Friday 26 April 2013
Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, made an enduring mark on the short history of Democratic Socialism. From 1999-2013, Chavez opened a new chapter for left politics. His tragic death, due to cancer, has been mourned by progressive forces all over the world and his legacy has been defended from the outright propagandistic distortions of the Western media. In a world increasingly subject to the tyranny of transnational capitalist power, Chavez dared to confront neoliberal financialised capitalism with a ‘21st Century socialism’. This Bolivarian project was anti-imperialist, unstinting in its use of democracy against capitalism (not just electoral democracy and democratic rights, but also neighbourhood councils in Barrios or urban slums, worker run factories, solidarity economy cooperatives and direct democratic action in the streets) and about state intervention in the economy. There were both redistributive and transformative elements to the Bolivarian Revolution. However, this was not without challenges and neither was it free of mistakes.
Moreover, Chavez was not the first in Latin America to challenge capitalism in this way. Salvador Allende, President of Chile, from 1970-73 did the same. Allende confronted capitalism in the midst of the Cold War and courageously experimented with a peaceful and democratic path to socialism. On September 11, 1973, Allende’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a CIA sponsored military coup and he killed himself before being captured by fascist soldiers. Allende’s democratic socialism was replaced with the first brutal experiment of neoliberal market adjustment, under a fascist military dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet. This ruthless General was a close ally of Reagan and Thatcher, crucial Western leaders championing neoliberalism ( a class project of transnational capital) in the heartlands of capitalism in the 1980s.
Both the Democratic Socialisms, of Chavez and Allende, shared certain common challenges. While they both did not have absolute majorities in their parliaments, both attempted to use state power to initiate radical reforms from above, based on the democratic mandates achieved. These state led projects, from above, threw up challenges of bureaucratisation and corruption. Another challenge shared was the resource base and dependency of their countries economies. Chavez was dependent on rents earned from oil, Allende depended on copper mines. However, both needed to use the wealth created by these commodities to manage international trade and ensure redistribution. These resource dependencies made their Democratic Socialisms vulnerable to commodity price changes, sabotage and even right wing worker strikes.
In the process of deepening social transformation both were forced to mobilise a democratic bloc of social forces against a pro-capitalist and imperialist bloc of domestic forces bent on blocking change. This deeply polarised their societies. Moreover, both faced imperialist destabilisation and US sponsored opposition. Allende tried to ensure this did not escalate into civil war and maintained a principled commitment to legality and constitutional democracy. At the same time, the democratic left in Chile rallied to late to build and institutionalise peoples power in defense of their democratic revolution. Chavez on the other hand ensured early on and through constitutional reform that popular power was entrenched in driving democratic transformation from below. This proved to be a crucial defense against the US sponsored military coup in 2002.
A democratic path to socialism is not an easy road, but neither is it impossible. Actually, it is the only way forward for the left in the 21st Century. Allende and Chavez have given us valuable historical experience to learn from.
First, building, institutionalising and deepening peoples power has to come before electoral power. Electoral and state power must merely strengthen whats already happening from below. In this context the solidarity economy, community owned renewable energy, localised food sovereignty, participatory budgeting in communities, local community controlled media, democratically managed schools, community policing forums and so on, become important. This means the state must be embedded or surrounded by peoples power to ensure it can be held accountable, prevent corruption and can also be defended against imperialist destabilisation. Even losing electoral power or even not having it does not stop such a project from continuing from below. More democracy, not less is the key! This also means grass roots collective leadership drives and coordinates change with left forces in the state.
Second, we live in an age in which capital is given policy concessions, enabling conditions to make super profits and power to lead. This has led to obscene wealth for the few, a crisis ridden world and unviable societies. Patrice Motsepe, Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, are part of this super-rich sometimes called ‘billionaires’ or ‘plutocrats’. Their wealth is the result of the inequality of the majority. This has to end, while appreciating the future does not lie with the rich but with workers, the poor and the middle class. It is time to turn popular power against these elites and ensure popular classes lead society. This means the impulse for transformation, anchored below, must form the basis for a new symbolic politics of alternatives for society and which needs to be presented to the country. These actual experiences of advancing alternatives have to be the content for a national dialogue for unity and advancing the interests of all South Africans. Put differently, national unity has to be actively promoted on the terms of workers and the poor as the basis to call for capital and the rich to make sacrifices. For example, capital must be blocked from making profits in renewable energy so that feed in tariffs can be put in place to enable poor households to benefit from renewable energy generation and for community owned renewable energy to come to the fore. The ‘sacrifice’ of capital means society benefits, particularly the workers, the poor and the middle class. Another example will be public transport: capital out, the state in to ensure all of South Africa benefits.
Third, besides grounding socialist change in radical democracy, pluralism and ethical values there is a need to deal with the challenge of imperialism differently. Instead of confronting imperialism, in the context of a unipolar world order, the redistribution of power going on in the world today holds out the prospect for a post-hegemonic world in which multiple centres of power co-exist. This requires a new transformative regionalisation, strategic state alliances, strengthening of multi-lateralism and transnational solidarity across global civil society.
Finally, it is important to have a democratic plan to move beyond commodity dependent economies. In the case of South Africa we have to advance a transition beyond a carbon based economy, dependent on the minerals energy complex, and which is contributing to green house gases and global warming. Human induced climate change will effect workers, the poor and the middle class the most. In this context, Democratic Socialism has to be a Democratic Eco-Socialism in the 21st Century!