Harnecker tackles complex path to 21st century socialism

September 13, 2015
'A vital addition to the repertoire of anti-capitalists everywhere.'

A World to Build: New Paths Toward Twenty-First Century Socialism
Marta Harnecker
Monthly Review Press, 2015
US$19, paperback

The emergence of diverse, complex and popular social projects in Latin America — several of which have involved winning governmental power —- is arguably the most important phenomenon shaping radical politics in the 21st century.

The political practices of popular movements and political parties engaged in these revolutionary projects can inspire and educate radicals and activists all over the world.

In this, Marta Harnecker’s book, A World to Build: New Paths Toward Twenty-First Century Socialism is an indispensable vault of political experience and ideas. First published in Spanish, the book won Venezuela's 2013 Liberator's Prize for Critical Thinking. It has now been translated by Green Left Weekly writer Federico Fuentes and published in English for the first time.

Harnecker is a left-wing intellectual who was forced to flee Chile after the US-backed military coup in 1973. Harnecker has studied popular movements across the continent up close, authoring dozens of books and working as a close advisor to Venezuela's late socialist president Hugo Chavez.

Completed shortly after Chavez's death in March 2013, Harnecker’s book is a critical intervention into Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, facing possibly its greatest challenges since Chavez first rose to power in 1998.

As such, it becomes an expression of the political perspectives of a nation, and indeed a continent in struggle.

The achievements of the Latin American left-wing projects — often adopting the label of “socialism for the 21st century” — cannot be overstated.

Latin America was the first continent to experience neoliberal structural adjustment programs in the 1970s and ’80s. In turn, it was the first continent to rise in opposition, breaking the stranglehold of neoliberal politics and corporate oligarchies. A string of progressive governments came to power on the back of large, powerful and militant social movements of peasants, indigenous people, workers, students and women.

However, this process is not uniform and faces severe challenges, as Harnecker explains. Progressive governments are being held back by international and national corporate power, right-wing controlled media and a state apparatus geared towards social control, not liberation.

Harnecker calls for a calm analysis of the “correlation of forces” - the balance of power between the various social and political forces that make up the radical left, and the right-wing forces seeking to maintain the old order.

The key to changing and shaping this correlation of forces, according to Harnecker, is a defence and extension of “socialism for the 21st century”. This project represents the continuity and extension of revolutionary practice in to the new century.

This includes drawing on original socialist principles, such as total human development as a social goal, the centrality of human beings and human practice, and an emphasis on communal and cooperative models of socialism rather than simply state-ownership.

This return to core Marxist concepts of change is merged with a socialist vision rooted in the present conditions. This means a socialism that is inseparable from ecology and feminism, that speaks to indigenous and peasant people, and is in line with the experiences of the people carrying out radical change.

However, putting such a concept into practice is easier said than done. A large section of A World To Build is dedicated to developing ideas on how 21st century socialism can be practically created, drawing heavily from the experiences of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

A key theme is participatory democracy, which is found at the core of socialist projects today. Participatory democracy, and the building of spaces and infrastructure for real democratic action, is not just a useful addition to socialism, it is at the centre of the entire project. Protaganism, Harnecker says, is vital for human development.

To this end, Harnecker makes a case for decentralisation. She says decentralisation in important spheres of social life — and opposition to centralisation as a guiding political practice — is vital in order to foster real democratic practice among ordinary people.

Harnecker follows in the footsteps of Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros in arguing that centralisation has a tendency to develop bureaucracy, and thus corruption and authoritarianism. Direct democracy, decentralisation and popular control can pave the way for human freedom.

However, Harnecker rejects the “festishisation of organisational forms”. She calls for forms of decentralisation that can organise mass, national and international projects through fostering solidarity.

From here, Harnecker discusses the transition to socialism, laying out the experiences of socialist activists in Latin America in a direct, nuanced way.

She says each region and nation develops its own political forms in seeking a transition away from capitalism and draws a strong distinction between socialist change in the global North and global South.

With this in mind, there is no schematic or dogmatic approach that is useful in making radical change. We can, however, develop a framework. For Harnecker, this framework is based on understanding the “correlation of forces” — and figuring out how to make them more favourable to a socialist transition.

In a society divided into hostile camps capable of exercising significant social force, society is a battleground in which competing forces can wield varying degrees of power at different times.

In order to change society in favour of certain groups, it is necessary to change the correlation of forces.

For the popular classes, and left political forces that express their interests, this means waging a long term struggle to change the balance of forces. This includes winning control of social institutions, taking a cultural and political lead and breaking down the social blocs that uphold the old order.

The exact nature of this struggle is determined by the conditions of a given country and, in turn, the given correlation for forces produced by those conditions. In this sense, Harnecker’s book is centred on building a “new hegemony” against capital.

The book ends with a detailed discussion of the types of political organisations and activists that are needed for this struggle.

To change the balance of forces, political instruments must be created as tools with which the correlation of forces can be altered. These instruments need to be organised by activists who are non-sectarian, open and dedicated to building real unity with ordinary people in struggle.

All in all, the framework presented is one rooted in, and developed out of, actual experience of radical struggle in Latin America today.

A World to Build articulates the stories and lessons of the peoples of Latin America that, through their courage, sacrifice and political innovation, represent an example to oppressed people everywhere. It is a vital addition to the repertoire of anti-capitalists everywhere.

[Marta Hanecker will be in Australia for a May 13-15 conference on “socialism for the 21st century” organised by Socialist Alliance in Sydney. Angus McAllen is a member of Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance in Brisbane.]

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