National Sections of the L5I:

The working class movement in South America today

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The São Paolo Forum of the “New Left” met in Managua in July. Keith Harvey explains how it failed to come up with either a diagnosis or a cure for the continent’s ailments.

It has become commonplace on the Latin American left to root its present crisis in two related events—the collapse of Stalinist ruling governments in Eastern Europe and the USSR and the defeat of the FSLN in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections.

Whilst the Moscow-backed Communist Parties in Latin America were not militant or mass forces in most countries, their role in the leadership of the trade unions was often significant. Their disintegration or political transformation into more nakedly pro-capitalist ideologies has clearly contributed to the general sense of retreat, demoralisation and confusion.

Only 13 years ago the overthrow of Somoza by the FSLN had seemed a decisive blow against imperialism, providing once more a strategic model for revolutionary advance in the region just as the Cuban revolution had in the 1960s. Indeed, it seemed as though a wave of revolution might advance again on a continental scale.

But in a few short years this generation of uncritical pro-Sandinista lefts watched with sinking enthusiasm as, after 1985, the FSLN government turned more and more upon the workers, attacking their living standards in order to stabilise and strengthen capitalism inside Nicaragua.

Despite this record virtually everyone on the left was shocked by Violetta Chamorro’s defeat of the FSLN in the 1990 elections, and at the sight of the Sandinistas peacefully relinquishing power. Earlier pledges to “govern from below” proved empty demagogy as leaders of the FSLN instead used their control of the armed forces to police the hand over of power and discipline the masses in the face of privatisation and austerity.

The impending catastrophe for Castro in Cuba following the withdrawal of aid by Yeltsin has struck yet another blow against the left with their illusions in the Stalinist model of “revolution”.

There can be no doubting the present state of the ex-Stalinist and petit bourgeois nationalist left. As one writer recently put it: “ the left in Latin America is on the defensive. Revolution has lost its allure, and in nearly every national electoral contest the left has either self-destructed or gone down to ignominious defeat.” 1

But the dire state of the left and of trade union organisation in country after country cannot be simply explained away as the result of external events. While these have acted as a catalyst to the crisis they could not have had such an impact were it not for the serious defeats already suffered by working class and popular movements in Latin America before 1989-90.

Throughout the continent political and trade union organisations were already in a serious state of decline and disorientation. The rise of neo-liberalism was already crushing the left and the unions. From 1988 it became the universal weapon of the Latin American bourgeoisie, and has become so apparently unstoppable that sections of the left have turned to embrace it, bemoaning its consequences for the poor but making enormous concessions to its pro-market, anti-statist ideology.

Over the last 13 years or so there have been at least two distinct phases of struggle in Latin America. Broadly speaking, the years between 1977/78 and 1985 were ones in which dictators were either overthrown or forced to relax the severity of their dictatorships.

In this period the mass movement was on the increase, the political influence of the left was increasing and the mass organisations grew in strength. Imperialism, despite having launched the “Second Cold War” against Soviet global influence, found itself in a defensive position in the semi-colonial world. Obviously, the forward dynamic of this first period was not uniform. It affected different countries with variable force and timing.

In Central America the victory of the FSLN promoted forward movements by the left in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. But by mid-1982 this tide of advance had already been stemmed and the left was in retreat, a process starting in Guatemala and Honduras and then spreading to El Salvador and Nicaragua itself.

The grim statistics of this retreat hardly need to be repeated: the heavy toll of the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador, the growth in electoral influence of rightist parties, the turning of Honduras into an armed encampment of the USA, the political retreat of the FSLN after 1985. It would be the height of folly to console ourselves with the illusion that this was merely a defeat for the petit bourgeois leaderships and not for the masses.

In the total absence of a revolutionary alternative, uncompromised by accommodation and subservience to these misleaders, it did not prove possible to halt the retreat. Where centrist left wing alternatives did exist, they could not take advantage of the disorientation of the Stalinist and nationalist forces. Instead they too became demoralised and contributed to the retreat.

In South America a similar pattern occurred. Examples are plentiful. The rise of the left in Peru and Bolivia in 1977-78; mass mobilisations by the workers’ organisations in Argentina, Paraguay and Chile which played an important role in forcing a retreat of the military regimes; the creation of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil after the two year strike wave for union rights, workers’ control and wage increases launched by São Paolo engineering workers during May and June of 1978.

But the advances of the mass organisations and the mounting tide of democratic gains cannot simply be understood as triumphs over imperialism. They have to be seen in the context of a crisis of existing rule. The old regimes were in many cases a product of US policy in the 1960s, but were no longer regarded by the imperialists as the best way of defending its interests in the region.

The USA was seeking a safe and controlled transition to forms of bourgeois democratic representation with a multiplicity of parties in these countries. This had two aims. First, to impose a more stable social system of exploitation by trying to defuse armed struggle and incorporate bourgeois workers’ parties into the constitutional system. Secondly, after 1982, the imperialists sought to break up the economic and political monopolies controlled by the state capitalist and military sections of bourgoeisie. Without this their neo-liberal model would fail.

In this context the imperialists hoped that the mass organisations—largely dominated by reformist leaders—could be co-opted into playing an auxiliary and supportive role. This would legitimise a controlled transformation, modelled on the democratic transition which followed the Franco era in Spain in 1975-77.

In Argentina, Paraguay and Chile this project of a controlled transition proved successful. Thanks to the efforts of the Stalinist, socialist and trade union leaderships revolutionary democratic measures and independent proletarian class demands were subordinated to the bourgeois transition process.

This is not to deny that important gains were made in the process—the increased scope for legal trade union activity, the open operation of the political parties of the working class and far left. In addition in some countries the working class was able to use its new rights to good advantage and increase wages, and political representation in various national and municipal parliaments was gained.2

But the only real example of a transition process which escaped control of the imperialists in this fashion has been Haiti. Here the downfall of the Duvalier regime in 1986 led to a level of popular mass mobilisations that erupted continually over the next five years before a major defeat was inflicted on it in September 1991.

The failure to control this transition was due to the absence of stable and large trade union and political parties that could act as a counter-weight. This in turn was a product not only of the vicious rule of the regime but also of the acute poverty of the country, the small size of the labour unions and the explosive militancy of the declassed urban and rural poor. If Chile was analogous to the transition process in Spain, then Haiti was closer to that of the Philippines except that there was no serious well-rooted bourgeois opposition capable of restoring stability.

That period of offensive, albeit relatively controlled, mobilisations has not been sustained. The proletarian and poor peasant struggles in Latin America over the last five years have had a different character. There have been strikes, demonstrations, blockades, riots. But on the whole they have been defensive not offensive; they have been motivated not by the possibility of bringing down dictators, of enlarging the scope for proletarian democracy and better wages and conditions, but rather by the need to halt the onslaught of the transitional or new democratic regimes on jobs, wages and welfare rights.

Some of these strikes, for example in Uruguay, have been very large and important, and some have forced regimes to re-formulate their plans or re-route their offensive. But none of them have yet managed to put the plans of the new bourgeois regimes into reverse.

And in more recent years the bourgeois governments have taken further advantage of the “democratisation” process by legislating anti-working class measures (including anti-trade union laws) which gain more effectiveness in that they carry the gloss of a democratic mandate.

The main reasons why the workers’ movement has been put onto the defensive since around 1985-86 are all too familiar. They lie in the change in economic strategy imposed by the IMF, often in willing collaboration with the governments of Latin America. This began with Mexico in 1986 where the government based itself on the “successful” balance sheet of neoliberal measures in Chile after 1977. Since then this new policy has made headway in every country of South America.

The full implementation of neo-liberal measures is least advanced in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay but it is under way nonetheless. Mexico, now a long way down the road, has finished its privatisation programme and is now tackling land reform; Brazil and Argentina—having signed Brady Plan agreements in mid-1992 over their debt repayments—are poised to go faster down the path of privatisation and cuts in the state budget.

Everywhere the working class organisations have put up some form of resistance, but they have not succeeded in preventing the growth of mass poverty, a sharp decline in trade union numbers, and the lowering of real wage levels over the five year period.

In the case of Bolivia and Peru heavy defeats have been inflicted. These defeats in the economic and political struggle were soon reflected on the electoral terrain. Across the continent elections in the years 1988-90 saw rightist or populist parties win.

At the beginning of the 1990s the proletarian movement is in a worse situation on the whole than at the start of the last decade. No one can seriously deny there has been, overall, a deterioration in the balance of class forces to our disadvantage.

The early 1980’s saw a generalised economic crisis throughout Latin America, with the partial exception of Colombia and later Chile. Like the crisis in the 1930s much of the blame for the crisis can be put down to structural problems in the economy, but the significant difference is that this crisis was caused directly by imperialism attempting to overcome their own crisis by the application of “adjustment” policies to the economies of Latin America.

Between 1981 and 1989 per capita GDP declined 23.5% in Argentina, 24.7% in Peru, 25% in Venezuela, 9.2% in Mexico and 4% in Brazil. In contrast it grew 14% in Colombia and 9.6% in Chile. While real growth rates for the whole region had averaged nearly 6%p.a. in the 1970s, continental GDP was down 1% in the 1980s, and per capita GDP declined by 7%.

Alongside this economic slump went hyper-inflation, afflicting at various times Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Nicaragua. In 1990 Argentina registered 1,343%, Brazil 1,794% and Peru 7,649%. Inflation in most countries was “conquered” through inflicting savage austerity programmes upon the masses.

The 1980s were also marked by a massive flight of capital. As a result of servicing the debt during the 1980s Latin America suffered a huge “negative resource transfer” equivalent to 3% of the continent’s GDP in 1989 alone. Despite some new economic growth and investment after 1989 the following year still saw a net transfer of capital out of the region of $5 billion.

Only Chile and Mexico saw more capital come in than go out. Even in Mexico, the showcase of imperialist investment, only a small amount of investment is in productive capacity. The vast majority is speculative investment in the stock markets, repatriated capital, with a smaller amount going into the service sector.

Virtually everywhere this crisis led to the slashing of living standards and dramatic rises in unemployment, underemployment and official poverty. In Bolivia 1984-86, Chile 1983-84, and Peru in the late 1980s workers suffered dramatic drops in living standards and increases in unemployment. During the 1980-85 period average real wages fell by 27% in Mexico, 43% in Peru and 12% in Chile. The real minimum wage in Brazil fell 11.8% between 1980 and 1988.

Rocketing unemployment, poverty and illness has accompanied huge cuts in education and health budgets. As a proportion of public expenditure the percentage spent on these items fell from 10% in 1979 to 7.9% in 1987 in Argentina and from 22% to 10% in Mexico. According to the Conference on Poverty held in Quito in 1990, 50% of the Latin American population now live below the poverty line.

These years of economic crisis and neo-liberal transformation have led to significant structural changes in the working class itself. The proportion of full time industrial and service workers with stable employment in the urban economy has declined significantly. The main reason for this has been the rise in the numbers employed in the so called “informal sector”. This vague term encompasses a large range of economic activity, defined in one recent article as including:

“The mass of self-employed workers; sporadic and seasonal employed workers; workers employed in small, including family, enterprises; undocumented workers; and housemaids, artisans and laid-off factory workers performing odd jobs.” 3

Far from being a marginal sector on the fringes, the informal sector is large and in some countries even constitutes a majority of the labour force. In Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela it comprises about 40% of the workforce. In Peru and in Central America it reaches 75-80%, and in Haiti up to 92%.

As a result of its growth, the number officially registered as unemployed has actually been reduced but the combined total of unemployed and underemployed has increased to 40-42%. The number working less than 24 hours a week has doubled in Argentina, Colombia and Panama. The use of casual workers has increased everywhere. In Brazil one study reports that the proportion of casual workers employed in enterprises increased from 18% to 28% between 1983 and 1988.

The social vanguard of the proletarian revolution—the wage-earning working class—has thus undergone important structural changes over the last ten years. Whilst the actual number of wage labourers has not declined, a large number of them have nevertheless lost stability and continuity of employment, creating serious overall problems of union and political organisation in country after country.

The heterogeneous informal sector, however one chooses to define it, clearly has a function for semi-colonial capitalism and its imperialist masters. It serves to undermine organised labour. It further aims to offload the cost of reproducing labour power onto the back of the working class itself by sharply reducing the costs that normally fall on the capitalist state and are thus paid for at least in part by taxing the profits of the bourgeoisie. All in all the informal sector operates to drive down the value of labour power. This is an essential part of the strategy of the neo-liberal governments. On the basis of low wages they seek to attract capital into export-led industries that can then compete on the international (or at least regional) market.

Limited but real wage growth made a certain sense for the capitalist class in the context of an economic strategy that depended to a considerable degree on producing for and stimulating the growth of an internal market. The turn to neo-liberalism abandons that strategy, and the successes scored by the “national” bourgeoisie and the multinationals in reducing real wages have already been striking.

In the modern industrial sectors of the Latin American economy real wages have declined by about 7% in the years 1980 to 1989. But for workers in small enterprises and for those in the public sector the fall was much bigger; in both cases over 30%. In the informal sector itself the fall is estimated at around 42% whilst incomes in agriculture have fallen by around 20%.4

According to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America average real wages in Chile were the same in 1988 as in 1980; in Argentina they were 3% less, in Paraguay 14% less, in Peru 48% less.

In Argentina wages in 1990 were 54% down from their 1984 peak; in 1991 wages were frozen and inflation eroded their real value by 25%. The Latin American Press reports that in Uruguay real wages dropped 9% in 1991, and Lacalle plans a further 10% cut in 1992. The government gave the workers a 12% pay increase in early 1992 to recompense them for the austerity programme of 1990-91, but the unions said that 12% was nowhere near enough to compensate for what they had lost.

In Venezuela, the journal Economia Hoy reported a study in 1992 which concluded that in order to recover the purchasing power of the wages earned in March 1989, the minimum wage would need to be raised to $183. The government has set it at $140. Over the last three years prices have gone up 159% while wages have risen only 81%. In June this year the Venezuelan unions claimed a 45% increase for all private sector workers to try and regain some of this loss, but Perez rejected pressure in his AD party and granted a ceiling of 20% for this coming year.

In Brazil there are also signs that the continental trend is beginning to show at last. After fighting to make real wages 47% higher in 1988 than in 1980, real wages in São Paolo plummeted by 14% in 1990 and by a further 15% in 1991.5

This real wage erosion is seen in all the neo-liberal regimes, but the unions have failed to resist or successfully offset the attack. A deterioration in living standards can be accompanied by, or even help cause, a radicalisation in the political consciousness of the masses or its vanguard.

However, if the workers’ political and trade union organisations fail to protect stable employment and do not prevent the lowering of real wages then these organisations themselves will decline and disintegrate. The organisations of the workers and poor peasants have in general failed to defend the masses against these savage attacks. This constitutes a serious defeat for class organisation and ultimately for consistent class—i.e. revolutionary—politics.

Economic recessions and slumps do not automatically radicalise the masses and their organisations. Such radicalisation depends on the state of the organisations and their recent history of struggles; it depends on the nature and strength of their leadership. Workers’ organisations can respond with self-confidence and strength to an economic crisis, determined not to let themselves be punished for the failure of the bosses’ system.

Alternatively, they can react with fatalism and passive resignation, unsure that they can achieve anything at all by fighting. The latter approach, that of reformism, has characterised the labour movements of the continent faced with the onslaught of the last period. In Brazil in the late 1970s the São Paolo workers reacted in a different way. But the levels of militancy and resistance of 1991 do not compare with the late 1970s. Why? Fundamentally because of the changes that have taken place within the Brazilian union federation, the Unified Central of Workers (CUT), its leadership and vanguard in the intervening years.

The nature of the leadership of workers’ organisations and its response to new attacks and previous defeats is the key to understanding the present state of the labour movement in the continent.

Starting in South America around 1985-86, the high point of the workers’ and poor peasants’ resistance gave way to a period in which the initiative was regained by the right and the workers’ struggles increasingly took on a defensive character.

In Bolivia the high point of a revolutionary crisis in 1985 was the occupation of La Paz by the miners. The reformist leadership of the COB and the miners’ union allowed this revolutionary situation to pass by. In 1985-86 the miners and the rest of the proletariat went down to defeat at the hands of the new “democratic” MNR-ADN government. A strategic defeat was inflicted on the Bolivian working class in the following years.

The miners, the mass vanguard since the early 1940s, were decimated by closures of the tin mines. Whilst the miners and other sectors of the proletariat have not stopped fighting, the workers are engaged in a series of defensive struggles—against privatisation plans, against state budget cuts in the health and education sectors.

In Peru the failure to generalise the mass struggles of the late 1980s (e.g. national miners’ strikes) into a revolutionary general strike and the struggle for power allowed the ruling class and imperialism to re-group and take the offensive under a “democratic” cloak. During the highpoint of the mass mobilisations the reformist union and party leaders directed all their efforts into the electoral channel of achieving victory for the Izquierda Unida popular front, only to see it fall apart before the decisive elections.

So demoralised were most of the left that, faced with the “threat” of the openly Thatcherite Vargas Llosa winning the presidency, they fell in behind the maverick bourgeois populist Alberto Fujimori as the “lesser evil”. In fact, the election of Fujimori in 1990 opened up a period of outright reaction all the more damaging in its effect due to the left’s support for Fujimori.

In the second half of the 1980s there were different periods of response to the neo-liberal offensives. In some countries there were initial periods of mass resistance and even gains for the left in elections (e.g. Brazil, Uruguay), but eventually the ineffectiveness of the traditional leadership’s fightback against the neo-liberal project resulted in a strengthening of the right and a new phase of retreat in the last two or three years. The high point of recent resistance has been followed by a decline both in its level and its effectiveness.

In Argentina after the election of Menem in 1989 the unified trade union federation—the CGT—split into pro and anti-Menem parts. This in itself was a blow, but could have been compensated for if the “rebel CGT” (i.e. the anti-Menem one) had succeeded in leading class struggle resistance to the government. The rebel CGT did in fact try and organise opposition to Menem’s neo-liberal policies.

During 1991 and early 1992 there were some bitter and protracted strikes against the results of Menem’s plans. In the spring of 1991 the largest manufacturing plant in the country—Somisa—struck against job losses and flexibility due to privatisation. Due to the treacherous role of the CGT the strike was lost and “a grave defeat was suffered”.6 Over the course of 1991 the number of workers in the factory was reduced from 14,285 to 5,733 and a brutal reign of discipline was imposed.7

Later in the year a three month struggle over wages and productivity in the FATE plant—described as “one of the most important struggles for Argentinian workers in the last years” ended in defeat.8

The failure to defeat the government and the high costs borne by the workers led the rival CGT to fuse again on 26 March into one main federation. In policy documents for this fusion, the “rival CGT” argued that they needed unity because the trade unions had lost support, because they had failed to stop the deterioration in real wages.

It argued that they needed to combine to deflect Menem and his government from pushing ahead with two anti-trade union pieces of legislation; one of them seeking to deprive the unions of their control over social security funds and the other wanting to put an end to national industry-based pay bargaining and replace it with company by company negotiations. In the end the Menem government rewarded the unified CGT bureaucracy for its united role in scabbing on workers’ struggles by allowing them to keep their privileged control of the funds.9

Brazil undoubtedly has the most positive situation for Latin American trade unionists. Yet even here the best moments for seizing the initiative from the bosses and the Collor government were lost—in 1989—and now the trade union movement is increasingly on the defensive.

Formed in 1983, the CUT organises around 15 million of the 23 million or so Brazilian trade unionists and has about 1, 600 unions affiliated to it.10 During the 1980s it scored notable successes helping organise successful pressure on the Sarney government to get some of the more reactionary anti-union aspects removed from the new Brazilian Constitution adopted in 1988. It eliminated the power of the state executive, via a labour ministry, to interfere in the trade unions. It enshrined the right to strike which was extended in 1989 to include workers in essential industries.

Perhaps the high point of the CUT’s success was its role in organising a two day general strike in 1989 which brought out 70% of all organised workers and which successfully scrapped the Sarney government’s proposed wage freeze package.

But the best chance for trade union unity was missed as early as 1981. At that time many trade unionists—building on the success of the 1978-80 strikes—convened a National Conference of the Working Class (CONCLAT). Its express purpose was to found a single trade union federation. It failed in this because of deep ideological differences between the participants that ranged over several issues: attitude to negotiations with the government, to political party affiliation, to internal democracy, to international trade union relations, and so on.

The outcome was the continuation and even the deepening of the divisions in the trade union movement.

In addition to the CUT there is the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) formed in 1986 on a specifically pro-state, paternalistic intervention line and for a pro-ICFTU outlook. Today the CGT organises around eight million.

Worse still was Union Power (FS), formed as a boost for the Collor government in March 1991. It is composed of about 400 trade unions from the car and steel plants of São Paolo. Its leader is an ex-CGT leader and it is backed personally by Collor who has ensured that FS has received $4.3 million in state aid in the course of its short existence.

This trade union division has helped the bosses and the government. It is no accident that the FS has been totally useless at resisting the massive wave of sackings in São Paolo in the last year.11 This division has not helped when it comes to resisting the erosion of real wages either. In 1981 50% of national income went to wages; today it is only 35%.

The social inequalities between rich and poor are worse in Brazil than anywhere else in Latin America and possibly the world. In 1990-91 Collor let prices soar and at the same time pegged wages, thus cutting purchasing power drastically.

In recent years the legislative reforms won by earlier struggles of the working class have been shown to be inadequate. The bosses still have decisive weapons when they need to offload the recession onto the workers and prepare for privatisation of state industry. The power to intervene in strikes has simply been transferred from the executive to the legislature.

In September 1991 workers in Petrobas, the state oil company, struck for better wages. The courts quickly decided that the strike was an “abuse” of its rights after arbitration and allowed the company to sack all the workers and fine them! The workers were forced to go back on the basis of the original offer.

All this led one leading PT member to say in April this year: “The recession has made the trade union struggle more difficult. First and foremost, in the big units of production where the most combative trade union movement has accumulated its greatest capacities of mobilisation and organisation—in the 500 biggest private enterprises—the number of employees has fallen 16.5% since the coming to power of Collor . . . In the big state enterprises, the privatisation offensive has not been challenged by serious mobilisation.” 12

Indeed instead of turning to class struggle policies to arrest the decline in real wages and halt escalating unemployment, the CUT and the other two trade union federations have now appealed for a popular front with the employers to halt Collor’s liberalisation programme! 13

In Uruguay the unified trade union federation—the CNT—still retains the capacity for large mobilisations,14 but decisive confrontations lie ahead. In May 1992 we saw the sixth (36 hour) general strike in recent years protesting against the privatisation and austerity measures of the Lacalle government. Such mobilisations are deepening divisions in the ruling Colorado Party to such an extent that President Lacalle cannot get a stable working majority in Congress. He needs one to support budget-cutting measures to severely curtail social security payments and raise indirect taxes.

Despite the fact that the neo-liberal assault is progressing more slowly there than elsewhere in Latin America, one Uruguayan centrist noted recently that the trade union movement “is going through a very deep crisis, a fall in membership, and is experiencing numerous organisational problems”.15

In Chile, once the leaders of the unions and popular movements had played out their treacherous supporting role in the “controlled transition” from Pinochet to Alwyn during the years 1986-90, the mass movement was demobilised. Far from a “democratic” regime reversing Pinochet’s pioneering Thatcherism, it has continued and intensified the attacks. The unions have failed in their resistance to privatisations.

The workers’ experiences in the trade unions are a very important indicator of the balance of class forces today. But to study class consciousness through the prism of the trade unions provides only a partial and distorted picture. It is also necessary to study the fortunes of the parties of the political left in comparison with those of the right.

The third continental-wide meeting of the São Paolo Forum “new left” took place in Managua in July this year. Representatives of over 100 parties from 17 countries in the region testified to the fact that there has been a growth in social democratic ideas amongst the old Stalinist and petit bourgeois nationalist left.16

This has followed the defeats of the guerrilla movements, the collapse of Stalinism and the collapse of state capitalist projects. This “new left” (embracing such forces as Cardenas’ bourgeois nationalist PRD in Mexicio, the FSLN in Nicaragua and the PT of Brazil) is the meeting ground for retreating former Stalinists, guerrillaists, the main tendencies within the PT, the municipal left such as Frente Amplio in Uruguay and a myriad of popular and indigenous organisations.17

The sponsors of the São Paolo Forum claim they are promoting a dialogue and sharing experiences and prompting a debate over failed models for regional advance. In fact they are doing much more. They are redefining the reformist project in Latin America and the Carribean for the 1990s.

These forces are consciously rejecting the legitimacy of revolutionary violence, consciously abandoning the project of radical transformation of the state from outside its existing institutions, and consciously rejecting the idea of seizing state power in backward countries.

This amounts to a retreat, not just for the left but for the popular forces that are influenced by them. They are able to play this role because no alternative exists to their left, which would be capable of helping the vanguard of the masses draw the correct lessons of the last ten years. What is worse, these “new lefts” actually dress themselves up as a major advance for the left, willfully ignoring the defeats inflicted on mass organisations.

They console themselves in the belief that their dialogue is an advance, and hope that the masses will not notice the role they played in preparing these defeats.18

The Forum argues that the rise of the ADM in Colombia in the 1980s was a sign of left advance. But this “advance” was based on the abandonment of armed struggle, the result of which has been to abandon the masses to the death squads of the government and the landowners. The number of deaths of the left has doubled from the first to the second half of the 1980s, and doubled again from 1990 to 1992.19

And what has been gained by the M-19 (now ADM) and the Patriotic Union (UP) as a result? In mid-1990 the left—gathered around the UP—lost several of the parliamentary seats and seven of the 16 municipalities that it had won in 1988. The high point for the UP was 1985, since when it has been in constant electoral decline.20

When M-19, the ex-guerrilla group, gave up their arms and participated in the May 1990 elections they received half a million votes. This climbed to 900,000 in December 1990 elections. But since then they too have been in decline as the conservative opposition and even the ruling Liberals have strengthened themselves. So, in October 1991 the M-19 only received 400,000 votes in the municipal elections. In March 1992 in the same elections their vote fell again and they lost two of their three mayoralities.

In conditions were the armed struggle has been abandoned by two groups and they have been incorporated into the constitutional system this brief electoral support for M-19 can hardly be seen as a great advance for the workers’ movement.

Rather, there was a profound disillusionment with the ADM and the development of widespread cynicism. The masses tended to fall back upon the survival organisations of the barrios and leave the terrain of broad political struggle. This is a phenomenon that we can see in other countries of the region as the left discredits itself and no revolutionary alternative can fill the gap at present.

The Frente Amplio (FA) in Uruguay probably occupies the strongest position of any reformist leftist current in South America today outside of Brazil. It controls the municipality of Montevideo, the capital city with a third of the country’s population. It is having some success at present in organising a campaign for a referendum on the Lacalle government’s privatisation programme. It looks as though the FA will get the signatures it requires and force a referendum before the end of this year, which will be a considerable obstacle to Lacalles’s project.

As the left parties, movements and trade unions have declined in size and effectiveness the focus of attention has shifted to the various popular organisations that have mushroomed in the expanding urban centres of the 1970s and 1980s. Noticing their undoubted resilience and growth in the face of economic decline, some of the left have pointed to these organisations as offering the best hope for a revival of a popular challenge to the Latin American bourgeoisie and to imperialism.

All the sponsors of the São Paolo Forum, for example, are agreed that they want ”to replace the vanguard party with a multi-class party which gives priority to mass grassroots particpation.” 21 This sentiment is not new. In the early days of shanty town development several left wing, guerrilla and even Trotskyist groups suggested that the squatters would become a strong political force with the potential to threaten the state.

Land invasions are a highly militant form of action, which require initiative and courage on the part of those involved. But in most cases the land invasion represents the peak of the revolutionary tactics and consciousness of those involved. In general, the leaders’ further energies went into consolidation, into reformist and even popular frontist “politics” whilst the masses embroiled in the struggle for day to day survival, had less and less time or opportunity for political mobilisation.

Although this sector has rarely produced a highly organised and successful political movement, it is increasingly becoming a source of protest, which is gaining significance in Latin America (especially as the trade unions fail to lead the struggles of the unorganised). Popular protest movements originating in the shanty towns and poor urban neighbourhoods are becoming more common.

These social movements express new forms of struggle, which have arisen out of the failure and political betrayals of the Stalinist and reformist parties. Such movimientos de pobladores have certain characteristics in common in most of the Latin American countries. Instead of being located in a work situation, they are usually based in a community, often a neighbourhood or some form of local grouping which organises people to address a common practical problem.

These movements organise around specific demands, such as the need to defend the legality of land holdings, the desire to get access to water and electricity, or the need to protect each other from arbitrary arrest and detention. Based on communities, these movements are often crossclass, in that they include workers, the unemployed, traders and even small employers, all united around community demands. Many have been instigated and led by women, and have adopted innovative and militant tactics.

In general these movements have remained localised, but in some areas, including Chile, Mexico and Peru, they have been joining up to form networks of organisations of the urban poor. They have often been so dynamic because they operate at a grass-roots level, involving people in the most urgent questions that directly affect them.

At the same time, the factors that contribute to their dynamism are also disadvantages. They focus on narrow, local, small scale issues, and their achievements are limited to that level. They rarely broaden out to tackle political questions.

In many cases success on the specific question has led to the disbanding of the movement, or its transfomration into a less militant, reformist non-militant community group, such as mothers’ clubs which are often dominated by church organisations.

The lack of organisation too, although contributing to the involvement of members, makes it difficult to expand and develop at any sort of national level. In general these movements represent a multi-class force for piecemeal reform, and because of that, have in general been limited in their achievements.

In Chile the movimiento de pobladores includes a broad array of organisations such as soup kitchens and associations addressing housing issues and utility bills. These shanty town and urban movements were involved during the 1980s in many spheres: the development of community subsistence, the presentation of demands to the authorities, utility payment strikes and illegal electricity hook-ups, land seizures for housing, raids on supermarkets and warehouses, raids on passing trucks and trains, organising the street vendors and occasional workers, demonstration and street actions with the erection of barricades and street fighting, destruction of government related offices and symbols in shanty town neighbourhoods and self-defence actions.

Through all these actions against the dictatorship, the shanty town movements contributed to Pinochet’s shift toward electoral concessions. But such movements face two diametrically opposed options. On the one hand they can become the subordinated clients of nationalist, reformist, and even bourgeois parties for partially solving their basic problems. Indeed without a class perspective, without the leadership of conscious revolutionaries these movements can even be diverted into support for reactionary bourgeois populist adventurers.

In Bolivia in the last three years the rapid growth of reactionary populist parties such as CONDEPA and UCS has been in part based on their ability to direct the day to struggles of the shanty town dwellers or informal sector for basic amenities. Here the left, having abandoned the community organisations to their fate, is reaping the rewards.

But on the other hand these organisations could become a key part of a militant fightback. This will only happen it the left take up the fight for the demands of the popular movement and seeks to fuse them with the broader struggles of organised workers over jobs, wages and conditions. The popular movement could then ally itself with the working class around its revolutionary programme and in this way smash the capitalist order that gave rise to its problems in the first place.

The organisations of the Latin American workers and poor peasants are going though an extremely difficult phase. The political and economic initiative lies with the bourgeoisie and imperialism. The left has been weakened and the unions are facing grave difficulties. In this or that country the trend is better than other cases. But even here—the PT in Brazil and Frente Amplio in Uruguay for example—the strongest achievements took place two or three years ago.

The masses are struggling for daily existence often in “survival” organisations without effective strategic political direction. The unions are striking and demonstrating in many countries—for defensive demands to try and reduce the effect of the neo-liberal policies. Nowhere today is the class on the political or trade union offensive, nowhere is the left scoring greater victories than two or three years ago. In many countries social democrats have become neo-liberals and nationalists are giving way to populists.

Much of the Latin American left, including its “Trotskyist” component, are part of the problem rather than the solution to the weakened state of the working class.22 It is too much to expect that those who spent the 1980s in adulation, or refrained from criticism, of either Stalinism or petit bourgeois nationalism will come up with the answers. They only wail that the game is up and there is nothing left to do but forge a loyal constitutional opposition to the ascendant neo-liberal regimes.

One commentator argued recently that “Self-styled revolutionaries, with rare exceptions, have got to get beyond the state-centred vision of socialism so discredited by the experience of the Soviet Union and the Latin American populism.” 23

But disillusionment with the state flows also from the experience of the huge, bloated and corrupt bureaucracies that mushroomed in the post-war years when the state capitalist project was the favoured development strategy of the nationalist bourgeoisie. Its failure created a mass of alienated workers and underemployed who could be used as an electoral base for the rising neo-liberal and populist parties of the right. Reflecting this pressure one leftist typically concludes:

“The left’s traditional discourse which casts the state as the central aspect of change is no longer in synch with reality . . . We must devise a new relationship between the market and the state, an alternative to both neo liberalism and the chronic statism of nationalists.” 24

From this perspective we are asked to conclude that the state cannot be used as a vehicle for revolutionary change and therefore we should not seek to seize hold of it, still less smash it and create a proletarian dictatorship. From the demise of the USSR and the bankruptcy of “third world” development strategies of the 1950s onwards we are asked to recognise that state ownership of the economy and nationalised property does not bring greater economic benefits than the market and we must renounce this dogma too.

Even the São Paolo Forum argued that the role of the state must be confined to playing “a central regulatory role, and promote social equity, without forsaking the management of the economy to the vagaries of the ‘supreme will of the market forces’”.

This is nothing more than a weak social democratic promise to tinker with the power of the bourgeoisie and not take that power from them. It is the old tune of the “new left” as it adjusts itself to the latest triumphs of the right.

Many of the ex-guerrillas such as the ADM and FSLN today insist that, having lost the guiding light of other models of socialism we have to think up an “ethical” basis to a “new socialism”, one which denies the need for political parties organising and leading masses; one that argues for renouncing the idea that state power is important for self-emancipation, that claims the solutions all lie in popular organisation in civil society.

Far from being new, of course, these strategies pre-date in origin and failure by at least 100 years the Stalinist and petit bourgeois nationalist strategies that have now proven, in their turn, so bankrupt.

What was wrong with the Stalinist conception of “socialism” in the USSR and in Cuba alike, was that it was a “socialism” in which the toiling masses were systematically excluded from any political decisions, a “socialism” in which the idea of social equality was mocked by the bloated privileges of the huge caste of bureaucrats who plundered the property of the state for their own ends.

It was a “socialism” that could make no transition towards a classless society because the blind and inefficient planning of the ministries was bound to create increasing disproportions and fail to develop labour productivity, a “socialism” that recklessly despoiled the environment, that suppressed rather than celebrated cultural diversity. It was a “socialism” that called on the masses still suffering under capitalism to merely support the USSR or Cuba, indeed to systematically subordinate their revolutionary struggles to this end.

To indict the goal of socialism on the evidence of the miserable failure of this system of parasitism and oppression is perverse. To raise one—essential—feature of this society, namely the abolition of private property in the main means of production, whilst ignoring all the others mentioned here, and to insist that this is what is to blame is deceitful. Yet this should not surprise us, since these latter day critics were often the most shameless apologists of the parasitical, criminal and wasteful aspects of the Stalinist states.

And what are we to conclude from the failure of the guerrilla or “insurrectionary” road to socialism and national independence? Contrary to what is argued by the new left, what failed was not the attempt to use the state, that is, the capture of political power, for emancipation. No, what failed was the attempt to seize hold of the existing capitalist state in Nicaragua and use it to protect the “mixed economy” (i.e. capitalism) from the workers rather than destroying that state root and branch and enforcing the power of democratic and accountable councils of workers and poor peasants.

What is being destroyed right at this minute by the practice of Humberto Ortega is not the illusion that socialist revolution is impossible in the “Third World” because of economic backwardness and isolation, but the illusion that a thousand Humberto Ortegas are clever enough to diplomatically manoeuvre between the different imperialist countries and between the two “camps” and so be allowed to rebuild the nation.

The only real alternative, the revolutionary one, was to pursue a strategy that recognised from the outset that the Nicaraguan revolution had to be placed at the service of the regional and continental revolution if it was to stand a chance of delivering a final death blow to capitalism. The revolution should have placed its prime emphasis—even at the risk of going down to an earlier defeat—on inspiring and leading the exploited and oppressed to rebellion and revolution.

To raise the left out of its presently marginalised state in Latin America it is essential to fight now for what has always been needed but was renounced consciously by those who pandered to the Stalinist and petit bourgeois nationalist left throughout the 1980s.

The first, second and third priority is the fight to build a revolutionary party, a Trotskyist party, integrated as a section of a revolutionary international. To renounce this project in the name of the spontaneous struggles of the popular masses in civil society is to doom these struggles to sectional, albeit occasionally spectacular, protest movements.

Angry, even insurrectional in content at times, these protests have the character of a tremendous moral indictment of capitalism and the misery it brings to millions. But without a party to focus their actions, to draw lessons for the next round of struggles, to discipline and discard the secondary and diversionary aspects of the fight, these protests will remain precisely that: an anguished cry for a better and more just world, doomed to ultimate impotence.

To state what is, as Trotsky said many times, is a revolutionary virtue, a precondition for further advance. That is why the LRCI is not a sponsor of the “new left” in Latin America which is a refuge for the demoralised Stalinists, defeated guerrillas and disoriented left social democrats. Our comrades in Latin America will struggle alongside all forces for their basic needs while aiming to draw the best fighters into the project of building a revolutionary party.

NOTES
1 “The Latin American Left; a painful rebirth”, Report on the Americas (ROA) Vol 25 No 5, p12
2 In Argentina there were several general strikes in the years 1984-87 against Alfonsin’s economic policies. In 1984 and 1985 the workers were able to recoup some of the wage losses suffered under the military; they also swept many old corrupt Peronist bureaucrats out of office in the CGT.
3 “The Informal Challenge”, E Córdova, in Hemisphere Vol 2 No 2 1992, p14
4 See “World Labour Report 1992” p44
5 Matters are not any better if we look at the state of agricultural workers. One commentator has noted recently that “No Latin American country has a farmworker movement powerful enough to set a minimum standard for wages or working conditions”. “New Terrain for Rural Politics”, Jonathan Fox in ROA Vol 25 No5
6 This was the balance sheet of the MAS, Solidaridad Socialista 407 (8 January 1992), p10
7 A bitter regional railworkers’ strike in the spring of 1992 provoked by the government to prepare it for privatisation suffered the same problems.
8 Solidaridad Socialista 411 (26 February) p10
9 A small part of the union bureaucracy refused to fuse. Called Encuentro Sindical and launched in December 1991, it professes to want to struggle against Menem’s policies.
10 This is an impressive total when one considers that the total number of registered full time workers in the formal sector is no more than 34 million. Many more millions—and growing—are in the informal sector.
11 There have been more than 800,000 sackings in São Paolo engineering plants since early 1991
12 International Viewpoint No 226 (13 April 1992) p19
13 By the middle of 1992 Collor’s presidency was under severe challenge from another direction. Growing public evidence of corruption involving Collor and his clique was spurring a growing movement supporting his impeachment. As we go to press his hasty exit from the scene appears imminent.
14 It has long been clear that the existence of single unified trade union federation—uncommon in South America—has been a distinct advantage for the progress of workers’ resistance.
15 E Herrera, of the PST (section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) in International Viewpoint 224, 16.3.92, p13
16 There were also 43 observers from other non-Latin American countries around the world. The first such conference was in São Paolo in July 1990, sponsored by the Brazilian PT, the second last year in Mexico City. Just how “broad” this “left” is can be seen in the statement of one participant, summing up the various views of the sponsors that “for some, capitalism is the ‘end of history’ and they aim to make it more democratic.” Report of the São Paolo Forum, V Amaya of the FMLN in the UK.
17 The growth of indigenism in the 1980s is a result of the failure of the left in the unions and peasant organisations to articulate and lead the indian peasants around them.
18 Far more significant in some ways than the “new left” at this stage is that the present vacuum of ideas and strategy has been to some extent filled by the advance of religious movements in Latin America, especially evangelical currents in the sprawling shanty towns.
19 In the first half of 1992 there has been a dramatic increase in the acts of the death squads against guerrillas and radical leftist journalists, all designed to cow the unions and force the remaining four guerrilla groups to an early capitulation.
20 See International Viewpoint 183, 23.4.90, p18
21 V Amaya, op cit.
22 See the article on Morenoism in this issue.
23 ROA, op cit p12
24 ibid, p18