Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc the left has been in crisis worldwide. The rise of the anti-globalisation and anti?war movements and of the Zapatistas could not hide the fact that the left no longer had credibility for most people.
But in the last few years Latin America has begun to inspire hope for change. The Venezuelan revolution has provided a radical challenge to US dominance, and president Hugo Chavez proclaims socialism as the ultimate goal.
In Bolivia president Evo Morales has nationalised natural gas and oil and pushed forward constitutional changes despite reactionary opposition.
Cuba defies predictions of collapse or chaos as Fidel Castro lies ill.
In Venezuela and Bolivia – for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall – governments based on working class and popular movements have taken power and begun to construct an alternative social and economic order.
The state is not dead, as the neoliberals claimed, and it is possible to defy international capital and wring major concessions from it.
Cuba – never fundamentally Stalinist despite its dependence on the Soviet Union – has survived and begun to work with Venezuela and Bolivia to create a new type of socialism.
But is Venezuela socialist, or at least beginning a process of transition to socialism? Most readers of Socialist Worker would say no. But eight years ago, when Chavez was first elected, few took his “Bolivarian revolution” seriously.
It is undeniable that Chavez’s government has done more to challenge capitalism and promote popular interests than any regime in the past 20 years.
To understand Venezuela, it is necessary first to understand Cuba. The Cuban revolution was not made by the old Communist Party, but by Fidel Castro and the 26 July Movement.
When the guerrillas triumphed on 1 January 1959, they did not talk about socialism or Marxism-Leninism, or even class struggle – but about social justice, economic independence from the US and Latin American liberation.
It was over two years later, in 1961, that Fidel first used the term socialism.
The Cuban revolution was radicalised by confrontation with the US and the dynamic of the popular movement.
But it would be grossly misleading to suggest – as many Marxists do – that Fidel and the leadership were simply driven forward by the people.
Fidel inspired the movement with his vision, courage and by maintaining unity and revolutionary leadership. And through crucial decisions throughout the dramatic transformation of 1959-63.
Cuba first reached socialism in practice and then acquired socialist consciousness as a result – confirmation, surely, of Karl Marx’s argument that ideas arise out of social reality.
Three things were necessary to achieve this – a mass popular movement, a leadership totally committed to national liberation and social justice, and armed force.
In Venezuela, in very different circumstances, the same three factors have come together.
As in Cuba, the failure of the traditional left opened the way for a broad mass movement inspired by a charismatic leader who had the vision and commitment to lead the way.
It is important not to ignore or deny the vital role of leaders like Fidel and Chavez. Their prominence does not make them dictators, on the contrary, they grow in stature with the popular movement which correctly sees them as giving voice to its own latent sentiments.
Finally, what does socialism mean today? As I see it Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin’s debate over “socialism in one country” was misleading.
According to Marx and Lenin, socialism is a transitional phase on the road to the “withering away of the state” and full communism.
As a transitional phase, it is not a mode of production in its own right, and there cannot exist a fully formed and stable socialist system with its own economic laws of motion – this was the fundamental error of the Stalinists.
Socialism – or the nearest thing to it that is possible until the final overthrow of capitalism – can exist in one country, and for a prolonged period, as Cuba shows.
It is possible to use revolutionary state power to promote social and economic structures with an anti?capitalist logic, in other words, to move in the direction of socialism/communism although not to create a perfect socialist system.
Capitalist and imperialist oppression will inevitably produce revolutions, and these revolutions will inevitably move towards socialism.
They cannot create a fully fledged “socialist system” whether in one country or a large group of countries, because such a thing does not exist even in theory.
What they can do – and what revolutionaries around the world must support, because it is the only viable alternative in the present historical period – is create revolutionary states of popular power.
Revolutionary states of this type can only be maintained to the extent that the leadership remains profoundly democratic and in touch with the working people and their organisations.
If they can be maintained, if they spread and multiply, they can contribute to undermining the world capitalist system and to the eventual global transformation conceived by Marx.
This is the real revolutionary alternative, and it is vital to overcome yesterday’s sectarian divisions and sterile debates and unite in support of it.
Diana Raby’s book, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today, is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
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