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Latin America as US Empire Cracks

Jose Yglesias, who has looked for the revolutionary left in Brazil, Peru, and (pre-Allende) Chile, records its bravery, determination, and devotion, but also—unwillingly—its isolation and lack of effectiveness at the time of his journey. The most he can claim, quite correctly, is that revolutionary activity and sentiments are alive, in spite of setbacks, and that Cuba remains an inspiration for the Latin left, for reasons which his interesting chapter, “Cuba Under Twenty-Five,” helps us to understand. In so far as the left is exclusively committed to a maximum program, anything less than this must be failure.

However, the disappointment of the left is also due to what may prove to be a methodological error. It has looked for a guaranteed revolutionary force, one that cannot be corrupted, assimilated, or absorbed into a going nonrevolutionary system, and it has done so by running through the list of the various classes and other social or institutional groups, eliminating those that do not qualify: i.e., all. Petras thus dismisses the peasantry, the industrial working class (a favored minority stratum easily turned into reformist ways), and the middle classes, business and bureaucratic. They are, as he is not the first to point out, not a “national bourgeoisie,” for they oppose neither the agrarian oligarchy, which they seek to join, nor US imperialism, to which they look for protection against social revolution and for jobs in the dependencies of the US corporations. They are by no means committed to economic development and “modernization.” Of course this still leaves discontented groups, but it is to be feared that these may also prove to be disappointing, since none of them can be regarded as consistently revolutionary.

But in actual politics (which are not those of the macro-analysis of social change conducted on a very high level of generality, as by Marx), no class is permanently and under all circumstances “revolutionary” in this sense. To look for such a one is to write pessimistic conclusions into one’s premises. The important question is not about particular groups or institutions within a society, but about historic situations. Are they, to take the broad view, potentially revolutionary, as were those of, say, Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, or are they not, as those in Western Europe were not at the same period? If they are not, then the forces of revolution, however powerful, self-conscious, and organized, are likely (unless fleeting occasions are seized successfully) to be absorbed into a going nonrevolutionary system in some form, if only as institutionalized outgroups; or diverted from their course. Even revolts may then de facto resemble those “rituals of rebellion” of the anthropologists, though this does not imply that the situation of basic stability must remain permanent. If they are revolutionary, the opposite tends to be the case.

Most of Western Europe since the 1840s has been nonrevolutionary in this sense. The capitalist mechanism of growth functioned, though it had from time to time to be modified substantially, and therefore suffered not merely the short-term fluctuations built into it, but periods of major adjustment. At one point (1929-33) it actually looked briefly as though it was breaking down. The social and institutional framework was firm and stable enough to survive even the huge shocks to which it was periodically exposed, such as the world wars. Consequently the history of the revolutionary left has been one of persistent disappointment (as it saw the mass parties of Marx and later those of Lenin turning into reformist or abstentionist movements in practice), of self-delusion, or of a desperate search for some type of realistic strategy opening or preserving revolutionary possibilities in nonrevolutionary situations.

There have been moments of hope, as after the October Revolution and at the peak of the armed anti-fascist resistance, which actually produced the nearest thing Western Europe has known to revolution since 1848. There may be hope again, as capitalism enters a new phase of structural change, of which the outcome is difficult to foresee. But even in 1971 it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to see communism on the immediate agenda in, say, Italy.

On the other hand, the situation in regions like Latin America is potentially revolutionary, because even fairly dynamic “underdevelopment” has visibly not provided a mechanism for solving the continent’s economic and social problems. These are, on the contrary, becoming somewhat more acute, as an analysis of the nature of “underdevelopment” would lead us to suppose. Its social structures, strained and changing, have not so far found a general mold or pattern comparable to those of the “developed” capitalist countries. Its political structures and institutions are labile, sensitive to such relatively slight stimuli as a run of boom years or a price slump in the international commodity markets. Uruguay was long known, and not without reason, as “the Switzerland of Latin America,” but one has only to read the phrase in 1971 to appreciate how unlike Switzerland it is.

In such regions, as in earthquake zones, the ground may collapse almost anywhere. It is pointless to look for guaranteed forces of “stability” or “revolution.” Everyone is aware that all existing solutions are provisional. Everyone is convinced of the inevitability of fundamental changes, most people of their necessity, though not always of their desirability. What is more, all possible solutions imply anti-imperialism, since the nature of the problems of the underdeveloped world derives from its relations to the developed world, in this instance overwhelmingly the US. None of them suggests that simple “modernization,” i.e. trying to become like the developed economies of the West, with their assistance, is an adequate, or even in most cases a feasible, program.

Under these conditions, aside from the diminishing forces of genuinely traditionalist conservatism, revolutionary change may emerge from the least likely quarters. The Peruvian military, whose original ideological equipment seems to have been drawn from a mixture of pre-conciliar Catholicism and the counterinsurgency policies developed by French officers in the course of the Indochinese and Algerian wars, have emerged as reformers with a program a great deal more acceptable to Fidel Castro and Allende than to Washington. An old-fashioned electoral popular front, of the kind that certainly produced no major changes in France in the 1930s, and is passionately rejected by young European leftists today as the high road to co-option, appears to release revolutionary developments in Chile; as it once did in Spain, another country with revolutionary conditions. The Latin Church itself, long notorious for its almost medieval conservatism, now breeds not only active revolutionaries in some quantity, but sections of its hierarchy and organization intervene actively in favor of fundamental change in several countries. If it comes to that, nobody would have predicted or indeed did predict in 1958 that Fidel Castro himself would turn into a Marxist-Leninist.

Such developments may not satisfy revolutionary Marxists, especially if, as is plainly the case in Peru, the reforming governments are suspicious of mass mobilization and strongly opposed to “communism,” at least at home. But, quite apart from the fact that the character of social and political changes cannot be judged by the badges which its leaders pin to their lapels (least of all in Latin America), major transformations cannot be dismissed as insignificant because they do not immediately bring about the movements and politics we favor. Nor can they be rejected simply because it is not quite certain whether one political force rather than another will finally benefit from them.

Such uncertainty is the occupational risk of politics. If the October Revolution had not occurred—and Lenin knew perfectly well that it was not “inevitable”—the Bolsheviks might today be blamed by revolutionary critics for having agreed to support their enemy Kerensky against the insurrection of General Kornilov in September, 1917. Admittedly the risk of this alliance benefiting the tottering Kerensky government by that time was small; the prospect of its strengthening the Bolsheviks, who already held the initiative, was substantial. But the Marxist left in Latin America has never been in a position to place its bets on the favorite. In all but one or two countries its forces and mass support have been relatively insignificant, and it has rarely, even in revolutionary situations, been able to establish initiative, let alone hegemony, as an organized movement.

It has therefore generally been forced to choose between keeping itself pure and not very effective, and joining major political movements in which it did not take the lead, and whose shape it could only incompletely determine. Whether, during the past half-century, it made the best of its chances, is an interesting question, by now an academic one. That it was, and is, rarely in a position to call the shots cannot be in serious doubt.

The Marxist left in Latin America therefore is obliged to make the best of unfavorable and unpredictable situations. Its consolation is negative, but substantial. Latin America today is not, foreseeably, like Western Europe after 1848. It has not found its way. It remains a revolutionary continent.

Its future cannot be confidently predicted. That it should take the form of a series of copies of stable Western capitalisms is in the highest degree unlikely. That it will take the form of a multiplication of Marxist or communist regimes on the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, or any other model is also improbable; but then this was never a perspective that looked very serious. Nobody knows where between these two possibilities the combination of mass discontent and militancy, anti-imperialism, nationalist movements for reform and development, and a Marxist intelligentsia will lead. To assume that it cannot lead to any position that might be satisfactory to the radical left is to push skepticism to excessive length. On the other hand, it is of course equally illegitimate to assume that it will or must.

In fact, the 1960s, which brought the US more setbacks than the 1950s, hardly authorize such skepticism. Naturally it is unwise to judge Latin American developments by a particular moment of the fluctuating politics of this part of the world. I daresay by now Messrs. Duncan and Goodsell would prefer to revise their anthology of sources, The Quest for Change in Latin America, which is very much a product of belated “New Frontier” liberalism and the news values of the later 1960s. Would they now devote one of their six major sections to Chile: The “Revolution in Liberty”?

But even if we accept that the balance sheet in 1981 may look rather different, we cannot deny that in 1971 it indicates a radicalization of the hemisphere. Most of its republics have not shifted much, politically, apart from minor substitutions of unrepresentative generals for unrepresentative civilians or the other way round. One major country has certainly shifted to the right (Brazil), but several (Cuba, Chile, Peru, Bolivia) have veered to the left; in most cases further to the left than ever before in their history. Observers in Washington are aware of this. The left might take more notice of their sense of failure than it has.

The lesson that the 1960s taught the US government in Latin America (as they did more dramatically in Vietnam) is that there are severe limits to the power of even the biggest, richest, and most megatonned imperial ruler. This should have been obvious, but one can understand how, in the intoxication of world power, it got to be temporarily overlooked. The lesson that this decade ought to have taught the left is even more obvious, and should never have required learning. It is that in potentially revolutionary conditions there is more than one way forward; fortunately, because the decade also demonstrated that revolutions cannot be made at will.

But the price of education has been high. It has been bought at the cost of the lives of many brave men and women, and of the fission and consequent weakening of the organized forces of the left in most of the hemisphere. Unfortunately it is by no means certain that the full price has yet been paid. The prospects facing the left in the 1970s are encouraging. Will it be in a better position to seize its opportunities than it was ten years ago? Nobody knows.

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