The FSLN, Mass Organizations & the Socialist Transition

Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987

Milton Fisk

People in Power:
Forging A Grassroots Democracy in Nicaragua
by Gary Ruchwarger
South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987, 340 pages, $16.95.

THIS IS A welcome addition to the growing list of books on revolutionary Nicaragua. It focuses on a feature of the Sandinista revolution that has created hope for its success: the mass organizations.

The chance that the Sandinista revolution will advance-move ahead to a socialist term-depends on the ability of its mass organizations to sustain their independence. Ruchwarger provides essential data for judging to what extent they have thus far been independent in respect, to both the state and the party.

The party — the FSLN — has, to be sure, also been a vital element in pushing the revolution forward. Among other things, it has used its leading role to strengthen the mass organizations. Time and again it has reaffirmed its commitment to the autonomy of the mass organizations. It has even criticized itself in those cases where it had imposed policies on them.

But party leadership, even flexible party leadership, is not the novel element in the delicate balance of revolutionary forces in Nicaragua. That element has been the enduring strength and independence of the mass organizations since Somoza’s fall.

The transitional politics in place in Nicaragua since 1979 is rooted in a commitment to maintain a special relation between the state and the popular classes. Within this special relation, the state and the popular classes limit one another, with the result that the autonomy of the state as it is known in the major capitalist countries is considerably reduced.

The special relation is the fact that on, major issues there are negotiations, on a basis of mutuality, between the state executive and the mass organizations. The state has neither the ability or the legitimacy to attempt to solve major problems while ignoring the spontaneity of the mass organizations. But on the other hand, the state is not the organic creation of these organizations, in the way a supreme soviet in classical revolutionary models would be built on organizations of workers and peasants.

If the CIA-backed contra war can be ended before the country bleeds to death, then the fundamental issue for the Nicaraguan revolution will be how the mass organizations can get more power for themselves. For in the long run they alone can prevent a degeneration of the revolution and a loss of democracy.

With more power they will be capable of thwarting a non-democratic degeneration through their role as a reliable counterweight to the state. In addition, a political pluralism that reflects opposed currents within the revolution will be cultivated only as a differentiation that takes place within the mass organizations.

A Dynamic Dialectic

Ruchwarger’s book does not extend to these questions about the transition to socialism. He views the situation in terms of the concept of participatory democracy. Asking whether aspects of participatory democracy are to be found in Nicaragua leads him to focus on existing institutional relations, rather than picking out built-in economic and political tendencies that embody the potential for various outcomes of the revolutionary process.

Ruchwarger places himself in the tradition of J.J. Rousseau and J.S. Mill on participatory democracy rather than in that of Marx on the dynamics of struggles that might deepen democracy.

He can point out, for example, that neighborhood associations influence decisions at the level of the Ministry of Housing. But there is no hint that this type of grassroots participation in the running of the state is an unstable situation, which over time will lead either to a further reduction of state autonomy or to an institutionalization of the state that leaves no room for such participation.

The perspective of participatory democracy has little more to offer us, though, since for it the dialectic of state and mass is not one powered by instability. In order to understand it better, the dialectic of mass and state has to be viewed as dynamic rather than static. There are conditions that left unopposed will change the relation of mass to state. In fact, conditions promoting the dominance of the state in this dialectic, and conversely the atrophy of the mass organizations, are basic aspects of the revolution itself They cut deeper than either elitism on the part of the state or backwardness on the part of the masses, which are the features Ruchwarger emphasizes.

Instead, instability needs to be seen as rooted in the fact that the revolutionary state tries to balance the interests of mass organizations against both those of an employing class and those of national unity in the face of imperialism. Such a state is inevitably a brake on the independence and power of the mass organizations.

The tasks of a successful transition to socialism are set by these sources of instability. Indeed, participatory democracy itself will not survive unless the struggles against the employing class and against imperialist incursions are eventually successful.

Insightful Portrayal

Nevertheless, Ruchwarger’s discussion of the interaction between, on the one side, the state and the party and, on the other side, the mass organizations is a factually useful and insightful portrayal covering the period from 1979 to the mid-1980s. That interaction is for him not a vertical but a mutual one.

Moreover, he avoids the error of dismissing the revolution either because the mass organizations have not been allowed to take full state power or because the FSLN has not imposed an accelerated pace on the revolution through the state.

He is cognizant that the restriction of the mass organizations by the state and the party has not been an arbitrary act of will. And his commitment to participatory democracy rightly makes him critical of schemes for forcing the pace of the revolution from above.

The mass organizations-the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDSs), the Association of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE), the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the unions of the Sandinista Workers’ Federation (CST), and the Rural Workers’ Association (ATC)-have on numerous occasions all opposed the FSLN and the various state ministries. Neither side in these disputes always wins and the outcomes are usually compromises.

AMNLAE, for example, opposed the FSLN on the 1983 draft law since it excluded women from the draft. The outcome was a compromise allowing women to volunteer for regular military service.

Disputes are worked out through negotiations made possible by frequent communication and contact. There are regular meetings between zonal FSLN officials and representatives for the mass organizations. Ruchwarger quotes a CDS regional secretary as saying:

“If the Frente has a task for us we talk with them and decide whether we can do it or not. We negotiate with them to see whether it’s possible. We are an autonomous organization. We don’t have a vertical relation with them.”

In addition, mass organizations maintain links with state ministries at zonal, regional, and national levels. Thus a CDS zonal executive can discuss the housing problems of CDS members with a zonal delegate from the Ministry of Housing. So there are ongoing negotiations in striking contrast with the vertical relations typical of both capitalist and Eastern Bloc countries.

Ruchwarger addresses the difficult problem of how the mass organizations can maintain their independence of the FSLN while having overlapping memberships with it. Since the FSLN is a centralist party its members in the mass organizations and the National Assembly are expected to give support to the Front’s line. Moreover, the FSLN is the leading political party in virtually all the mass organizations.

Still, the FSLN is committed to the autonomy of the mass organizations. Clearly here is the potential for a serious conflict. To avoid it the FSLN must carefully determine where it is appropriate to take initiatives that can win support within the mass organizations. There will be other times when it needs to cooperate with initiatives coming from within the mass organizations instead of asking members to push through opposed initiatives.

A sustained ability to determine these sensitive matters is rare in revolutionary history. And it will be difficult for the FSLN to exercise this ability consistently so long as it-feels constrained to temper popular demands with the demands of national unity.

Need for Pluralism

Until now the FSLN has finessed this problem through political education and patient negotiations; it has been able to convince the mass organizations that restraint is necessary if in the long run their goals are to be realized. But with no guarantee this will continue to stem popular demands, preparations for a change are necessary.

One way out is the development of a multiplicity of significant political forces, all backing the revolution, within the mass organizations themselves. The FSLN would not be able to have its line adopted without a debate with other political contenders. As significant forces, these contenders would themselves sometimes win the debate. Party centralism and popular autonomy would no longer risk being in conflict. Such political pluralism in the mass organizations is a natural extension of the pluralism current in Nicaragua.

Ruchwarger, however, had hoped the problem of overlapping membership would be defused by a constitutional guarantee of mass-organization autonomy. The 1987 constitution gave no such guarantee, but it would have offered no protection anyhow. So long as a single party is dominant in the mass organizations only that party’s flexibility protects autonomy. This flexibility, which no doubt the FSLN possesses in a remarkable degree, is clearly a historical and not a structural feature.

An FSLN leader of the farmers’ association, UNAG, told me he would no longer be a leader of UNAG if he failed as a campesino activist. Since the FSLN valued him as a leader of UNAG, it would not ask him to do anything against the interests of the campesinos because this would endanger his position in UNAG.

His argument is persuasive only when we assume UNAG is likely to recall him from leadership if he were to go against the interests of the campesinos. Yet with enough FSLN militants having overlapping membership in key positions of UNAG, he would be secure as a leader. His position in UNAG would be secure simply because the FSLN was satisfied he was doing its bidding. If the transition to socialism is not to be blocked, this must be dealt with as a potential problem down the road.

It is to be emphasized that the pluralist political solution suggested here is not one that can be legislated. Alternative political parties will have to emerge out of debates from within the mass organizations. Whether they do emerge will be a key test of the ability of the mass organizations to dynamize the transition to socialism.

History & Case Studies

Ruchwarger’s accounts of the state of each of the mass organizations is given against a historical backdrop provided by the first half of the book. There he first discusses the origins of the mass organizations in the period before 1979. It was only by allying themselves with these incipient organizations that the Sandinistas were able to take power. He then traces the growth of the mass organizations after the triumph of the revolution and notes some of their internal distortions in this period.

In the second half of the book Ruchwarger describes the structure and functioning of the mass organizations up to the mid-1980s. This description is given added substance through case studies based on his own observations in a CDS, an agricultural cooperative, and a zonal executive committee of AMNLAE.

His picture of CDSs includes the variety of tasks they perform-vigilance, health campaigns, adult education, administration of the housing law, and economic supply. It indicates the creative way the volunteers participating in these tasks are trained and how relevant state ministries become involved. He points out that CDS secretaries of “economic defense” maintain networks of popular inspectors to look for distributional problems.

After all this there are still ways the picture is incomplete. There is, for example, no indication how economic work was affected after the Ministry of Internal Commerce decided, without previously informing the CDSs, to deal with the black market not through price controls, which were to be monitored by the popular inspectors, but through a parallel market.

In addition, one is left wondering how the degree of participation in the CDSs was affected by the realization that they could do little to protect people from the serious deterioration of the urban economy.

Here, as elsewhere, Ruchwarger gives no estimate of the social weight of reactionary sentiment and organization. Yet the effectiveness of the CDSs is clearly reduced by the rightward drift in the barrios that goes along with the resort to individualist methods to cope with scarcity. In short, Ruchwarger writes as though the mass of the mass organizations taken together were virtually the entire population. True, these are issues that have become more pressing since Ruchwarger did his research, but they were evident even then.

In the treatment of UNAG, Ruchwarger points once again to negotiations between a mass organization and both the state and the party as the means by which the populace is benefitted. He leads the reader to believe that there was adequate mutuality in these negotiations in 1981-85 and that UNAG was shaping agricultural policy to meet peasant needs.

In reality, as agrarian reform failed to generate results for many peasants, they gave support to the contras; production in the field was slowed by unrealistically low state prices; and individual title to land was more attractive to many peasants than the joint title of the so-called Sandinista cooperatives.

The supposition of mutuality was refuted in this case by the FSLN itself when it recently began to criticize itself for “verticalism” and to call for more participation from the base in framing agricultural policy. The shift in 1985 toward accelerating land distribution and toward market prices ended a policy that had been imposed rather than negotiated.

Happily, Ruchwarger’s thesis of participatory democracy, though refuted in the period he tries to support it in, may fare better now while the FSLN is organizing meetings of peasants to discuss ways to strengthen democracy.

Workers’ Control & Productivity

In dealing with the union movement, Ruchwarger focuses on the fact that worker control has become a central demand since the fall of Somoza. He traces the demand to the period in which workers responded to capitalist sabotage with plant seizures. The 1981 law against decapitalization denied workers this response, but they were soon to have other avenues to participation in management.

The pilot projects in worker control reported on by Ruchwarger have become more common. In these cases a production committee, made up of representatives from both union and management, and the workers’ assembly of the enterprise review the annual production plans submitted by the enterprise director. Of course, as Ruchwarger notes, solving the problem of improving worker productivity will involve expanding the workers’ role much beyond this.

He has little to say about the union movement outside the CST and the ATC. Yet health workers, teachers, and federations associated with other parties have joined with the CST and the ATC on several occasions to develop a common program. One might ask if together, as the union movement, all these unions do not constitute an informal and politically pluralist mass organization.

Examples of worker control are also to be found outside the Sandinista federations. For example, the councils of teachers in the schools, at all levels, are organs of workers’ control. They have served to reduce the power of school directors.

In conclusion, People in Power should be required reading for everyone interested in the Nicaraguan revolution. It is more successful in bringing the mass organizations into sharper focus than other works. It develops more explicitly than has been done elsewhere the theme that a mutual interaction between both the FSLN and the state and the mass organizations is perpetuating the revolution. The author sees this interaction as exemplifying desirable traits of participatory democracy.

I have emphasized that the concept of participatory democracy is inadequate for grasping the import of this interaction. It does not penetrate to the class realities that make the interaction unstable. Because of those realities, the interaction is a dynamic one that, if it doesn’t develop in the direction of greater power for the mass organizations, will revert to a vertical relation -of both party and state to the masses.

The inadequacies of that concept predispose Ruchwarger to see more stability in the mutual interaction than there is and thus, as we saw, to give overly optimistic accounts of the weight of the CDSs and UNAG in policy decisions in the period he studied. Still, until his account is integrated into our general awareness about Nicaragua, nobody will advance a better account of the mass organizations.

November-December 1987, ATC 11

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *