Marta Harnecker: Popular power in Latin America -- Inventing in order to not make errors

A communal council meeting in the community of Andres Eloy Blanco, state of Zulia, Venezuela.

By Marta Harnecker, translated by Coral Wynter and Federico Fuentes
Closing lecture given at the XXVI Gallega Week of Philosophy, Pontevedra, April 17, 2009.

``Either we invent or we err''
Simon Rodriguez

I. Introduction

1. Eighteen years have passed since April 1991, when I had the privilege of being invited to the VIII Gallega Week of Philosophy [in Spain], organised every year by the Aula Castelao de Filosofía. It was a difficult time for left forces in Latin America and the world. It was less than two years after the Berlin Wll had collapsed—which meant the beginning of the disintegration of socialism in Eastern Europe—and the Soviet Union was falling into the abyss, which ended with its disappearance at the end of that year. Deprived of its necessary rearguard, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was defeated in the February 1990 elections, and the guerrilla movements of Central America were forced to demobilise.

2. It was a difficult situation for the Latin American left—which had learnt much during the previous decade. If anyone of you had listened to my speech back then, you will remember that I referred to the errors of the left in the 1960s and 1970s, and the lessons learnt during the 1980s.

3. I want to mention here only two factors which enormously influenced the maturation of the left: the pedagogical vision of Brazilian Paulo Freire, who gave impetus to a significant movement of popular education in a number of our countries, that clashed with the classical concept of the left parties of that era who tended to consider themselves the bearers of the truth; and feminist ideas that placed an emphasis on respect for differences and rejection of authoritarianism.

4. Today the situation is very different, and that’s what I want to refer to in this talk.

II. Latin America today

Latin America -- pioneer in the rejection of neoliberalism

5. Latin America was the first region where neoliberal policies were imposed. Chile, my country, served as a testing ground before the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher applied them in the United Kingdom. But it was also the first region in the world where a process of rejection of these policies emerged; a rejection of policies which had only served to increase poverty, deepen social inequalities, destroy the environment and weaken the working class and popular movements in general.

6. It was here that the first revolutionary wave occurred after the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. After more than two decades of suffering, a new hope began to emerge.

The emergence of left governments

7. We saw the emergence of left governments, more or less committed to the struggle of the people. Let’s recall that in 1998, when Chavez triumphed in Venezuela, this country was a solitary island in the middle of a sea of neoliberalism across the whole continent. But, soon after, in 2000, Ricardo Lagos triumphed in Chile; in 2002, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil; in 2003, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina; in 2005, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay; in 2006, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina; in 2008, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay; and recently, in March 2009, Mauricio Funes in El Salvador.

Candidates from left parties

8. For the first time in the history of Latin America—and with the crisis of the neoliberal model as a backdrop — candidates from left parties were able to win elections by raising the anti-neoliberal flag in the greater part of the countries of the region.

Popular movements: the great protagonists

Emerge out of the crisis of the legitimacy of neoliberalism

9. It wasn’t the political parties that were in the vanguard of the fight against neoliberalism, but on the contrary, it was the popular movements. These movements emerged out of the framework of the crisis of legitimacy of the neoliberal model and its political institutions, and originated from the dynamics present in their community or local organisation.

10. They were very pluralistic movements, where components of liberation theology, revolutionary nationalism, Marxism, indigenism and anarchism coexisted.

Old and new social movements

11. In this resistance struggle, together with the old movements, especially the peasants and indigenous movements, new social movements arose, such as those in Bolivia fighting against the privatisation of water (the water war) and for the recuperation of control over gas (the gas war); the piqueteros in Argentina, made up of small business owners, workers, unemployed, professionals, pensioners, etc.; indebted Mexican farmers; Chilean high-school students, referred to as “the penguins”; ecological movements; the movement of impoverished workers; the movements against neoliberal globalisation. The middle classes also appeared on the political scene: health workers in El Salvador, the caceroleros (saucepan protesters) in Argentina, among others.

12. The traditional workers’ movement, hit hard by the application of neoliberal economic measures, didn’t appear, except in rare exceptions, on the front line of the political scene.

From mere resistance to questioning power

13. These movements initially rejected politics and politicians, but as they advanced in the process of struggle, they shifted from an apolitical approach of mere resistance to neoliberalism, to an increasing political approach of questioning the established power, reaching the point, in cases such as those of the MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) in Bolivia and Pachakutic in Ecuador, of building their own political instruments.

Neoliberalism consolidated and neoliberalism on the path to consolidation

14. With the exception of Chile, where the neoliberal counterrevolution triumphed completely, installing legal reforms in the country that justified neoliberal politics, and where the privatisation drive destroyed a large part of the industrial sector that had been previously nationalised by Allende, in all the other countries, this system was unable to fully consolidate itself, thanks to the resistance of the people.

Two paths: refoundation of neoliberalism or advance towards an alternative project

15. Faced with this crisis of the neoliberal model, today sharpened by the world capitalist economic crisis, there are only two paths: or the refoundation of neoliberalism or the advancement towards an alternative project, based not on the logic of profit but on a humanist and solidarity-based logic that enables a process of economic development in our region that favours the great national majorities, and not the elites.

Correlation of forces in Latin America

16. Latin America is going through a new phase; a new correlation of forces. The situation that existed in 1998, when Chavez won, has radically changed.

It is possible to limit foreign interference

17. A new factor of the last ten years (1998-2008) is the formation of a correlation of forces in Latin America, that –as Valter Pomar[1] says—allows limits to be placed on foreign interference, helps avoid coup d’etats (against Chavez and Evo Morales, for example) and foreign invasions and makes policies of economic blockade unviable, such as those that played an important role in the right-wing strategy against the government of Allende in Chile, and which continue to affect Cuba.

US cannot achieve its objectives

18. Although the correlation of forces continue to be immensely favourable to the imperialist project, there exist other signs that the US government does not have absolute domination over the region, such as the overwhelming failure of the war in Iraq and its incapacity to impose the Free Trade Agreement in Latin America (FTAA). We also know that it has had to limit itself to bilateral trade agreements with only some countries. Moreover, despite its immense control over the media, left candidates willing to oppose US policy have triumphed throughout the entire region.

Greater independence of political processes

19. The existence of this more favourable correlation of forces in the Latin American subcontinent creates “better conditions for each national process to follow its own course.” A sign of this new correlation of forces are the meetings of Latin American and Caribbean heads of state without the presence of the United States and with the presence of heroic Cuba, marginalised up until only a few months ago.

Neoliberalism loses legitimacy in Latin America

20. Furthermore, although we cannot say that the neoliberal model has been surpassed, we can at least say that there are very few who are willing to defend it nowadays, because it has lost legitimacy by demonstrating its incapacity to resolve the principal problems of our peoples.

Structural contradictions of capitalism are more visible.

21. Additionally, it is difficult to deny that structural contradictions exist in the current stage of capitalist development: every day we can see more clearly that the agriculture industry is unsustainable, that energy use based on petroleum is being rapidly exhausted, that natural resources are finite, and that despite the international hegemony of capital, it does not have a national development project, and this affects its hegemony at the local level.

Discrediting of bourgeois liberal democracy

22. Moreover, in our countries, there exists a crisis of the model of bourgeois democracy; the people no longer have confidence in this form of government. This political system has not been able to resolve the serious problems of our peoples. Every day, the people are less and less willing to accept the enormous gap between voters and the elected.

Latinobarómetro poll

23. According to Latinobarómetro - a poll carried out in our countries - the level of satisfaction with democracy in Latin America in 1998, at the time when Hugo Chavez won, was only 37% on average, and even less in Venezuela (35%). In some of our countries, there were people who yearn for the dictatorships of the past because there was more order, more efficiency back then. Up until 2007, the average level in Latin America has remained at 37%, while in comparison, the level for Venezuela increased to 59%. In these 9 years, Venezuela had converted itself into the country in Latin America with the second highest degree of satisfaction with democracy, according to this measure.

24. There also exists a crisis of traditional political parties. People have developed a huge scepticism towards politics and politicians.

Advance in the level of consciousness of our people

25. This situation opens up a more favourable perspective for the working class and for the popular movements more generally. There is a change in the level of consciousness of the people, which has happened very rapidly.

26. The successive electoral victories of candidates who have put forward anti-neoliberal programs have signified a political victory for our peoples. This has put on the table a debate over alternatives to neoliberalism.

Increased military presence in the region

27. While more countries aim to break the umbilical cord that ties them to the United States, the Pentagon is making more effort to strengthen its military presence in the subcontinent.

28. One expression of this is the multilateral military exercises that are carrying out each year with the objective of training troops in the region.

29. Moreover, they are increasing their endeavours to create US military bases in our countries. Overall, there are already 14 military bases which threaten Latin America and the Caribbean. The most well-known are: the Tres Esquinas base, in Colombia, where a further two exist; Iquitos, in Peru; Manta, in Ecuador; Palmerola, in Honduras; Comalapa, in El Salvador; Reina Beatriz, in the island of Aruba; Liberia, in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, each day there is more resistance to these military installations, as is the case with the peoples of Brazil and Argentina against the Alcantara base in Brazil; and to prevent the Southern Command installing a base in Misiones, in the so-called Triple Frontier, the point where Argentina touches with Paraguay and Brazil. We also shouldn’t forget the heroic and successful fight of the Puerto Rican people against the US base on the island of Vieques.

30. The plan for economic and political domination, which takes as its point of departure the military supremacy of the United States, is also directed at watching over and controlling the dynamic of the popular movements of the region, trying to prevent the emergence of national forces which confront the policies of domination and vassalage. Their intelligence networks are expanding throughout our countries.

31. That is why, when Hugo Chavez demands that the United States respect our sovereignty, he is not inventing a problem, he is making known a reality, and he is not alone in this fight; he is interpreting a very deep sentiment, that is generalised among our people. Will Obama be capable of understanding this? And if he does manage to understand it, will he have a sufficient correlation of forces to allow him to apply a policy of respect for the sovereignty of our countries? History will tell us.

Left governments

Three common characteristics of these governments

32. We said at the start that the greater part of Latin American countries are today governed by presidents democratically elected and supported by left forces. These governments, in spite of being very different from one another, have at least three common programmatic points: the fight for social equality, political democracy and national sovereignty.

Electoral triumphs, but less capacity to manoeuvre

33. But before analysing these governments and seeing their potentials, I would like as to stop for a moment and look at the limits that apply today to those that attain the presidency of republics in our region.

The media supremacy of the opposition

34. “Today, more than ever, we must confront not only the apparatus of political coercion of the dominant classes but also its hegemony over important popular sectors, its cultural hegemony over society, the ideological subordination of the dominated classes […]” [2]

35. The influence of the media is such that it has achieved a situation where broad popular sectors accept without qualms the capitalist hegemony of the process. Repression is less necessary than previously for the reproduction of the system. That is why the statement by Noam Chomsky is so valid, when he maintains that propaganda is as necessary to bourgeois democracy as repression was to the totalitarian state.[3]

36. The same author has said that the reactionary forces of the world always accept the democratic game as long as they can “domesticate the anxious herd,” controlling the media in order to “fabricate consensus”. The imperialist power and right-wing forces know this all too well. In all our countries, the weapons of media bombardment in the hands of the opposition are immensely more powerful than those which our governments count on.

Restricted democracies: big decisions made outside of parliaments

37. But this is not all, let’s recall that democratic regimes that emerged after periods of dictatorship in the Southern Cone of America, and which later expanded throughout our entire subcontinent, are what some writers have called “restricted” or “guided democracies”.

38. While the voting population has increased enormously in our countries over the last decades, and it is becoming harder each day to carry out fraudulent elections, paradoxically this has not resulted in a broadening out of the democratic system, because the greater part of the important decisions are not adopted by parliaments but rather by entities that escape its control: the large international financial agencies (IMF, World Bank), autonomous central banks, huge transnational corporations and national security organisations. Today, it would appear that the dominant groups are more willing to tolerate the victory of left candidates, because each day they have less real possibilities of modifying the ruling order.

Consumerism: the credit card person

39. Another element favouring “governability” is consumerism. The culture transmitted by the mass media is not a culture of solidarity but a culture which promotes consumerism. People are not content to live in accordance with their income, but rather live in debt and because of this they need to maintain a stable job – something which each day becomes scarcer – in order to be able to cover their economic commitments.

40. At the level of the masses, they have succeeded in converting the superfluous into a necessity and by doing so and promoting the purchasing of goods on credit. They have created, as Tomas Moulian calls it, a new mechanism of domestication.[4]

41. This massive indebtedness not only serves to maintain or broaden the internal market but also operates as a device for social integration,[5] like an invisible chain. It is necessary to ensure your job and achieve goals that allow you to move up the professional ladder in order to achieve new opportunities for consumption: buy your own house, car, and, more recently, sound equipment, the latest model television.

Characteristics and correlation of forces

Different classifications

42. These governments referred to as being “from the left” are very different from one another, and for this reason there is an abundance of classifications. Some analysts divide the governments of Latin America into three blocs: governments which promote free trade such as Colombia, Mexico and the majority of Central American governments; social democratic governments which aim to balance liberalism with social policies such as Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, referred to by ex-Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda as the “good left”; and anti-imperialist governments, that adopt measures of social and economic protectionism in the face of the US, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, what Castaneda describes as the “bad left.” The US intellectual James Petras considers these latter governments to be part of the pragmatic left, in contrast to the sole example of the radical left, which is the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Taking into account the correlation of forces

43. We believe that it is necessary to be careful when classifying left governments in the region. In order to be able to judge them by what they do, we have to be very clear about what they cannot do, not because of lack of willpower but because of objective limitations. For that, we must take as our starting point a correct analysis of the correlation of forces—internally and internationally—in which they are immersed, something which the most radical left sectors often overlook, demanding the adoption of more drastic measures on the part of these governments, and often using the Venezuelan government as an example, which counts on immensely favourable economic conditions; ones that probably no other revolutionary process has had. Only by analysing the correlation of forces can we tell what these governments can and cannot do.

Correlation of forces: Chavez and Lula

44. Let’s think, for example, about the government of Luis Inacio da Silva, better known as Lula, in Brazil. Although the candidate of the Workers’ Party in Brazil won the 2002 presidential elections with more electoral support than even that of Chavez in 1998, one must not forget that these results were the product of a broad policy of alliances, which was necessary to win in the ballot boxes, and even more necessary to be able to govern the country. We should remember that his party was and remains a minority in both houses of the legislative power and that, although the party controlled and continues controlling an important number of mayors and a significant number of state governors, it is a minority in this terrain at the national level. To that, we must add that Brazil depends to a large extent on international finance capital, which Venezuela, with its enormous oil income, doesn’t. Moreover, Lula does not count on the massive support of the armed forces which Chavez has, and who defines his political process as a peaceful, but armed process. That is why we agree with the statement of Valter Pomar, who heads the international affairs department of the Workers’ Party, when he says that “there does not exist a correlation of forces, institutional mechanisms and an economic situation” that could allow the Brazilian government “to operate in a manner similar to the Venezuelan government”[6] although he recognises that the government of Lula could do more than it is currently doing.

How to overcome these limitations

New integration of the region

45. To overcome these limitations, we must make more relevant each day the ideas of Bolivar in regards to the necessity of the unification of our countries. Isolated, we will achieve very little, united we will make them respect us and find economic, political and cultural solutions that each day make us less dependent on the world power blocs.

Constituent assemblies

46. Furthermore, faced with this situation of restricted democracy, it is fundamental that we strive to modify the inherited rules of the game, convoking constituent assemblies to elaborate new constitutions, as the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have done.

Changing the correlation of forces

The art of politics

47. Here I want to remind us of the concept of politics that I put forward in my book “The left on the threshold of the 21st century: making possible the impossible.” There, I stated that the art of politics is to make possible the impossible, not through sheer volunteerism but by engaging in the construction of our own forces, that is, changing the correlation of forces in order to allow us to make possible in the future, what appears to be impossible today.

Constructing a social force

48. For that, we must abandon the idea that to construct a political force we must concentrate on winning spaces in institutions. On the contrary, to construct political force, we must construct a social force.

49. Therefore, our governments ought to be very clear that they need to construct a social force and carry out national and international policies that allow them to change the current correlations of forces in order for them to make possible tomorrow what appears impossible today.

Governments in dispute

50. Our governments are governments in dispute, between forces that really want a transformation of this society and those that believe there is no alternative but to subordinate ourselves to the demands of international finance capital. These leaders have to understand that their future will depend to a large extent on the capacity that the popular movements have to organise, grow and transform themselves into a decisive pressure force that can tip the scales in favour of the progressive forces. Only in this way can the stated programmatic commitment be implemented.

Our people should be frontline actors

51. Left or progressive Latin American leaders need to understand – as I think the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia have understood very well – that they need an organised, politicised people who apply pressure in order to make the process advance and are capable of fighting the errors and deviations that keep on arising along the way. They have to understand that our people must be front line actors, and not limited to the second line.

A great platform that can cohere all forces

52. One way to achieve the creation of a favourable correlation of forces is by elaborating a program of struggle or a platform of accumulation for the period, that fills the role of an instrument that can cohere together all the social and political sectors of the country that are willing to go beyond the capitalist, neoliberal model. A platform of this type will allow the deployment of a whole number of new alliances that can help create a huge social bloc of support for the government, and isolate the recalcitrant opposition.

53. We must try to create spaces for the coming together or convergence of all these sectors, preserving the uniqueness of each social or political actor, that allows them to take up common tasks that strengthen the fight for the consolidation of the alternative society that we want to construct.

A political instrument suitable for the new challenges

54. I think that in order to achieve our objectives it is also fundamental to change the political culture we have inherited and create or reconstruct a political instrument suited to the society that we want to build and that allows us to respond to the challenges that confront us in this new century.

Origins of the errors: the Kautsky thesis

55. I recalled at the beginning of this conference that in my intervention in 1991, I had referred to the errors of the left from the ‘60s and ‘70s and the lessons learnt in the ‘80s. All of this was collected and systematised in my book: “The left on the threshold of the 21st century: Making possible the impossible,” written in 1999. Here I want to once again take up the theme of the errors and develop some ideas of what the political instrument should be like in order to face the challenges of the coming century.

56. Some years later—in 2006—I arrived at the conclusion that these errors and deviations originated from the Leninist thesis, taken from Kautsky, regarding the necessity of importing theory (Marxism) into the workers’ movement, in order for them to obtain class consciousness.[7] But who owns the theory, who is the bearer of the truth? Is it the party or the party intellectuals? What is the principal function of the party? To train up cadre, introduce theory, and hold cadre schools. This is where the deviation of the enlightened vanguard, of the party that leads, of the social movement as the transmission belt for the party, come from.

Political instrument and revolutionary practice

57. What is missing from this picture? Revolutionary practice. This vision doesn’t take into account the role that Marx attributes to social practice in the formation of working class consciousness.

58. The German thinker maintains that “it is only through experience that the masses move from the economic to the political, through the simultaneous modification of circumstances and themselves. The process of consciousness-raising is rooted in revolutionary practice. And it is through this that the class in itself is transformed into a class for itself.”[8]

59. For her part, Rosa Luxemburg speaks of “the living political school, by the fight and in the fight.”[9] You cannot learn everything from pamphlets, it is necessary to carry out a process of learning through practice.

60. The struggle not only contributes “to clarify the minds of the workers, their way of seeing the world, but it also transforms them internally, it creates in them the sensation that united, with other workers, they can transform themselves into a force that can go on to obtain victories against the bosses, and can go on conquering other things. In the struggle they acquire self-esteem, they feel more and more capable of achieving their objectives; they transform themselves more and more into the subjects of the process in which they are inserted.”[10]

61. If we take as our starting point the thesis that revolutionary practice is essential for the emancipation of the workers, and for the popular movement in general, the political instrument that we construct has to be consistent with this thesis and we have to change our form of conceiving of politics.

Characteristics of a political instrument thinking from the practical point of view

Taking advantage or creating situations that allow us to learn through experience

62. Instead of putting emphasis on introducing theory into the workers’ movement, in worrying especially about theoretical formation, we ought to be very creative in taking advantage of or creating situations that allow people to learn through practice. We have to be very attentive to the different forms of expression of social discontent with regards to the current oppressive system and to the initiatives and forms of struggle that are generated from this; promoting spaces of convergence between all the social sectors and popular initiatives who feel affected by the present situation and trying to discover, together with the social movement, the spaces and forms of confrontation which will allow this movement to being to understand that in order to overcome the bad things, it is essential to unite and build a social force capable of confronting the current system of domination.

Great respect for the popular movement

63. “If we think that the practical experience of struggle is fundamental for raising popular consciousness, our political instrument has to express a great respect for the popular movement. It has to contribute to its autonomous development, leaving behind all attempts at manipulation. It has to be based on the idea that political cadres are not the only ones who have ideas and proposals, and that, on the contrary, the popular movement has much to offer, because in its daily practice of struggle, it learns lessons, discovers ways forwards, finds answers, invents methods, that can be very enriching.”[11]

Not military cadres but popular educators

64. The political instrument cannot be made up of cadres with a military mentality, accustomed to the method of “obey and command,” nor by populist demagogues who think that it is a matter of leading a gaggle of sheep. “Political cadres, fundamentally, have to be popular educators, capable of harnessing all the wisdom that exists within the people—both that which comes from its cultural traditions and the struggle, as well as that acquired in the daily struggle to survive—through the fusion of this popular wisdom with the more global knowledge that the political organisation can contribute.”[12]

Criteria for judging the performance of left governments

65. If we take into account the considerations expressed previously, rather than classifying the Latin American governments as has been done, what we ought to do is try to judge their performance in accordance with certain criteria, always taking into account the correlation of forces under which they must operate. We should not look so much at the rhythm with which they advance towards the objective which they have proposed for themselves; the important thing is to determine the direction in which the process is headed, given that the rhythm will depend, to a great extent, on how they overcome the obstacles which they find in their path.

66. I think that if we analyse the attitude these governments have on issues such as those that we will highlight soon, we might be able to make a more objective judgement of where these governments are heading.

Attitude to neoliberalism and capitalism in general

67. ▪ What is their attitude towards neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism?

68. ▪ Do they unmask the logic of capital, do they attack it ideologically, using the state to weaken it?

69. ▪ Do they diminish the gap between the richest and the poorest people; are they giving this last group more access to education and health?

Attitude towards the inherited institutions

70. ▪ Do they undertake constituent processes to change the rules of the institutional game, knowing that the inherited neoliberal state apparatus is a strong obstacle in advancing towards the construction of a different society?

71. ▪ Do they make an effort to increase electoral enrolment, taking into account that the poorest sectors are generally not on the electoral roll?

Attitude towards economic and human development

72. ▪ Do they propose themselves the task of satisfying human needs above that of capital growth?

73. ▪ Do they understand that human development can not be achieved with a purely paternalistic state that resolves problems by transforming people into beggars, but rather that this can only be achieved through practice and therefore encourage the creation of spaces where people can play an active role?

Attitude to national sovereignty

74. ▪ Do they reject foreign military intervention: military bases, humiliating treaties….?

75. ▪ Do they recuperate sovereignty over natural resources?

76. ▪ Do they advance in finding resolutions to the problem of the media hegemony, which until now has been in the hands of conservative forces?

77. ▪ Do they foster the recuperation of national cultural traditions?

Attitude towards the role of women

78. ▪ Do they respect and stimulate an active role for women?

Attitude towards discrimination of all types

79. ▪ Do they advance towards the elimination of all discrimination (sex, ethnicity, religion, etc)?

Attitude towards the means of production

80. ▪ Do they continue to advance further in the direct of social property over the means of production and increasing active worker participation in the work place?

Attitude to popular activism

81. ▪ Do they mobilise the workers and people in general in order to carry out certain measures and increase their abilities and power?

82. ▪ Do they understand the necessity of an organised, politicised people, capable of bringing pressure to bear in order to weaken the inherited state apparatus and in this way drive forward the process of transformations being proposed?

83. ▪ Do they understand that our people must be front line actors and not relegated to the second line?

84. ▪ Do they listen to and give voice to the people? Do they understand that they can rely on them to fight the errors and deviations that come up along the way?

85. ▪ Do they give them resources and call on them to exercise social control over the process?

86. ▪ In summary, are they contributing to the creation of a popular subject that is increasingly playing a more protagonistic role and assuming the responsibilities of government?

Advancing from the state towards the communist horizon

87. I believe that these ideas have been enriched by the reflections on this issue made by Alvaro Garcia Linera, the vice president of Bolivia. He asked, how can we advance towards what he calls the “communist horizon, taking the state as our starting point”[13] if the cultural and economic conditions that serve as a basis for this advancement do not exist. He replies that there are three ways of doing so: 1) stimulating the autonomous organisation of society; 2) broadening out the working class base and the autonomy of the working class movement; and 3) harnessing forms of communitarian economy. The Bolivian politician insists that all this must be done without trying to control the movements and popular organisations from the state, because “nobody can replace a society in motion.”[14]

III. Venezuela and socialism of the 21st century

88. Have there been advanced made towards this horizon visualised by the Bolivian Vice President? We think that important steps have been made, especially in Venezuela.

A different socialism

89. While Alvaro Garcia Linera speaks of the communist horizon, Hugo Chavez talks of socialism of the 21st century.

90. In his speech at the closing ceremony of the World Social Forum, in February 2005, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Venezuelan president publicly outlined for the first time[15] that his project was to go beyond capitalism and build socialism, although he immediately clarified that he was not trying “to revert to state capitalism” because if this occurred, it would fall “into the same perversion as the Soviet Union.”

91. The Bolivarian leader is very clear on the fact that we must differentiate between the socialism which he is proposing and Soviet socialism. He criticises the “stalinist deviation” of the party that “ended up being an anti-democratic party..[…] The slogan “All power to the soviets!” ended by transforming itself in reality into “All power to the party!” This explains why at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, the workers did not come out onto the streets to defend it.”[16]

92. 92. The term “socialism of the 21st century” was coined in the search to differentiate it from the errors and deviations of so-called real socialism of the 20th century in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe. It highlights as fundamental elements of this socialism: “economic transformation,” “participatory and protagonistic democracy in politics” and “the socialist ethic. The love, solidarity, equality among men, women, among everybody […]”[17]

93. For Chavez, socialism has to be an essentially democratic regime, adapted to each national reality.

94. It is a matter of creating a new system of production and consumption, a system that has to be constructed from the popular bases, “with the participation of the communities, through communal organisations, cooperatives, self-management and other such methods…”, “a communal system of production and consumption.”

95. The Bolivarian leader insists on the active participation of the people, but this is nothing new, this is part of the origins of the Bolivarian process itself.

The Bolivarian constitution and popular participation

96. The constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly in 1999, already put an emphasis on popular participation in public affairs, and it was stressed that this protagonism was the guarantee to full development, as much for the individual as for the collective. Although there are various articles in the Constitution that refer to this theme, probably the most complete is Article 62, which highlights the form in which this development will be achieved. There it says that the “participation of the people in forming, carrying out and controlling the management of public affairs is the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective,” highlighting the fact that it is “the obligation of the state and duty of society to facilitate the generation of the conditions most favorable for this to be practiced.”[18] Moreover, Article 70 highlights other forms that allow the people to develop “their capacities and skills”: “self management, cooperatives of all types, democratic planning, participatory budgets at all levels of society.”

97. In the area of local territorial participation there has been an insistence on carrying out a participatory diagnosis, participatory budget and social auditing. Initially, the legal figure of the Local Council of Public Planning (CLPP) were created at the municipal level, with institutional representation (mayors, councillors and members of the parish committees[19]) and community representatives to carry out these tasks. It is important to note that the representation of the communities had more weight than the institution (51% versus 49%), reflecting a clear political will to stimulate the protagonism of the communities.

98. But this would have remained mere words if suitable spaces had not been created for the participatory processes. For this reason, his initiative to create communal councils and later, his proposal to create workers councils, and student and peasant councils, to go on and form a truly popular power, is so important.

Communal councils

99. One of the most revolutionary ideas of the Bolivarian government was the push to create communal councils, a form of autonomous organisation from the grassroots of society.

Forerunners to the community councils

The platoons

100. This initiative has its forerunner the organisational form that enabled Chavez’s electoral triumph in the 2004 referendum, when the opposition questioned his hold on the presidency. At that time, the Bolivarian leader, who did not have a political party capable of fulfilling the demands of the process, and knowing that it was necessary to win with a wide margin so that nobody could doubt the results, invented a formula of popular organisation that allowed the commitment of all ordinary citizens who sympathised with him to participate as activists in the electoral process aimed at winning the greatest possible number of votes against the proposal raised by the sectors of the political opposition.

101. In this way, the idea emerged of creating small nuclei of sympathisers across the length and breadth of the country. Units were formed by groups of 10 people, and each one of them had as their task to work with 10 more people, carrying out house-to-house visits, to try and convince those families of the necessity of defeating the opposition referendum.

102. Therefore, each platoon was responsible for working with 100 voters. If an electoral area had for example, 2000 voters, then 20 battalions had to be formed, that is, it was necessary to organise 200 patrollers who divided amongst themselves the work of convincing 2000 voters. Chavez’s idea was that every single family would be visited.

103. This original proposal allowed hundreds of thousands of sympathisers to incorporate themselves into a concrete political task, independent of the existence or not of a party leadership in the electoral area.

104. “Many people, emotionally committed to the process, but until then inactive, had their first organisational and political experience. Thousands of anonymous individuals contributed their grain of sand. So did leaders who were capable of leaving to one side their parochial and personal projects, in order to work very closely with the grassroots in achieving a single objective: that the NO would win.”[20]

105. Thanks to this tactic, the Venezuelan opposition suffered its third great defeat in their attempt to put an end to the government of President Chavez. The NO vote won by about 2 million votes, representing an enormous support base for the revolutionary process and a factor which influenced the further advance of the process.

The search to consolidate the advance made in the level of organisation

106. They had to look for a way to not squander the advance made in popular organisation. In the beginning, they thought of transforming the electoral platoons into social platoons, nevertheless, afterwards, they saw the necessity of differentiating political-electoral organisations from that of citizen participation, and in that search, the idea of creating communal councils emerged, a territorial organisation never before seen in Latin America due to its small scale: between 200-400 families in densely populated urban zones, between 50-100 families in rural areas, and even fewer number of families in the isolated zones, fundamentally in the indigenous zones.

Participation in small groups

107. The idea was to encourage citizen participation as much as possible in small groups to facilitate the protagonism of those present, making them feel comfortable and uninhibited.

108. This conclusion was arrived at after much debate and the examination of successful experiences of community organisation like the urban land committees (CTU)—some 200 families who are organising to fight for the registration of ownership of land — and health committees—some 150 families who come together with the objective of supporting doctors in the most disadvantaged communities.

109. Making an approximate calculation, in Venezuela, which has about 26 million inhabitants, there are about 52,000 communities, if we understand community to mean a group of various families who live in a specific, geographical space, who know each other and can easily relate, who can meet without depending on transport and who, of course, share a common history, use the same public services and share similar problems, both socio-economic and urban.

110. Each one of these communities had to elect a body that would play the role of a community government. This body was called the communal council.


111. The communal councils are made by of individuals elected in their respective communities in citizens’ assemblies. Venezuelan militants refuse, with reason, to use the term representative to describe these individuals because of the negative connotations that this term has acquired in the bourgeois representative system. Candidates only approach their communities during elections, promising “all the gold in the world,” and then, after being elected, are never seen again. That is why they have looked for a different term: vocero or vocera (spokesperson), which comes from voice; when these people lose the confidence of their neighbours, they stop being the voice of the community and have to and should be recalled.

112. Historically, there have been other attempts to create a non-bourgeois alternative to the system of political representation, where elected representatives are not detached from their electoral base and, on the contrary, maintain an intimate link to it.

113. This system was put into practice at the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, during the first years of the Russian revolution, in the Italy of Antonio Gramsci, in Yugoslavia during the war of national liberation and afterwards in the period of the socialist revolution.

114. Referring to the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx outlined the following: “The rural communes of each district would administer their collective affairs through an assembly of delegates in the capital of the corresponding district and these assemblies would in turn send deputies to the National Assembly of Delegates in Paris, with the understanding that all the delegates could be recalled at any moment and they would find themselves obligated by the ‘mandat imperatif’ (imperial mandate) of their voters.”[21]

115. For Marx, the Paris Commune, with its delegate system, had great significance because he saw in it the germ of a new state that would replace the bourgeois state, given that it transcended classic political representation.

116. The aim of the delegate system or of spokespersons is to abolish the classic figure of political representation and ensure a direct relation between voters and the process of decision-making at all levels.

117. The personal and direct participation of workers and citizens in the decision-making process concerning social, communal and general affairs is not only socially impossible, especially if we take into consideration the size of our huge cities, but it is also very difficult to make a reality technically. For this reason, the figure of the delegate or spokesperson has arisen historically, to act as a bridge between their respective grassroots communities (neighbourhood, workplace and interested groups or issues-based groups) and the bodies that exercise government at the different levels.

Community council: the first stage of the new political system

118. In this way, a system of government, which functions through the assembly of delegates or spokespersons, is constituted.

119. This system, although it only unites an assembly of a selection of persons and not the masses, can, and should be, a much more democratic mechanism than the assembly system (mass assemblies). In the latter, everything is supposedly decided by direct democracy right there in the meeting; in the first, there are fewer participants but they bring items already studied to propose and discuss; their participation is much more reflexive and is much less open to manipulation than in the huge amorphous mass assemblies.

120. This system is not only different from the bourgeois-democratic system of political representation but it also seeks to ensure that the workers, the organised people, that is, the majority of people, and not the elites, are the one who exercise power and participate in the management of public affairs.

121. They are not given a free mandate by voters, as occurs in the bourgeois system of representation, instead the voters are the ones who have to furnish guidelines; but neither do they receive an imperative mandate: their vote cannot be predetermined. They are not a type of robot, who receives messages and transmits them; instead they are responsible and creative individuals.

122. They have to be active and creative individuals during the process, both in the formulation of the viewpoints of the voters and in the bonds they establish with other delegates and in making decisions in the assemblies.

123. They have to be capable of negotiating and conciliating. It is not uncommon in this process for a spokesperson to be convinced that a certain public work for another community is much more urgent than the one their community is asking for: for example, resolving a problem of contamination produced by waste water instead of painting the school in their community, and they end up voting for such a project over their own. However, if they want to continue being a spokesperson, they have to return to their community and explain and try to convince them of the reasons why they should prioritise the others demand instead of theirs.

124. If the voters do not feel represented by their spokespersons, or they are not convinced of the correctness of the situation, they can and should revoke them, because they have ceased being their voice.

Resources transferred directly to the communal councils

125. The other quite particular element of the Venezuelan process had been the transfer of resources from the central government directly to the communal councils. Concerned that the money that the state delivers to the governors and the mayors was not reaching the communities, President Chavez decided to set up a fund to deliver money directly to the communities, subject to the organisation of these into communal councils and their presentation of a project. Although the measure could have lent itself to economist deviations, which occurred in some cases, we can not deny that it had a very positive effects. Firstly, the government gained credibility, people saw that the promises were being fulfilled; secondly, and most importantly, the people began to gain confidence in themselves, they felt listened to, they saw that they could improve their living conditions, and ensure that the money would last longer, with the active participation of the community in the development of public works.

Popular power is not limited to the communal councils

126. In the beginning, they only spoke of community councils in Venezuela, that is, of organisations of a geographical type, but in recent times, some have been putting forward the proposition that these are only one of the components of popular power, given that power rests with the organised people, not only in the places where they live but also in the workplaces, study centres and also in regards to areas of interest or issues (health, education, gender etc.)

Workers’ councils

127. It is fundamental that the people not only be organised geographically, but also in workplaces given that the socialist society that we want to construct, as opposed to previous societies, is essentially a society of workers, where nobody will live off the work of others, but instead everyone will contribute in one way or another to creating and distributing social wealth.

128. In order to be heard and participate in the decision-making process in their workplaces, the workers should organise themselves not only to defend their most immediate interests in their respective companies, a fundamental function of the trade unions, but to elevate—as Gramsci said—their condition of simple wage earner to that of “producer.”

129. As wage earners, their aim is to negotiate a better price for the product that they can sell, which is their labour power. As “producers”, the workers have to be able to have an opinion and suggest ideas about the way in which society should move forward in a more efficient and useful manner, the direction of their factory or of the service where they are working; but not only that, they should be interested also in discussing and taking initiatives so that the products or services which they generate respond more to the needs of the people that they are made for. Therefore, it will be very important that their voice is heard in discussions about local or national plans relating to their area of work.

130. According to Gramsci, the “worker can only conceive of himself as a producer if he considers himself an inseparable part of the entire system of work which is summed up in the manufactured product; only if they experience the unity of the industrial process that requires the collaboration of the labourer, the qualified worker, the administrative employer, the engineer, the technical director.”[22]

131. That is why, when we speak of workers’ councils we are thinking of organisations which represent all workers in their workplace: both the workers that directly labour on the raw material, those who intervene by facilitating the transport of this material to the machines, looking after the functioning and maintenance of these, ordering or directing the processes of production at different levels, that is, all the members of collective work in each centre, whether or not they are affiliated to the trade union in that company. The same thing should occur with workers in a particular service: for example workers’ council in the health sector should incorporate not only doctors but also nurses, laboratory technicians, administration and maintenance workers, representatives of clients, among others.[23]

132. But workers councils should not only be organised in production or service companies, especially if we are dealing with a country like Venezuela, where there exists a large number of workers who still work in an artisan fashion such as fishermen, small peasants, tailors, and actual artisans, or the huge number of self-employed workers or who work in the informal economy, which exists especially in the more urban zones. All of them should organize their respective councils.

Thematic councils

133. Lastly, there should be what we call thematic councils: that is, those that group together people with a certain interest or issue of concern. For example, women’s organisations, students, youth, older people, the disabled; groups defending the environment, against racial discrimination and over questions of gender; organisations which group people around issues such as health, education, sports, culture and many others.

The communes: constructing a new political system

134. But this popular power, this system of participation and popular direct protagonism, cannot be limited to these experiences on a small scale, instead they have to transcend the community, the factory, they have to encompass broader levels of local power, until they reach power on a national scale; the same should occur in the factory: as well as workers’ councils according to workshop or section, there should be workers’ councils organised by company, by industry, etc.

135. These diverse expressions of popular power should allow for the participation of citizens in all the processes of decision-making in all communal and general affairs that concern human life in society, and because of this it is necessary to establish some form of delegation of power that does not reproduce the limitations and deformations that gave origins to the classical bourgeoisie political representation system.

Direct and indirect democracy through a system of spokespersons

136. In summary, it’s a matter of constituting an original political system of popular power or of self-government that combines direct democracy on the small-scale with an entire system of assemblies of spokespersons at different levels, which should be elected, and should orientate and control the different organs of government.

Towards a definition of the commune

137. At the first level, which is above the communal council in this system, will be what is called the commune, that is, “a territory in where a variety of communities co-exist, that share historical-cultural traditions, problems, aspirations and a common economic vocations, which use the same services, which have the conditions to be self-sustainable and self-governable and who’s communities are willing to come behind a common project constructed in a participatory and constantly evaluated manner, suitable to the new circumstances which are being created.”[24]

Economic self-sustainability with a socialist orientation

138. The commune has to reach the point of being self-sustainable. It has to achieve sufficient funds of its own to make it less depend on external resources and it should therefore carry out productive activities or services in its territories to allow it to obtain an important part of the resources to satisfy its own necessities and defray its expenses.

139. Each commune should move in the direction of the construction of a communal system of production and consumption with the participation of the communities, through the community organisations, cooperatives, socially-owned businesses with a socialist orientation, processes of fair trade, and many other innovative forms that point in the direction of the creation of that new model of production, as an expression of power and popular control over production.

140. Obviously, one of the key structural axes of the commune will be the units of production or services of communal or state property.

Enterprises of communal social property

141. Each commune should aim to set up companies of communal property that employ labour from the local area and produce goods and services for enjoyment or communal use: bakery, market, communal transport company, water distribution company, a plant for filling liquid gas cylinders, service station, among others.

A process of participatory planning to formulate a develpment plan

142. To carry out these activities it will be very important to carry out a process of participatory planning that leads to the formulation of a Development Plan for the Commune, according to the characteristics, necessities and interests of that area, to create goods and services through a system of articulation between the activities of the primary sector, the transformation of these and other primary materials and the commercialisation of production with the aim of generating a surplus.

Communal government

143. Moreover, we have to advance towards the establishment of communal self-government. The municipal council should begin to transfer an important part of the functions of government and the handling of public affairs to the communes, all of which were previously its functions.[25] The mayor’s office should preserve in his hands only those functions which due to their more general or complex character, justify that choice.

144. The commune should ensure the material and spiritual conditions to allow its productive development and the satisfaction of material, social, cultural and other collective necessities of its inhabitants. For this, it should work towards and bring together all its forces toward the functioning of a plan of communal development, elaborated in a participatory fashion.

145. Each commune should form a communal parliament or communal legislative power, which is a space where the inhabitants of the commune, who could be referred to as comuneros and comuneras, are able to make decisions. This parliament would be made up of spokespersons from the different communal councils, workers councils and thematic councils situated in the area and willing to participate in the construction of the commune, and would represent nothing less than the Assembly of Popular Power of the Commune.

146. In the future, the Assembly of Popular Power of the Commune should establish the government of the commune, forming the apparatus and organisations which allows for the assumption of the tasks which derive from the competencies that have been transferred to them.

147. This body should elect people to occupy positions in each of the remaining four state powers recognised by the Bolivarian Constitution: the executive, judicial, moral and electoral power. These public servants should be accountable and recallable if it is considered that they do not fulfil the mandate for which they were elected.

Council for communal planning and technical room

148. The commune should count on a council of communal planning which should promote a process of participatory planning at the beginning of each period of government to elaborate a pluri-annual plan of strategic development of the commune, as well as annual plans. Plans that should be inserted into the strategic development plan of the nation and the rest of the local plans which, in turn, should nourish these plans with its proposals and projects.

The communal bank

149. The commune should also count on a financial entity or communal bank which receives all the funds that it administers.

150. The national government should guarantee a fund designed for communes, governed by the principle of equity. The communes more lacking in resources and historically neglected by the state should receive more funds than the rest.

Social control over the government

151. An efficient, social control should exist over the functioning of government, facilitating means and mechanisms which allow organised citizens to judge the quality of the services provided and have the power to facilitate the sacking of those officials whose performance has been questioned by a sufficient number of citizens.

Transparency: its central characteristic

152. The central characteristic of this communal government should be its transparency: public announcement of the resources on which it will count on to implement the annual plan, accountability regarding income and expenditure; public competition to recruit public servants; public tendering to grant contracts under social control of the commune; in general, open books regarding all activities; signs at each construction site informing the cost of the project, the business or community responsible for the job, the timetable for the work, etc.

Decentralisation which strengthens the state

153. The process of construction of communes implies bringing forward a process of decentralisation of competencies and resources in a way that is planned and within a national development plan that favours popular activism, which allows the revolutionary subject to mature, learning through practice and, in doing so, strengthening instead of weakening the central state. Why does it make it stronger? Because there will be better local results, greater citizen satisfaction, better instruments to fight against corruption, and all the governors and mayors—whether they are with the process or not—will be subjected to popular control.

[1]. Valter Pomar, La linea del Ecuador, article on 13 December 2008. Pomar is the head of the International Department of the Workers’ Party in Brazil.

[2]. Carlos Ruiz, La centralidad de la política en la acción revolucionaria, Santiago de Chile, 1998, (unpublished).

[3]. See: Noam Chomsky, El control de los medios de comunicación, in Cómo nos venden la moto, Ed. Icaria, Barcelona 1996, p.16. The term “fabricating consensus” is used by Walter Lippman in Public Opinion, Allen and Unwin, London, 1932, and cited by Chomsky in op. cit. p.10; this author also has a book titled: Manufacturing Consent.

[4]. T. Moulián, Chile actual, anatomía de un mito, Ed. Arcis/LOM, Santiago de Chile, 1997, op.cit. p. 105.

[5]. Op.cit. p. 121.

[6]. Valter Pomar, La linea del Ecuador,December 3, 2008.

[7]. What Kautsky proposed was somewhat different: that socialist consciousness was something introduced in the proletarian class struggle from outside and not something that arose spontaneously out of the struggle [bold inserted by Marta Harnecker]. As I explain in my book Reconstructing the left there are three types of consciousness in the working class: spontaneous or naive consciousness, class consciousness and enlightened class consciousness or socialist consciousness, which is what Kautsky was referring. This last one is only reached through a scientific knowledge of how capitalism functions. (This book was written in 2006, has various editions and was published by Siglo XXI, México 2008. On this issue see Part II, Chapter 4. “The theory underlying this conception of the party” pp.77-88).

[8]. Marx, Misère de la philosophie, Ed. Sociales, Paris, 1968, pp.177-178.

[9]. Grève de masses, parti, et syndicats,François Maspero, Paris, 1968, p.30.

[10]. M. Harnecker, Reconstructing the Left, Op.cit. paragraphs 245 and 246, p.83.

[11]. Op.cit. paragraph 354, p.114.

[12]. Op.cit. paragraph 364, p.117.

[13]. I would prefer saying taking the government as our starting point.

[14]. Op.cit. p.151.

[15]. Despite the fact that in his intervention in the Teresa Carreno theatre in Caracas, during the Conference of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity, which took place at the end of November and beginning of December, 2004, he had already raised the issue.

[16]. Hugo Chávez, El discurso de la unidad, The Teresa Carreno Cultural Complex, Rios Reyna Room, December 15, 2006, pp.32-33.

[17]. Op.cit. p.41.

[18]. The New Constitution of the BolivarianRepublic of Venezuela, Chapter IV: Political rights and the Popular Referendum, The First Section: political rights. Official Gazette, 30 December, 1999, Caracas, Venezuela.

[19]. In Venezuela, the municipalities are divided into parishes.

[20]. Marta Harnecker, Los desafíos post referendo, 25 September 2004, article presented as a report in the International Meeting; Civilisation or Barbarism, Portugal, 28 September 2004, and published in English in Monthly Review, Volume 56, number 6, November 2004.

[21]Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, page 71. The text continues in the following way: The small but important functions which would still remain for a central government would not be done away with, as it has been said, intentionally falsifyingthe truth, but would be carried out by representatives from the Commune, who thanks to this condition, would be strictly responsible.

[22]. Antonio Gramsci, “Sindicatos y consejos”, in Consejos de fábrica y estado en la clase obrera, Ed. Roca, México, 1973, p. 37.

Submitted by jorge sorger (not verified) on Sat, 08/22/2009 - 01:34


Esto no es un comentario, sino mas bien dos preguntas:
1) Como se relacionan los consejos laborales con las comunidades? por ejemplo, si una fabrica esta instalada en una region donde algunos de los recursos son locales, pero no todos, y si los que consumen los productos son toda la nacion, quien esta representando cada interes en el consejo? y como funcionaria un sindicato bajo estas circunstancias?
2) Quien representaria ese consejo al nivel nacional?, y que relacion tendria con el PSUV (o su equivalente)?
Reconozco que estas son preguntas que piden respuestas quizas algo largas y por tanto representan un esfuerzo, pero oso pensar que al informarme a mi, podre pasar la informacion a otros activistas que tambien lo podran usar en su lucha por un mundo mejor y que por tanto vale la pena
Jorge Sorger