Last summer something happened that has not been seen for three decades. The Andean state of Bolivia in Latin America experienced a classic revolutionary crisis with mass strikes, rebellion on the land and an insurrection which overthrew a neo-liberal president.
That the rebellion happened was not unusual – there have been a growing number of popular uprisings and mass strikes globally in recent years.
What was new in Bolivia was that in the capital La Paz and the working class city of El Alto that sprawls across the plateau above it, neighbourhood councils took over the running of popular areas.
They began directing the uprising and started to organise everyday life. Local assemblies made decisions collectively and publicly.
Such working class democracy has not been seen since the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, the crest of the global insurgency unleashed by the mass strike and student protests in France in May 1968.
Elements of the same process can also be found in Venezuela, where forms of popular power are emerging that can act to defend the country’s radical president, Hugo Chavez, but which also have the potential to act independently when necessary.
In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, as factory councils spread westwards into the heart of Europe, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued, “The present period is revolutionary because we can see that the working class, all over the world, is beginning to create, is beginning with all its energies… to generate working class institutions of a new type, representative in character and constructed on an industry basis.”
In Latin America today we are seeing how the global revolt against neo-liberalism is spilling over into a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.
It is re-awakening strategic and tactical debates that the left has not had to deal with since the 1970s, or even since the revolutionary storm that followed the First World War.
New and old
In Venezuela people talk about a “revolutionary process”. But any process has a beginning and an end. Venezuela’s revolutionary process began with popular rebellions against neo-liberal assaults and the attempts by the capitalist elite to topple Chavez.
Today the new exists alongside the old. The new – ambitious social programmes and the beginnings of popular power – has been born. But the old – the state bureaucracy, the corrupt police and the corporate media – linger on.
The new and the old can coexist for a while, but in the end one must vanquish the other.
While the US is bogged down in Iraq and the Venezuelan right wing is too demoralised to act, revolutionary forces need to organise so that the process concludes with victory for the movement.
Further south in Bolivia, sections of the ruling class centred on the oil and gas region of Santa Cruz are threatening to break away, plunging the country into civil war. The US is gathering a military force in neighbouring Paraguay.
If Evo Morales, the recently elected president, acts on his promises to nationalise oil and gas, and spends the money on social programmes like those in Veneuzela, he will meet resistance from the country’s powerful elite.
The revolutionary forces must prepare to act in defence of Morales, but also to act independently of him if he vacillates or concedes.
Latin America is becoming a laboratory of revolution and possible counter-revolution to which we must pay attention.
For example, in Venezuela there are revolutionary forces, but they are working in a disconnected way. One group concentrates on building in the barrios and among precarious workers, the landless and the unemployed. Another seeks to build an effective and democratic trade union movement. Yet another operates as a propaganda group.
Yet to be effective, all this energy and all these different approaches have to be drawn together. In other Third World countries we have seen attempts to play shanty town dwellers off against “privileged” organised workers.
In South Africa in the 1980s, the radical left concentrated too much on simply building trade unions. They became known as “workerists”.
But by restricting themselves to one sector of struggle, they left control of the overall rebellion against apartheid in the hands of other organisations who were prepared to let multinational capital control the economy, as long as the apartheid system ended.
Many black South Africans face even greater poverty today as a result.
In one barrio in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, a collective of 80 young people have organised to ensure drug gangs are kept out and the area is kept tidy with basic amenities. The collective refuses central government funding, arguing that their barrio is an “autonomous space”.
They are armed and determined to keep out the corrupt police and to resist any right wing attempt to topple Chavez. But when they were asked how one barrio could act alone to resist a US attack or another coup attempt by the right, there was no answer.
In Chile in 1973 isolated barrios where the far left were strong put up armed resistance to the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. But they were eventually surrounded and crushed.
There is talk in Venezuela of people’s militias. An armed people can defeat the right, but this requires coordination. It also requires centralised direction to concentrate all the force of the movement to make a breakthrough, or, if necessary, to undertake an organised retreat.
Another danger is that one barrio run by the left can get pulled into gun battles with gangsters or neighbourhoods nearby run by the right. That can lead to confusion and demoralisation, allowing the state to intervene.
Unity from below
Building unity from below, drawing together organised workers and other sections of society, is not a problem confined to Latin America.
Last November, uprisings in the French suburbs, in which North African immigrant communities played a central role, took place in isolation from the left, the unions and the social movements.
In Britain a new multiracial working class has come onto the streets in opposition to war, but it has yet to forge a common identity and sense of power among working people – whether they are employed, retired or studying in preparation for work.
The unions are in danger of failing to recruit young people who understandably do not always see the relevance of these organisations to the fight against imperialism and neo-liberalism.
Mass strikes are a regular occurrence in Europe. Most recently we saw an effective national strike in Ireland win a victory over corporate union busters Irish Ferries.
The mass strikes which have swept France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain and Belgium have largely been called officially and limited to a single day.
But in May 1968 it was an official one-day strike that provided the detonator for the world’s greatest mass strike so far, complete with a wave of workplace occupations, which started when one factory in western France stayed out and rank and file workers took up their lead.
Today the union leaders might want to limit any official action, but they have less control over the workforce because their machine has atrophied.
The European mass strikes have also repeatedly drawn in precarious workers, immigrants (including illegal ones), the unemployed, pensioners and students. Women workers, and black and Asian workers have played a central role.
Some recent strikes have taken up political issues. Before Christmas serious strike action in Italy took place in support of environmental protests. Both Italy and Greece saw strike action against the Iraq war.
The relentless neo-liberal offensive flows from greater competition between states and between the multinationals. It is breeding growing resistance globally.
Britain is not immune from this. The same forces are at work here. Next month the stage is set for our first mass strike in 20 years, over pensions, proposed for 28 March.
Everyone should support official action, but rank and file workers also need to organise to develop and extend that action. We should strive to involve students, pensioners and others in protests and bring the spirit and élan of the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements onto the picket lines.
The pensions action could follow just ten days after the 18 March Stop the War demonstration, giving the movement a chance to unite in resisting both the military and the economic faces of the neo-liberal assault.
The central challenge we face is to use the new political mood to build the sort of grassroots organisation that activists have started to create in the Royal Mail and on the London Underground.
From such small acorns can grow the sorts of neighbourhood assemblies we saw in Bolivia, on which a new free and democratic world can be built – a true socialism for the 21st century.
Chris Bambery is the editor of Socialist Worker and author of the forthcoming book A Rebel’s Guide to Gramsci
Venezuela and Revolution in the 21st Century
The new Socialist Worker pamphlet by Joseph Choonara charts the dramatic events in Venezuela.
It outlines the gains made so far, and asks – What dangers still lie ahead for the movement? What role can workers play? And what would a 21st century revolution look like?
£1 from www. bookmarks.uk.com
Revolution and Reform in Latin America
Day school, hosted by the International Socialism journal
Saturday 25 February, central London
For information and booking details go to www.isj.org.uk