Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Marta Harnecker on New Paths Toward 21st Century Socialism

Introduction by Richard Fidler

Among the many panels and plenaries at the Conference of the Society for Socialist Studies, which met in Ottawa June 2-5, was a Book Launch for Marta Harnecker’s latest English-language book, A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism (translated by Federico Fuentes), Monthly Review Press.

A World to Build by Marta HarneckerThe featured speaker was Marta Harnecker, with Professor Susan Spronk and myself invited as discussants. The session was titled “Author Meets Critics.” I am publishing below the opening presentation by Marta, followed by a slightly expanded version of my comment. Unfortunately, time constraints (our session was followed immediately by a panel on current events in Greece) meant that there was little opportunity for discussion from the audience.

As the chair, Michael Lebowitz, noted in his introduction, Marta Harnecker has authored over 80 books as a leading Marxist theorist and popular educator in Latin America, over the course of a career that began in her native Chile and later included extended sojourns in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries. A World to Build summarizes what in her opinion are the major lessons to be learned so far from the current advances of progressive governments in Latin America and the issues they pose for radicals everywhere.

The Spanish edition of the book was awarded Venezuela’s “Liberator’s Prize for Critical Thought” in 2013.

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Photo by Andrea Levy

Marta and me.

 

A world to build (New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism) – Marta Harnecker

I completed this book one month after the physical disappearance of President Hugo Chávez, without whose intervention in Latin America this book could not have been written. Many of the ideas I raise in it are related in one way or another to the Bolivarian leader, to his ideas and actions, within Venezuela and at the regional and global level. Nobody can deny that there is a huge difference between the Latin America that Chávez inherited and the Latin America he has left for us today.

That is why I dedicated the book to him with the following words:

To Comandante Chávez, whose words, orientations and exemplary dedication to the cause of the poor will serve as a compass for his people and all the people of the world. It will be the best shield to defend ourselves from those that seek to destroy this marvellous work that he began to build.

Twenty-five years ago left forces in Latin America and in the world in general were going through a difficult period. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union hurtled into the abyss and disappeared completely by the end of 1991.

Deprived of the rear-guard it needed, the Sandinista revolution was defeated at the elections of February 1990 and Central American guerrilla movements were forced to demobilize.

The only country that kept the banners of revolution flying was Cuba.

In that situation it was difficult to imagine that 25 years later most of our countries would be governed by left-wing leaders.

Latin America was the first region where neoliberal policies were introduced. Chile, my country, was used as a testing ground before Margaret Thatcher’s government implemented them in the United Kingdom.

But it was also the first region in the world where these policies gradually came to be rejected; policies which had served only to increase poverty and social inequalities, destroy the environment and weaken working class and popular movements in general.

It was in our subcontinent that left and progressive forces first began to rally after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

After more than two decades of suffering, new hopes were born.

Candidates from left and centre-left groupings managed to win elections in most of the region’s countries.

This process began with the election of Chávez in 1998. At that point, Venezuela was a lonely island in a sea of neoliberalism that covered the continent.

But the neoliberal capitalist model was already beginning to founder. The choice then was whether to re-establish this model with a more human face or to go ahead and try to build another.

Chávez had the courage to take the second path and decided to call it “socialism,” in spite of its negative connotations.

And I say courage because following socialism’s collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, most leftist intellectuals of the world were in a state of confusion.

We seemed to know more about what we did not want socialism to be than what we wanted.

We rejected: lack of democracy, totalitarianism, state capitalist bureaucratic methods, central planning, collectivism that did not respect differences, productivism that emphasized the expansion of productive forces without taking into consideration the need to preserve nature, dogmatism, intolerance towards legitimate opposition, attempts to impose atheism by persecuting believers, the conviction that a sole party was needed to lead the process of transition.

Today, the situation in Latin America has changed. We have a rough idea of what we want.

Yet, why is the region clearer today on what kind of future society we want to construct?

I believe this is largely due to:
First, the practical experience of what we have referred to as “local governments of popular participation.” They are profoundly democratic governments that have opened up spaces for peoples’ empowerment and, thanks to their transparency, contributed to the fight against corruption.
Second, the rediscovery of communitarian indigenous practices, from which we have much to learn, and
Third, what we can learn from those Latin American governments that have proposed moving towards an anticapitalist society.

These beacons, that began to radiate throughout our continent, were strengthened by the resounding failure of neoliberalism, the increased resistance and struggle of social movements, and, more recently, the global crisis of capitalism.

An alternative to capitalism is now more necessary than ever.

Chávez called it “21st century socialism,” to differentiate it from the Soviet-style socialism that had been implemented in the 20th century.

This was not about “falling into the errors of the past,” into the same “Stalinist deviations” which bureaucratized the party and ended up eliminating popular participation.

The need for peoples’ participation was one of his obsessions and was the feature that distinguished his proposals from other socialist projects in which the state resolves all the problems and the people receive benefits as if they were gifts.

He was convinced that socialism could not be decreed from above, that it had to be built with the people.

And he also understood that protagonistic participation is what allows people to grow and achieve self-confidence, that is, to develop themselves as human beings.

I always remember the first program of “Aló Presidente Teórico,” which was broadcast on June 11, 2009, when Chávez quoted at length from a letter that Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, wrote to Lenin on March 4, 1920:

Kropotkin wrote:

Without the participation of local forces, without an organization from below of the peasants and workers themselves, it is impossible to build a new life. It seemed that the soviets were going to fulfil precisely this function of creating an organization from below. But Russia has already become a Soviet Republic in name only. The party’s influence over people [...] has already destroyed the influence and constructive energy of this promising institution – the soviets.

Think about how significant it was that Chávez was quoting Kropotkin in this program that all Venezuela was watching.

This model of socialism, which many have called “real socialism,” is a fundamentally statist, centralist, bureaucratic model, where the key missing factor is popular participation.

Michael Lebowitz has recently called this model the society of the conductor and the conducted.[1]

Do you remember when this socialism collapsed and people talked about the death of socialism and the death of Marxism?

At the time, Eduardo Galeano, the wonderful Uruguayan writer who recently died, said that we were invited to a funeral we did not belong at. The socialism that died was not the socialist project we had fought for.

Real socialism had little to do with Marx and Engels’ vision of socialism. For them, socialism was impossible without popular participation.

If we look at Latin America, the map of our region has radically changed since 1998. A new balance of forces has been established which makes it more difficult for the United States to achieve its objectives in the region.

The US government no longer has the same freedom as it used to have to manoeuvre in our region.

Now it has to deal with rebel Latin American governments who have their own agenda, which often clashes with the White House agenda.

We should be clear, however, that the attempts of US Imperialism to stop the forward march of our countries continue and have even increased in the last period.

However, the most advanced countries of our region have begun to make steps to build another world. Is has been called Socialism of the 21st Century, Christian Indoamericano Socialism, Indoamericano, Sociedad del Buen Vivir (Good life society) or Sociedad de la vida en plenitude (Full life society). A socialism where the human being is the centre and human development is the goal.

I say that those countries are in transition to socialism.

But what type of transition are we talking about?

We are not dealing with a transition occurring in advanced capitalist countries, something that has never occurred in history, nor of a transition in a backward country where the people have conquered state power via armed struggle as occurred with 20th century revolutions (Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba and others). Instead, we are dealing with a very particular transition where, via the institutional road, we have achieved governmental power.

In this regard, I think the situation in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s is in some ways comparable to that experienced by pre-revolutionary Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. What the imperialist war and its horrors were for Russia, neoliberalism and its horrors were for Latin America: the extent of hunger and misery, increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, destruction of nature, increasing loss of our sovereignty.

In these circumstances, our peoples said “enough!” and began to walk, resisting at first, and then going on the offensive, making possible the victory of left or centre-left presidential candidates on the back of anti-neoliberal programs.

This process of transformation from government is not only a long process but also a process full of challenges and difficulties. Nothing ensures that it will be a linear process; there is always the possibility of retreats and failures.

This process has to confront not only backward economic conditions but also the fact that the people still do not have complete state power.

These governments inherited a state apparatus whose characteristics are functional to the capitalist system, but are not suitable for advancing towards socialism.

In relation to this, we should recall that the first socialist experiment in the Western world by the institutional way took place in Chile, with the triumph of President Salvador Allende and the leftist Unidad Popular (Popular Unity, UP) coalition in September 1970.

I think Allende’s socialist project was the precursor of the 21st century socialism of which President Chávez was the great promoter.

Not only was Allende the first socialist president in the Western world to be elected democratically, by popular vote, he was the first to try advancing toward socialism by the institutional road and the first to understand that to do this he had to take his distance from the Soviet model.

Socialism by the institutional way cannot be imposed from above, it has to rely on the support of a large majority of the population.

Remember, though, that Allende won with a simple plurality (only 36% of the votes); the rest of the votes were divided between Christian Democrats and conservatives. As a result Allende was obliged to make agreements with the Christian Democrats to have their support in the Congressional vote of ratification in November 1970.

One of the great limitations that the Allende government had was the institutional framework it inherited.

The Chilean president knew they needed to elaborate a new constitution in order to change the institutional rules of the game and to facilitate the peaceful transition to socialism.[2] Why did he never issue that call? Probably because the Popular Unity still lacked the majority electoral support that was indispensable if a successful constituent process was to be carried out. The UP never managed to achieve 50% or more of the votes.[3] But why not try to change that situation?

Perhaps he lacked audacity, the audacity that President Chávez had when the opposition called for a referendum to overthrow him and he agreed to enter the fight even though at that point the polls put him far behind. He immediately planned how to achieve the forces to win in this contest and he created the idea of the patrols, that is, groups of 10 persons who could involve people who were not members of parties but who sympathized with Chávez; each of them was to win the support of another 10 by going house to house.

Unfortunately, Allende’s project was too heterodox for the Chilean orthodox left of that time, a left that was too orthodox, as its positions did not correspond to the new challenges that the country was undergoing. I can give you some examples of that orthodoxy[4] later if you want.

One of the more important lessons we can extract from the Chilean process is the importance of the popular organization at the base. One of our greatest weaknesses was not to understand this, to delegate political action to the politicians, or rather, the fact that the politicians appropriated politics and, with that, the Popular Unity committees — which were basic to Allende’s electoral victory — began to weaken and to disappear.

When Allende was defeated by a military coup on September 11, 1973, most of the left activists saw this as confirmation of the need to destroy the bourgeois state apparatus and abandon attempts to advance toward socialism via the institutional road.

Nevertheless, practice has demonstrated, contrary to the theoretical dogmatism of some sectors of the radical left, that if revolutionary cadres run the government, the inherited State apparatus can be used as an instrument in the process of building the new society.

But we must be clear, this does not mean that the cadres can simply limit themselves to using the inherited state. It is necessary — using the power in their hands — to go about building a new correlation of forces that can be used to begin to build the foundations of the new political system and new institutions — the new rules of the institutional game, that is to say, a new Constitution and new laws, which can create spaces for popular participation that can help prepare the people to exercise power from the most simple to the most complex level.

And we should build a new correlation of forces overcoming the old and deeply rooted error of attempting to build political force without building social force.

However, we should always remember that the right only respects the rules of the game as long as it suits their purposes.

They can tolerate and even help bring a left government to power if that government implements the policies of the right and limits itself to managing the crisis.

What they will always try to prevent, by legal or illegal means — and we should have no illusions about this — is a program of deep democratic and popular transformations that puts into question their economic interests.

We can deduce from this that these governments and the left must be prepared to confront fierce resistance. They must be capable of defending the achievements they have won democratically against forces that speak about democracy as long as their material interests and privileges are not touched. Was it not the case in Venezuela that the initial enabling laws, which only slightly impinged on these privileges, were the main factor in unleashing a process that culminated in a military coup in 2002, supported by right-wing opposition parties, against a democratically elected president supported by his people?

It is also important to understand that the dominant elite does not represent the entire opposition. It is vital that we differentiate between a destructive, conspiratorial, anti-democratic opposition and a constructive opposition that is willing to respect the rules of the democratic game and collaborate in many tasks that are of common interest.

That was the strategy that Fidel Castro followed in fighting against Batista’s dictatorship, as I explained in my book, Fidel Castro's Political Strategy: From Moncada to Victory.[5]

In this way we avoid putting all opposition forces and personalities in the same basket. We divide the enemy and concentrate our forces on the principal one.

Being capable of recognizing the positive initiatives that the democratic opposition promotes and not condemning a priori everything they suggest will, I believe, help us win over many sectors that in the beginning are not on our side. Perhaps not the elite leaders, but the middle cadres and broad sections of the people influenced by them, which is most important.

Another important challenge these governments face is the need to overcome the inherited culture that exists within the people, but not only among them. It also persists among government cadres, functionaries, party leaders and militants, workers and social movements leaderships. I’m talking about traits such as individualism, personalism, political careerism, consumerism, top down methods of leadership, etc.

Moreover, since advances come at a slow pace many leftists tend to become demoralized. When solutions are not rapidly forthcoming, people get disillusioned.

That is why I believe that, just as our revolutionary leaders need to use the state in order to change the inherited balance of forces, they must also carry out a pedagogical task when they are confronted with limits or brakes along the path.

I call this a pedagogy of limitations.

Many times we believe that talking about difficulties will only demoralize and dishearten the people, when, on the contrary, if our popular sectors are kept informed, are explained why it is not possible to immediately achieve the desired goals, this can help them better understand the process in which they find themselves and moderate their demands.

Intellectuals as well should be widely informed so they are able to defend the process and also to criticize it if necessary.

But this pedagogy of limitations must be simultaneously accompanied by encouragement of popular mobilizations and creativity, thereby avoiding the possibility that initiatives from the people become domesticated and prepare us to accept criticisms of possible faults within the government.

Not only should popular pressure be tolerated, it should be understood that it is necessary to help those in government combat errors and deviations that can emerge along the way.

It is impossible to develop here all the measures that have been taking place in the most advanced governments in the region. But if we have time, we will be able to explore some of them here. I believe that they are the best demonstration that we can advance by the institutional road toward socialism.

If we keep in mind all the factors we have mentioned above, rather than confining ourselves to classifying Latin American governments according to some kind of typology, as many analysts have done, we can evaluate their performance while bearing in mind the correlation of forces within which they operate. We should pay less attention to the speed with which they are advancing, and look more at the direction in which they are going, since the speed will, to a large extent, depend on how these governments deal with obstacles in their path.

To finish, I would like to read out some of the most important criteria that I think help us to evaluate whether or not our most advanced governments are taking steps towards building a new society.

I propose the following questions; you will find many more in the book.

Do they mobilize workers and the people in general to carry out certain measures and are they contributing to an increase in their abilities and power?

Do they understand the need for an organized, politicized people, one able to exercise the necessary pressure that can weaken the state apparatus they inherited and thus drive forward the proposed transformation process?

Do they understand that our people must be protagonists and not supporting actors?

Do they listen to the people and let them speak?

Do they understand that they can rely on them to fight the errors and deviations that come up along the way?

Do they give them resources and call on them to exercise social control over the process?

To sum up, are they contributing to the creation of a popular subject that is increasingly the protagonist, assuming governmental responsibilities?

To the extent that they are doing this, they are presenting a real alternative to capitalism, to the extent they are not, they will disappoint those who have hopes in this Latin American transition to socialism.

I would like to conclude by insisting on something I never tire of repeating:

In order to successfully advance in this challenge, we need a new culture on the left: a pluralist and tolerant culture that puts first what unites us and leaves as secondary what divides us; that promotes a unity based on values such as solidarity, humanism, respect for differences, defence of nature, rejection of the desire for profit and the laws of the market as guiding principles for human activity.

A left that understands that radicalism is not about raising the most radical slogans nor taking the most radical actions, which only a few follow because the majority are scared off by them. Instead, it is about being capable of creating spaces for coming together and for struggle, that bring in broader sectors, because realizing that there are many of us in the same struggle is what makes us strong and radicalizes us.

A left that understands that we have to win hegemony, that is, that we have to convince rather than impose.

A left that understands that what we do together in the future is more important than what we may have done in the past.

* * *

A comment on Marta’s book and some of the issues it raises (Richard Fidler)

Marta’s book is an excellent overview of the “new paths toward 21st c. socialism” being taken today, with the focus on Latin America.

Particularly useful is Marta’s typology of the governments in the subcontinent: those merely giving neoliberalism a makeover; and those that are antineoliberal, themselves divided between those that don’t actually break from neoliberalism and those that want to go beyond not just neoliberalism but the capitalist system of which neoliberalism is the current expression.

Included in this discussion is Marta’s list of criteria by which to judge how much progress the latter types of governments are actually making.

I am billed at this presentation as a “critic,” however...

If I were to criticize, I think the book may not give enough emphasis to the problems to be encountered along the way, and be more assertive on ways to confront and overcome those problems.

This was brought home to me in her discussion of the correlation of forces, and some of the achievements made so far by Latin American governments in reducing the hegemony of US imperialism. Marta mentions the Banco del Sur, the sucre currency, the ALBA Bank. In the translated edition (the original Spanish text was published in 2013) she might have mentioned the “new financial architecture” of the BRICS, which includes Brazil, with new credit lines, etc. However, much of this is still music of the future: the Banco del Sur has yet to be established after six or seven years of talk; the sucre has had very limited use, in a few transactions; the ALBA Bank barely functions, and I suspect that BRICS credit lines will replicate those of Brazil’s development bank, largely devoted to funding infrastructure projects that benefit Brazilian transnationals.

The reason for these institutional weaknesses is of course that fundamentally all of these countries are integral parts of a global financial, trade and investment system within a global capitalism shaped by the United States and its imperialist allies. In another workshop here this week, Bill Carroll made the point that “regionalization is to globalization as a part is to the whole.” In Latin America today, many theorists wrongly portray the formation of regional alliances as an antidote to globalization instead of seeing it as a particular defensive strategy that still does not address some of the underlying dynamics, and in fact reinforces them in some respects (e.g. Brazil’s growing hegemony in South America, in alliance with China).

The new political alliances, UNASUR and CELAC, while a major advance over the OAS in that they exclude the United States and Canada, still suffer from rules of unanimity, which (through a government like Colombia’s) gives Washington an indirect but effective veto on contentious issues. Also, we need to bear in mind the way in which Washington has successfully divided Latin America with its trans-Pacific strategy — bringing Mexico (already a NAFTA member), Colombia, Peru and Chile into the TransPacific Partnership, under US hegemony.

And despite their success at taking advantage of the rise of China and the initial stirrings of a more multipolar world, the Latin American countries have not managed to escape their rentier dependency on exports of largely unprocessed non-renewable and renewable resources — hydrocarbons, minerals, agribusiness products like soy, etc. Besides making them highly vulnerable to shifts in global prices, this economic pattern is disastrous for the ecology. The economic problems being experienced today in Venezuela, where the chavista government has made the greatest advances socially and in terms of building popular power from below, are directly linked to its hydrocarbon dependency.

I want to talk now about the topic of the last part of the book, on the need for “a new political instrument for a new hegemony.” What I express here is not criticism of Marta’s approach but rather some thoughts to expand on it, with concrete (and critical) reference to our local experiment, Québec solidaire.

First, note Marta’s terminology — which actually mimics the official name of Bolivia’s MAS, which is the MAS-IPSP, the Movement for Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples. She and Fred Fuentes have authored a fine book (only in Spanish) on how that party developed as a “political instrument” in the 1990s and early 2000s. And how marvellously adapted it was not only to engage in the epic mass conflicts over privatization of water and transnational control of the country’s hydrocarbon resources, but to help mobilize broad rural and urban forces that could overthrow governments and, in 2005, elect a government of its own.

The term “political instrument” is deliberate. I think it is meant (among other things) to differentiate her subject from what most of us associate with the political parties we know from our experiences — both the mass capitalist parties and the much smaller, largely ineffectual (and usually quite sectarian) self-proclaimed “vanguard” parties of the far left.

Marta does a fine job of explaining what she means by “hegemony” and the strategic conception of building “broad fronts” and “social blocs” in pursuit of key objectives that advance the struggle for popular power. She lays great emphasis on the need to change the political culture on the left, to fight class reductionism, and to prioritize points of convergence.

The essential concept here is the idea of a party (or political instrument) as encompassing the proletariat in the broadest sense of that word, to represent all those who are oppressed and exploited by capitalism.

Bear in mind that in most of Latin America, a continent that was devastated by neoliberalism, its traditional left parties and unions destroyed, these political instruments did not exist a couple of decades ago. In most cases (as in Venezuela and Ecuador, in particular) they are quite recent, organized top-down by progressive governments trying to structure and extend popular support; in Bolivia, where the MAS government self-identifies as a “government of the (already existing) social movements,” those movements maintain a problematic and sometimes conflictual relationship to the MAS leadership. The situations vary widely from one country to another. In another period, the Cubans went through a long process of figuring out ways in which to institutionalize their political process.

But obviously when we talk strategy we are talking about leadership. Marta discusses this in the sense of “popular protagonism,” which she explains as finding ways to involve the largest number of people in progressive, grassroots political activity, and she discusses the various approaches that this can involve.

I think it is useful, in this connection, to recall what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels said about the party question in the Communist Manifesto, where they could hardly avoid it as the Manifesto was predicated on what they saw as the imminence of proletarian revolution. It is yet another part of the Manifesto that was long forgotten or overlooked, but has considerable relevance today.

Although it was titled “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” Marx and Engels saw their party, or political current, as simply the leading edge of the broader proletarian movement. They were categorical:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

I think that is a very good approach to the question of protagonistic leadership, one that is applicable today. But again, this is addressed to the “communists,” whom we can perhaps define, in light of that approach, as a “vanguard.” That term is frowned on today because of the past of so many self-declared vanguards that hang out in exclusive circles, eager to critique and oppose all other currents, often with a self-perpetuating central leadership cadre, awaiting the great day when the masses will finally discover them and accept to be led by them to victory. Obviously, we are talking about a quite different concept. The big debate — and the answers will vary from one country to another — is over how to implement it.

The Manifesto’s vanguard (“the Communists”) is distinguished, inter alia, by its strategic overview and its determination to advance it within the broader party and popular movements (today’s counterpart of the “proletariat” in most countries). To be effective, it will in virtually every case have to have some organized presence and the right to function within the broad party as a tendency or faction, provided of course that it respects the majority decisions of the party membership.

This distinction is not widely understood or implemented in much of the left, even where (as in Venezuela’s PSUV or, closer to home, Québec Solidaire) there is a right to form an organized political tendency. In the PSUV, as I understand it, left factions like Marea Socialista remain quite marginal, lacking resources within the party to publish their views and engage with the membership as a whole. In QS, the recognized “collectives” have little presence, and there is no formal provision for their proportional representation in the leadership bodies, although the party defines itself as “pluralist.”

Yesterday, some of us participated in an excellent panel discussion featuring young activists on current attempts in Quebec and Canada — and Scotland! — to build “a social movement convergence.” The leading attempt on this continent is Québec solidaire, a product of some 20 years of efforts to bring together global justice advocates, feminists, community grassroots activists and survivors of previous far left parties (Maoists and Trotskyists mainly) in a party that purports to practice politics both at the ballot box — it has three members of the National Assembly — and “in the streets.”

It’s a notable achievement, but I just want to note here that it also demonstrates how complex and problematic this process of broad left regroupment can prove to be if it is not accompanied by clear agreement on some fundamentals. For me, there are two major problems in QS, both of which point to the need for leadership by a far-sighted and protagonist party “vanguard” in the sense of the Manifesto.

One is the incoherency on the Quebec national question, where QS projects, in sequence, (1) a Constituent Assembly, (2) a referendum for popular adoption of whatever constitutional proposals or draft the Assembly produces. But the purpose of the assembly is left undefined: whether to design an independent state, or to simply propose some changes to the existing constitutional order, which most Québécois are convinced, correctly, does not represent them adequately as a nation.

This is important, because if you are pro-independence, as QS says it is, you will want the Constituent Assembly to propose the constitution for a democratic sovereign state and see that as its purpose. QS however persists in elevating an abstract democratic right of the Assembly to decide that preliminary issue, over the fundamental democratic right of self-determination as a nation, which points clearly toward a sovereigntist solution. Democracy trumps clarity.

Ambiguity here is not a virtue. In today’s conditions, where sovereignty is not a majority option among the Québécois, a Constituent Assembly without a clear mandate might come up with simply a proposal for membership in a revised federation that continues to bar the way to transcending capitalism.

The QS approach is, quite simply, non-strategic. In my view, the party would benefit greatly if it were to cast its program in the framework of building “another Quebec,” one with the sovereign power, for example, to nationalize the banking and financial sector, which is a precondition to implementing many anticapitalist measures. If you stay within the provincial framework, as QS election platforms do, you cannot address these key challenges with any credibility.

A reorientation on this question is badly needed — especially if QS is to benefit from the current crisis of the Parti Québécois, which still hegemonizes the independence movement with its neoliberal program. QS incoherence on the proposed path to sovereignty has hindered it from winning dissident and disappointed péquistes to its ranks. I keep hoping that the self-identified Marxists within QS, a very small minority, I’ll acknowledge, could find a way to help clarify this conundrum.

The second problem is an ongoing tension within QS over its relationship to the social movements that it seeks to represent. Basically, it’s the tension between the party of the streets and the party of the ballot boxes. QS is largely the latter. Nine years after its founding, it is still in the process of adopting its basic program, although much of the program is being invented and defined by its small parliamentary contingent as they grapple with issues of the day. Most of the party’s activity comes down to organizing for elections. QS members sometimes march in demonstrations with the party’s banner, although in most cases no attempt is made to single out QS proposals (in the form of placards and slogans) for developing the struggle around the particular theme of the mobilization. Its MNAs see their role as spokespeople for the movements, which is necessary of course.

But should the party do more? How can it help to empower, to develop the capacities, of the movements by working with them to find ways to link their immediate aims with the over-arching need to fight for political power in the state and to use that governmental power to transform the relationship of class forces?

Some activists in QS have proposed a much more protagonist approach to the party’s relations with the social movements, which are relatively strong in Quebec. A formal proposal[6] by some members a few years ago included the idea that QS members play an active role in helping to develop a social and political front of popular resistance; host meetings where QS and the social movements could share their experiences, and – perhaps most important – encourage networking within the party of the QS members who belong to the various social movements, to coordinate their work in those movements. That proposal was withdrawn from debate by the party leadership on the eve of a programmatic convention.

These ideas were however advanced again, and adopted,[7] at a QS National Council meeting last November. It was agreed that QS members in the extraparliamentary milieu should network and help to provide the party with a more concrete, more complete vision of the situation in each movement, and to develop common strategic perspectives to encourage the mobilization and convergence of the movements, especially in the trade unions, the student movement and the women’s movement.

However, to date few such initiatives have been taken, and the party’s top leadership seems reluctant to pursue this line of march.

Marta quotes Bolivia’s vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, in a riff on the Zapatista concept of “mandar obedeciendo”, or to govern by obeying. The leader, he says, “is simply a unifier of ideas, someone who articulates the needs of the people, and nothing else.”

I would argue that something else is needed: a leadership that does have a profound understanding of our history as anticapitalists, and of the experiences, both positive and negative, of 19th and 20th century socialism. García Linera, an elected leader of a country, does in fact operate that way in Bolivia, as someone with a developed strategic conception of what is to be done now and next.

That’s an idea we can develop further, using the valuable discussion that Marta engages in this book.


[1]. Michael Lebowitz, The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’: The Conductor and the Conducted (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012).

[2] In fact, President Allende presented the parties making up the Popular Unity with a proposal for a new constitution in September 1972. I think it is important to study this document because it embodied Allende’s ideas on how the social transition should be made based on the Chilean reality.

[3]. In the 1971 municipal elections, the UP got 49% of the popular vote, the high point in its electoral support.

[4]. See more in: From Allende’s Chile to Chávez’s Venezuela – an interview by Isabel Rauber: http://lifeonleft.blogspot.ca/2015/04/marta-harnecker-on-challenges-of.html.

[5]. Pathfinder Press, 1987.

[6] For the text (in English), see “Québec Solidaire and the social movements,” appended to Quebec election: A seismic shift within the independence movement?

[7] For the text (in French), see note 14 in Les mouvements sociaux et Québec solidaire : réflexions sur une contribution d’Amir Khadir.