Lessons from Latin America

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Manuel Aguilar Mora

I WANT TO emphasize the lessons of the Twentieth Century Revolution–a title that the organizers of the summer school invented to overwhelm us. I want to limit myself to some lessons we can draw from the Latin American experience. Of course this is a very difficult task, but it is indispensable to draw the lessons of this incredible century that is going to finish soon.

Apparently Edmund Burke, the conservative Englishman who confronted the French Revolution in his time two centuries ago, said “The French Revolution is the most important that humanity has known in this epoch.” We can now say, likewise, that the twentieth century of the Russian Revolution and all the subsequent events is the most important century that humanity has lived since its beginning. Of course this difficult task will go on in the next years as we live through tremendous changes.

I think one of the most important general lessons of these revolutions is not only for the Latin American scenario. It is a lesson that, for the socialist movement throughout the whole world, this has been a century of tragedy more than victory. I agree with the comrades who said that the twentieth century will pass as the century where socialism was betrayed, and above all, the century of the experience of Soviet degeneration and Stalinism, of social democracy, of the diverse nationalistic socialist movements in the Third World.

All of these problems confront us. The incredible, numerous, instantaneous and fruitful rebellions all over the world in general confronted capitalism but ended in defeat and betrayal without overcoming the capitalist system as a whole.

A Need To Be Self-Critical

Because of this, one of the main lessons, I think, is that we must also be very self-critical. This spirit that Joanna introduced to the discussion is good because we must question everything. We must be critical of others, of course, but we must be self-critical. For better or for worse our current is less responsible for the tragedy, this is clear, but our shoulders still must bear some of this responsibility.

I will try to draw some lessons from five revolutionary processes that Latin America experienced in this century. I will limit discussion to these five because they were national and they ended with a radical transformation of the countries where they took place. This does not mean that there were not other very important revolutionary processes but these five that took place in Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua were processes that completely shook their societies.

In this experience that is so incredible, so kaleidescopic, so full of peculiarities that we cannot force them into a preconceived schema, can we draw some common lessons? Can we draw some general characteristics?

I would say that we can draw the following conclusions about Latin American revolutions: First, they were nationally specific movements. During their development and in the end some of them changed (above all the Chilean), but they didn’t come close to the characteristics of the “classical model” of the Russian Revolution by appealing to the international solidarity of the working class. They were movements with very clear national roots (of course the Russian Revolution had national roots, but the vanguard took those roots and internationalized them).

The revolutions I speak of were rooted completely in their particular cultural characteristics. In the Mexican, Bolivian and Nicaraguan experiences, some of the sectors tried to return to the past, not to project the past into the future but to come back to what they knew before. The Mexican peasants made the revolution to stop the so-called progressive transformation of capitalism in Mexico. In a certain way so did the peasants in Nicaragua and Bolivia.

These movements were a reaction to the penetration of foreign capital and to the integration of their economies into the imperialist system. But they were movements that tried to have a vision completely different from that of the modern revolutionary forces. This point is important, because it adds a lot of problems to the revolutionary experience that were not considered in classical theory. Thus the revolutionary
movement in Latin America has to understand that to be victorious it must include in its experience a whole vision that can belong to the peasant layers who have precapitalist ways of thinking.

The other characteristic of these revolutionary movements is that they were democratic–but not in the sense of liberal democracy, not in the sense of bourgeois democracy. We can say that in Latin America we have not really had a democratic bourgeois revolution like the European or North American one. This is a fact connected to the sterility of the Latin American bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie that was born because of the penetration of capital in Latin America, not because of a revolution inside these countries. Since the beginning, the Latin American bourgeoisie has been a parasitical one, linked to the metropolitan European centers and later to Washington.

The kind of democracy these revolutions looked for was not exactly the parliamentary and liberal democracy that the European and American bourgeoisie looked for. The democratic part of these revolutions was included in the rebellious sentiments of the indigenous communities. There was a kaleidescope of organizations among the masses, not just the trade unions but in the barrios and the neighborhoods.

In this regard the Chilean case might be an exception because of the respect of the reformists–the Communist Party–for the liberal bourgeois institutions of the Chilean state; the popular movement was channelled through them. Look at the result: the counter-revolution of Pinochet, a fascist counter-revolution that shows the limits of these structures!

In Mexico, in Bolivia, in Nicaragua, in Cuba you couldn’t really find a liberal bourgeoisie strong enough to produce the kind of states the European and American bourgeoisies produced in their own countries. You see, for instance, that Madero in Mexico in 1910, a liberal democratic bourgeois figure, wanted to transform Mexico into a really modern country, but he was killed by the counterrevolution of Huerta.

The MNR [National Revolutionary Movement of the 1950s and ’60s –ed.] in Bolivia didn’t win either in the goal of transforming Bolivia into a parliamentary democratic republic. Of course Cuba had to face the dictatorship of Batista. Nicaragua was a joke of a country before the revolution, because it was really only a hacienda of Somoza. I think the democratic bourgeois liberal traditions in Latin America are a complete facade, a superficiality, a characteristic that has not become part of the fiber of social relations.

This is a problem because, at the same time, the bourgeois liberal layers have been very important ideologically in these countries. This is something very important to take into account. Leadership in a certain way was exercised by groups of intellectuals and political figures who sometimes expressed ideologically and conceptually ideas that were not exactly the ideas of the masses, or of the social forces they said they represented.

This is a classic problem we have in Latin America. The Latin American characteristic of being a dependent subcontinent of Europe and the United States produced these kind of layers that stick with Europe and America. But they are living in a Latin American reality and this produces a contradiction that we still face.

Problems of Class Perspectives

I say that these movements are democratic but not in a bourgeois liberal way. Rather these revolutions are plebian, in that the popular intervention is sometimes difficult to define in class terms. Consider for instance the unemployed layers of the north of Mexico. When foreign capital penetration expropriated their land but did not give them factories or jobs, they did not become proletarians and could not emigrate to the States. They remained in limbo, we could not define them as proletarian or as peasant.

The unemployed in Cuba joined the rebel army when Castro had to go to the Sierra Maestra. They were not peasants. But they were not workers.

The youth of the barrios in Nicaragua, especially in Managua, who joined the Sandanistas in the final stages of the struggle against Somoza, were not proletariats nor were they peasants. Especially in the moments of the crisis of the revolutionary transformation, these movements integrate hundreds of thousands of persons who have not been part of a definite class. This has something to do with the methods of these revolutionary processes. The methods are very pluralistic. The classical model of the party leading on the basis of a schematic theory is not possible to find in these five revolutionary movements, except maybe in the Chilean experience.

In general the methods are eclectic. The rebel armies of Zapata, of the Cubans, of the Nicaraguans, the rebel armies composed of unemployed, of guerrillas, are a tool of revolutionary action but they are not orthodox.

Another characteristic of these revolutionary movements is that they are highly personalized. The leaders, the caudillos, represent more than the parties, more than the organization, more than the political layers collectively. These leaders personalize and become the aspirations, the goals and the program of the masses that look to these caudillos for representation.

This is clear in the Mexican experience. Villa and Zapata are incredible examples of how important regional struggles found, in the end, a national projection. Zapata was a peasant from the South who led the campesinos to a very concrete goal, to recover their lands. His loyalty and fidelity to this cause transformed him in the view of the peasants in the whole country. And Villa too. They were two really rank-and-file common men, who became internationally famous precisely because they represented these feelings and aspirations.

Of course Fidel Castro is the modern classical example of this. And Allende in Chile in a way, because of his martyrdom, became one also. The possible exception of this is Nicaragua, which means that the Latin American revolution is growing and maturing. The nine leaders of the Sandinista Front did not want to promote one leader who would centralize all leadership.

To finish, I want to say that in all these processes, a working class that was conscious and clear of its goals was absent. Absent, in the sense that these working classes did not represent a class-for-itself movement, as Marxist theory says. During the revolution, of course, some of these sectors became class conscious but this class consciousness expressed itself in religious terms, in cultural terms.

The Chilean exception can be used as proof that the Unidad Popular was composed of the two main workers parties, the Socialist and Communist Parties. But as I said before, the Chilean experience showed too that the working class didn’t find in Allende’s government their expression. One of the most important struggles of the working class in Chile was against Allende’s government, the struggles of the miners in the North. This struggle in reality became the start of the erosion of the Unidad Popular government.

For Working-Class Leadership

I conclude with this: The twenty-first century is when the Latin American revolution will be victorious. In the new condition of the hegemony of imperialism; in the new integration and globalization of the capitalist
regimes into the imperialist centers; in the technological revolution that we are now witnessing, with a new humanity that is arising from the spectacular transformation that we are now living; with the consciousness
that we are passing through a disaster, a civilizational disaster because of the ecological destruction, because of the alienation of the human race, because of the existence of the Third World full of poverty and ecological disaster; all the lessons that we have drawn from the Latin American revolutionary experience in the twentieth century tell us that we have not to be less socialist but more socialist.

We do not have to be less internationalist but more internationalist, because we have to make it possible for the working class to play the role it is needed to play. The lessons of these revolutions teach us that the working class is needed as the national caudillo. These Latin American revolutions had personal caudillos. But they need social caudillos. They need collective caudillos. And the only class that can provide this leadership, that can be this, is the working class.

This working class in Latin America is growing. And it is looking for new ways. It is tired of the nationalist leaders, it is tired of Communist party leaders. It has exhausted all its alternatives. This factor, at the end of this century, will be the key difference in the twenty-first century. For this reason we have to be realistically, moderately, discreetly optimistic. We have to be optimistic in a very realistic way.

November-December 1992, ATC 41