New Paths Require a New Culture on the Left

Speech given by Marta Harnecker on August 15, 2014, accepting the 2013 Liberator’s Prize for Critical Thought, awarded for her book, A World to Build: New Paths Toward Twenty-First Century Socialism. The speech was translated by Federico Fuentes, first published by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

I completed this book one month after the physical disappearance of President Hugo Chávez, without whose intervention in Latin America this book could not have been written. Many of the ideas I raise in it are related in one way or another to the Bolivarian leader, to his ideas and actions, within Venezuela and at the regional and global level. Nobody can deny that there is a huge difference between the Latin America that Chávez inherited and the Latin America he has left for us today.

A World to BuildThat is why I dedicated the book to him with the following words:

“To Commandante Chávez, whose words, orientations and exemplary dedication to the cause of the poor will serve as a compass for his people and all the people of the world. It will be the best shield to defend ourselves from those that seek to destroy this marvellous work that he began to build.”

When Chávez won the 1998 presidential elections, the neoliberal capitalist model was already foundering. The choice then was whether to re-establish this model, undoubtedly with some changes such as greater concern for social issues, but still motivated by the same logic of profit-seeking, or to go ahead and try to build another model. Chávez had the courage to take the second path and decided to call it “socialism,” in spite of its negative connotations. He called it “21st century socialism,” to differentiate it from the Soviet-style socialism that had been implemented in the 20th century. This was not about “falling into the errors of the past,” into the same “Stalinist deviations” which bureaucratized the party and ended up eliminating popular participation.

The need for peoples’ participation was one of his obsessions and was the feature that distinguished his proposals from other socialist projects in which the state resolved all the problems and the people received benefits as if they were gifts.

He was convinced that socialism could not be decreed from above, that it had to be built with the people. And he also understood that protagonistic participation is what allows people to grow and achieve self-confidence, that is, to develop themselves as human beings.

The Project and the Model

I always remember the first program of “Theoretical Aló Presidente,” which was broadcasted on June 11, 2009, when Chávez quoted at length from a letter that Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, wrote to Lenin on March 4, 1920:

“Without the participation of local forces, without an organization from below of the peasants and workers themselves, it is impossible to build a new life. It seemed that the soviets were going to fulfil precisely this function of creating an organization from below. But Russia has already become a Soviet Republic in name only. The party’s influence over people … has already destroyed the influence and constructive energy of this promising institution – the soviets.”

That is why very early on I believed it necessary to distinguish between the socialist project and a model. I understood project to mean the original ideas of Marx and Engels, and model to refer to one form that this project has historically taken. If we analyse Soviet-style socialism, we see that in those countries that implemented this model of socialism, one that Michael Lebowitz has recently called the socialism of conductors and conducted based on a vanguardist mode of production, the people were no longer the protagonist, organs of popular participation were transformed into purely formal entities, and the party was transformed into an absolute authority, the sole depositary of truth that controlled all activities: economic, political, cultural. That is, what should have been a popular democracy was transformed into a dictatorship of the party. This model of socialism, that many have called “real socialism” is a fundamentally statist, centralist, bureaucratic model, where the key missing factor is popular participation.

Do you remember when this socialism collapsed and there was all this talk about the death of socialism and the death of Marxism? At the time, Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer that all of
you know, said that they had invited us to a funeral we did not belong at. The socialism that died was not the socialist project we had fought for. What happened in reality had little to do with the kind of society Marx and Engel envisaged would replace capitalism. For them, socialism was impossible without popular participation.

Marx and Engel’s original ideas were not only distorted by the actions of the Soviet regime and the Marxist literature disseminated by this country among the left; they were also downplayed or simply ignored in those countries outside of the Soviet orbit, given the opposition generated by the model that came to be associated with the name of socialism.

It is not commonly known that, according to Marx and Engels, the future society they called communist would facilitate the integral development of all the potentialities of human beings, a development that could only be achieved through revolutionary practice. People would not develop by magic, they would develop because they struggle, they transform (in transforming circumstances, the person transforms themselves).

That is why Marx affirmed that it was only natural that the workers with which the new society would begin to be built would not be pure beings as “the muck of ages” would weigh on them. Which is why he did not condemn them, but rather placed confidence in them, that they would go about liberating themselves from this negative inheritance through revolutionary struggle. He believes in the transformation of people through struggle, through practice.

And Chávez, probably without having read these words by Marx, also understood this. In his first “Theoretical Aló Presidente” on June 11, 2009, he warned communities that they have to be on guard to avoid sectarianism. He explained:

“… if there are people, for example, residents who are not participating in politics, who do not belong to any party, well, it doesn’t matter, they are welcome. What’s more, if some from the opposition lives there, call them. Let them come and work, come and demonstrate, be useful, because, well, the homeland is for everyone, we have to open spaces and you will see that through praxis many
people will transform themselves.

“Praxis is what transforms oneself, theory is theory, but theory cannot touch the heart, the bones, the nerves, the spirit of the human being and in reality nothing will change. We will not transform ourselves reading books. Books are fundamental, theory is fundamental, but we have to put it into practice, because praxis is what really transforms humans.”

It is also the case that the “collectivist” practices of real socialism, which suppresses individual differences in the name of the collective, had nothing to do with Marxism. Remember, Marx criticized bourgeois law for trying to make people artificially equal instead of acknowledging their differences. By pretending to be the same for everyone, bourgeois law ends up being an unequal right. If two workers collect potatoes and one collects twice as much as the other, should the first be paid twice as much as the second? Bourgeois law says yes, without taking into consideration that the worker who only collected half as much that day may have been sick, or was never a strong worker because he was always malnourished growing up, and therefore perhaps while putting in the same effort as the first person was only able to do half as much.

Marx, on the other hand, said that any truly fair distribution had to take into account people’s differentiated needs. Hence his maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Common/Collective Property

Another of Marx’s ideas that was distorted by both the bourgeoisie and Soviet practice was his defence of common or collective property.

What did the ideologues of the bourgeoisie say? The communists (or socialists) will expropriate everything, your fridge, your car, your home, etc.

How ignorant! Neither Marx nor any socialist or communist has ever thought of expropriating peoples’ personal belongings. What Marx proposed was the idea of giving society back what originally belonged to them, that is, the means of production, but which was unjustly appropriated by an elite.

What the bourgeoisie does not understand, or does not want to understand, is that there are only two sources of wealth: nature and human labour, and without human labour, the potential wealth contained in nature can never be transformed into real wealth.

Marx pointed out that there is not only real human labour but also past labour, that is, labour incorporated into instruments of labour. The tools, machines, improvements made to land and, of course, intellectual and scientific discoveries that substantially increased social productivity, are a legacy passed down from generation to generation; they are a social heritage – a wealth of the people.

But the bourgeoisie, thanks to a whole process of mystification of capital – one that I don’t have time to go into here – has convinced us that the capitalists are the owners of this wealth
due to their efforts, their creativity, their entrepreneurial capacity, and that because they are the owners of the companies they have the right to appropriate what is produced.

Only a socialist society recognizes this inheritance as being social, which is why it must be given back to society and used for society, in the interest of society as a whole, and not to serve private interests. These goods, in which the labour of previous generations is incorporated, cannot belong to a specific person, or a specific country, but must instead belong to humanity as a whole.

The question is: how do we ensure this happens? The only way is to de-privatize these means of productions, transforming them into social property. But since the humanity of the early 21st century is still not a humanity without borders, these actions must begin on a country-by-country basis, and the first step is therefore the handing over of ownership of the strategic means of production to a national state which expresses the interests of society.

But simply handing over the strategic means of production to the state represents a mere juridical change in ownership, because if the change in these state companies is limited to that, then the subordination of workers to an external force continues. A new management, which now calls itself socialist, might replace the capitalist management but the alienated status of the workers in the production process remains unchanged. While formally collective property, because the state represents society, real appropriation is still not collective. That is why Engels argued, “state-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution to the conflict,” although “concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”

Furthermore, Marx argued that it was necessary to end the separation between intellectual and manual labour that transforms workers into one more cog in the machine. Companies need to be managed by their workers. That is why Chávez, following through on his ideas, maintained a lot of emphasis on the notion that 21st century socialism could not limit itself to being a state capitalism that left intact work processes that alienate workers. Workers must be informed about the production process as a whole, they must be able to control it, to review and decide on production plans, the annual budget, and the distribution of the surplus, including its contribution to the national budget. Wasn’t this the aim of Plan Guayana Socialista?

But, then we have the argument of the socialist managerial bureaucracy that says: how can we hand over management to the workers! They are not prepared to participate actively in the management of enterprises! And they are right, minus some rare exception, precisely because capitalism has never been interested in providing workers with the necessary technical knowledge to manage enterprises. Here I am referring not only to production, but also to matters related to marketing and finance. Concentrating knowledge in the hands of management is one of the mechanisms that enables capital to exploit workers. But this, for a revolutionary cadre, cannot be a reason to not advance toward the full participation of workers. On the contrary, processes of co-management must be initiated that allow workers to appropriate this knowledge. To do this, they must begin engaging in practical management, while at the same time acquiring training in business and management techniques in order to reach a stage of complete self-management.

Councils of Popular Government

And at the level of communities and communes, an issue like many others that I would like to talk about but can’t go into detail here, I always remember what Aristóbulo Istúriz said: “we have to govern with the people so that the people can learn to govern themselves.” I understand that President Maduro is seeking to do this by promoting the participation of the organized people in his government through what he has called Councils of Popular Government.

I have said on various occasions that, for me, 21st century socialism is a goal to aspire to, and I refer to the long historic period of advancing toward this goal as a socialist transition.

But what type of transition are we talking about? We are not dealing with a transition occurring in advanced capitalist countries, something that has never occurred in history, nor of a transition in a backward country where the people have conquered state power via armed struggle as occurred with 20th century revolutions (Russia, China, Cuba). Instead, we are dealing with a very particular transition where, via the institutional road, we have achieved governmental power.

In this regard, I think the situation in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s is in some way comparable to that experienced by pre-revolutionary Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. What the imperialist war and its horrors were for Russia, neoliberalism and its horrors was for Latin America: the extent of hunger and misery, increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, destruction of nature, increasing loss of our sovereignty. In these circumstances, our peoples said “enough!” and embarked on a new path, resisting at first, and then going on the offensive, making possible the victory of left or centre-left presidential candidates on the back of anti-neoliberal programs.

Faced with the evident failure of neoliberalism as it was being applied, there emerged the following dilemma: or the neoliberal capitalist model is rebuilt, or advances are made in constructing an alternative project motivated by a humanist and solidarity-based logic. And as we said before, it was Chávez who had the audacity to take this second path and I believe President Maduro is trying to continue with his legacy. Other leaders such as Evo Morales and Rafael Correa later followed him. All of them are conscious of the fact that the objective economic and cultural conditions, and the existing correlation of forces at a global and national level, obliges them to co-exist for a long time with capitalist forms of production.

And I say audacity because these governments confront a very complex and difficult situation. They not only have to confront backward economic conditions but also the fact that they still do not have
complete state power. And they have to do it on the basis of an inherited state apparatus whose characteristics are functional to the capitalist system, but are not suitable for advancing toward socialism.

Nevertheless, practice has demonstrated, contrary to the theoretical dogmatism of some sectors of the radical left, that if revolutionary cadres run this apparatus, it can be used as an instrument in the process of building the new society.

But we must be clear, this does not mean that the cadres can simply limit themselves to using the inherited state, it is necessary to – using the power in their hands – go about building the foundations of the new political system and new institutions, creating spaces for popular participation that can help prepare the people to exercize power from the most simple to the most complex level.

Challenges and Difficulties

This process of transformation from government is not only a long process but also a process full of challenges and difficulties. Nothing ensures that it will be a linear process; there is always the possibility of retreats and failures.

We should always remember that the right only respects the rules of the game as long as it suits their purposes. They can perfectly tolerate and even help bring a left government to power if that government implements the right’s policies and limits itself to managing the crisis. What they will always try to prevent, by legal or illegal means – and we should have no illusions about this – is a program of deep democratic and popular transformations that puts into question their economic interests.

We can deduce from this that these governments and the left must be prepared to confront fierce resistance; they must be capable of defending the achievements they have won democratically against forces that speak about democracy as long as their material interests and privileges are not touched. Was it not the case here in Venezuela that the enabling laws, which only slightly impinged on these privileges, was the main factor in unleashing a process that culminated in a military coup supported by right-wing opposition parties against a democratically elected president, supported by his people?

It is also important to understand that this dominant elite does not represent the entire opposition. It is vital that we differentiate between a destructive, conspiratorial, anti-democratic opposition and a constructive opposition that is willing to respect the rule of the democratic game and collaborate in many tasks that are of common interests. In this way we avoid putting all opposition forces and personalities in the same basket. Being capable of recognising the positive initiatives that the opposition promotes and not condemning a-prior everything they suggest will, I believe, help us win over many sectors that today are not on our side. Perhaps not the elite leaders, but the middle cadres and broad sections of the people influences by them, which is the most important.

Furthermore, I think that we would gain much more by combating their erroneous ideas and mistaken proposals with arguments rather than verbal attacks. Perhaps the latter are well received among the most radicalized popular sectors, but they are generally rejected by broad middle class sectors and also many popular sectors.

Another important change these governments face is the need to overcome the inherited culture that exists within the people, but not only among them. It also persists among government cadres, functionaries, party leaders and militants, workers and their trade union leaderships. I’m talking about traits such as individualism, personalism, political careerism, consumerism.

Moreover, advances come at a slow pace and confronted with this, many leftists tend to become demoralized. Many of them saw the capture of governmental power as a magic bullet that could quickly solve the most pressing needs of the people. When solutions are not rapidly forthcoming, disillusionment sets in.

That is why I believe that, just as our revolutionary leaders need to use the state in order to change the inherited balance of forces, they must also carry out a pedagogical task when they are confronted with limits or brakes along the path – what I call pedagogy of limitations. Many times we believe that talking about difficulties will only demoralize and dishearten the people, when, on the contrary, if our popular sectors are kept informed, are explained why it is not possible to immediately achieve the desired goals, this can help them better understand the process in which they find themselves in and moderate their demands. Intellectuals as well should be widely informed so they are able to defend the process and also to criticize it if necessary.

But this pedagogy of limitations must be simultaneously accompanied by the fomentation of popular mobilizations and creativity, thereby avoiding the possibility that initiatives from the people become domesticated and prepare us to accept criticisms of possible faults within the government. Not only should popular pressure be tolerated, it should be understood that it is necessary to helping those in government combat errors and deviations that can emerge along the way.

I feel a sense of frustration not being able to talk about so many other issues, but I need to finish up, and to do so I want to read out some of the various questions that I pose in the book,
and which I believe can help us evaluate whether or not the most advanced governments I have referred to are taking steps toward building a new socialist society:

  • Do they mobilize workers and the people in general to carry out certain measures and are they contributing to an increase in their abilities and power?
  • Do they understand the need for an organized, politicized people, one able to exercize the necessary pressure that can weaken the state apparatus and power they inherited and thus drive forward the proposed transformation process?
  • Do they understand that our people must be protagonists and not supporting actors?
  • Do they listen to the people and let them speak?
  • Do they understand that they can rely on them to fight the errors and deviations that come up along the way?
  • Do they give them resources and call on them to exercize social control over the process?

To sum up, are they contributing to the creation of a popular subject that is increasingly the protagonist, assuming governmental responsibilities?

In this regard, I believe the proposal to open up a national discussion that includes all social sectors in the country over the issue of the price of petrol is of transcendental importance. I believe it is transcendental because it is calling on the people, not the party, to discuss this issue. I believe the role of the party should be to fully involve itself in the discussion as an instrument for facilitating the debate.

I would like to finish up by insisting in something I never tire of repeating:

“In order to successfully advance in this challenge, we need a new culture on the left: a pluralist and tolerant culture that puts first what unites us and leaves as secondary what divides us; that promotes a unity based on values such as solidarity, humanism, respect for differences, defence of nature, rejection of the desire for profit and the laws of the market as guiding principles for human activity.”

A left that understands that radicalism is not about raising the most radical slogans nor taking the most radical actions, which only a few follow because the majority are scared off by them. Instead, it is about being capable of creating spaces for coming together and for struggle, that bring in broader sectors, because realizing that there are many of us in the same struggle is what makes us strong and radicalizes us.

A left that understands that we have to win hegemony, that is, that we have to convince rather than impose.

A left that understands that what we do together in the future is more important than what we may have done in the past. •

Marta Harnecker (1937 - 2019) is originally from Chile, where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuban Revolution and on the nature of socialist democracy. She lived in Caracas and was a participant in the Venezuelan revolution. Her latest book is A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism.