No one likes to be proved wrong. But sometimes it is more painful to be proved right. At the end of January I took part in a debate with Michael Hardt, the co-author of Empire, over ‘The working class or the multitude’ at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Only a minority of those in the room agreed with what I had to say. Most agreed with contributors from the floor who came in again and again with the same refrain. Argentina, they said, showed how wrong ‘Leninists’ were to go on about ‘vanguard parties’ and ‘industrial workers’. The unemployed piqueteros movement and the neighbourhood assemblies showed that people of all sorts could organise themselves without parties or leadership of any sort. They were making a new society while people like me simply harked back to out of date formulae that had never worked.
In reply I tried to reiterate points I made in a long article in ‘International Socialism’ journal and in shorter ones for ‘Socialist Review’ in the weeks after the Buenos Aires rising that threw out the De La Rua government in December 2001.
The rising and the movement showed how hundreds of thousands of people could suddenly, spontaneously, begin to fight for control over their own lives. But there was a problem. The movement could mobilise tens of thousands of people onto the streets, to fill the centre of Buenos Aires and other cities and, through the piqueteros’ blockades, to prevent supplies moving to and from industrial enterprises. They could not stop the state continuing to function, nor could they take a grip on the productive apparatus of society and direct it to stop the spread of unemployment, poverty and inequality. They could not do this because they were minority movements. The assemblies drew together ten or 20,000 people, a fine achievement, but still a small minority of the 6 million who live in Buenos Aires proper. The piqueteros were perhaps 100,000 strong, again magnificent, but also a small minority of the estimated 5 million unemployed. And neither movement had found any way of really reaching out to those workers who still had jobs – at least 60 percent of the total – and the power to fight for control of production.
I fear that many in the debate reacted to such arguments with derision. After all, tens of thousands of people were still regularly taking to the streets of Buenos Aires with the slogan ‘Qué se vayan todos!’ (get rid of them all).
Then came the presidential election result at the end of April. Eighty percent of the population chose to vote, rather than to turn their backs on the old methods of running society as many in the piqueteros and assembly movements hoped. The abstention rate and the number of spoiled votes were massively down on the last national election two months before the December rising. And the great majority of votes went to the old, apparently discredited parties that have dominated the country’s political life since the Second World War – around 60 percent to the three rival Peronist candidates and another 30 percent or so to the two rival radicals. Meanwhile, the two far left candidates got less than 2 percent between them.
When they vote, people never give more than partial expression to the mass of feelings they have about society. They can vote in one direction and still be drawn into struggles which express a desire to move in the opposite one. Nevertheless, the election result showed one thing clearly. Many of those who had wholeheartedly backed the movement at the beginning of last year, when an opinion poll showed 40 percent of the population of Buenos Aires believing the assemblies provided a model for how society should be run, had been drawn back into seeing no choice outside the orbit of what exists at present.
As the revolutionary socialist journal ‘Socialismo o Barbarie’ (‘Socialism or Barbarism’) put it, ‘The bourgeoisie succeeded in imposing its agenda…’ It was able to do so precisely because the most militant sections of the movement of the last 18 months never came to terms seriously with the question of how to reach out to draw in the passive elements among the unemployed and, most importantly, the great mass of employed workers. It is not good in a situation of enormous social crisis simply to chant ‘Get rid of the lot’ unless you can propose mass action to solve these problems. Otherwise you are guilty of the worst form of ‘vanguardism’ – of being way ahead of other people and not noticing it. This, as ‘Socialisme o Barbarie’ also explains, is what much of the Argentinian left has done over the last 18 months.
There have been two sorts of currents within the far left in Argentina. Both are a product of the years of isolation and defeat that marked the left internationally in the 1980s and 1990s. On the one side are those who drew the lesson from the experience of the old Communist parties and the Eastern bloc that any sort of generalised organisation is wrong. The world can be changed by spontaneous autonomous movements, each of which can show it has broken with ‘vanguardism’ by doing its own thing. This approach has been widespread in parts of the piqueteros movement and has encouraged it to turn away from trying to influence employed workers.
On the other side there are those who survived the years of political loneliness by surrounding themselves with sectarian barriers, not only to an often hostile wider society, but also to others on the far left. Now they have no notion that the political climate has changed, that it is possible to work in a friendly manner with thousands of other people both to build the new movements and to draw them towards a clearer idea of what needs to be done if society is really to be revolutionised. Instead, in Argentina we had the spectacle of revolutionary groups attacking each other on demonstrations and standing rival candidates for the presidency.
Fortunately, the Argentinian process is not at an end. The presidential victor, Kirchner, represents the strand in the bourgeoisie which thinks, for the moment, it is necessary to avoid a very sharp, repressive confrontation with the forces represented by the popular movement. But that movement can only develop if the left learns that there is a role for leadership as well as spontaneity – and that leadership comes from fraternal discussion about the way forward, not the attempt to impose sectarian dogmas on it. Otherwise I fear I will be proved right again.
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