Toward a Unified Left Perspective

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Arturo Auguiano

THE CRISIS OF the economy, the brutal offensive of capital against the worker and of the bourgeoisie and the government against the people-these defined the situation in Mexico on the eve of the presidential and legislative elections of July 6, 1988.

The implementation of the so-called Pact of Economic Solidarity, signed December 15, 1987, by the government, business and diverse sectors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) bureaucracy, was intended to sanitize the political atmosphere and to provide some political space for the unfolding of the PRI’s electoral campaign. The state was forced to intervene to alleviate social and economic tension. While a virtual wage freeze was imposed, inflation and the free fall of the peso against the dollar was at least partially contained. With or without the pact, however, workers continued to bear the brunt of a declining wage package.

But the imposition of the pact also gave rise to defensive struggles. Workers, peasants and the urban poor moved from latent opposition to a multiplicity of demonstrations: strikes, meetings, marches, work stoppages, seizures of land and property.

Similarly, the young, ecology activists, women, the so-called “middle classes” affected by the crisis, showed their rage and dissatisfaction with ecological degradation, authoritarianism, repression and a lack of democracy. The movement directed by the University Student Council and the fight of the electrical workers’ union (SME) were the first signs that new winds of struggle were blowing.

The Socialist Party (PMS) and Workers Revolutionary Party (PR1) — the two principal parties of the left — viewed the Cuauhtemoc Cardenas campaign with distrust. But from the initial sally of the campaign in Morelia to its first great political showing on February 14 in La Laguna — the ejido region created by the expropriation of lands and the agrarian reform of General Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s — an anti-government movement of the masses unfolded. While many said that the campaign was only nostalgia for the past, the strong turnout of the youth was in fact an expression of hope for a future.

The Cardenas campaign advanced to Mexico City on March 18, where more than 200,000 demonstrators lined the streets. From the e the campaign went to Michoacan, Morelos, Veracruz, Guerrero, Baja California, Tamaulipas, to every corner of the nation. Tens of thousands of peasants, workers, youths, women and intellectuals found their democratic aspirations embodied in Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

It was not a regional, localized phenomenon, as some would have it, but a national explosion that released all the irritation, the courage, the latent non-conformity in an uncontrollable social and political torrent.

In fact, the movement unleashed by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’ campaign was closely aligned with the broader resistance of the people to the crisis and the “stabilizing” policies of the PRI regime. A revitalization of distinct social sectors was a natural process as each found its political expression in Cardenas’ presidential candidacy. In essence, the people’s decision to take their destiny back into their own hands was not only a rejection of the government, the PRI and its candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari, but also a passive expression of the possibility for democratic change.

Between the meeting on March 18 in Mexico City’s main plaza and the mass assembly held there on June 25, a profound change from below occurred. As the unitary candidate of the left and the democratic forces, Cardenas offered the masses the possibility of fighting back against the government and the PRI-identifying them as the principal executors of the plans for national impoverishment, restructuring the nation’s productive capacities, and subordinating the Mexican economy to the North American market.

Opinion polls had predicted Cardenas would win Mexico City overwhelmingly, but the possibility of defeating the PRI had “infected” the most diverse regions of the country. And on election day there was a surprising turnout of the Mexican people. They voted to reject the candidacy of the PRI and acted to insure respect for that vote.

In reality, the people engaged in what Cardenas termed a civic insurgency, which came as a complete surprise to all the parties, candidates and the government itself. Without a formal structure, without even a national organization to direct it — sustained on the personal authority of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas — this social rebellion was evidence of the capacity (often hidden but real) for self-organization by the Mexican masses. The masses proved themselves. What they could not achieve dispersed in their unions, communities and ejidos, they decided to do united and all at once, at the polls.

The program of this rebellion can be summed up in a single word: democracy. And its motivation: the fight against the PRI government, which has made democracy impossible and frustrated all attempts of the people to make their own decisions and name their own representatives or autonomous leaders. Failure to grasp this fundamental content of the pro-Cuauhtemoc wave has reduced some to sectoral isolation and political suicide.

The Defeat of the PRI and Change

The Federal Electoral Commission (CFE), officially charged with organizing the electoral process, was obligated for the first time in the history of the country to present reliable results on election night Nevertheless, the computing system unexpectedly shut down, no doubt because of the devastating eloquence of figures showing the collapse of the PRI political system.

For the first time, the PRI, the so-called “regime of the Mexican Revolution,” was defeated on a terrain that it has almost completely dominated. Neither its corporate sectoral apparatus nor the complex machinery of fraud protected the PRJ from the winds of change

This could be seen in the way PRI president, Jorge de la Vega Dominguez, was forced to proclaim the triumph of the PRI candidate at dawn the day after the election, without the blessing of the electoral commission. It was also reflected in Salinas’ speech, in which he acknowledged the end of a regime of “a near-single-party system” and cited the advance of the opposition “in some electoral districts.”

The electoral results were distorted by massive government fraud designed to insure the triumph of the PRI’s candidate, and, with it, the continuity of the regime and its modernizing policies: 50.4% to Carlos Salinas de Gortari, 31.3% to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and 17.1% to Manuel Clouthier. These figures lack credibility because of the form in which they were released by the CFE as well as because they are not supported by precinct-by-precinct results, 45% of which have vanished into thin air.

July 6 was a real disaster for the PRI regime. The PRI’s almost absolute control of power was dealt a bruising blow by the massive expression of the people. July 6 revealed and catalyzed the profound political crisis that has been gestating, since 1968.

Significantly, the fundamental pillar of the PRI, the vertebral column of corporate domination, the worker sector represented by the labor-union bureaucracies, was the hardest hit, abandoned in fact by the workers (who naturally should be its electoral clientele), as well as by the government itself, who let it fall, prioritizing fraud as the method of PRI victory.

In order to hold back the pro-Cardenas landslide and advance the recomposition of the PRI’s form of control Salinas had announced during his campaign a number of plans for peaceful reform. But all of these plans were overturned by the electoral results and the popular movement against fraud that followed July 6. At the very moment that the plans became more difficult to enact, the need for action accelerated, upsetting the schedules and rhythms set from above. Rather than appearing as the point of departure for a controlled democratic transition, the reform proposals of the PRI candidate now added to the internal conflicts in the party and government apparatus.

After initial disarray, official spokesmen issued declarations about the modernization and the reform of the PRI as part of the democratization promised by Salinas. The emergence of Manuel Camacho as the PRI’s secretary general has been publicized as launching a movement toward recapturing the party’s lost consensus and credibility.

The PRI is attempting to respond to the national uproar against the existence of the state party, and to begin to straighten out internal differences, creating conditions for reorganization. It is reaffirming the end of the single-party domination and the initiation of democratic pluralism.

The separation of the PRI and the government is the planned first step, together with new internal processes for selecting candidates and leaders of the party. There are also a series of measures that supposedly will begin the separation of powers through the strengthening of the legislative and judiciary bodies, as well as through federalism and municipal autonomy. All these powers exist in the Constitution-although the document contains contradictions and incongruities — but they have never actually determined national political life.

It is curious that many of the PRI’s proposals have been taken from the opposition planks. Despite this fact the PRI leadership rejected even the Democratic Current’s very basic request for “democratization of the procedures for participation and the mechanisms of decision-making within the party.” Without a doubt the PRI government is looking for ways to counteract the influence of Cuauhtemoc and the National Democratic Front (FDN).

In fact, the so-called democratic transition is not really credible, because it rests on a supposed self-reform of the system, and particularly, on the action of the president. Practically all of Salinas’ proposals support decision-making by executive power rather than reform based on the participation of all sectors of Mexican society. Clearly the dismissal of all allegations of electoral fraud casts doubt on any promised political reform. The next government, created by the imposition of Salinas de Gortari, will lack legitimacy and credibility. A weak government can become an unstable government, subject to all sorts of pressures. It may permit some concessions leading to democratic reform. But it can also result in a harsher and more authoritarian government, retaining power through force and intimidation. Either is possible given a lack of consensus and the considerable social and political isolation of the PRI.

The key to a democratic transition-the disappearance of the state party-is impossible. The PRI cannot survive or maintain its presence and domination without the immense resources it receives through being the government In particular, the PRI needs a thoroughly contained working class to provide its rank-and-file base. And it is through this method of class domination that the stability of the country’s capitalist development is sustained. The PRI is not even properly speaking a “dominant” party, but rather a part of state domination, using its privileged position to control the masses.

Today the PRI leaders and even outgoing president Miguel de la Madrid defend the corporative structure on which the state party is organized. But throughout the period of the current government there has been a continual undermining of the power of these structures, and even of the material conditions that permit them to function.

Although there is no doubt that the social and economic bases that sustained the political regime have ceased to exist, the PRI may still be lucky enough to hold on to the present form of domination. After all, it has been in place since the 1930s. Or the PRI could disappear, perhaps replaced by another party more in accordance with the classes and social forces of contemporary Mexico. But the PRI will have difficulty surviving. And these attempts to reform itself may result in its own undoing.

We do not consider that the state would be incapable of modifying the political system in a crisis. It has continued to exercise a variety of partial options since the beginnings of Luis Echeverria’s government almost two decades ago.

The problem is that today the state faces greater difficulties than ever before in carrying out the political reforms of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Today it must simultaneously confront powerful internal forces and an emergent political and social movement that questions the very foundations of its domination.

The obstacles that make the political modernization of the system slow and tortuous loom even larger given the so-called industrial reconversion that Miguel de la Madrid began years ago. Salinas must also try to pursue this modernization. The disparity between the economy and the political system becomes translated into contradictions that appear beyond repair.

In the prevailing political culture the possibility for any transformation rests in the hands of the state, and especially in those of the president. But it is difficult for those on top to act in a manner to benefit those below in any fundamental way.

The reorganization of society from below-in the workplace, the home, the community-would unchain a liberating process that could not be channeled into a rigid and ramshackle political machine. Democracy, insofar as it unleashes the capacity for decision and self-organization by the masses, reinforces and vitalizes society. This form of democracy opens up participation from below in the social, economic and political affairs that concern them.

But this form of democracy is like a corrosive acid for the PRI and the government. The state will not re­ form itself to benefit society but only in order to bene­ fit the powerful social classes it represents.

The Left at Its Lowest Point

The PRI was not the only party defeated in the electoral contest. The strongest parties of the traditional left, the PMS and the PRT, suffered great losses in this rebellion of the masses. The PRT was practically ignored by its former voters, while the PMS, unable to get the hoped-for popular support, swerved at the last moment toward support for Cardenas.

In the context of political reform, although the parties of the left attempted to increase their social and political weight, the advance was very small. The left has actually lagged far behind the mass movements as these movements have advanced through significant struggles since the beginning of the ’70s. The breach that separates the left from the mass movement has been widened. This is even truer if we consider the varied forms of resistance that working people have produced.

The lack of synchronization between the left and the masses, and the substantial weakness of the left, has not permitted the rise of massive opposition parties nor created the conditions for the crystallization of the workers’ movement. The latter would, of course, constitute a permanent rupture of the state and its corporate control of the crisis.

The crisis of the left is in part due to its inability to grow beyond itself and establish social roots. But the left also finds itself in a crisis because of the loss of long-term political perspectives in favor of short-term, partisan, self-interested needs.

The political incapacity of the majority of the left, and especially the PRT and the PMS, showed most clearly in their misunderstanding of the profundity of the political rupture of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and the Democratic Current from the PRI. And this resulted in their refusal to wage a single electoral campaign with a single candidate representing the democratic and leftist forces.

The political and theoretical platforms of the three electoral options that initially constituted this pole — Heberto Castillo of the PMS, Rosario Ibarra representing the PRT and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas on the FDN ticket-were similar.

During the campaign they tended to differentiate themselves, sometimes in artificial ways: the more Cardenas advanced towards a real opposition to the regime, the more Castillo and Ibarra assumed positions that could restore their credibility. The logic of their specific partisan interests overcame the logic of their own potential base and the viability of a unified frontal attack on the FRI government.

In contrast to the PR1; which lost a significant nucleus of its leaders and activists, the PMS changed its approach at the last minute. Within a month of the elections the PMS withdrew its candidate and supported Cardenas. Faced with the social torrent that was expanding daily throughout the nation the PMS displayed a political sensibility lacking in the PRT It also preserved its organization from the disaster experienced by the PRT.

The PMS gambled on being able to develop inside the emerging mass movement, hoping to channel that movement toward its own agenda. The social and political organizations in an electoral alliance with the PMS, like the OIR-LM and the COSE!, also realigned themselves for the same purposes. In contrast, the Unidad Popular — the electoral alliance that the PRT forged with ACNR and Unidad Revolucionaria –vacillated under pressure from the new PMS strategy and the pro-Cardenas forces.

Not all of the left initially rejected the unifying proposal of the Democratic Current After Cardenas broke with the FRI to run his own campaign, many socialists suggested the possibility that all the social and political groups should converge in a single great electoral front with the candidate of the FDN.

Starting in February 1988, activists in the PR1; the OIR-LM, ORPC, the PMS and other tendencies, called on all forces to unite behind a single candidate in a frontal attack against the FRI. On March 18, they launched the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Their goal was to push forward a great political and social movement of a socialist nature that could support Cardenas’ candidacy, uniting with the mass movement his campaign had unleashed, while at the same time maintaining political autonomy.

The MAS defined itself as “a socialist movement that, born of the conjuncture of the moment, offers a socialist alternative to the political and social left, and allies itself also, in the course of the electoral campaign, to the social sector and its struggles, towards the goal of giving continuity to our action beginning the 6th of July”(La Jornada and El Universal, March 11, 1988).

The Movimiento al Socialismo played a fundamental role in reshaping the Cardenas campaign, giving it a clear left-socialist identity. This was important, because the weakness of the political movement unleashed by Cuauhtemoc lay precisely in the organized political forces that backed him, since these were essentially pro­ state parties in revolt.

Similarly, the MAS contributed to strengthening the unification campaign in the barrios of Mexico City and in certain unions. Above all, the MAS helped to turn the young toward supporting the candidacy of Cardenas. The tumultuous meeting at the National University (UNAM) on May 26 underlined this dynamic.

The decision of MAS changed the terms of the debate about Cardenas and his movement, it compelled all political movements and forces on the left to redefine themselves. Cardenas himself understood this when he attended the founding assembly of the Movimiento al Socialismo.

New Possibilities

In this way, although the crisis of the left had hit bottom, new possibilities have opened up for processes of recomposition and reorganization. For some years the left has been involved in a complicated process of restructuring that has challenged all movements and organizations. It has mirrored-although in a distorted form-the tendencies that have developed within the workers’ and mass movements in their own recomposition and reorganization from below.

The mass movement remains alert and alive in the fight against electoral fraud and for the recognition of the triumph of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. It is a movement without any precise articulation except in the organizations of the FDN, which now also includes the PMS.

United primarily by the confidence and hope they have placed in Cardenas, the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have been mobilized all over the country, both during and after the electoral campaign, have expressed their determination to change, to move towards democracy. They need a national project that will give them a point of reference that will express their own experience of struggle and affirm their rupture with the FRI and the government.

This movement is situated on the left by its social content, its popular dynamic and its confrontation with the FRI regime. It has to mature in an original combination of nationalism-the most progressive elements of the program provided by the Mexican Revolution-and the socialism of the political left of this country. The nationalism of the masses and their desire for democratic change and material and social improvement are not contradictory, but are anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

There is a lot at stake for the left and the Mexican people. The former has a historic opportunity, perhaps never to be repeated, to take root in the society through participation in the construction of the alternative project that Cardenas has forged, yet without losing its identity or autonomy.

As for the Mexican people, they have not only glimpsed a ray of hope, but have also experienced the building of democracy from below and now can move forward with that experience.

Mexico will only change decisively from below. It has already begun to change in just a few short months, with an incomparable historic intensity. It needs democracy to live; indeed, it will only live fully with democracy.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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