On a Revolutionary Agenda

Michael Löwy

Fire in the Americas:
Forging A Revolutionary Agenda
By Roger Burbach and Orlando Nunez
Verso, 1987,$9.95 paperback.

FIRE IN THE AMERICAS, which won the first Carlos Fonseca prize in 1986, is testimony to the vitality and creativity of the Sandinista revolution. The antithesis of “official” texts that are often issued by some of the countries of “actually existing socialism,” it fearlessly challenges left dogmas in seeking to understand—and transform—reality. Published in Spanish and English, the book has been passionately devoured and discussed throughout the two Americas.

The product of collaboration between a Nicaraguan revolutionary, Orlando Nunez, and a North American anti-imperialist Roger Burbach, this book is an outstanding contribution to contemporary Marxist thought not only on the problems of the Nicaraguan and Latin American revolutions, but on several fundamental questions facing socialism in our time. It is not necessary to agree with the all of the authors’ analyses to recognize that this is a book of exceptional quality and importance.

Burbach is a North American sociologist and activist in international solidarity with Latin America. He has written a book on the interventionist policies of U.S. imperialism. Currently the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA), he is also the editor of its publication, Strategic Reports. He has spent a good deal of time in Nicaragua and has a first-hand familiarity with the revolutionary Sandinista experience.

Orlando Nunez is one of the most talented of the FSLN cadres. Born in Leon in 1948, he studied sociology at the Sorbonne at the end of the 196(ls. A militant Sandinista in Nicaragua during the difficult years, Nunez fought in the 1979 insurrection. He is presently the director of the Center for Agricultural Study and Research (CIERA) and works closely with Minister of Agrarian Reform Jaime Wheelock.

Orlando was on the Paris barricades in 1968, and something of the “spirit of May”—refracted through Sandinism comes through in his writings. His recently published essay, “Morals and Revolution in Everyday Life,” has provoked discussion in Nicaragua and deserves more attention in Europe. In 1967 he presented his doctoral thesis, an outstanding study of the Nicaraguan agrarian reform, at the University of Paris VIII in Saint Denis. He was also a member of the commission established to develop the plan for autonomy in collaboration with the indigenous populations of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.

Comradely Spirit

The first thing that strikes the reader of Fire in the Americas is its spirit of open mindedness. Nunez and Burbach steer clear of any sectarian posturing and any pretense at having a monopoly on the truth. They adhere to “the best revolutionary tradition of debate among comrades,” conceiving their work much more as a contribution to a political discussion than as a codification of an already established “correct line.”

Their book is obviously inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution. But, from the beginning, it situates itself in a much broader historical and international framework One of the most interesting chapters presents a critical balance-sheet of Marxist history in Latin America.

The authors are not without justification in stating that, even at its height in the 1920s and ’30s, the Latin American communist movement never succeeded in producing native Marxist theoreticians capable of developing strategies specific to conditions in their countries. There were, however, important exceptions to this general observation, such as Julio Antonio Mella. Above all, there was Jose Carlos Mariategui, whom the authors mention but don’t seem to me to accord the importance he deserves.

The Peruvian Mariategui was not only one of the first Marxists on this continent to stress the decisive role in the revolutionary struggle of the indigenous peasant masses (a contribution the authors also recognize). But it was Mariategui who formulated a coherent strategic vision of a Latin American revolution that must combine democratic, national, agrarian and socialist tasks.

More than an intransigent opponent of the reformism of the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolutionaria Americana), Mariategui was also a strikingly lucid Marxist thinker who understood that capitalism would condemn the countries of Latin America to the status of semi-colonies. The only effective counter to imperialism, he wrote in 1929, is Indo-American socialism, a socialism that would not be a carbon copy’ of other models, but a genuine creation of the peoples of the continent.

Most of Mariategui’s ideas remain astonishingly pertinent sixty years later. His analyses merit a wider hearing within the new generation of revolutionaries, as they have already enjoyed in Peru with the formation of the Party of Mariateguist Unification.

Nunez and Burbach unhesitatingly reject the oppressive Stalinist heritage that paralyzed the communist movement for decades. From a revolutionary point of view, they examine and criticize various moments in this negative heritage that led the Communist parties to adopt reformist, pm-capitalist policies—from the Chilean popular front of the 1930s, through the defeat of the Guatemalan CF in 1954, up to the support given to Somoza by the PSN (Nicaraguan Socialist Party), the old Nicaraguan Cl’ in the post-war period.

However, the authors make a very questionable distinction between the Soviet-Comintern policies in Europe, which they judge to have been correct, and those of the Latin America parties, which they criticize. For example, is it really possible to regard as positive the results of the popular front in Europe and the United States (as opposed to Latin America)? Was it actually the case that the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact enabled the Soviet Union to prepare for the Nazi invasion? That isn’t what present-day Soviet historians are saying in the era of glasnost.

Moreover, isn’t it too much of a snap judgment to say that the Latin American Trotskyist parties of the 1940s and ’50s Thad little to offer in terms of original revolutionary theory and practice on the terrain of their own societies? The authors are correct to criticize a tendency on the part of these organizations to define themselves primarily around international questions, particularly opposition to the Soviet bureaucracy. This was often the case.

But the fact remains that several parties or groups linked to the Fourth International made genuine and effective theoretical and practical contributions to the workers’ struggle in their countries. For example, the Bolivian Revolutionary Workers Parr, wrote the historic “Pulacayo Theses” adopted by the miners’ union in 1946 and played a key role in the formation of the Bolivian Workers Federation (COB) in 1952. And in the early 1960s, Hugo Blanco helped organize a mass peasant movement for land in Peru.

This chapter of the book also illuminates; the debt owed to the Cuban revolution by the Sandinistas, who were not its servile imitators. The revolutionary strategy of Sandinism was inspired by Guevarism: armed struggle against the dictatorship, the link between national liberation and socialism, and the rejection of economist or sociological reductions of Marxism. But the Sandinistas were also able to get past the limitations and errors of the “foquist” movements.

The authors analyze as well the struggles in Nicaragua and all of Central America in their relationship to the revolutionary movement throughout the continent and the anti-imperialist opposition in the United States. In a different historical context, this approach also bears traces of Che Guevara’s internationalist message.

Agents of Revolution

Of all the themes dealt with in the book, two seem particularly noteworthy. Arising from the Sandinista experience, they raise universally relevant questions that bear directly on emancipatory theory and practice in Europe.

The first concerns the subject of the revolutionary process. While the work mg; class and the peasantry are undoubtedly the main motor forces of social change, account must also be taken of social groups or categories that played a determinant role in the victory of the Sandinista revolution and are factors in numerous struggles throughout Latin America. This third social component, what Nunez terms the “third force,” comprises all the social layers active in the revolutionary movement that are not part of the two main classes: the poor and marginalized of the urban populace, students, sectors of the middle classes, etc.

It also includes social movements, which bring together people from different class origins, such as the movements of women, native peoples, ethnic groups, and Christians. Burbach and Nunez go beyond the primitive sociology of the traditional left. They enrich a basic class analysis by integrating into their understanding of the revolutionary subject the multiplicity of layers, forces and movements that—under the hegemony of a proletarian vanguard—are struggling for political and social change. (I’m leaving aside the question, which to me is debatable, of the participation of bourgeois forces in anti-dictatorial coalitions.)

In a different context, questions of this type are also clearly posed in Europe This is particularly true in relation to the necessary alliance between the workers’ movement and the social movements—feminism, ecology, pacifism, student mobilizations, anti-racist organizing etc.—into a common front against all forms of exploitation, oppression and exclusion and in the struggle for a socialist transformation of society.

The second theme is the crucial one of democracy in the transition to socialism In criticizing the “historic authoritarian tendencies in socialist societies,” Nunez and his North American comrade rest on Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky to reaffirm the inseparable link between democracy and socialism and the decisive importance of pluralism. The pages treating these questions are among the strongest and most important in the book.

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that here and there some very superficial analyses crop up, especially concerning the “socialist countries.” For example, there is mention of “the excesses, admitted by the Soviet CP, during the Stalin period—the program of industrialization and the liquidation of the kulak class.”

Admittedly, the history of the Soviet Union is not the subject of this book. Still, it is a bit disappointing to see Stalinism reduced to “excesses,” particularly when the greatest “excess”—that is, crime—of the Stalinist system is not even mentioned: the murder of millions of communists (beginning with the entire Bolshevik old guard).

Along the same lines, the authors make the unconvincing claim that the existing mass organizations impart a democratic content to many East European countries, which explains why these societies (except for Poland and Czechoslovakia) have not experienced popular social upheaval. Most countries in East Europe have indeed undergone such convulsions (that is, anti-bureaucratic mass movements). In addition to Poland and Czechoslovakia, there was the German Democratic Republic (1953), Hungary (1956), and Yugoslavia (1968). And the absence of such upheaval in countries like Rumania or Albania is, not, sad to say, attributable to the existence of democratic structures, but strictly to the effectiveness of state repression.

But this is a relatively minor aspect of the book Its overall orientation is a radical break with bureaucratic and authoritarian practice and a penetratingly honest and consistent search for the means by which to achieve socialist democracy.

Revolutionary Pluralism

The authors uphold the example of Nicaragua, which demonstrates how a revolution can grow and develop while at the same time respecting the greatest political pluralism, including non-revolutionary parties. This is undoubtedly the most important political advance made by the Sandinista revolution in relation to Cuba, and more generally in relation to all the socialist revolutions that have taken place since the Russian revolution.

And this was accomplished in Nicaragua under emergency conditions: a grave economic crisis and fierce military aggression organized by imperialism. In holding the genuinely democratic and pluralistic 1984 elections, the Sandinistas showed that representative democracy can play a positive role in the political life of societies in transition to socialism.

The authors believe that socialist democracy must combine economic and political democracy. As participatory democracy, it must be based on the combination of representative democracy with direct democracy: for example, through the combination of a parliament (representation of political parties) with a popular assembly of the popular mass organizations).

In an interview conducted by Eric Toussaint (see International Viewpoint, June 37, 1988), Orlando Nunez stressed the importance of pluralism within the left, including the right to have disagreements. In his opinion, the negation of pluralism in the left can have tragic consequences, such as the assassination of Maurice Bishop in Grenada or, decades earlier, that of Leon Trotsky.

Nunez and Burbach think it probable that future revolutions in Latin America (and elsewhere) will not be led by a single vanguard party, but by several revolutionary organizations, each with its own conception of how to build socialism. In post-revolutionary society, all these parties would have access to the means of communication. After public debate, the people themselves will decide through democratic elections.

This book by Nunez and Burbach is an authentic product of the Sandinista revolution. The book does not idealize the FSLN, which is not immune to the temptation of authoritarianism, signs of which we have seen in the past (and may see again in the future). The two authors themselves recognize that democracy in Nicaragua still has “serious limitations” and that “the authoritarian tendencies that have characterized previous revolutions are also seen in Nicaragua.”

Beyond the qualities of the authors themselves, a book such as this is evidence of what Nunez calls in the above-mentioned interview the “anti-bureaucratic culture of the Sandinistas.” It typifies a generation of democratic and libertarian revolutionaries and Marxists that has arisen in Nicaragua as well as in Latin America, North America and elsewhere This generation does not want to “turn itself into an infallible and sacrosanct vanguard,” and still less “impose by force on the people our very latest discoveries about what kind of society we want.”

The questions these authors raise and the proposals they put forward are relevant to all who refuse to reduce socialism to its bureaucratic caricature and who seek a democratic and revolutionary alternative to the reign of capital and profit.

November-December 1989, ATC 23

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