Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today

D.L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (London & Ann Arbor: Pluto Press; Toronto: Behind the Lines, 2006).

This is a remarkable book, one that could play a major role in shaping the Left’s understanding of the present and the near future. It arrives at a propitious moment, some fifteen years after the demise of first-epoch socialism, just as the contours of a potential second epoch are beginning to come into view. Appropriately enough, the lone collective survivor of the first epoch, the Cuban Revolution, is cast in a central role, along with the most notable harbinger of “21st-century socialism”: the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela. Diana Raby dedicates the book, however, not only to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, but also to “popular movements throughout the world.” She thereby highlights the persistent goal of her argument, which is to overcome the rift between those revolutionary forces that have gained state power -– or that seek to gain it – and those which view such power only in terms of its potential for authoritarianism and betrayal.

The magnitude of the author’s task can be gauged by several phenomena of the past decade. First has been the exceptional resonance of the Zapatista movement, whose emphasis on grassroots organizing has often been presented explicitly -– both by the Zapatistas themselves and by commentators like John Holloway -– as an alternative to any direct contention for state power. Converging with the Zapatista influence has been the broader culture of the Global Justice movement, much of whose energy derives from a new generation of activists attuned to anarchist ideas. The authentic power of grassroots activism has been shown in a number of countries, as described in some detail in S&D’s special issue on Latin America (November 2005) and now also in the present issue’s section on the popular assemblies of Oaxaca. All these experiences represent landmark steps in politicizing hitherto oppressed populations and, in some cases, challenging and even toppling particularly repressive governments. These real and undeniable revolutionary gains, however, have encouraged some of their partisans to distance themselves from any agenda -– whatever its style or tactics -– that might involve party-building or seeking state power.

Raby’s hope is that the Left can build on the energy of such movements without falling prey to their weaknesses. Her critique highlights the importance of leadership. It does so, however, in an entirely fresh way, reexamining all the major revolutionary movements and regimes of the last half-century in terms of their actual performance, without pre-judging them on the basis of their formal structures. Although the two central chapters focus respectively on Cuba and Venezuela, there are frequent comparisons with the experience of movements in other countries -– notably Nicaragua, Portugal, and Chile –- whose goals have gone beyond the overthrow of colonial or settler regimes. The discussion of the various national experiences is in turn framed and permeated by an extensive theoretical argument which brings to the fore, with a sharp present-day focus, the key issues associated with democracy and socialism.

Raby’s critique of liberal democracy (chapter 2) is a masterpiece of basic political education. It incorporates the classic writings in this vein (including those of C.B. Macpherson, author of The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy), but goes well beyond them in its evocation of specific cases. The discussion of pre-Chávez Venezuela, of Brazil under Lula, and of the Bolivian institutions confronting Evo Morales leads inexorably to the conclusion that the goal of truly governing in the interests of the majority requires, with all due respect to ideological pluralism, “a completely new constitutional paradigm” (36). The proposed alternative paradigm, that of participatory democracy, has long been familiar as a slogan and in the form of consensus practices in small communities, but Raby carries it further, challenging us to imagine it being institutionalized at the national level. Cuba, already at this stage of the argument, comes in for serious attention, not as a putatively ideal model, but rather as a groundbreaking experiment -– “institutionalising access to the decision-making process by the underprivileged” (32) -– with a real track-record of grassroots policymaking.

The failure of liberal-democratic regimes -– unequivocal in Latin America by the 1990s -– to allow for even moderately progressive social policies leads directly into a reconsideration (chapter 3) of revolutionary alternatives. Raby again offers a rich blend of theory and history, going back to standard Marxist writings on the state but also taking on the implicit pessimism of world-systems theory and addressing the global context that conditions present-day revolutions. Drawing on recent Latin American experience, her discussion sheds new light on longstanding conundrums of revolutionary strategy. She rejects, for example, the old Trotsky-Stalin dichotomy of “world revolution vs. socialism in one country.” Of course revolution can’t take place everywhere at once, but on the other hand, one should not fall into the trap of attributing long-term viability –- in the form of, e.g., claims to have achieved socialism –- to the very vulnerable condition of being an isolated outpost of counter-power (65f). A related point is that revolutionary hegemony is not an all-or-nothing question. Citing the Venezuelan trajectory in particular, Raby rejects any sharp dichotomy between reform and revolution, arguing instead that “it may be possible, and often more feasible, to take power by stages” (75). What she stresses throughout, however, is the crucial importance of having a popular majority mobilized for each new advance.

The central chapters on the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions, which together take up almost half the book, offer an illuminating synthesis of those epoch-making processes. These chapters are fully accessible to readers with no prior knowledge, but at the same time they offer a further wealth of detail and theoretical insight on the book’s major themes. Raby’s account of the Cuban Revolution reminds us of how much closer it is to its later counterparts (in Nicaragua and Portugal as well as Venezuela) than to the earlier models of socialist revolution guided by ideologically defined parties. She again posits a sharp rejection of stereotypical dichotomies, this time challenging the assumption that there is some necessary incompatibility between strong personal leadership and meaningful popular initiative. A revolutionary period is one of rapidly changing parameters in which immediate responses may have to be improvised on matters that are beyond the deliberative capacity of consensus-oriented bodies. At such moments, however, leading means above all having a deeply felt sense of what the people are ready for and able to act on. This can only come from continuous unrehearsed interactions between the leader and individual members of the populace -– a practice for which Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez have both been, from the outset, uniquely gifted.

The facile equation of a prolonged personal leadership role with “dictatorship” loses much of its force if one factors in this actual practice, which is by no means incompatible with a serious commitment to institutionalization. One of the most distinctive aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution, duly noted by Raby, has been the place of constitutional transformation in the whole process. Upon his first inauguration as president in 1999, Chávez immediately placed the project of a constitutional convention at the top of his agenda. The whole process dramatically broadened mass participation, not only in the fine-tuning of the document but also in its mass diffusion (by the millions, in miniature) and, above all, in its actual provisions, which, as Raby points out, include a number of new institutions whose real purpose is “to promote popular supervision of all government activities” (164).

The “dictatorship” canard also makes much of Chávez’s military background and his role in an unsuccessful coup-attempt in 1992. An understanding of the larger context, however, quickly dissipates the usual stereotypes. Chávez worked, from the beginning of his career, in close collaboration with civilian leftist movements. The 1992 coup-attempt targeted a thoroughly discredited government, against which no constitutional remedies were available. Beyond this, Chávez’s ties within the military later proved critical to his survival in the course of the right-wing coup directed against his own leadership in 2002. This whole remarkable trajectory explodes yet another crude dichotomy, between “violent” and “nonviolent” revolution. By prudently navigating a series of political hurdles, accumulating new mass support at each stage of the process, Chávez has created an entirely original model, of which he can justifiably say, “This is a peaceful revolution, but an armed one” (quoted, 195).

With this achievement, the Venezuelan process has taken a giant step beyond that of Allende’s via pacífica (Chile, 1970-73), whose prospects were undermined, as Raby reminds us, by the fourfold handicap of being led by traditional parties, lacking a charismatic leader (in terms of capacity for one-on-one interaction with his mass base), facing a predominantly hostile military establishment, and never garnering a decisive electoral majority. In Venezuela, the constitutional paralysis has been overcome, an electoral mandate for socialism has been won (December 2006), and a nationwide network of grassroots economic policymaking councils is being put in place. Although the revolution is only in its earliest stages -– with huge economic disparities and severe levels of crime and corruption still evident –- the process now in motion is drawing more and more people into an active role in the day-to-day governance of their communities.

The potentially transformative character of this process is well appreciated by Diana Raby, who with admirable concreteness insists at every juncture on the interplay between forceful leadership and respect for popular autonomy. Her book deserves to be widely studied and discussed. It represents a peak of understanding to which future discussions of Left strategy will need to refer.

Reviewed by Victor Wallis

This entry was posted in 44, Volume 21, No. 2. Bookmark the permalink.