Book Review: ‘Haciendo posible lo imposible’ By William Bowles

8 September 2006

Review: ‘Democracy and Revolution – Latin America and Socialism Today’, D.L. Raby

‘[O]nly a fool could think that the solution to the world’s problems lies in capitalism.’ – Hugo Chavez Ruz

I really like this book; firstly its straightforward language makes it accessible unlike the verbal diarrhoea that usually afflicts academic writing, especially on the ‘left’ with all its talk of paradigmatic this and the dialectics of that.

But more so, this is an important book because it dares to go where few on the ‘left’ venture these days; into the realm of possibilities for Socialism. Moreover, it’s based upon very credible analyses of two successful revolutions; Cuba and Venezuela and three that failed but taught us much about why; Chile, Nicaragua and Portugal.

‘The universal assumption that democracy is the only valid regime – accepted even by most ex-Communist parties – obscures the question of what democracy really means, of whether Western liberalism is the only valid form of democracy, and of whether revolutionary change is possible by democratic means. These are also central questions which will have to be addressed in the search for a political alternative.’ (p. 5)

But even those that failed highlight the central themes of the exploration, for the one thing they all hold in common is the role played by grassroots democracy and above all by direct participation in the decision-making process, bypassing traditional political parties of the Left almost entirely.

But before getting into presenting Raby’s case, it’s worthwhile examining what Raby has to say about the failure of the Left to learn the lessons of the past and in doing so, reveal why the various socialisms of the 20th century failed.

‘[Although] … where Communist parties still retain a residual strength and adhere to a traditional anti-system line … their almost total lack of theoretical renovation shows that they have failed to come to terms with the lessons of the Soviet collapse and have nothing creative to offer. With some exceptions, this also applies to most of the Communist offshoots – the many varieties of Trotskyists and Marxist-Leninists – who are still wedded to variations on the theme of the democratic centralist party, the ideological monopoly of dialectical and historical materialism and the centralised model of state socialism.’ (p.3)

So what makes Cuba and Venezuela so different? The answer lies in their histories for not only do the countries of Latin America have:

‘… a longer experience of colonial rule than any other, the ‘backyard’ of US imperialism, far more of an ethnic and cultural ‘melting pot’ than North America, [they] also [have] a long and intense history of popular revolutionary struggle which is less contaminated by political and ideological distortions than that of any other continent … Only in Latin America does the revolutionary impulse appear to flourish , so that in addition to Cuba and Venezuela we find the progressive governments of Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in Uraguay and powerful popular movements such as Pachakutic in Ecuador, Evo Morales and the MAS in Bolivia, the FARC and ELN as well as peaceful popular resistance in Columbia, the FLMN in El Salvador and in Mexico, the Zapatistas …’ (p. 8)

And although it’s much too early to celebrate the demise of imperialism, Raby points to the fact that:

‘[the] popular and progressive movements in Latin America continue to show a vitality and creativity without parallel in today’s cynical, unipolar and terrorist-obsessed world.’ (p.9)

Perhaps it can be argued that events in Venezuela and Cuba have no relationship to us here in the so-called developed world but Raby argues and I think very forcefully, that in fact, the central issue that has bedevilled attempts at building Socialism foundered on one central issue, that of democracy (or rather the lack of it). Not the capitalist version I hasten to add, but real participatory democracy, which entails building from the bottom-up.

Raby’s central point here can perhaps best be exemplified by the following quote:

‘It is intimately linked to the concept of popular sovereignty, that sovereignty really does reside in the people as a whole and not in the propertied classes or in any hereditary group or privileged institution. The people, moreover, constitute themselves as political actors by collective mobilisation, not merely by passive reception of media messages or individualised voting.’ (p.11)

Raby also points out that in Latin America revolution and democracy mean something quite different than they do in Europe or North America, where the word revolution is associated with “irrational violence or dogmatic sectarianism” (p.12) and democracy is voting every five years but little else.

In Latin America ‘democracy’ is:

‘popularly associated with collective rights and popular power, and not just representative institutions and liberal pluralism. The concept is also indissolubly linked with the rights and cultures of oppressed ethnic and social groups, with indigenous, black and mestizo empowerment.’ (p. 12)

To put this in context, Raby uses the example of Nicaragua and the Sandinista Revolution, which although finally overthrown through a combination of factors was important because:

‘… the organised Left was totally irrelevant to the process [of revolution], and only gave its support (in the best of cases – because several left-wing parties have joined the reactionary opposition) when victory was already at hand. Once again, the people recognised the revolutionary leadership long before the politicians or the intellectuals. And once again, victory was achieved by a broad, democratic national movement, ideologically flexible but united in action, with an individual charismatic leader with remarkable oratorical gifts and capacity for decisive action.’ (p.17)

Raby returns to the theme of the importance of a charismatic leader as absolutely indispensable by exploring the nature of Fidel and Hugo Chavez’ ability to connect and importantly, listen to the people in an on-going dialogue.

Fidel’s hours-long speeches and Chavez’s weekly TV programme, ‘Alo Presidente’ far from being exhortations from on high, are conducted in the language of ordinary people and are in effect what one might describe as ‘call and response’ with the call coming from the people.

And here, Raby overturns the commonly held assumption that such leaders are “populist” which is normally associated with notions of demagogy and reaction and in doing so, redefines the meaning the word (he uses the term ‘neo-populist’).

The other myth that Raby effectively destroys is the role of the military in bringing about revolutionary change, arguing that:

‘There does exist a different military tradition in Latin America, a tradition of nationalist, democratic and anti-imperialist officers like Omar Torrijos in Panama, Velasco Alvarado in Peru or Francisco Caamãno Deno in the Dominican Republic. Indeed it is a tradition with deep roots, going back to the Socialist Republic of Col. Marmaduke Grove in Chile (1931), the Brazilian ‘tenentes’ (lieutenants) of the 1920s, and all the way back to the early 19th century liberators.’ (p.17)

And in fact Raby devotes an entire section to the failed 1974 revolution in Portugal, the so-called ‘Revolution of the Carnations’, led by the progressive, indeed revolutionary MFA, the Movimento das Forças Armadas or Armed Forces Movement. This movement advocated “an anti-monopolist economic strategy … and a social policy defending the interests of the working class.” (p. 214)

Raby also challenges the idea of the professional politician and indeed, goes even further and challenges the very idea of a hegemonic political party ‘leading the masses’. Not that political parties are irrelevant, but that the experiences which he documents thoroughly in ‘Democracy and Revolution’ point to why the revolutions in Cuba and Venezuela have succeeded where others have failed.

Political parties become dangerous when they stop listening and responding to the people; when they think they have all the answers and resort to dogmatism and one-dimensional ideological posturing, a situation I am sure many of you are all too familiar with.

Raby makes clear that in all these situations, it wasn’t traditional Communist or Socialist parties that led the way (although some jumped on the bandwagon after the fact) and indeed some actually opposed the revolutionary actions of the broad-based movements.

The revolutionary experiences of Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Portugal, Raby sums up as follows:

‘… all point in the direction of a broad, popular and democratic movement with a bold, charismatic and non-partisan leadership, ideologically flexible and inspired by national popular culture and traditions as well as different strands of international progressive thought, as the essential components of successful revolution.’ (p. 19)

Of relevance to us in the so-called developed world are Raby’s observations on our ‘liberal democracies’ which he views rightly, as degenerate and bearing many of the hallmarks of prior military dictatorships in Latin America!

‘The growth of executive power, the emasculation of parliament and the destruction of inner-party democracy and civil liberties have contributed powerfully to voter disillusionment in the very countries which like to present themselves as democratic models for the world, but no longer even live up to their own liberal principles.’ (p.28)

There’s a lesson to be learned here for us and it’s one that’s not lost on the people of the developed countries who express a yearning to get reconnected, to belong, to participate, even if it’s lost on the so-called Left except as opportunism as with the Respect Party’s courting of the Muslim vote but ignoring pretty much everybody else!

And it is here that the experiences of Cuba and Venezuela are used to great effect to demonstrate what this “Socialism of the 21st century” could look like.

But don’t get me wrong here, Raby is also under no illusions about the role of power and the importance of a strong central state:

‘Now it is one thing to recognise that revolutionary state power has all too often lost its popular democratic foundations, and quite another to deny the importance of state power as such and the possibility of constructing a non-capitalist power structure based on social justice.’ (p.57)

Raby quotes Atilio Boron on this issue very succinctly:

‘… the state is precisely where the correlation of forces is condensed. It is not the only place, but it is by far the most important one. It is the only one from which, for example, the victors can transform their interests into laws, and create a normative and institutional framework that guarantees the stability of their conquests.’ – Atilio Boron (2005), in ‘Forum on John Holloway’, Capital and Class 85, Spring.

Raby continues:

‘This is why, despite the fact that the Soviet state had long since ceased to express popular power in any meaningful sense, health care and education remained free and universal in the USSR until its collapse and unemployment was virtually unknown … Boron’s point holds: it was the original revolutionary conquest of power 70 years before which had institutionalised fundamental benefits for the common people, benefits which long outlived the exhaustion of this particular revolutionary model.’ (p.58)

Nor does Raby abandon Marx and Marxism but instead returns to it, quoting Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune of 1871:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du people. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’ – Marx and Engels, 1968, 294-5.

Most importantly, Raby is under no illusion about the current circumstances for he says that:

‘The logic of such revolutionary processes [as in Venezuela and in Nicaragua] and of popular regimes which lead them will necessarily point in a Socialist direction, although they will never be able to to establish a stable Socialist system because this is a contradiction in terms (and more so than ever in today’s globalised world). Rather they will exist in permanent tension with imperialism, and their survival will depend on maintaining popular mobilisation and democratic participation at all levels.’ (p.65)

Raby calls this a:

‘revolutionary state of popular power, which may be what socialism as a transitional stage really amounts to: it cannot operate as a self-sustained and distinct mode of production, which was the Stalinist illusion, but through its popular-democratic and military strength it can function with a non-capitalist or anti-capitalist logic … As a revolutionary state it can negotiate with transnational capital from a position of relative strength, it can create and protect a society based on a large measure of social justice, participatory democracy and economic sovereignty, but it cannot break completely with the global capitalist system until such time (still remote) as revolution and popular power/Socialism spreads through most of the world.’ (p. 65)

And this is exactly what both Venezuela and Cuba have (so far) succeeded in doing. After all, ask yourself the question why, in spite of what we are told is the ‘end of history’ (that is, of revolution), Cuba survives and prospers and probably the most original and exciting event, the Bolivarian Revolution is taking place right now?

Space (and time) precludes me from exploring this book further, there are many other aspects I would dearly like to touch on that I think are of direct relevance to all of us. But if this essay spikes your interest then please buy it or get your local library to get it (if you still have one). I believe this is an important and timely book that shatters many of the myths about the possibilities for a socialist transformation and not just in Latin America.

‘Democracy and Revolution – Latin America and Socialism Today’, D.L. Raby. Pluto Books, 2006. Buy it at amazon.co.uk or amazon.com.

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