When I was a young man encountering the student anti-war and black power movements at Penn State from 1965 to 1969, I thought that reform was a good thing, for it made changes for the good of the people. We young radical students understood in a general sense that there was a difference between reform and revolution: revolution involves fundamental structural change and a change in who exercises power; reform involves significant changes, but it does not change fundamental structures or who governs. Revolutionaries, we thought, were antagonistic to reform because they wanted to change things more deeply and more quickly. However, during twenty years of listening to Cuban revolutionaries, I have come to understand that revolutionaries are against reform not only because it is not fundamental and does not change who governs. But also because it often has a cynical and sinister character, formulated from above with the deliberate intention of braking the revolution from below.
So let us distinguish reform from below and reform from above. Reform from below seeks to improve the conditions of the people, and it places no limits on these improvements, and they can include changes in structures and in who governs. When reform from below accepts limited changes, it does so because of its perception of what is possible, taking into account the existing arrangement of political forces. Reform from below accepts changes that do not touch structures or power, not because it is fully satisfied, but because it believes that nothing more is politically possible at the moment; if it were possible, reform from below would want deeper changes.
In contrast, reform from above does not want deeper changes in structure and power. Reform from above wants to maintain the established structures and the prevailing distribution of power in the established economic-political-social system. Therefore, reform from above seeks to undercut the popular movement, by offering significant concessions that do not change structures or power. When reform from above has success, some of the people are seduced and confused by its maneuvers, and divisions in the popular movement occur, weakening its force.
We have seen important examples of reform from above in the political careers of Ramón Grau and Carlos Prío, who were the presidents of the Cuban neocolonial republic from 1944-48 and 1948-52, respectively. They pretended to be inheritors of a revolutionary tradition that dated backed to 1868, but their legacy was to deliver eight years of unprecedented corruption, dashing the hopes of a people that was seeking to develop a more just and dignified nation, in accordance with the dreams of Martí (“The failure of ‘democracy,’ 1940-52” 8/25/2014).
The difference between reform from above and reform from below can be difficult to see in practice, because both include concrete measures designed to increase the level of education, health and housing of the people. The difference can be discerned when we observe the packages of which these measures are part. The reform from above package includes no specific measures that adversely affect the interests of the ruling elite; it sometime pretends to be opposed to elite interests, but careful analysis reveals that its measures are superficial or full of loopholes. Reform from above sees specific measures in defense of popular interests as having satisfied the demands of the people, and it often turns to repression of the popular organizations that push for more changes. In contrast, the reform from below package sees the specific measures in defense of popular interests as small but important steps in the empowerment of the people in a process that could lead to fundamental structural change. For reform from below, the specific measures are most important not in the needs that they satisfy, but in teaching the people the power that they possess, if they act collectively.
Reform from above is cynical, for it pretends to be revolutionary, when it is not. And it is pernicious, because it confuses and divides the people, thus weakening the revolutionary movement. In moments of crisis, reform from above often allies with the reactionary sector of the bourgeoisie or with fascism.
Whereas reform from above is cynical and pernicious, reform from below has good intentions. But it is wrong-headed. Although reform from below sees itself as part of the revolution and always is opposed to the oppression of the revolution, it is not revolutionary. It mistakenly believes that fundamental structural change and the taking of power by the people are not possible. It lacks revolutionary faith, a belief that the people through united action, rooted in understanding, can take power and establish an alternative political-economic-social system. Lacking the clearly-defined goal of the taking of power by the people, reform from below often allies with reform from above in important moments of confrontation, undermining the popular revolution when it stands ready to take power. Reform from below lacks the clear understanding and revolutionary faith that are necessary for the taking of decisive steps at critical moments.
On a global scale, reform from above has been tried on various occasions: the New Deal and Keynesian economics, the Good Neighbor policy of FDR, the important-substitution project of the Latin American urban and industrial national bourgeoisie, the Alliance for Progress of Kennedy, and the Human Rights policy of Jimmy Carter (see “Imperialism and the FDR New Deal” 9/20/2013; “The Alliance for Progress” 9/26/2013; “Jimmy Carter” 10/1/2013). FDR’s reformist vision of a peaceful neocolonial world-system characterized by cooperation among the global powers and significant concessions to newly-independent governments of Africa and Asia as well as to Latin American governments was not implemented following the death of FDR, as it was cast aside by the ideology of the Cold War (see “Post-war militarization of economy & society” 9/23/2014). These examples of reform from above are all characterized by the making of concession to the popular sectors without undermining the interests of the elite.
But reform from above on a global scale is not workable. The structures of the world-system are designed to super-exploit the workers and peasants of the peripheral and semi-peripheral zones, generating profits for the elite and a higher standing of living for the working and middle classes of the core. The concessions that can be made to the superexploited global masses, without affecting the benefits to the core, are necessarily limited, and they will not be enough to politically satisfy the global masses and establish global political stability, particularly in a time in which the world-system has reached the geographical limits of the earth, reducing its capacity to expand. Reform of the neocolonial world-system is not possible. A stable world-system can be developed only on a foundation of structures that respect the social and economic rights of all persons and the sovereignty of all nations. This requires not the reform of neocolonialism, but its abolition.
With the historically demonstrated failure of the reform of the world-system from above, and with the devastating consequences of the turn of the global powers to a neoliberal economic war against the poor and to imperialist militarism, a global popular revolution has emerged in our time. It is constituted by an alliance, on a global scale, between reform from below and revolution. It seeks to construct an alternative, more just, democratic and sustainable world-system, in which neocolonialism would be eradicated, for its structures would defend the sovereignty and true independence of all nations.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Cuban Revolution, neocolonial republic, Grau, reformism