Workers Party of Brazil: The different strategies of the Latin American left
By Valter Pomar, secretary of international relations, Workers’ Party (PT) of Brazil
October 10, 2009 -- It has become commonplace to say that there are two lefts in Latin America: one would be “carnivore”, the other “vegetarian”; one would be radical, the other moderate; one would be revolutionary, the other reformist; one would be socialist, the other capitalist.
Dichotomous definitions of this kind are made by spokespersons (official or unofficial) of the US State Department, with the explicit purpose of bringing about discord in the Latin American left, making it fight itself rather than its common enemies.
To be sure, there is neither the manner nor the motive to deny the existence of programmatic, strategic, tactical, organisational, historical and sociological differences in the Latin American left. We shall talk about these differences further below. Yet a dichotomous interpretation of the actually existing differences, in addition to serving the purposes of the right, expresses an incorrect theoretical interpretation.
The reductionism (by saying that there are two lefts in Latin America) helps the right politically because it bears the following implicit conclusion: one left’s growth depends on the other’s weakening, in an equation that conveniently removes our common enemies from the picture. Reductionism, moreover, is an incorrect theoretical interpretation because it cannot account for the historical phenomenon of the past 11 years (1998-2009), namely: the simultaneous growth of the various Latin American lefts.
Contrary to the followers of the reductionist view, in any of its forms, we advocate that the strengthening experienced, from 1998 until today, by the different currents of the Latin American left is due partly to its diversity, which has made it possible to express the sociological, cultural, historical and political diversity of the dominated classes of our continent. Were it homogeneous and uniform, were it just one or two, it would not exhibit its current strength.
We also advocate that the continuity of the strengthening of the Latin American lefts will depend, to a good extent, on the cooperation between the different existing currents. Such cooperation does not preclude the ideological and political struggle between the multiple lefts; yet this struggle must occur within the framework of maximum strategic cooperation. Such cooperation will be more difficult the more imperfect our understanding of the process we areliving in is.
The material-political basis that makes cooperation between most of the different currents of the Latin American left possible is the existence of a common strategic situation. Whether this situation will continue to exist or not, that will depend on the social and political struggle that is underway at this very moment.
The ultra-radical or hyper-moderate currents that refuse to realise the existence of a common strategic situation are the very same that, consciously or unconsciously, deliver services to the local dominant classes or to imperialism.
Debate on the nature of the Latin American revolution
What we know today as Latin America contributed during the so-called “primitive accumulation” and has, ever since, been fully integrated to world capitalism. From the debate on the nature of this integration stem the different existing positions about the nature of the development actually existing in each country and in the region as a whole, and about the possibilities of the reformist and revolutionary struggle, of “democratic capitalism” and of socialism.
National resistance to invasion and exploitation by European powers, as well as resistance of direct producers to exploitation practiced by local and foreign dominant classes, has taken up various forms since 1492.
In the 20th century — in an environment characterised by rising industrialisation, imperialism, world wars, the Russian Revolution, revolutions and anti-colonial wars — Latin America’s popular struggles came to combine, in different ways, the demands for political democracy, national sovereignty and land reform with anti-capitalist and socialist purposes.
Until the 1950s, the prevailing combination emphasised national-democratic demands: defeating imperialism and latifundia, which, to some, constituted “feudal remains”, industrialising the economy, democratising the state and affirming national sovereignty. This national-democratic orientation was shared by most socialists, including the communist parties that appeared as of the 1920s.
Termed in the Marxist variant as “stageism” (first the bourgeois revolution, next the socialist revolution), the national-democratic orientation was criticised, even within the left, for three main reasons: a) for underestimating the organic links between latifundia, imperialism and capitalism; b) for believing in the feasibility of a strategic alliance of the proletariat with the “national bourgeoisie”; c) for conceiving as relatively compartmentalised “stages” what should more adequately be conceived as “flow”, as “transgrowth”.
The most consistent formulation of stageism, as well as its defence in face of criticisms, was made by the communist parties. There is no need here to recall the details surrounding the debate, but two points should be emphasised.
First, they were right those who said that it was necessary to put into perspective the “obstacles” to capitalist development in Latin America. “Imperialism” and “latifundia”, dependence and limited domestic market, were metabolised and incorporated to the actually existing capitalist development. Therefore, to deduce, based on these obstacles, the possibility of a revolutionary alliance (anti-imperialistic, anti-latifundia) between the “national” bourgeoisie and the proletariat was to transform the secondary (the actually existing contradictions, which prompted fractions of the bourgeoisie to adopt more radical attitudes) into a main contradiction. This, in turn, leads us to the mistake of extracting from this contradiction, supposedly the main one, consequences (conceiving the proletariat as the left of the democratic-bourgeois revolution) without adequate material basis.
Second, also right were those who said that the struggle for socialism in Latin America could not minimise the so-called “pending tasks” of the democratic-bourgeois revolution. Themes as national sovereignty, industrialisation, political democratisation, land reform and welfare policies constitute, still today, the raw material of all and any political fight implemented by socialists in Latin America. The fact that the bourgeoisie is not prepared to lead the fight for these claims, does not remove them from the political horizon; the fact that the proletariat is called on to take up the vanguard of such claims, does not eliminate its democratic-bourgeois character.
The theoretical debate outlined above can only find a complete solution in the terrain of practice, namely: the struggle for historically democratic-bourgeois claims may fulfil one or another strategic role, depending on the correlation of forces at the national, hemispheric and world levels. If the proletariat has enough strength and radicalness, the struggle for democratic-national claims may undergo “transgrowth” toward transformations of a socialist kind. Conversely, if the proletariat is weak and subaltern, the struggle for the “democratic revolution” will neither be democratic nor revolutionary, nor will it accumulate any strength toward socialism.
The discussion about the nature of the Latin American revolution (socialist, democratic, etc.) was always simultaneous with the debate on which revolutionary path: violent or peaceful, guerrilla or insurrection, etc. Again, different combinations were established: from “stageists” favouring more radical forms of violence to socialists imbued with the strongest commitment to “peaceful transition”.
The multiple “stageism” and “reformism” variants were seriously brought to question by the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. To some sectors of the left, the strategic discussion (on the nature of the revolution and its path) appeared to be settled in favour of a given “model”. Despite the fact that the really existing Cuban Revolution was one thing, while the “models” formulated thereafter were something else. A similar divergence happened in the 1917 Russian case and in the 1949 Chinese case: the models simplified and many times contradicted enormously the strategy actually implemented.
Observations on socialist transition and strategy
There is so much confusion regarding the terms “capitalism”, “transition”, “socialism” and “communism”, that it becomes mandatory to explain what one means, in this text, by these words.
By capitalism we understand a mode of production based on the private property of the means of production, a mode of production where direct producers are obliged to sell their labour power to capitalists, who appropriate themselves of the “surplus value” of the salaried; we oppose to capitalism another mode of production, one founded on the social property of the means of production and in which it is indispensable to work with the categories communism (that other mode of production) and socialism (the transition period between one and the other mode of production).
For known historical reasons, the term “communism” is rejected or simply left aside by large sectors of the left, including some who proclaim themselves revolutionaries. Still, from the theoretical standpoint, the use of the term is essential, once it enables distinguishing between what “transition” is and what the “final objective” is (that is, the mature form of society intended to be built).
When we speak of socialism, we speak of a transition between capitalism and communism. Thus, the socialist transition (or socialism) is, by definition, a social formation that combines capitalism and anti-capitalism. That which defines whether we are before a socialist formation is the existence of an organic, structural movement toward social property (with all the complex political and social outcomes). In other words, that which defines whether we are before a socialist transition is the existence of a movement toward the socialisation of production, of property and of political power.
This definition of socialism as movement toward contains at least two potential causes for misunderstanding. The first of them considers transition as a linear process, of progressive accumulation, taking any withdrawal as a sign of a return to capitalism, as a reason to believe that the transition toward socialism has been interrupted. The second is to mistake: a) the struggle we wage within capitalism, in favour of socialism for; b) the socialist construction or transition.
In our opinion, a key variable in eliminating these misconceptions is to know who wields the political power. That is, the difference between withdrawal and stampede; between concession and capitulation; between “improvementism” and struggle for reforms.
For instance, the difference between a struggle for socialism and a socialist transition might not lie in the measures themselves, yet must necessarily be present in politics, in the correlation of forces, in state power. This is so because material-driven limitations can oblige a revolutionary government to adopt pro-capitalist measures. Yet these measures acquire different strategic senses when adopted by a bourgeois government or by a socialist government.
To transform the struggle for socialism to true socialist transition, to start the construction of socialism, it is necessary to control state power, that is, have the means to affect a society’s structure, to control the economy and the means of production. Surely these means are determined, ultimately, by the pre-existing material basis: the entire world’s political will, the most absolute state power, is not capable of transforming a pre-capitalist material basis into raw material enough for the construction of socialism. In this case, what political power can ensure, within certain boundaries, is that capitalist development policies be at the service of the strategic project of building socialism.
For, unless the working class holds state power, it will have little influence on the economic macro-determinants that produce and reproduce capitalism every day. Only with state power can the working class change the existing accumulation pattern in society, shifting the hegemonic axis from private property and accumulation of capital to collective property and social accumulation.
Conquering state power is a complex process, whose tipping point is the establishment of a monopoly on violence. Not that there might not be some challenge to this monopoly, but this cannot be relevant to the point of bringing into question state power itself. In addition to monopoly on violence, conquering state power involves other elements, such as the creation of a new political and legal institutional framework; capacity to run the economy and social communications; de facto and de jure recognition from other states, etc. Moreover, as we know, power is a social relation that can be won or lost. What occurs at the micro level with recently elected governments may also occur at a macro scale with states originating great social revolutions. Revolutions are “irreversible” only in certain speeches, not in real history.
No social class or bloc of classes has reached state power by using only one way for the accumulation of forces or one way to seize power. The victory of the Russian insurrection, of the Chinese and Vietnamese peoples’ wars, the Cuban guerrilla war, would become incomprehensible if we dissociate the main forms of struggle in each case from the other forms of struggle that were present beside the main form of struggle: mass or vanguard struggles, legal or clandestine, electoral or direct action.
However, the historical conditions of a country or an era confer on a given form of struggle the role of catalyst and main battering ram in the showdown against the enemy classes and their state power. Yet this condition of catalyst, of main form of struggle, is an organic product of a concrete situation that cannot be transplanted to another situation.
We have spoken several times about the conquest of state power, yet we must recall the obvious: if power is a social relation, conquering state power requires the construction of a distinct social correlation of forces, a political-social bloc that aims to put into practice a given program.
Which program? The answer to this question leads us back to the debate on the nature of the revolution.
In a capitalist society, the construction of a historical alternative to the contradictions existing within a particular society requires starting the socialist transition. But this theoretical and historical conclusion, according to which “the order of the day” is to supersede capitalism, when translated to the terrain of political strategy may be understood in at least two different ways: a) the leftist way defends building a political-social bloc hinging on a socialist program; b) the “popular-democratic and socialist” way defends building a political-social bloc hinging on a program interlinking democratic measures with socialist measures.
In the current stage of development of capitalism, democratic measures are not socialist, yet may take on an anti-capitalist direction.
For those who think socialism and anti-capitalism are synonyms, this is no more than a play on words. Surely socialism is consequent anti-capitalism, that anti-capitalism that implies the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production. Yet in everyday life, capitalism is confronted in several ways: the struggle for higher wages, land reform, the struggle against private monopolies, the defence of state-owned companies, universal public policies, the struggle against imperialism etc.
These struggles are waged against aspects of capitalism or, at best, against a hegemonic form of capitalism in a given historical situation, not aiming in itself at the defeat of capitalism in general, as a mode of production based on private property and the extraction of surplus value.
That is: they are capitalist struggles against capitalism. Struggles that generally speaking aim at building more democratic capitalist societies, politically, economically and socially.
Nevertheless, under different conditions, these capitalist struggles against capitalism may come to integrate a movement that is conducive to the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production. In these cases, it is as if next to anti-capitalism or proletarian socialism there existed a smallholder capitalism, a petit-bourgeois socialism.
The political-social bloc capable of challenging and conquering state power must be organised around a program combining socialist measures (or tasks, or claims) with anti-capitalist measures that are not socialist in themselves. To use a more precise word, they are democratic, bourgeois-democratic measures, defenders of small property against large property, defenders of the public (which is different from the social and the collective) against the private, defenders of the national against imperialism.
The leftist way of viewing the construction of the political-social bloc is not capable of succeeding for two reasons. The first of them is related to the debate on the nature of the revolution in Latin America, a revolution that, as we said before, will necessarily have to address democratic tasks. The second reason is strictly political: the correlation of forces that precedes the conquest of state power and the level of consciousness prevailing in the working class and its allies make it impossible, by definition, to constitute a power bloc only or mainly hinging on the “direct struggle for socialism”.
That is: if there is capitalist domination, that is so because the people’s prevailing level of consciousness is not socialist. This level of consciousness can only become consequently socialist in the course of the process, which is why the programmatic starting point of the new political-social bloc cannot be explicitly or consequently socialist.
This is tantamount to saying that: a) the class struggle process will not necessarily reach the “temperature” needed to produce a level of socialist consciousness in the vast majority of the people; b) it is expected that socialist sectors act both toward “raising the temperature” (by stimulating the struggle process itself) and to raising the level of consciousness.
For the reasons explained before, the political-social bloc capable of challenging and conquering state power needs to organise with regard to a) “future” issues (the construction of socialism); b) and, mainly, “past & present” issues (facing the problems derived from actually existing capitalism).
What this means is that socialist forces conquer and maintain state power if and when they manage to build political majorities based on action programs addressing immediate issues. The classic example of this is still the slogan “Bread, peace and land”.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949 resulted exactly from continuous democratic, popular and national radicalisation. Those were “socialist revolutions” not a priori but, rather, due to the course they took, to the global process in which they were embedded.
Thus, it only makes sense to speak of “direct struggle for socialism” if we construe it in the following way: the conquest of state power aiming at executing popular-democratic programmatic measures may come to be an integral part of the socialist transition, without there necessarily being separate intermediate phases.
The word “necessarily” is fundamental in this analysis: stageism is wrong because it supposes the need for self-contained intermediate phases; yet this does not mean that these intermediate phases will neither come to exist, nor that they might look “self-contained”, as occurred during the Russian Revolution with the New Economic Program and is occurring now with Chinese “market socialism”, which, in the eyes of many, seems like a prolonged period of abandonment of the construction of socialism.
The expression “may come to be” is also fundamental, for it indicates that we are standing before a political problem that depends on the correlation of forces, the level of consciousness of the masses, the general direction of the process. A political problem that may produce solutions that will depend, eventually, on the level of material development and the productive potential previously reached by a society.
For these reasons, it is imperative to combat two types of leftism: a) on the one hand, that type of leftism that manifests itself in defence of an abstract socialism, delinked from partial anti-capitalist struggles; and b) on the other, that leftism that mistakes strict sense anti-capitalist measures with broad sense “socialist” measures.
This second type of leftism, very much present in Latin America today, mistakes the rhetorical and political radicalism of the processes, brought about mostly by the intransigence of the ruling classes with their economic and social radicalism, yet forgets that the overcoming of capitalism requires that there be capitalist development to be overcome.
To what we have said thus far another variable should be added: the neo-stageist line of the moderate left of Latin America, which broke the ties between democratic tasks and the struggle for socialism. In some cases, because it is a left that has abandoned socialism. In other cases, for being a left that, instead of standing up to and overcoming, prefers to capitulate to the correlation of forces. Or still for being a left that, even when it maintains a genuinely socialist commitment, does so by building on a “process strategy” (whose musical translation is in a verse of a song that is very popular in Brazil that reads: “Deixa a vida me levar – May life lead me”).
Hence we might say that there are at least three broad programmatic designs: the leftist, the neo-stageist and the popular-democratic. The leftists fail to perceive the differences adequately; the neo-stageists see a Chinese wall; and the popular-democratic seek to organically bring together the struggle against neoliberalism and the struggle for socialism.
These differences cross each other, in different ways, when we shift from the programmatic discussion to the discussion on which way should be adopted, whether accumulation of forces or seizure of power.
Guerrilla warfare and the electoral path
The 1960s witnessed a radical increase in class struggle across Latin America, reflecting the ripening of the contradictions typical of the capitalist model of development predominant in the region: dependent and conservative. This, within a context of US meddling in the region and of the conflict between “camps”.
At that moment, part of the Latin American left, stimulated by the Cuban experience and gathered around a slogan calling for the creation of “many Vietnams”, adopted the strategy of “guerrilla warfare”.
In some countries, guerrilla warfare had organic roots in the national situation. In most cases, however, it did not. With the exception of Nicaragua and of Cuba itself, in no other place in Latin America did guerrilla warfare end up in revolutionary victory. In some cases, like El Salvador and Guatemala, the guerrilla acquired enough strength to reach peace accords that set the frameworks for the end of armed conflict; but in most cases, the guerrilla forces were destroyed. Today, in Latin America, Colombia is the only country where there are relevant groups that defend the tactical adequacy of a guerrilla strategy.
With the end of the guerrilla cycle, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, another strategy started to gain shape, one based on the combination of social struggles, electoral contests and the exercise of government at the national, sub-national and local levels.
This strategy has been crowned (since 1998 with Hugo Chávez and up to now, 2009, with Funes), by a wave of victories of leftist and progressive parties in elections for national government of several countries of Latin America.
This wave of electoral victories is the product of various circumstances, especially: a) a relative carelessness of the United States with its pateo trasero; b) the harmful effects of neoliberalism, including on the right-wing parties; c) the accumulation of forces by the left, especially in combining social struggles and electoral struggle.
Currently there exists a new correlation of forces in the region which, besides propelling changes within each country, contains imperialist meddling.
This regional situation co-exists with two other variables of a worldwide nature: the strategic defensive struggle for socialism and capitalism’s long and deep crisis. This is the material basis that enables cooperation between Latin America’s diverse leftist currents: the existence of a historical situation in which are interwoven the presence of the left in multiple governments of the region, the strategic defensive struggle for socialism and a long and deep crisis of capitalism.
These are the fundamental variables of the strategic situation common to all of Latin America that make it possible to at the same time demand a high level of cooperation between the different sectors of the Latin American left – without which it will not be possible to overcome the strategic defensive and avert the risks derived from the crisis of capitalism.
From the viewpoint of a socialist left, the central questions to solve are how to engage the existence of leftist and progressive governments as a fulcrum of the struggle for socialism and how to coordinate the different ongoing processes, in each country, in such a way that they each will reinforce each other.
Integration and strategy
Throughout the 20th century, the Latin American and Caribbean left faced two great hurdles: the strength of the adversaries at the national level and foreign meddling. The latter was always present, especially in those moments when the left was trying to or actually did reach the central government and power. When the local ruling classes were not able to contain the left, they resorted to the US marines.
Nowadays, a progressive and leftist environment contributes towards elections and re-elections, helps avert coups (against Chávez and Evo Morales, for example) and was fundamental in the condemnation of the invasion of Ecuador by Colombian troops. Besides neutralising or at least minimising economic blockade policies, which played a critical role in the right-wing’s strategy against the Allende government in Chile and is still affecting Cuba.
The existence of a favourable correlation of forces in the region creates better conditions for each national process to follow its own course. This creates immense possibilities, unprecedented to a certain extent, for all the programs and strategies of the left. Thus, the first task of the Latin American left is to preserve the continent’s correlation of forces.
What happens is that, when leftist forces manage to reach the central government of a given country, they do so with a program based on the tripod of social equality, political democratisation and national sovereignty.
And the defence of national sovereignty is not just against “imperialist metropolises” but, rather, also involves solving conflicts between and among countries of the region. These conflicts were not "invented" by the incumbent governments, usually being the heritage of previous periods, including the unequal and dependent development that occurred in the region. In most cases, they will not be overcome in the short term: as they have structural causes, a solution will only be found in the long term, within the framework of an adequate process of regional integration.
Exacerbation of these regional conflicts would have, as by-products, the dissimulation of some rather more relevant contradictions with the imperialist metropolises.
Thereby, from a strategic point of view, we must make sure these conflicts do not become main contradictions, for, if that happens, the Latin American correlation of forces will be tipped in favour of foreign meddling.
It is well known that the progressive and leftist governments of the region follow the development and integration road, regardless of their adopting different strategies and different paces.
And it has already been said that a greater or smaller chance of success, at the national level, is tied to the existence of a Latin American correlation of forces that is favourable to leftist and progressive positions.
Hence, our strategic imbroglio may be summed us thus: how to harmonise multiple national strategies with the construction of a common continental strategy that preserves unity in diversity?
The structural solution to regional conflicts supposes a reduction in inequality, not only within each country, but also across the economies of our subcontinent. The institutional nature of the integration, both in multilateral and bilateral relations, must be attuned with this purpose.
Reducing inequality inside each country entails facing a “cursed heritage” and implementing deep social reforms. Yet this does not suffice to eliminate existing disparities across economies, a goal that requires combining, in the long term, solidarity measures, direct exchange and market measures too.
Today there are three “models” of coexistence: the first is the decadent model that is subordinated to the United States, the second is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America model (ALBA — a nine-nation trading bloc initiated by Cuba and Venezuela)and the third is the model of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
The ALBA model is rather worthy of merit, regardless of what we might think about its internal sustainability, the nature of the agreements signed, its actual coming into effect and its effects on recipient countries. But no correlation of forces, institutional mechanisms and economic situation will allow the set of countries of the region to adopt the ALBA’s solidarity principles and/or operate in a similar way as the Venezuelan government. In essence, because it is not sustainable that capitalist countries will maintain a socialist foreign policy.
Hence, though every left-wing alternative should involve a solidarity component, the main dimension of the agreements in the current phase of the Latin American integration still has to be that of trade, economic and institutional agreements, one involving governments and state-owned and/or private enterprises of the UNASUR (comprising therein the Bank of the South and the Defence Council).
This path contains several risks: a) initiatives as the UNASUR entail sharing the table with political and ideological adversaries, who are still governing important countries of the region; b) the dynamics of the integration includes moments of greater political protagonism by the presidents, interspersed with periods wherein prevails the generally more bureaucratic spirit of each country’s foreign relations office; c) trade and economic agreements always benefit, to a higher or lower degree, the interests of capital, at least while this mode of production is hegemonic in the countries involved; d) the enterprises involved generally seek their immediate profit first and secondarily the operation’s strategic purpose, that is, development and integration; e) the survival of the UNASUR depends on the commitment of the region’s main economies.
Conclusion: within the framework of a common strategic equation (that of “being in government as part of the struggle to be in power”), we must operate distinct national policies, yet combined in a common continental strategy, whose pace will be set by the course and speed of the transformations in the larger countries, starting with Brazil. Even if this makes the march even slower, it is best to keep the “vanguard” close to the troops’ main body. Which prompts us to discuss how to take advantage of the existence of leftist and progressive governments as a fulcrum in the struggle for socialism.
Recently elected governments and the struggle for socialism
If we exclude the hyper-moderates and the ultra-leftists, we may say that there are two basic positions among the Latin American socialists with regard to the existing progressive and leftist governments in the region: a) there are those who view such governments merely as part of the process of accumulation of forces; b) and there are those who consider that these governments constitute a fundamental part of the accumulation of forces and also of the way to seize power.
Both positions are based, primarily, on observing the existing links between reform and revolution.
In the history of humanity there are periods of “reformist” evolution and periods of “revolutionary” evolution. The difference between the former and the latter lies in three combined aspects: the content of the changes, the way such changes are imposed and the speed at which they occur. But the fundamental difference is the nature of the changes.
“Enclosures”, the spreading of machines and the imperialist offensive on China, to cite examples of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively, were revolutionary inasmuch as they altered social relations of production. It was that, and not the speed or the violent form, which defined the revolutionary character of the processes cited.
Revolutionary processes do not appear out of the blue, just like that, by spontaneous generation. Revolutions constitute a moment in the evolution of a society’s contradictions, the moment in which these contradictions reach a point of disruption, of transformation into something different. Said in a different way, revolutions occur when a society cannot evolve any longer in a “reformist” way. There is, therefore, continuity, yet also disruption, between “reformist” moments and “revolutionary” moments in the evolution of a society. A revolution would not exist without reforms; yet a revolution exists precisely because reforms are no longer sufficient.
To this all, one should add that a decisive component in the transformation of reforms into a revolution lies in the combination between the disposition for fight of the dominated classes and the resistance of the dominant classes. When those below fight strongly for changes and those at the top offer brutal resistance, the conditions are created to transform the struggle for reforms into a revolution.
Shifting from the historical to the strategic angle, it is obvious that electoral processes are not sufficient to initiate the construction of socialism, once they allow us to reach government, not power. For this reason, in societies where the left managed to reach government via the electoral path, it is necessary to build a road to power that considers the fact that we are in government as an absolutely relevant variable of a revolutionary policy, as part of the historical circumstances, not as an “unanticipated problem” or an “undesirable deviation”.
Curiously, most of the left sees no theoretical difficulty in interlinking the strategy’s reformist moment and the revolutionary moment, when what is at stake is a trade union struggle or the election of parliamentarians. Yet it faces enormous difficulty when the question is exercising national government.
One of the reasons for this difficulty is that, in most of the cases in which it took over national governments electorally, the left was unable to accumulate forces toward socialism: it either abandoned its program, was defeated electorally or was toppled by coups and/or foreign interventions. If socialist revolutions are rare events, even rarer seem to be socialist transitions from recently elected governments.
Nevertheless, the defeat of experiences, such as Popular Unity in Chile, as well as the defeat of a number of classic revolutionary attempts, does not allow concluding the unfeasibility of a strategic path; it allows only concluding that the left, acting and taking certain options, was defeated under given historical conditions.
For those who think that electoral victories of the left always constitute the antechamber of defeat, it becomes necessary to answer two questions: a) how to accumulate forces in a historical juncture in which “electoral democracy” prevails; b) how to confer legitimacy to the classical ways of seizing power in a juncture when the left is obtaining electoral victories.
Now for those who think that, in certain historical conditions, by adopting certain policies, it is possible to transform electoral victories that accumulate forces toward socialism, it is necessary to answer: a) do such governments constitute a type of “stop over” on a route that will lead to a revolutionary showdown? b) Do such governments constitute an integral part of a way to seize power that is different from insurrection and popular war?
Those who defend this second position are called on to study another of the paradigmatic experiences of the Latin American left: Chile’s Popular Unity government (1970-73). The hyper-moderate left considers that it has little to learn from the experience of the Popular Unity, since Popular Unity explicitly proposed to be a way to socialism. At best, they use the Popular Unity experience to instil a reverential fear of the right, imperialism and the armed forces, as well as to “prove” that one should not “strain” the correlation of forces.
Nor does the ultra-radical left give much importance to the Popular Unity experience, which does not fit its preferred paradigms: insurrection, guerrilla warfare or, more recently, “movementism”. At best, they use the Popular Unity experience to confirm their fears of the right, imperialism and the armed forces, as well as to “prove” that it is fruitless to try an electoral way to socialism.
Rigorously, hyper-moderates and ultra-leftists doubt the possibility of using electoral processes (and the mandates stemming thereof) as a fulcrum for the struggle toward socialism.
When we discuss the role of elected national governments in the struggle for socialism, we do so in a historical situation distinct from that in 1970-73. However, the fundamental questions to be studied and debated are not altered: a) the composition and program of a historical-popular bloc; b) the combination between presence in the state apparatus and the construction of a counter-power, especially in the case of the armed forces; c) how to deal with the attitude of the dominant classes which, in face of threats to their property and power, break legality and push the process to situations of disruption; d) the greater or lesser maturity of actually existing capitalism in each concrete social formation and the ensuing possibility of implementing socialist measures.
The big novelty, one which affects the terms of the equation summed up above, is the creation, between 1998 and 2008, of a correlation of forces in Latin America that allows curbing foreign meddling. As long as this situation persists, it will be possible to speculate, theoretically and practically, on a way to seize power that, though revolutionary, is different from the insurrection and the popular war.
[Valter Pomar is secretary of international relations of Workers’ Party (PT) of Brazil. This article is an English version of article published in the book América Latina Hoy. Reforma o revolución, an anthology published by Ocean Sur.]