state capitalism and communism-from-below in latin america

David Broder’s talk to The Commune’s recent Manchester forum

The class struggle in Latin America is one that has always roused great interest and a certain romanticism among the western left. The continent has seen a number of heroic struggles against often savage exploitation and state repression, whether by the industrial working class, landless peasants or indigenous peoples. But the politics of the Latin American left are complex and often mischaracterised.


I’m going to talk about the recent history of Latin America and the relationship of US imperialism to national ruling classes; in what ways this has shaped the major left trends and the workers’ movement on the continent; and the different types of movement that exist today. 


I’d like to preface my remarks by talking about visiting Latin America and the method of understanding its political dynamics. Given that we can read and learn a lot about the continent’s class struggle but not do very much to affect its course, analysis takes precedence over abstract prescription as to ‘what is to be done’ by forces we can do little to influence.

I myself was lucky enough to take part in a Bolivia Solidarity Campaign delegation to Bolivia in spring 2006, and at the same time spent a few weeks in Argentina.  We met with trade union and community campaigners and discussed the general strikes which had taken place in 2003 and the previous year, but more importantly visited workplaces and chatted with street-sellers, minibus drivers, and other so-called ‘ordinary people’ about what was going on. Similarly, in Argentina I went to several workplaces which had been taken over – by which I mean, stolen by employees and put back to work – during the 2002 economic collapse.

This had an important effect on my political thinking and understanding of what communism is and what the workers’ movement is. This despite the fact that the time I was a very much a Trotskyist and what I then wrote about what I had seen reflected certain preconceptions of such politics, for instance the need for a vanguard party to lead these struggles and give them political direction, or abstractly insisting that it is impossible to have ‘islands of socialism’ in workplaces, when in fact it is precisely this kind of struggle for control that has the potential to radicalise and give confidence and political direction to wider layers of the working class.

Activists often invoke their experience of visiting some far away country like Venezuela or Cuba as evidence of their right to tell you what to think about it and dismiss criticism. But if their analysis, their understanding of what is going on, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, the reason is that they have gone to their imagined socialist paradise with their eyes, ears and mind firmly closed and only found out what they wanted to. For sure you can meet workers who are enthusiastic for any leader or party you like; much as if you are a Maoist you can find a Hugo Chávez quote to the effect that he is a Maoist; if you are a Trotskyist you can find a Hugo Chávez quote telling you he’s a Trotskyist; if you are a Castroite just the same, and if you like Nicolas Sarkozy, Chávez called him a socialist too.

My point is not just to be open-minded and try and get a global picture of what’s going on, but moreover to not take the word of any party calling themselves socialist or just because their country of origin is perceived as part of the ‘Third World’. Often on the left people say that it’s patronising to criticise ‘Venezuela’ or ‘Cuba’  since these are poor societies trying to build socialism. But is it not in fact more patronising to assume that the people who live under such governments cannot hope for any better than a rather undemocratic welfare state, since it is their fate to live in the Third World with the law of the jungle, or at least, not a societal order such as we ourselves would like to live in.

Undoubtedly these governments do take measures which benefit the working class such as the building of better public services, high-quality education and healthcare which is the envy of the region. But those who say that Venezuela and Cuba prove that socialism works are not just arguing that those systems are less exploitative than those of Haiti or Colombia, but rather that they are a model of the social relations we want to create. Surely the other side of learning from people on the other side of the world is that there must be a critical engagement where we try and find exactly what we have to learn, rather than simply cheer-lead.


However, one thing we have to understand when we look at the continent and its political dynamics is the role of imperialism, in particular the United States. For more than a hundred years the US has been the dominant power in the region, and has had an extremely damaging effect. I’ll  talk quite generally about the continent as a whole and then look more to specifics.

Traditionally speaking, the relation of western capital to Latin America has been to establish ‘enclaves’ of absolute control, extracting primary resources – whether this means mining, oil extraction, or agriculture – on the basis of a sharply unequal balance of trade. Some of the poorest countries on earth are in effect subsidising the United States economy.

Moreover, the economic structures are often backward, with a very small capitalist class – what are often referred to as ‘oligarchs’ – controlling large agricultural estates, latifundias and selling resources abroad. These are outward facing – focussed on the export market – and highly dependent on the economic patronage of US capital.

Indeed, this method of siphoning off natural resources in no way implies that US capital, and institutions under its influence such as the International Monetary Fund, has any particular interest in developing local ‘capitalisms’ in Latin America. The development of infrastructure has been slow to the point of non-existence: indeed, while fifty years ago Bolivia was covered in rail networks, for the last thirty years there have been no trains whatsoever; even in Argentina, the richest country on the continent by far, there are hardly any. Neither can we find many welfare states to ‘buy off’ the working class through the provision of basic ‘cradle-to-grade’ security and support.

Hard power

Of course, US capital cannot safely operate if there is political chaos, but any political stability such as might exist is underpinned by the economic relationship I describe. It is difficult to manufacture popular consent for IMF reforms and a submissive trading set-up in which most people have no stake.

If we look at the case of natural gas – Bolivia is the second-largest producer in Latin America and it is its main resource – all the extraction rights were sold off by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 1996, unconstitutionally, without the consent of Congress, basically as a backroom deal by a gangsterish individual. An individual, indeed, who was privately educated in the United States, speaks Spanish with an American accent and who like every single Bolivian head of state from 1809 to 2005, came from the 15% of the population who are whites. Today those who supported ‘Goni’ are trying – by force – to split Bolivia down the middle, creating a sort of Latin American version of Kuwait in the east of the country.

Their resort to military means is a drop in the ocean of such practice on the continent in the last century. Not a single country in Latin America has anything close to a stable record of ‘ordinary’ parliamentary democracy.

Chile had 60 years of such practice, and 1970 saw the election of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, composed of the Socialist Party, Communist Party and various small liberal and nationalist forces. He called himself a socialist, nationalising much of the economy and promising development, coupled with a mild anti-imperialist rhetoric. There was at the same time a rather more revolutionary workers’ movement, widespread factory occupations and insurrection in the countryside, yet at the same time petrol strikes, workers being locked out of work and the deliberate under-stocking of stores in an attempt by the right to resist reform. Indeed, Allende had tried to posture as moderate and reconcile his development of Chile’s state apparatus and economy with the interests of the oligarchy, sending troops into the poor barrios to disarm the masses and try and suffocate the popular movement, at the same time as bringing generals into his cabinet. One of his ministers, a certain General Pinochet, did not wait long before taking this opportunity to massacre the unarmed workers, set up a government of his own and murder Salvador Allende.

Everywhere the military has had repeated and direct interventions into government, including the juntas of the ’60s-’80s. Such regimes totally crushed dissent, denying even the capitalist class any democratic rights, in the knowledge that establishment parties cannot be trusted to keep a lid on the masses. The world’s great democratic statesmen were strangely silent on these coups and massacres – in the infamous words of 1945-53 US President Harry Truman, ‘He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard’. Their victims can be counted in the millions.

Today, after a certain level of pacification following the collapse of the USSR when it supposedly became impossible to change the world for the better, this version of ‘hard power’ is again on the offensive. Starting with the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez, we have seen the army used against the 2003 and 2005 general strikes in Bolivia; last autumn’s massacres and attempted seizure of power in the east of that country, the offensives of the Colombian army and state-sponsored paramilitaries against trade unionists and peasant communities, and in June, a military coup to remove President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.


Related to this is populism. The submission of local economies and of political rights to the interests of US capital is precisely why there is such a strong social basis in Latin America for what we might call ‘populism’: the politics of ‘the nation’ and the vast majority of the population, including not only the working class and peasantry but also the local aspirational bourgeoisie, as against multinational exploitation.

Developing the national economy and its infrastructure in the circumstances I have described relies on heavy state intervention to try and create a national capitalist system with a broader ruling class, build  a larger state apparatus including some limited degree of welfare and public services, and an effort to try and establish less unequal relations with the United States. The state apparatus, its technocrats and managers, either co-ordinate capitalist development, or directly accumulate capital for the state machine.

This attempt to break out of submission of national capital may well be utterly at odds with the interests of the existing ‘dependent’ oligarchy, another reason why feuds among ruling classes can often not be settled by the acceptance of parliamentary rules-of-the-game and parties alternating control of government. Measures undertaken in the interest of capital in general do not necessarily suit any particular individual capitalist.

There are two current figures I would like to mention in this regard: Hugo Chávez and Manuel Zelaya. Neither began their political career on what could even vaguely be called ‘the left’ – Chávez was an army man who neither at the time of the coup he attempted in 1992 nor at the time of the 1998 Presidential election called himself a socialist or anything of the sort. Indeed, in 1998 his party’s big idea, alongside nationalist myths about Simon Bolivar, who liberated the country from the Spanish empire, was the ‘Third Way’ of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But one thing he was trying to do was stand up to the traditional power-sharing parties’ monopoly of control.

Manuel Zelaya’s father was responsible for tens of thousands of killings of agricultural workers attempting to organise, and he himself is a member of the Partido Liberal, the historic main party of the Honduran ruling class.

Yet both leaders found their hands tied by the existing power relations – Chávez faced fierce resistance to his attempts to nationalise oil and place his own supporters in the state apparatus, to the point that in 2002 there was an army coup against him in which he was arrested and abducted, with a new government installed led by business representatives. Only since the mass resistance which defeated that coup did he begin calling himself a socialist and try and ride on the workers’ movement.

Zelaya was an overt neo-liberal, but IMF loans conditions and the 2008 food price crisis, coupled with the soaring – then collapse – of energy costs brought the country close to bankruptcy such that he had to turn towards Chávez’s ALBA economic union, much to the offence of the likes of Shell and Exxon-Mobil. The workers’ movement and Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular to which he was formerly hostile suddenly became necessary allies, and he tried to find a mass base by introducing a basic welfare package and a small increase in the minimum wage.

From a rather different political background, Evo Morales explicitly talks in terms of capitalist development, and his vice-president Álvaro Garcia Linera has written and spoken extensively on the idea of ‘Andean capitalism’, a mixture of state monopolies and petty-proprietor small businesses to replace the US-dependent oligarchy.

In different times, of course, Fidel Castro found after his national liberation movement that the USA was trying to displace him, and two years after taking power – and after the CIA invasion of Playa Girón and the Bay of Pigs – he gravitated towards the USSR, an alternative source of patronage and export market. Only then did his nationalisations of US property take on a ‘Marxist’ character. The Peruvian army, 1968-75, expropriated British sugar mills and American oil plants, without compensation, but their anti-imperialist and ‘communal’ revolution was at the same time explicitly anti-communist.

State capitalism

Perhaps these leaders are forced to talk ‘left’ and make anti-imperialist postures to find mass support, and doubtless they often do find it. The criticism that Chávez’s elections are in some way unfair is dubious, but misses the point in any case. If there were free and fair parliamentary elections in Cuba tomorrow the Castro brothers may well win a majority, but that does not imply that it is a desirable or workable model of socialism. Any political system can only last so long if it does not have popular consent, but popular consent to the existing order of things continuing above their heads is not the same as the mass of people taking charge of their own communities and workplaces.

Firstly because the statification of the economy does not imply working-class control. Bolivian tin miners have repeatedly gone on strike at nationalised mines over such measures by Morales as pension cuts, and been fired on by soldiers. Attempts by Venezuelan workers to take over and control workplaces run up against the buffers of the Bolivarian bureaucracy, a new managerial elite which has substituted for the old.

In Helen Yaffe’s new book about Che Guevara’s economics, she cites an example of managers being cleared out of a factory, and busy efforts to find replacements. The state tells some college students that they are the new managers, and Yaffe describes them celebrating in the dorms. The anecdote is presented as twee and chaotic, as if an example of the people trying to run things ad-hoc. In fact it represents that the regime reflects capitalist hierarchies, having to find someone – even if inexperienced -to tell workers what to do, rather than let the workers themselves take charge. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers are on piece-rates, competing with one another to produce more and be paid more.

Chávez talks about replacing private companies with co-operatives, but these are just state-backed capitalist exploitation. The Caracas dustmen found this to their cost when, to meet their socialist government’s rules on tendering contracts, their employer declared the company a co-operative. Having put 49% of the company shares on sale, at market rates, to the staff, the boss proceeded to lay-off a third of the workforce and cut others’ wages. When the workers went on strike in protest, the mayor, of Chávez’s party, informed them that he could not take their side since as the company was a co-op, they were employers, not employees! We can also find Chávez’s speeches to business leaders promising to keep a lid on the workers’ movement a worrying echo of the political trajectory of his ally in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, who having led a similar regime during the 1980s civil war – the Sandinistas, who resisted the CIA-backed Contras –  is now openly pro-business.

Moreover, as in the aforementioned case of Allende, the failure of such populist governments to dismantle the state apparatus such as the bureaucracy and army – it is not at all on their horizons to do so – makes any of the reforms they grant the workers transitory and subject to repeal. Morales’ land reforms have been very hesitating, and his Constituent Assembly election excluded parties to his left and yet granted huge concessions to the far right by allowing them an effective veto over constitutional changes.

Movements from below

For this reason, to ask ‘should we support Morales against the right-wing?’ is precisely the wrong question, since when the right were trying to overthrow Morales, workers and indigenous people had to defend themselves against armed fascist thugs in the streets, while the government called for “national dialogue” and made generalised appeals for “calm”, diplomatically ignoring the small matter who was attacking whom. It was exactly the path trodden by Salvador Allende, and one condemned by large parts of the Bolivian workers’ movement, for instance the Central Obrera – the union federation – in Oruro, which published a statement ‘Neither Evo nor the oligarchy’.

It is precisely this type of self-organisation indpendent of the state which is the most exciting aspect of the political dynamics of Latin America today. In Bolivia in the last decade there have been three general strikes, with indigenous communities but also working class suburbs mobilising en masse. In El Alto, a poor city close to La Paz, the FEJUVE association brought together workers, street-sellers and the unemployed – working-class women were particularly prominent – in a participatory council which organised against the army and police, not only demanding that the multinationals be expropriated and a Constituent Assembly be convened, but enjoying de facto self-governance as the Sánchez de Lozada regime was toppled.

When the Argentinian state went bankrupt eight years ago and millions were thrown out of work in the crisis, hundreds of workplaces were taken over by the ‘redundant’ employees and run under their own collective control – several still exist to this day. I mentioned earlier having visited such workplaces, and I think the best known, the Zanon tile factory, is a useful example of the kind of movement I am talking about. Upon arriving in Neuquen, where the plant is based, I phoned to ask if I could come over that morning. I was told that the workers had decided to give themselves the morning off because they wanted to support a demo for striking teachers! Without a vanguard party or any grand schemas the workers know of the need to spread their struggle, and how to go about it: for example the paper Nuestra Lucha the workers produce to help spread the idea of self-management; giving free tiles to schools and hospitals and other self-managed workplaces; their strong links with – and support from – their local community; to name but a few examples. So too in Buenos Aires have workers on the underground train system taken inspiring strike actions in which they sought to connect with the working public by keeping the trains going and the network active – but refusing to take any fares.

Furthermore, in the cases of military coups I have described there has often been heroic mass resistance, defending democratic rights as such against the military. In Honduras this struggle has now gone on for eleven weeks, such that Manuel Zelaya this week could make a daring comeback to the capital. So to in 2002 it was the mobilisation of working class people which defeated the right-wing coup against Hugo Chávez’s government. Although any government of the capitalist state, left or right, is a government of the ruling class, if these struggles to re-establish deposed leaders succeed, they do not simply restore the previous status quo. People’s experience of solidarity and collective struggle is such as to give them confidence in their ability to stand up for themselves and to change things. Since the 2002 fight against the Venezuelan coup, the level of working-class organisation, number of strikes and the battle for control in the workplace – including against the Chávez government and its bureaucracy – is at a far higher level. This has opened up more political space for a movement which could more fundamentally challenge capitalism than Chávez ever would.

Here we have taken in a broad sweep of countries and periods of history: for sure Bolivia today is not exactly the same as Chile in 1973, and nor is it the same as Argentina in 2002. But what I have attempted to demonstrate is that the different trends in the workers’ movement, and then of the left-wing face of state capitalism, exist above and beyond particular incidents or national peculiarities. I have not cited them for the sake of historical interest. How these tendencies have arisen – and their idea of how communism should come about, whether through a benign state or via the mass of people building a movement by which they might take charge by and for themselves – is intertwined with all debate, anywhere on Earth, as to our vision of the society we want. For that very reason, the movements from below on the continent are also our struggles, and a political culture from which we have much to learn.