The project of “21st century socialism” that Hugo Chavez espoused in 2005 seems very distant in Latin America today.
What we see instead is rising inflation, suppression of wages, increased dependency on oil as the main source of income and, crucially, an absence of the grassroots organisation that was the cornerstone of the Bolivarian revolution.
The gains have been rolled back due to massive bureaucratisation, a failure to deal with enormous corruption and increased concessions to the global market — opening up opportunities for the right wing opposition to mobilise violent attacks on the left.
It is in this context that Marta Harnecker’s latest book has been published. The book is a detailed and well-reasoned attempt to explain the rise of popular struggle from below in South America from the beginning of the century.
However, the book fails to acknowledge (or mention) the dire situation facing Venezuela today. The book begins with a useful historical overview of the crucial struggles waged by ordinary people in this part of the world where neoliberal policies were first introduced, as well as their impact on similar struggles throughout the region.
Harnecker goes on to explain the subsequent rise of the new Latin American governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile throughout the early 2000s onwards, and gives an interesting account of the US’s various desperate attempts to change tactics in response to this.
The second and main section of the book gives a welcome defence of socialist ideas in general, such as the need for collective ownership of the means of production and the demand for a system based on human need rather than profit.
But when Harnecker describes what 21st century socialism should look like — creating democratic councils in every workplace and institution alongside constant decentralisation of the state apparatus — she seems to be avoiding the reality of Venezuela and Bolivia today.
Bolivian president Evo Morales, for example, has moved to use constitutional changes to extend his rule.
In the final section Harnecker discusses the importance of a political “instrument” or party from below, and warns against the dangers of bureaucratism.
Unfortunately she looks much further back to the pitfalls of Soviet Russia as an example rather than closer to home.
There is no doubt that the influence of Chavismo and the gains won by indigenous people, women and the working class in general throughout Latin America have been enormous.
It is only through an honest assessment of the dangerous concessions that have already been made by some of these governments that the revolution can be salvaged in Venezuela and elsewhere.