Marta Harnecker: Ideas for the struggle #9 -- Respect differences and be flexible in regards to activism

[This is the ninth in a series of regular articles. Click HERE for other articles in the series. Please return to Links regularly read the next articles in the series.]

By Marta Harnecker, translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

1. Among the left, there continues to be a difficulty to work together while respecting differences. In the past, the tendency of political organisations, especially parties that self-declare themselves as parties of the working class, was always towards homogenising the social base within which they carried out political work. If this attitude was once justified due to the past identity and homogeneity of the working class, today it is anachronistic when confronted with a working class that is quite differentiated, and with the emergence of a diversity of new social actors. Today, we increasingly have to deal with a unity based on diversity, on respect for ethnic and cultural differences, for gender and for the sense of belonging of specific collectives.

2. It is necessary to try channelling commitments to activism by starting with the actual potential of each sector, and even of each person, that is willing to commit itself to the struggle, without seeking to homogenise these actors. It is important to have a special sensibility towards finding all those points of agreement that can allow for the emergence of a common platform of struggle.

3. This respect for differences should also reflect itself in our discourse. We must break with the old style of attempting to take a uniform message to people with very different interests. We cannot think of them as an amorphous mass; what exists are individuals, men and women who live in different places, who do different things and who are under different ideological influences; the message has to adopt flexible forms in order to be able to reach these real men and women.

4. When all our speeches and messages are cut from the same cloth and are transmitted in the same manner and with the same words, pronounced in the same tone and through the same megaphone, and when the years go by and the posters and slogans don’t change, our words lose their value. They can no longer win the imaginations of anyone.

5. We have to individualise the message, but without losing sight of the common objectives.

6. We believe that the issue of respect for differences can help shed light on the issue of the crisis of activism. Furthermore, everyone knows that over the last few years, a fairly generalised crisis of activism has occurred, not only among left parties but also in the social movements and grassroots communities influenced by liberation theology, something that is not removed from the changes that the world has suffered. Nevertheless, in many of our countries, together with this crisis of activism, we have witnessed a parallel increase in the influence of the left in society, and an increase of progressive sentiments among popular sectors.

7. This leads us to the conclusion that one of the factors present in the origins of this crisis is the type of demands placed upon people in order for them to be able to involve themselves in organised political activity. We have to examine whether the left has been able to open up avenues for activism and help nurture that growing progressive sentiment in society, because not all people have the same activist vocation nor do they all feel inclined to be active on a permanent level. This fluctuates a lot depending on the political climate at the time. To ignore this, and demand a uniform level of activism, is self-limiting and weakens the political organisation.

8. For example, there are those who are willing to be active over a specific issue: health, education, culture, and not within a local branch in their workplace or community. There are others who only feel the need to be active at certain junctures (elections, etc.) but are not willing to do so all year round, even though during key moments of the political struggle you can always count on them to be there, and in their daily lives they are promoting the project and values of the left.

9. To try and pigeonhole people who are willing to be active into a single norm, based on 24-hours-a-day/seven-days-a-week level of activism which is the same for everyone, means excluding all these potential militants.

10. We have to create a type of organisation that can house the widest range of militants, allowing for diverse levels of membership. Organic structures have to abandon their rigidity and become more flexible in order to make the most of the different levels of activist commitment, without establishing a hierarchy between these different levels.

11. In order to facilitate the different levels of activism, it is necessary to adapt the structures and grassroots units of the organisation in order to suit the character of the surroundings in which their political activist is carried out.

Bilbliography of Marta Harnecker’s works on the issue

La izquierda después de Seattle, Siglo XXI España, 2002.

The left on the threshold of the twenty first century. Making the impossible possible. Original title: La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo posible lo imposible, Siglo XXI, España, 1999, 3ª ed. 2000 (410 pages). Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000; Portugal, Campo das Letras Editores, 2000; Brasil, Paz e Terra, 2000; Italia, Sperling and Küpfer Editori, 2001; Canadá (francés), Lantôt Éditeur, 2001; El Salvador, Instituto de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas Farabundo Martí, 2001.

Vanguardia y crisis actual o Izquierda y crisis actual, Siglo XXI España, 1990. Published in: Argentina, Ediciones de Gente Sur, 1990; Uruguay, TAE Editorial, 1990; Chile, Brecha, 1990; Nicaragua, Barricada, 1990. Under the title Izquierda y crisis actual: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1990; Perú, Ediciones Amauta, 1990; Venezuela, Abre Brecha, 1990; Dinamarca, Solidaritet, 1992.

[Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution, and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.]