes. So, before creating a new political organisation, we must examine the capacity for transformation of the existing ones very carefully. Perhaps it isn't necessary to build a new organisation, but only to pull the current organisations into one, assuming that this new organisation would structure itself differently.

Fitting its language to the new times

The activism and messages of the left in today's era of television can't be the same as those of the 1960s. They can't be those of the epoch of Gutenberg. We are living in the era of the image and the soap opera.

The culture of the book, of the written word as Atilio Boron says is the culture of the elite today, not the culture of the masses.31 Today the people read very little or not at all. To communicate with them we have to master an audiovisual language. And the left faces a big challenge: to figure out how to do this when the major audiovisual media are completely controlled by the big national and transnational business monopolies.

Besides using a language that fits the new technological developments, it is fundamental that the left break with the old style of trying to send uniform messages to people with very different interests. We can't be thinking in terms of an amorphous mass; what exists are individuals, men and women who are in different places, doing different things and subject to different ideological influences. The message has to take on flexible forms to reach these concrete human individuals. We need to be able to individualise the message.


1. Manuel Castells, The information era: the network society, Vol. 1, Alianza Editorial, Barcelona, 1st ed., English, 1996.

2. Michel Chossudovsky, The globalisation of poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms, Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia, 1997.

3. Wim Diereckxsens, Los límites de un capitalismo sin ciudadanía, DEI, 2nd ed., San Jose, Costa Rica, 1997, p. 140.

4. Ignacio Ramonet, Un mundo sin rumbo (Crisis de fin de siglo), Debate, 1st ed., French, Madrid, 1997, p. 13.

5. Carlota Pérez, "Desafíos sociales y políticos del cambio de paradigma tecnológico", in M. Pulido (ed.), Desafíos y Propuestas, UCAB-SIC, Caracas, 1998, p. 64.

6. Diereckxsens, ibid.

7. Juan Antonio Blanco, El Tercer Milenio: una visión alternativa de la postmodernidad, Centro Félix Varela, Havana, 1995, p. 117.

8. Franz Hinkelammert, "La lógica de la exclusión del mercado capitalista mundial y el proyecto de liberación", in Cultura de la esperanza y sociedad sin exclusión, DEI, Costa Rica, 1995, pp. 145-6.

9. Viviane Forrester, L'Horreur Economique, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1st ed., French, Buenos Aires, 1997, p. 49.

10. Carlos Vilas, "La izquierda en América Latina: presente y futuro", in H. Dillas, M. Monereo and J. Valdés Paz, Alternativas de izquierda al neoliberalismo, FIM-CEA, Madrid, 1996, p. 34.

11. Hinkelammert, pp. 151-155.

12. ibid., p. 153.

13. ibid.

14. Chossudovsky, op cit.

Antonio Gramsci, Maquiaelo y Lenin, Popular Nascimento, Santiago, Chile, 1971, p. 78.

15. ibid., pp. 78-9.

16. ibid.

17. Carlos Ruiz, La centralidad de la política en la acción revolucionaria, Mimeo, Santiago, Chile, 1998, p. 13.

18. Helio Gallardo, "Elementos para una discusión sobre la izquierda política en América Latina", in Pasos, No. 50, Nov-Dec 1993, San Jose, Costa Rica, p. 25.

19. Ruiz, ibid.

20. ibid.

21. ibid.

22. Alberto M. Binder, "La sociedad fragmentada", in Pasos, No. 3, San Jose, Costa Rica, 1992, pp. 22-6.

23. Ruiz, ibid.

24. Binder, ibid.

25. Ruiz, ibid.

26. ibid.

27. Clodomiro Almeyda, "Sobre la dimensión orgánica de la crisis de los partidos de izquierda tradicionales", in Cuadernos de El Avión Rojo, No. 5, Publication of the Socialist Party, Santiago, Chile, 1997, pp. 13-28.

28. Marta Harnecker, Vanguardia y crisis actual, Brecha Editores, Santiago, Chile, 1990, pp. 9-14, 59-61.

Frente Amplio in collaboration with Isabel Rauber, Los desafíos de la izquierda legal, La República, Montevideo, 1991, pp. 7-23.

Clodomiro Almeyda, Cambio social y concepto de partido, Mimeo.

29. Vladimir I. Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International, Cartago, Vol. 22, p. 349.

Harnecker, ibid.

30. Eric Hobsbawm, La historia del siglo XX (1914-1991), Crítica, Barcelona, 1995, p. 83.

31. Atilio Borón, "El fracaso y el triunfo del neoliberalismo", in América Libre, No. 10, January, Buenos Aires, 1997, p. 17.

Marta Harnecker is a scholar of the Latin American social movements. She is the director of a research organisation on the history of popular movements in Latin America, known by its Spanish acronym MEPLA. Harnecker is the author of Basic Elements of Historical Materialism, as well as numerous books and articles about the Latin American left. The thoughts that appear here are developed more fully in a book just completed by the author, Making the Impossible Possible: The Left on the Threshold of the 21st Century.