In viewing my recent posts on socialism in the Third World, perhaps many readers will find themselves distrustful toward a process that is led by charismatic leaders and vanguard political parties, believing such a process to be undemocratic, or at least potentially so. Indeed, in the case of Russia, the Soviet government became totalitarian under Stalin, violating the principles of Lenin, even as it invoked his name. As a result, the communist parties affiliated with the Third International became instruments of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, not able to develop strategies in accordance with particular national conditions. But these dynamics occurred because of particular conditions in Russia and the Soviet Union, and they should not be understood as general phenomena. In fact, the evolution of the triumphant revolutions has different dynamics in the different nations. In the case of Cuba, a charismatic leader continued to be faithful to the revolution and to the people for decades, during which time his charismatic authority was institutionalized as a vanguard political party, which today effectively functions as the leadership of the revolution, with very little participation by the now elderly, but still lucid, Fidel.
Our conceptions of democracy, socialism and revolution should be based on real popular democratic socialist revolutions. The emergence of charismatic leaders and vanguard political parties may be inconsistent with our idealist conceptions in the North, but it is in fact the general pattern in triumphant revolutions of the world. We should learn from the revolutions of other lands, and permit their experiences to influence our conceptions, so that our understanding, even if optimistic and rooted in faith in the future, would not be idealist, because it would be connected to real historical social processes.
I would like to turn to reflection on the lessons of the popular socialist revolutions of the world for the United States. But before doing so, I should clarify how the American Revolution can be understood with respect to the popular revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The American Revolution was not a popular revolution but a bourgeois revolution with significant popular participation. It was initiated and led by the American elite, a wealthy educated class composed primarily of merchants and large planters. The popular sectors were active from the beginning, and they took control of the movement from 1775 to 1777, when they were most needed by the elite in its conflict with England. But the American elite was able to reestablish control, its victory consolidated by the Constitution of 1787 (see “The US popular movement of 1775-77” 11/1/13; “American counterrevolution, 1777-87” 11/4/13).
We also should be aware of a significant history of popular movements in the United States. Progressive movements for social change had very important gains from the period of 1860 to 1972, including: the abolition of slavery; the establishment of the right of workers to organize and a decent wage for workers; the protection of the political and civil rights of women and African descendants, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans; and bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
However, at the end of the 1970s, the nation took a sharp and unexpected turn to the Right. As a result, from 1980 to the present, Leftist voices have been marginalized, and public discourse is really a debate between moderate and extremist forms of conservativism.
This state of affairs is in part a result of the confusion of our people, who have been manipulated by the ideological distortions of the elite, aided by its control over a stunningly penetrative media infrastructure. But I believe that the marginality of the Left is to a considerable extent a result of our own weaknesses. We should be able to attain a better hearing for the project of the Left, inasmuch as it is fully consistent with scientific knowledge, human reason and common sense. It calls for: the protection of the rights of all persons to live in decency and with full equality, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender; the rights of all nations to be sovereign and all peoples of the earth to live in dignity; and the protection of nature. It is a project that is not only good and decent but also necessary, and this necessity should enhance its possibilities for realization. Although there are ideological obstacles, even considerable ones, we should be able to participate effectively in public discourse.
Our internal limitations were apparent at our zenith of the 1960s. We were guilty of excesses of all kinds. The white student anti-war movement adopted disruptive and/or violent strategies that were offensive to most of our people, and it sometimes converted political demonstrations into parties with pot-smoking and nudity. By the early 1970s, most people disliked the war, but they disliked the anti-war movement even more. With respect to race, Dr. King tried to teach us that “black power,” although a sound and important concept, was a frightening slogan to whites. But young blacks were too angry, and young white radicals to impulsive, to listen. By the 1970s, the nation turned to much greater racial civility, with the protection of basic political and civil rights regardless of race, but a profound racial social and cultural divide, rooted in 250 years of slavery and legal segregation, remained central to post-1980 US society.
The tumultuous period came to an end with the election of Jimmy Carter, a good and decent man who wanted to take steps toward the protection of the environment and to develop a more humane form of imperialism, in which governments allied with our nation did not abuse the “human rights” of their citizens. But Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the elections of 1980, in part because of Carter’s inability to manage a political situation created by the taking of hostages at the US embassy in Iran. So the modest steps taken by Carter did not turn out to be the beginning of a reasonable and sane response to the emerging global crisis. Instead, there emerged a period of the placing of the market above people, and of military interventions and wars of aggression. The Left became marginal to public discourse.
In spite of the prevailing right-wing mood, there are indications in the social consciousness of our people of a readiness to embrace a progressive alternative. There is a profound alienation among our people. They do not believe that their Congressmen and Senators are genuinely concerned with the well-being of ordinary people; they believe that politicians are more responsive to corporate interests than to the needs of people. This general distrust of politicians is evident in low-voter turnout in elections, and in the low prestige in which the Congress is held. And the alienation from the political-economic system extends to the corporate elite, which in the eyes of the people is interested only in corporate profits and not in the common good. This is an historic popular attitude, as is indicated by the term “robber barons” to refer to John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and others who came to dominate the emerging system of concentrated capital in the second half of the nineteenth century.
If we take the experience of the Third World popular and socialist movements as a guide, it is reasonable to think that we of the Left should be able to take advantage of the alienation of our people and to effectively present to them a reasonable alternative project. But today, as in the 1960s, are limitations are painfully evident. We have jumped from issue to issue, without formulating a comprehensive national project. We appear at demonstrations, where we shout and chant, but we do not provide explanations of the causes of the problems that we seek to remedy. Specialists in communication know that in political persuasion, the credibility of the source is important. But we do not present ourselves in a form that gives us credibility.
Having observed first hand popular movements in Latin America as well as the ongoing socialist project in Cuba for the last twenty-five years, I have been from the outset far more impressed with Latin American popular movements and discourse. Public discourses are informed, and the speakers have an image of credibility, by virtue of their knowledge and background as well as the seriousness and the manner of their presentations. In one-on-one conversations, I have encountered leaders who have a deep and expansive understanding of a number of issues, and who are committed to the cause of the people, as is evident in their manner of speaking and also in the fact that, in their political reality, their involvement as a movement leader implies risks to their own personal safety. Perhaps this last fact is a reason for their seriousness; in Latin America, no one plays this game lightly.
I have seen a very clear contrast between popular movements in Latin America and in the United States with respect to the tone of the discourse. In general, there is in Latin America audacity with respect to the political authorities and the ruling class, but caution with respect to the people. The movement leaders want to move the people in a new direction, but they are careful to avoid alienating themselves from the people. They are respectful toward the values of the people, and they frame issues in ways that are less likely to offend. When the people are confused, they take it as given that they as leaders must be more effective in persuading.
Over the years I have reflected on this difference in sensitivity and tone between the movements of the Left in Latin America and those in the North. And it seems to me that there are several issues that we in the US Left manage poorly. Although we are essentially right in what we are saying with respect to these issues, we say it in a form that is insensitive to our people, giving them reason to reject what we are saying. In subsequent posts, I will discuss issues and themes that I think we should manage better: race, gender, gay rights, ecology, patriotism, and faith.