Their Socialism and Ours

Against the Current No 7, January-February 1987

Ralph Schoenman

DOES SOCIALISM EXIST anywhere in the world today? Is there any “socialist” State which we can support? What does it mean to .be in transition to socialism? What is the relationship between socialism and democracy?

In a period of upsurge, such as we find today, the need for clarity and rigor among revolutionary socialists is more important than at other times. Yet there persists among many of us a fundamental confusion about our program and our values. This is surprising, given the painful history of revolutions aborted, revolutions lost and revolutions betrayed.

Much of this muddle concerns the relationship of democracy to socialism, the nature of the transitional (or post-capitalist) State and the material conditions necessary for a society legitimately to be called socialist.

When we attempt to defend human rights, civil liberty and democracy in societies where revolution is in process or has taken State power, we are often accused of defending bourgeois democracy. This equation of democracy with bourgeois society is a measure of the degeneration in theory as well as in the ideals and motivation which inspired people in the past to devote their lives to the struggle for socialism.

Revolutionaries were not usually people sycophantic towards figures of authority, let alone idolators of the State-any State. Democracy was perceived by socialists as a revolutionary legacy-the enfranchisement of the oppressed and the exploited, the vast majority of each society and, indeed, of the population of the world. Historically, democracy has never been given to anyone. It has been taken by revolutionary struggle, wherever, however briefly, it has occurred.

It is the essence of Marxist tradition that democracy is inseparable from our methods and our goals. The complaint about bourgeois democracy is that it is a shell without content, wherein apparently representative institutions do not correspond to the structure of power. The antithesis of a democratic society is not merely the absence of democratic forms (as in feudalism or fascism), but the presence of an oligarchy disguising its rule through a facade of nominally representative institutions.

It is not, therefore, democracy which is “bourgeois.” It is that concentration of power which comprises a play-acting charade designed to deny the possibility of democratic control by the working majority.

THE TASK OF socialists has always been to expose this lie, to penetrate the false ideological cover which disguises and thus preserves the manipulative and brutal nature of bourgeois rule. Our program is not to eliminate democracy but to extend it, not to revert to authoritarian modes of pre-bourgeois society (let alone to emulate the bourgeois resort to the fascist State) but to fuse economic and political democracy.

Democracy of the workplace will extend through the political process with a multiplicity of political parties, periodicals, debate and ferment in which suppression of ideas and of advocates is as alien as the old order:

“The first step in the revolution by the working class,” write Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, “is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” (emphasis added)

A problem which afflicts our movement is that many people have spent years in small revolutionary groups and currents. They desire now to compensate for a past occupied by mean and futile maneuverings reflecting the isolated and sectarian environment in which they were obliged to expend their energy and pass their time. These experiences have colored the perceptions with which such people now approach political work. So fearful are they of being perceived as sectarian and so weary of perambulating among arcane and petty squabbles which passed as revolutionary politics, that they desire now to endorse rather than evaluate.

What is at work is a loss of confidence-in ideas and in the ability to work politically while holding to clear programmatic conceptions of the practices and institutions which are necessary if working people are to emancipate themselves from manipulative ill-use. Over the past century, revolutionary socialists have refused to yield on certain basic ideas, and central to these is that the working majority should rule through precise, unmistakable institutions, their voices heard loud and clear.

To think that small elites, however self labeled, can serve as an adequate alternative to masses of people in motion is to become deaf to the voices now sounding throughout the workers’ movement in Poland. The same energy, invention and resilience which have enabled ten million Polish workers to forge an instrument such as Solidarnosc are present in the workers and farmers of Central America, South Africa, the Philippines, Palestine and Iran.

People who have but recently emerged from bad experiences in small manipulative socialist groups have drawn the wrong lessons, offering conclusions born more of fatigue than maturity. The democratic control by the working majority of their political and personal lives is really the distilled essence of our socialist convictions. It is a prerequisite for the society we advocate.

There is nothing so difficult or mysterious about this. It is not impossible for revolutionary movements to be democratic in or out of power, whatever the exigencies of the struggle. If we do not wish to excuse elitism and conceal it where it occurs, we should have no problem in declaring that our support for any revolutionary development does not preclude insistence upon recognizable institutions through which workers, farmers, political activists and foreign comrades can discuss and decide vital issues. There is no reason to become amnesiac about the differences between a State apparatus and a political party.

Only retreat from critical thought can explain the pusillanimous unwillingness to demand the same rights for others that we require for ourselves in political life. The very bad experiences which have led many in the socialist movement to vow “never again”-subjection to authoritarian, manipulative and demeaning political norms in groups passing themselves off as “revolutionary” or “socialist”-should not now be painted in false colors when present in other theaters of struggle.

SOCIALISTS HAVE long understood, as well, that a pre-condition both for making the revolution and for institutionalizing it is the uncompromised independence of the working class. Reliance upon bourgeois leadership or program cannot be reconciled with class independence, as the salutary history of the social democracy and the bureaucratic dictatorships bears out.

Support today of the Democratic Party in the United States or of the Aquino wing of the Philippine oligarchy provides no more than left cover for sectors of the ruling class.

Under whatever rationale and from whatever nominal motive, when the programmatic independence of the working class is compromised, the name of this particular rose is capitulation. C. Wright Mills labelled such pragmatism “crackpot realism.” Eugene Debs’ formulation was as felicitous:

“It is far better to support what you want and not get it, than to support what you do not want-and get it!”

These considerations flow neither from rigidity, sectarian sensibility nor the pursuit of some putative purity. They arise from an understanding of the minimal conditions needed to accomplish a revolution of, by and for the working class and the dispossessed.

Socialists have also known that the post-capitalist State, even when characterized by workers’ self-management, class independence and full democratic control will be transitional to socialism. Whether this transition can be achieved will not be determined solely by the will and consciousness of the workers and their political parties; nor will the institutionalization of workers’ democracy suffice-although these are indispensable requirements. They comprise, however, necessary but not sufficient conditions for the creation of Socialist society.

The sufficient condition is the material base-capital accumulation, developed technology and a skilled work force. These are the means of generating production in plenitude. In the era of imperialism, when the world economy and the world market are dominated by finance capital, it is virtually impossible to advance sufficiently in productive capacity within the arbitrary national frontiers which determine the sovereign reach of the revolutionary State. These geographical limits reflect not the rational allocation of resources or a division of productive labor but the conditions under which the nation State emerged-bourgeois slaughter in pursuit of market and raw material. Without an adequate material base there will be scarcity and the allocation of scarce resources produces an inexorable inequity and privilege. The transitional State will reflect this as the area of its control bears such vanishingly small relation to the workings of the world market and far more to the limitations of geographic borders which are neither logical nor related to productive need.

The only way for the working class to monitor the handling of scarcity and the power of the transitional State in allocating diminished resources is through full workers’ control of industry and agriculture, attended by workers’ self-management and autonomous trade unions.

SOCIALISTS, THUS, should not confound a class with any party and never a party with the State. The State is an instrument, when all is said and done, of coercion and only imperfectly serves the workers in the best of circumstances. A political party may express the needs of a class. Socialists owe loyalty to the workers, minimally to their parties and only with vigilant distance to the State.

Low productive capacity, minimal technological development and the absence of a skilled work force deprive a revolutionary State of the means to make a transition to socialism. These circumstances render even more critical what Marx and Engels called “winning the battle for democracy” and underline why they considered this the “first step.” The urgency arises because the absence of necessary material conditions changes the nature of the post-capitalist State to that of a bridgehead-a holding action in the class struggle.

Che Guevara expressed this dilemma well in 1964 during a conference in Algiers on problems of development in the era of imperialism. Liberating Cuba, Che said, was a worthy thing to do, but rather like liberating Poughkeepsie. Cuba is engulfed by a surrounding sea of corporate capital.

For six million Cubans to conceive of their socialism in terms of raising living standards on the basis of the world market (controlled as it is by finance capital) would involve abandoning 300 million Latin Americans excluded from the benefits of the world imperial economy.

The struggle for socialism in Cuba, argued Che, was the struggle for its extension to Latin America. The nature of the Cuban State today notwithstanding, Che was a man who argued by example.

If there is to be a transition to socialism in any post-capitalist revolutionary State (even if one were to come into being in advanced industrial nations like France or Great Britain) it will require the ongoing, ever deepening democratization of the State and the extension and intensification of revolutionary struggle in the region and beyond.

This holds even more compellingly for a pauperized former neo-colony like Nicaragua. The current onslaught by the United States upon an impoverished and beleaguered Nicaraguan revolutionary government make democracy and revolution in Central America more critical, not less.

Those who invoke the might of the counter-revolution as a reason to curtail workers’ democracy, prepare for the demoralization-not the mobilization of the working masses. They guarantee the degeneration of a State at best precarious in its capacity to solve immediate economic problems and to surmount material deprivation.

The absence of habeas corpus, of freedom of assembly and of the press has not a whit to do with fighting or defeating the counter-revolution. The doctrine of “clear and present danger,” enunciated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, was the rationale of a bourgeois State to defuse the First Amendment. There is no danger in speech or advocacy except to illicit authority. There is no benefit in arresting people without evidence, due process or protection from State decree, except to functionaries whose actions need shielding from public scrutiny.

This is never truer than when a revolutionary government is in power. It applies even more so when that government is under siege, for it is precisely at such times that the people–whose revolutionary instrument this government must be–can be readily mobilized. Those bold enough to advocate openly the cause of a murderous counter-revolution need not be silenced, only answered.

For the acid test of a belief in civil liberty is the defense of the rights of those we detest. Any authoritarian can support freedom for those with whom he or she agrees.

The actual victim of repressive measures is usually not its apparent target but the masses and their control over the State. Nor can the abstract rights of the many be deployed as a rationale for denying the specific rights of the individual. Marx and Engels address this as well in the Communist Manifesto:

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (emphasis added)

However dedicated, nine commandantes do not a workers’ democracy make. What the revolution needs is not La Prensa. That bourgeois instrument, however, should not merely be allowed to function, but we should understand that it has a utility for the struggle. It poses, however crudely, the discredited ideas of the old order. This facilitates illumination through living debate of the inability of the class opponent to speak to the needs of the masses.

What should concern socialists is that suppression of La Prensa, this easy target, is indicative of something to hide on the part of the government and its censors.

What the Nicaraguan revolution needs is to cancel the crippling debt forged by Somoza in the service of international banking capital a debt whose constant cost consumes no small proportion of the Nicaraguan GNP. The European social-democratic regimes are unappeased by such fiscal forbearance. Their heads of State roll pious eyes before Washington’s murderous practice as these shopworn “socialists” do nothing to oppose it.

For all the seeming might of Washington, its power is actually severely circumscribed. Like the Israeli State, Washington thrives on surrogate butchery pursuant to blitzkrieg attack-when sustained resistance is deemed unlikely, as we have seen in Grenada and Libya.

Che Guevara understood this when he urged revolutionaries to spread imperialism thin in two, three or more Vietnams. Washington knows it has no mandate from either the American people or, for that matter the ruling class, to commit U.S. troops to a prolonged, resisted occupation. A precarious North American economy, in which eight trillion dollars debt (national, state, county, city, corporate and individual) is some three times the current GNP in the United States, is well understood by the captains of capital to be a precarious base from which to launch a prolonged military intervention. Sounding the alarm about “sagging productivity, huge trade deficits {over $150 billion a year),” the New York Times writes:

“Americans fear for their economic future. Real incomes are declining. Mass firings of blue collar employees are common. Pension benefits are disappearing, as companies such as LTV, the huge steelmaker, fail. Parents are losing the expected security of their later years and their children are giving up the idea of living as well as their parents.” (August 17, 1986)

Nicaragua needs the deepening of its revolution, creating institutions through which the masses will make important inroads on the private sector which, ultimately, must be managed and run by workers who should not be held back from pursuing this. Nicaragua needs the intensification of the revolutionary struggle in Central America-from Panama to Honduras and in Latin America. The Nicaraguan revolution is not helped by subordination to national bourgeoisies by revolutionary currents, whether in Peru or Uruguay.

Nicaragua requires a left press capable of articulating these issues, of raising demands concerning the program of the revolution, of analyzing the workers’ struggle in Poland and the nature of bureaucratic rule, of organizing on-going rallies and debates about the strategy, extension and future of the Nicaraguan and Latin American revolutions.

Socialists who fight for the Nicaraguan revolution, here as there, should not rationalize a State of Emergency which will not advance the revolution one step or contribute a scintilla of comprehension to the workers in comparison to what truly independent trade unions would achieve. Such anti-democratic measures delay and endanger workers’ democracy in Nicaragua.

What then are the economic realities within Nicaragua itself? The U.S. intervention has compelled the revolutionary government to devote fifty percent of the Federal budget to defense. The blockade has caused a severe and worsening deterioration of the Nicaraguan economy. Two hundred and fifty thousand people have been displaced from the land by counter-revolutionary attacks. Daniel Ortega has cited an inflation rate of 328 % and the government has felt obliged to make drastic cuts in education and health care programs.(1)

This is the setting in which the FSLN government endures the strain of honoring the debt to the imperialist banks incurred by the Somoza regime. Speaking at a special session of the United Nations, Daniel Ortega declared:

“With the blood and sweat of the Nicaraguan people, we have paid $621 million in debt service in five years. This represents two years of income in export earnings.”(2)

The situation is graver than this. Somoza’s original debt of $1.2 billion has grown today to $3.9 billion. In 1979 the Government of National Reconstruction accepted payment of the debt and even after the capitalists left the government the FSLN continued to assume responsibility for it. In 1980, interest payments represented 13.3% of export earnings. By 1985, these interest payments alone had sky rocketed to double (200%) the value of export earnings. This bondage to imperialist banks is one of the most devastating weapons deployed by the U.S. government in its efforts to strangle the revolution and destroy its popular base.

U.S. strategists have, in fact, relied upon the domestic capitalists in Nicaragua (and the capitalist regimes comprising the Contadora States) to apply pressure upon the government to sustain the debt payments, so that the escalator effect of the blockade would be that much greater. The weakened capacity of the Nicaraguan economy to surmount the blockade is due in part to honoring the Somoza debt and the result is a loss of a further $861 million dollars to Nicaragua during the past six years.(3)

Despite the enormous onslaught on the living standards of the Nicaraguan masses, the government remains able to mobilize the population. In 1985 the July 19 rally at the Plaza de la Revolucion saw 500,000 people; but if the population remains mobilized against the foreign intervention, the economic policies and political structure of the revolutionary government are eroding support.

One dimension of this process is the contortions through which a revolutionary government must go in order to resolve the basic contradiction between, the calls it issues for “national unity” and its efforts to mobilize the masses around slogans of a “People’s War.”

National unity is the euphemism for supporting the “mixed economy,” a program which precludes carrying the revolution forward to the social ownership of the means of production. But the peasants demand large-scale distribution of the land and the government cannot respond both to the peasants and the medium and large capitalists who continue to dominate the economy, both rural and urban.

During the first years of the revolution, peasant demands for large-scale land distribution were deferred.(4) The Agrarian Reform of October 1981 exempted all large landholdings from distribution to the poor peasants with the exception of lands held by Somoza and his immediate satraps.(5) Moreover, unlike the land reform laws of such capitalist States as El Salvador or Peru, no limit is set on the amount of land which large landowners may hold. Individual plols are not distributed to landless peasants.(6)

The Stale controlled twenty percent of the lands formerly owned by the Somoza family and supporters. The agrarian reform gave priority to the State sector. After the insurrection, peasants throughout the Nicaraguan countryside spontaneously seized and occupied tens of thousands of hectares of land. The FSLN responded by creating the People’s Property Sector on Somoza’s lands and tried to induce the peasants to return other occupied lands to their absentee and large landowner proprietors.(7) By February 1980, however, a spontaneous peasant march in Managua demanded legalization of all lands occupied by the peasantry. It was in response to such actions that the 1981 Agrarian Reform exempted from occupation the cultivated lands of the large estates. During the first two years of the revolution, only one percent of the land was distributed to the peasants.(8) Though the State sector grew from 20% to 23%, the capitalization of the State-administered lands declined. The government rationale for its vacillating land policy was expressed in the Central American Historic Institute of Managua’s monthly publication: “Partition of the land would provoke a wave of land occupations that would have broken the contract with the private sector.”(9)

Since 1983, the government has placed stress on the cooperatives set up on ten percent of the cultivated lands. But these were further decapitalized and supported by the State more in name than in practice. Seventy-five percent of these cooperatives received no significant State aid. By 1984, only 22% of peasant families had benefitted from the cooperative or State sector. Only 17% of the land had gone to poor peasants, in either collective or individual form.

And of this land, fifty percent given to the peasants came from decapitalized State lands, not from the huge capitalist estates.(10) The contras sought to exploit peasant demoralization by appealing to the poor peasants and the government has sought to respond to this threat. But the principle of excluding from confiscation the lands of the medium and large landowners remains in force. Only a miniscule percentage of land has reached the poor peasantry. By 1985, the agrarian reform had effectively ground to a halt. This was announced in effect on October 21, 1984 by Commander Victor Tirado:

“The era of large land confiscations came to an end with the expropriation of the Somoza lands.”(11)

These policies have not been well received by the most militant of the revolution’s supporters. In Masaya, a Sandinista stronghold, peasants marched on Managua as early as 1980 seeking legalization of their land occupations. As the counter-revolution mounted new attacks, the Masaya peasantry was prominent in the FSLN militia, particularly during 1982 and 1983. By 1984, as a result of its failure to respond to the persistent land demands of the peasants, the government was faced with widespread peasant refusal to serve in the army, boycott of FSLN meetings and a vote of only 55% in the elections, well under the national average. By May 1985, with the inflation rate soaring, hundreds of peasants took over State-owned abandoned lands and the lands of large landlords.(12)

The FSLN responds to peasant pressure, but in a manner designed to reconcile peasant demands with a policy of temporizing with the capitalist class. The government turned over State-owned lands to the peasants and negotiated to buy out the 18 large landowners affected by the occupation at full market value based upon the prices of inflation, giving them in addition the most fertile lands in State hands in other regions! Prior to June 1985, 7400 rural families in Masaya had received no lands; after the FSLN response to the peasant protests, 6100 such families still remain without land.(13)

On January 11, 1986, the government amended the Agrarian Reform Law to make land more accessible to the rural poor. The lands to be taken, however, were only those abandoned or unused, or those of landlords who had openly gone over to the contras. The productive lands of the largest landlords were exempt. The lands confiscated are to be compensated at declared value. The peasants, however, have stepped up their occupations.

Nicaragua’s Region V comprises one-fifth of the total land area of the nation. By the end of 1985, 1000 families still controlled over one million acres. The poor peasantry consists of more than forty percent of the population but owns only 400,000 acres.(l4) One important element of the peasant land seizures has been a clause in the amendment to the Agrarian Reform which cites “public necessity” as a criterion for potential governmental takeover of the land.

This entire conflict has been summed up in Barricada, the official paper of the FSLN, on May 5, 1986,

“There are more demands for land by the campesinos than there is land to be distributed.”

Twenty thousand peasant families in Masaya alone demanded land. Barricada quoted Roberto Coronel, vice-minister of agrarian reform, warning against further “illegal” land occupations:

“The peasants who want land must respect the laws .. , We must not forget that in Nicaragua there exists a mixed economy. If an occupation is considered illegal. . . the land must be returned to the owner… The revolution wants to favor the peasants, but in the framework of a legal, juridical system.”

The government has sought to reconcile peasant-revolutionary demands with its policy of preserving capitalist property relations. Commander Jaime Wheelock, Minister of Agrarian Reform, explained:

“We maintain our principle of integrating all private producers, large and small, into the mixed economy. But the mercenary imperialist aggression has forced us to deepen the agrarian reform, and, on the other hand, the needs of the people have pressured us to act.”(15)

In response to these demands, the government announced several new land distributions in 1986, totaling over 200,000 acres. In Region V, 40,000 acres were turned over to poor peasants. A further 135,000 acres are scheduled to be distributed before the end of the year.(16) But once again, half of this land is designated from State-owned farms deemed “unproductive,” and these are the farms which the State itself deprived of technical aid or credits. The crucial fact remains that the Sandinista government is committed to what it euphemistically calls a “mixed economy” but what is, in fact, an economy largely in capitalist hands. The government opposes distributing the lands of the large capitalist producers. When it dismembers the State farms it has itself failed to capitalize, thousands upon thousands of agricultural workers are forced either onto other crowded State farms or they must abandon their jobs.

As Envio, the monthly magazine published by the Central American Historic Institute, stated in October 1985:

“The Nicaraguan government is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is committed to maintaining the mixed economy and, therefore, to preserving a sector of large private capitalists. It does this both to sustain the economy and as a political project of national unity.”(17)

But national unity so conceived is predicated upon making the workers and poor peasants bear the brunt of the political decision not to carry the revolution into a socialist phase, that is to create the minimal conditions needed to put the workers and peasants in command of the economy. Sixty-seven percent of industry in Nicaragua is fully controlled by the capitalists and remains securely in the private sector. Nicaraguan capitalists alternate between withholding investment for the medium and long term, and speculation combined with capital flight.(18)

The U.S. blockade, aimed at driving the capitalists who had tolerated the Sandinistas into the camp of the counterrevolution, has hurt the advanced sector of the capitalists who depended upon U.S. machinery and were dependent upon export. The government has, in effect, tied its own hands behind its back. It lacks the basic tools for industrial control and regulation. The State sector is essentially too feeble to direct, let alone invigorate, a besieged economy. It lacks what Aneurin Bevan once called “control over the commanding heights of the economy.”

There is no escaping the fact that capitalists control production, retain the capacity to determine production and distribution and, in essence, keep the Nicaraguan economy hostage to the capitalist laws of production and exchange. The economic power of capitalists is thus preserved and renewed, whatever the government may sincerely desire.

The Ministry of Planning was actually eliminated in 1985.(19) Only the factories owned by Somoza and those who left the country have been nationalized. Most of these were stripped of their assets before their owners fled. Apart from this, the economy remains, structurally, as it was before the revolution. The government may declaim its desire to plan but its capacity to do so cannot but remain vanishingly small under such economic conditions. The relation of forces is simply wrong.

The peasants lack land. The workers face inflation. The entire nation suffers from shortages born partly of the blockade. Distribution of food and essential goods and supplies is at crisis proportions. There are endless lines at government retail stores and thousands search the city of Managua’s markets for foodstuffs, seeking at the same time to sell cloth, small possessions and fruit or vegetables they have managed to obtain. Managua’s population has doubled to just under one million. Envio reports that a peasant can make more than President Daniel Ortega earns by selling soda or sweets in a public park.(20)

Labor market disruption is such that the official minimum wage of 1985 can buy one-fourth of the basic goods needed for a family of six. The government has responded to the blockade and the war by providing incentives to the private producers such as the agro-export capitalists. Subsidies, however, for staple foods have been eliminated and government expenditure cut back as the currency is devalued.(21)

Envio described the situation in the following terms:

“The effects of this economic shift were felt unevenly The workers and poor peasants bear a disproportionate burden of the sacrifices.”(22)

In short, the purchasing power of the workers plummets and the speculators and merchants are permitted substantial profits as a parallel commercial economy blossoms in the capital. The informal, parallel market is called “bisnes.” People take days off to engage in “bisnes” to earn enough to keep going. The government has tried to alleviate this crisis by renewing wage and price controls and supplying a minimum amount of low-priced basic goods to workers and peasants in the Workers’ Supply Stores. The Ministry of Internal Commerce has tried to check on distribution and turn in speculators who siphon off goods to the parallel market. But this too has been criticized by a newspaper which supports the Sandinistas. El Nuevo Diario warned that:

“The government is moving towards monopolizing the distribution system ….The recent reordering of commerce will not work. The laws of supply and demand must be allowed to regulate this market.”(23)

Yet the Sandinistas write and speak of winning “the battle of production.” Government planners speak of increasing the role of workers in the management of enterprises. But Barricada describes the problems encountered when the government sought to motivate workers to produce more:

“Excessive centralist and hierarchical methods of administration in the State sector; the arrogance and resistance of the privileged private sector; and the overall low degree of participation of workers who don’t know the political importance, the costs, or the destination of their production.(24)

Thus when the government recognizes the need to motivate workers and to provide them with an institutional role in the decision-making concerning production, it lacks the capacity to make these ideas real in the experience of the working population. In the private sector, such companies as the largest private sugar refinery in the country, Ingenio San Antonio, simply refuse to cooperate. The international director of the Rural Workers Association states that such companies:

“Place great obstacles in the path of workers’ participation … unwilling to open its bank books to the union, claiming the right of secrecy.”(25)

If, however, the capitalists obstruct the workers by concealing essential data of production, notably their profits, the workers face the fundamental problem of the inability of their trade unions to affect decision making in the State sector itself. All decisions on national wages, working conditions and economic priorities are decided by the FSLN national directorate and the Ministry of Labor. Union representatives are regarded as conveyors of administrator directives back to the workers in the form of orders. Union members who are permitted to sit on a company’s production council must conform to the agenda, goals and priorities of the government. Their job is to see that production goals are fulfilled. They can expose blatant corruption when they are able to document it, but beyond that their presence serves as a decorative embellishment on a bureaucratic process.

In an important interview, Jose Adan Rivera, the head of the Sandinista Rural Workers Association, described to Socialist Action the workings of his union:

“We represent agricultural workers in the State and large private sectors. . .Wage scales and labor laws are established by the government at the national level and must be abided by at the State and private sectors. In each State unit there are production councils made up of representatives of the administration and of the union. Here the interests of the State and those of the workers are combined.”(26)

Rivera was asked if the workers have actual control over production or are simply consulted in the production councils. He was asked as well how a dispute between the administration and union would be resolved. The reply informs us that as the administrator is often nominated by the workers, the State provides all guidelines for production to the administrator who meets the union representative in the production council to inform him. Once the council approves the proposals, they are taken to the union and an assembly of workers.

When asked, however, what happens if workers disagree there were several responses:

“Now, as workers, we are able to under­ stand the need to make sacrifices to meet our production goals because we have representatives at the plants and at all levels of the government. Even the President of the country … meets every one or two months with the workers in Face the People meetings.(27)

But, he was asked, what happens if the workers don’t agree with the decisions of the Ministry of Labor, which establishes the “wages and work conditions and the level of investment?”

The response is as follows:

“They can take their grievances to the Presidency ….The workers are in power. We are not struggling for simple economic demands. We are struggling to defend our revolutionary power. The right to strike is included in the statutes. But this method of struggle is only valid when the workers don’t have power. They are striking against the capitalists. But because in Nicaragua the capitalists aren’t in control, the workers would be striking against themselves.(28)

It was pointed out that the State has control over no more than twenty percent of the economy with the large capitalists in command of a major section of economic life in Nicaragua. The economy remains essentially under capitalist laws of production, whether labeled “mixed” or not. Rivera replied in a manner reminiscent of many societies in which the State and its apparatus are equated with the working class, except that the capitalists are amalgamated to this particular State:

“In Nicaragua, we have a State that defends the interests of the workers. The capitalists who are willing to produce patriotically for the revolution are producing in the interests of the workers.”(29)

These conceptions of workers’ control and the relationship of the workers to the State are reflected in the comments of Jose Luis Villavicencio, the FSLN coordinator in the National Assembly. Discussing the draft constitution, he describes the projected Nicaraguan constitution as one modelled on the Swedish parliamentary system. The government of the future in Nicaragua will be based on an elected President, assembly and municipal councils. The drafters of this document specifically ruled out a governing structure based on mass organizations. Neither unions, factory committees, farm cooperatives nor any other vehicles of mass activity are even represented directly in the new government which is projected. In response to questions as to why a revolutionary government would have no direct representation for mass organizations or of councils of workers and farmers, Villavicencio called this “merely a juridical question.” Unions and mass organizations will be represented indirectly through elected legislators of the ruling party, the FSLN.(30)

It further emerges that the FSLN perceives the Sandinista Army which, they state, functions as the armed wing of the FSLN, as the “national army.” Commander Tomas Borges states:

“There is no more radical or consistent way to be democratic than the Sandinista slogan ‘All arms to the people.’”(31)

It is certainly true that the government has given out over 300,000 rifles to the workers and peasants.(32) These weapons are seen throughout the country, carried by the Sandinista Army, the Reserve Military Police and the People’s Militias. Workers and peasants who guard their workplace take their arms home. The confidence of the government in the population is real. But the control over the State apparatus is not in doubt and in a very real sense the issue of arms distribution begs the question.

To be a member of the FSLN is a very arcane process. There are no formal statutes. You have to prove you had been a combatant during the struggle against Somoza. The FSLN is in reality a very selective elite. It is extremely difficult to join, particularly for a youth. The highest body of the FSLN is the national convention. At the convention meetings there are no contrary positions formulated, formally debated or presented.

The nine commanders sit at the front, listen to questions or suggestions and consult among each other. There are no votes. The nine commanders function by consensus. There is no internal Party democracy. There is debate only in the most limited sense. Tendencies or currents, for example, cannot structure a position on the mixed economy, on the international aspects of the struggle or on the matter of workers’ democracy. No statutes define the rights of the minority or for the setting forth of differing views. FSLN members are bound by severe discipline not to discuss any of the norms or internal workings of the FSLN with non­members.

In a critical sense, therefore, the fundamental issues facing the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua come back to the question of workers’ democracy. It is evident that were the workers and peasants to have a direct and sustained say in the affairs of State, the capitalist economy in Nicaragua would be bypassed: the land would be occupied, the factories taken over. Nor can the handling of the foreign debt be separated from the attempt to sustain a “mixed economy” in Nicaragua.

Revolutionary socialists should not hesitate to defend the Nicaraguan revolution against imperialist intervention; on the contrary, our urgent responsibility is to protect the revolution in all ways open to us. But it is this very obligation which compels us to analyze, rather than applaud and to address the issues facing Nicaragua as passionately and directly as if they were our own urgent tasks. For they are. The Sandinistas have the opportunity to galvanize the entire continent against the primary instrument of pauperization, the paralyzing debt that enslaves every national economy and which points up the inability of the national bourgeois governments of Latin America to defend their people against imperial dominion.

The cancellation of the debt is, therefore, not only a task of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua but of the Latin American struggle on a continental scale. The ramifications for the banks in North America are well known. All forms of North American intervention-economic, financial, covert and armed-carry with them the possibilities envisaged by Che Guevara. The best defense of the revolution in Nicaragua remains its extension-into Latin America, into the heart of the capitalist economy of Nicaragua itself and into the political process rapidly and inexorably posing choices and crossroads for the Nicaraguan masses.

Within Nicaragua it is not only the right-wing unions and political parties with which the Sandinistas must contend. The Nicaraguan Socialist Party and its trade union, CGT-1, are allied with the right-wing pro-capitalist unions, such as the CUS (allied with AIFLD), and the CTN of the conservative Peoples’ Social Christian Party. But the Communist Party of Nicaragua openly calls for negotiations with the counter-revolution. Writing in Avance, the official organ of the PCN, party leader Eli Altamirano “saluted” the right-wing parties and the Catholic hierarchy for advocating dialogue with the contras, called by Altamirano “Nicaraguans in arms”:

“The thesis of national dialogue is the most patriotic thesis that can be defended in our country today.”(33)

This advocacy by the leader of the Communist Party of Nicaragua of the inclusion of the contras in a “solution” is no isolated event. It reflects the considerable pressure exerted by the Soviet Union on the FSLN to restrict the revolution within “bourgeois national” limits, a consistent posture of Communist parties since Stalin.

The Gorbachev regime indicated during arms control negotiations in Geneva that the Soviet Union stood ready to respond to Reagan’s United Nations appeal for help in “solving” the Nicaraguan “problem.” This theme has been echoed in Latin America. La Jornada, the Mexican journal, denounced the FSLN for failing to sign a Contradora peace plan which denied Nicaragua the right to acquire new weapons and required negotiations with the contras. The editorial of April 1986 demanded that “Nicaragua correct its attitude and cease acting as an obstacle to peace in the region.”(34)

The New York Times has frequently taken note of the attitude of the Soviet Union and its epigones:

“The muted response to Reagan’s declaration that Nicaragua is ‘a cancer’ was in keeping with the cautious stance Moscow has long adopted towards the Sandinistas This approach was apparent at the 27th Communist Party Congress where Nicaragua was ignored in a long speech by Gorbachev.”(35)

The FSLN has refused, to their considerable credit, to yield to the specific pressure of the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties of the region to sacrifice the revolution under the guise of accommodation. Daniel Ortega and Jaime Wheelock have declared that the Sandinistas will continue to secure arms for their defense and will never accept the contras as negotiating partners.

But the FSLN leaders have taken their cue from the official Communist movement in their attitude to the revolution in Central America. In 1982 the FSLN gave political support to the election campaign of Miguel de la Madrid of the ruling and capitalist PRI. Jaime Wheelock stated that Mexico was a “model of true socialist democracy.” If the FSLN rejects the demand of the NCP that it include the contras in a “national dialogue,” it shows vanishingly small understanding of the nature of the Soviet Union or of the East European regimes.

The Sandinistas support martial law in Poland and have praised Jaruzelski consistently, denouncing Solidarity as counter-revolutionary and a conspiracy of the CIA. Barricada ran long adulatory obituaries of both Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov. At the time of the Chernobyl nuclear breakdown, Barricada ran articles claiming that reports of the disaster were “imperialist propaganda” inspired by the CIA and a slander on “socialist” society.

Distortion and suppression of the truth affect the relationship of the revolution to the population and corrode political life within the revolutionary movement itself. The consequent loss of credibility for Barricada was accentuated by the fact that La Prensa ran straight wire service reports on the unfolding events.

A large article entitled Hungary: Thirty Years of Progress appeared in Barricada: Yesterday marks thirty years from the time on November 4, 1956 when the counter-revolutionaries were put down in the city of Szolnok by the progressive and patriotic forces under the leadership of Janos Kadar. The counter-revolutionary uprising had broken out on October 23 and was soon put down with the help of units of the Soviet Union. The revolutionary forces (sic) were able to move on to the offensive, organizing a new Party–the Socialist Workers Party of Hungary… The Socialist States, including Czechoslovakia, gave political and economic help to the revolutionary government and contributed to strengthen its power in Hungary. Under the leadership of the PSOH, the Hungarian people were able to restore their national economy and the development of the nation over the past thirty years has confirmed the correctness of the program initiated to overcome past errors and to reconstruct the country.”(36)

If the FSLN views the East European regimes and their Soviet patron as revolutionary and socialist, the favor is not returned. The demand that the Nicaraguan revolution be confined to a “bourgeois national” stage extends to the revolution in Latin America. The Cuban leadership has given new life to the positions of the moribund Communist Parties of Latin America, applying a full court press to both the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions.

Carlos Rafael Rodriguez stated on behalf of the Cuban Communist Party:

“Nicaragua is too backward to consider socialism. Socialism and the fight for socialism are not even to be considered in Nicaragua.”(37)

Fidel Castro gave full expression to the position which has been carried into the arena of struggle in Central America:

“In Latin America socialism is not the question. The Nicaraguans have not set socialism as an objective. Economic development and social reform are the question. No revolutionary movement, including the Salvadoran, has proposed socialism as an objective. We know how the Salvadoran revolutionaries think. Their objective is national liberation. They have proposed a pluralistic system, economically and politically. Proposing socialism .. would create obstacles to the revolutionary movement in the rest of Latin America… I do not believe that socialism is on the agenda in Latin America.”(38)

Castro repeated this thesis in an interview with the Spanish news agency, EFE. Asked about the construction of socialism in Nicaragua, he said

“Actually socialism is not their objective. It is not even a short-term or even medium-term objective. You can add that it isn’t their current objective.”(39)

Contrary to Castro, socialism is the agenda in Latin America. The peasants of Masaya and District Five who hunger for land and mobilize for the confiscation of the holdings of the large landowners express the fact that the democratic reforms and elementary social advance which they desire cannot be realized within a bourgeois “stage.”

If socialism cannot be completed within one backward country, the transition towards socialism is a prerequisite for democratic and revolutionary advance as it is for the economic and political enfranchisement of the masses. There is an inexorable link between the transcendence of bourgeois limits, the fullest political control by the populace in clearly delineated institutions and the extension of the revolution in the region and beyond.

It is neither the evil which is new nor the crisis which has changed. The revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador cannot move forward within the confines of a stagist theory which concedes to the bourgeoisie control either of the economy or the State.

The role of the social democratic leaders and of the Communist Party of El Salvador within the FMLN has specific bearing upon the direction of this revolution. Revolutionary socialists cannot evade the responsibility to analyze and disclose the political events anteceding and surrounding the death of Cayetano Carpio. Nor can the active presence of the Cuban Communist Party in the processes affecting the FMLN and the FSLN in Nicaragua be separated from the course taken by the current leaders of these struggles.

This is no moment for revolutionary socialists to simulate Alzheimer’s victims, amnesiac about our traditions and vacant about the revisiting upon Central American revolutions of the tragedies of Indonesia or Chile. Nor can we tiptoe through the corridors of cheerleading ceremonials, looped in stealth and shadow, shaking out our sounds into cupped hands. We have a theory to espouse, a vision to articulate and a program to uphold. Abandon confidence in these and we have nothing valuable or distinctive to offer.


  1. Daniel Ortega, New York Times, March 16, 1985.
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  2. Jorge Barque, lnprecor, Number 198 (French Edition).
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  3. Central American Bulletin of the Central American Research Institute, (Carin), Volume 5, Number 4. February 1986. See also the breakdown of war damage in Nicaragua in Envio, October 10, 1985. Daniel Ortega cited $2.9 billion as the figure for economic damage arising from the blockade, cancelled loans, etc. in his speech in Managua on the 25th anniversary of the FSLN, November 8, 1986.
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  4. Envio, Number 46-47, Instituto Historico Centro Americana, Managua, August/September 1985.
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  5. Cited by Etienne Hilaire, Socialist Action, April 1986.
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  6. Ibid.
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  7. Ibid.
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  8. Envio, op. cit.
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  9. Ibid.
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  10. Socialist Action, op. cit.
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  11. Speech at Assembly of middle peasants.
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  12. Socialist Action, op. cit.
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  13. Ibid.
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  14. “FSLN Alters Policies in 1986 to Counter Effects of U.S. War” by Alan Benjamin, Socialist Action, June 1986.
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  15. Pensamiento Propio, Managua, January-February 1986.
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  16. Socialist Action, op. cit.
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  17. Ibid.
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  18. Socialist Action, April 1986.
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  19. Ibid.
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  20. Envio, op. cit.
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  21. Cited by Alan Benjamin, Socialist Action, June 1986.
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  22. Envio, op. cit.
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  23. Adolfo Sanchez, El Nuevo Diario, May 3, 1985.
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  24. Barricada, May 5, 1986.
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  25. Interview with Alan Benjamin in Managua, May 5, 1986. (Socialist Action, June 1986).
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  26. Interview with Jose Adan Rivera in Matagalpa, May 8, 1986, Socialist Action, June 1986.
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  27. Ibid.
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  28. Ibid.
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  29. Ibid.
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  30. Interview with Jose Luis Villavicencio by Hector Tobar, May 9, 1986, cited by Socialist Action, June 1986.
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  31. Speech to Congress of Brazilian Sociolo­ gists, March 1986.
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  32. Interview with Jose Luis Villavicencio, op. cit.
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  33. Avance, as cited by Jorge Barque, Inprecor, June 15, 1986.
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  34. Cited by Bandera Socialista, April 28, 1986.
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  35. New York Times, March 22, 1986.
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  36. Barricada, November 5, 1986.
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  37. Interview with Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 1986.
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  38. Interview with Fidel Castro by Peter Torb Jomnson in Havana, cited in Guardian, December 26, 1984.
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  39. EPE, December 1985.
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January-February 1987, ATC 7

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