Clearly, what Charles McKelvey describes as a socialist revolution and the (partial) taking of power through the ballot, has no relevance to the Cuban, Russian, or Chinese revolutions, all of which were armed struggles that overthrew established government. What Charles sets forth is at best a social democratic program that accepts and works within the prevailing government structure, not one trying to effect permanent social change.
Revolutionary socialist movements are in essence struggles formed by the people that seek to take power from the bourgeoisie and its political representatives. They are not defined by the method through which they arrive to power, which is dependent on particular conditions. When socialist revolutions arrived to power, they did so through the leadership of exceptional persons who mastered the art of politics, and thus discerned the road to power.
In the cases of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions, the armed struggles took three different forms. The Russian Revolution was not exactly an armed struggle, but rather a movement for the formation of soviets (councils of workers, peasants and soldiers), accompanied by the formation of popular militias and the placing of some government military barracks under the authority of the soviets. The Chinese Revolution involved a long guerrilla war in the countryside. The Cuban Revolution was a short guerrilla struggle that was able to move from the mountains and the countryside to the city. In all three cases, the charismatic leaders adopted intelligent strategies that were appropriate and necessary in the context of the particular conditions.
Political conditions following the triumph of the three revolutions were sufficiently favorable to enable the revolutionary governments to effect a fundamental reconstruction of political, military and cultural institutions. Nevertheless, the power to which they had arrived was partial. They confronted powerful internal and international enemies, and the obstacles to economic transformation were enormous. Seeking to construct socialism in a global context shaped by a capitalist world-economy, they were compelled to promote the interests and needs of the people on a step-by-step basis, limited to the possible. In the case of Russia, the contradictions were such that with the death of Lenin, the revolution fell to a bureaucratic counterrevolution, and it subsequently developed in a distorted form.
In the case of Cuba, the revolution at the moment of its triumph enjoyed significant political possibilities. The military dictatorship was totally discredited, as a result of its alliance with US imperialism and its oppression of the people. Representative democracy also was lacking in legitimacy, as a result of its service of US imperialist interests during the neocolonial republic. Moreover, the national bourgeoisie emigrated rather than remaining in the country to defend its particular interests. These factors enabled the Cuban Revolution to develop structures of popular democracy, institutionalized in the Constitution of 1976.
But the Cuban Revolution confronted major obstacles. It was an underdeveloped nation, dependent on the exportation of raw materials to the United States and on the importation of US manufactured goods. Its national bourgeoisie had been a “figurehead bourgeoisie,” totally subordinate to US capital and incapable of leading an autonomous national project. And its proposal for independent development and true sovereignty provoked the hostility of the United States, which considered the island to be its possession.
As the Cuban Revolution sought to construct socialism under these difficult conditions, it took decisive and necessary steps, according to what was possible, and it took further steps and adjustments as the revolution evolved. Many of the measures are understood generally to be socialist: nationalization of agricultural plantations, industry, education and the mass media. Other measures in health, education, housing, transportation, tourism and international relations are reformist, involving steps that any progressive government should take, including joint ventures with foreign capital. But such reformist incrementalism was tied to decisive revolutionary steps, and it was part of a national development plan directed by popular power. It was very different from reform from above, which involves concessions by the elite to popular sectors in order to pacify them. Cuban reformist incrementalism was reform from below, constrained only by limitations in real possibilities. All political decisions have been made by delegates of the people and not by representatives of the bourgeoisie, national or international. Concessions of the Cuban revolutionary government are made not to powerful classes but to the people and to the possible.
The relatively favorable conditions for the taking of power through a guerrilla struggle and the reconstruction of political, military and cultural institutions, which existed in Cuba in the period 1956 to 1963, did not exist in the Latin America of 1995, a region defined at that time by representative democracy, neoliberalism, and corporate control of the media. In these conditions, fundamentally different from Cuba of 1959, an armed struggle would not have been an effective strategy.
In Latin America in 1995, the people were confused by the collapse of a progressive agenda and the imposition of neoliberalism, but they knew enough to know that they were excluded and abandoned. They began to protest over particular aspects of their situation, such as the high cost of water. In this context, leaders emerged to direct the people toward a more comprehensive rejection of the neoliberal project, a discrediting of the political representatives that had participated in the implementation of neoliberalism, and the formulation of a more dignified project of national independence.
In this changed Latin American political reality at the dawn of the twenty-first century, three charismatic leaders emerged in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. They formed alternative political parties that took partial political power and led the people in the development of new constitutions, which were more progressive than those of bourgeois democracy, inasmuch as they included protection of the social and economic rights of the people, the sovereignty of the nation and the ecological balance of nature. However, political conditions have not permitted the establishment of popular democracy as against representative democracy, nor have they permitted structural economic transformations of a kind that would break the neocolonial relation with the United States or destroy the political power of the national bourgeoisie, which remains politically active as a class, cooperating with imperialist interests in projects of political destabilization and the restoration of the Right. In addition, the media remains for the most part in the hands of private capital. In spite of these limitation, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa proclaimed the popular revolutions in their nations to be revolutions of socialism for the twenty-first century, with characteristics different from twentieth century socialism, yet in full solidarity with socialist Cuba.
What interpretations can we make of the revolutions in Latin American today that have proclaimed themselves to be socialist revolutions for the twenty-first century? In addressing this question, we should not overlook the context in which they emerged in the 1990s. It was a time in which the unipolar power had proclaimed the end of history and ideological debates, and that only one model was possible, that of liberal democracy. It was a time in which the Left was weak, divided and demoralized, and some prominent members of the Left jumped ship. Indeed, the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of Third World governments, had abandoned the radical Third World project of national and social liberation in favor of an accommodation to neoliberal assumptions, although Fidel led a minority opposition to the movement’s accommodation. At that time, no one predicted that in the next fifteen years the politics of Latin America would be completely transformed, with the emergence of self-proclaimed socialist governments in three nations, the electoral victories of progressive governments in other nations, the formation of regional associations that seek to break the neocolonial relation, and the solidarity of the region with socialist Cuba.
The three charismatic leaders played a leading role in this stunning and unanticipated process of change. They therefore should be appreciated as exceptional persons whose gifts include mastery of the art of politics. Their leadership has included the formulation of the idea that in the epoch of neoliberal globalization, socialism has been born again, a socialism with different characteristics from before, a socialism that discerns a different road to power and a different vision of the characteristics of the socialist society, but which sees itself as carrying forward the banner of socialism hoisted by socialist revolutions of the past, for like its forebears, it is convinced that the capitalist world-economy is unsustainable.
Thus, the Latin American revolutions of today signify an evolution in the meaning of revolution and of socialism. They have followed the example of the socialist revolutions of Russia, China and Cuba, but they have not imitated them. Practicing the art of politics, they have discerned a road to power adapted to the present epoch of neoliberal globalization and global crisis, in which the world-system is increasingly demonstrating its unsustainability.
In the three socialist revolutions in Latin America today, we can see in outline form the characteristics of a socialist revolution in the United States: the formation of an alternative party that proclaims the intention to construct socialism and that unites the various popular sectors; the formulation of specific proposals that respond to the concrete needs of the people; the formulation of constitutional amendments that project the goals of the socialist revolution; and the use of the structures of representative democracy in order to take control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, and to struggle from that position to take control of the judiciary, the military and the mass media, and to establish structures of participatory and popular democracy.
Rather than analyzing the popular revolution in Latin America today from a perspective shaped by the socialist practice of an earlier epoch, we should appreciate the revolutionary spirit alive today in Latin America and join in the construction of socialism, redefined for the present historic moment, but with understanding of its historic roots.
Posts reflecting on the meaning of revolution can be found in the category Revolution.
Key words: revolution, socialism, armed struggle, reform