Right-wing criticism of socialism in Latin America won’t stop its Western resurgence
By: Anna Freeman
‘The cautionary lessons to learn from the Venezuela crisis is that no matter how many great intentions an emancipatory project has, it must involve the mass participation of people,’ says Eva Maria, a Venezuelan-born adjunct professor at Portland State University, Oregon, and socialist activist in the US.
Venezuela is on the brink of economic and social collapse over a decade after the late Hugo Chávez’s vision for 21st century socialism was implemented. Right-wing critics and politicians have been quick to use Venezuela as an example of socialism’s limitations and failures, saying that such projects will inevitably crumble into chaotic authoritarianism, violent repression of civil liberties and an economy left in ruins. But even still, the basic tenets of economic equality, democratic socialism and community mobilisation are once again being championed by Western political parties on the left.
21st Century socialism and Chavismo: The modern experiment
Under Chávez, the horrors of 20th Century socialism were supposed to be behind us, and in many ways, until his death in 2013, they were. ‘The Western left has been advocating the Venezuelan project for years because there was a real faith that this “new” type of socialism, one that can combine both strategies from state-led socialism with more democratic aspects to it, was a project worth pursuing,’ explains Maria.
But now, impoverished Venezuelan citizens queue for hours for simple necessities like toilet paper, food and medicine; Inflation is at a record-high at up to 800 per cent; black market currency has rendered the Venezuelan Bolívar almost meaningless; corruption has seeped into nearly every institution; democracy is being chipped away by the Nicolas Maduro administration. The promises of Chavismo couldn’t be further from reality.
For Maria, however, the damning rhetoric coming out of the West against Venezuela is ‘not useful’ and fails to recognise the complexity of the situation. ‘Socialism’ in the Chávez era has been misrepresented, according to Maria, and the rapid freefall into a full-blown dictatorship is the result of ‘top-down’ governance, whereby the ruling class still controlled the mechanisms of a so-called ‘popular class’ revolution. ‘This kind of socialism ignores the need for real decisions to be made from below at the community level,’ she says.
New Statesman political journalist and author, James Bloodworth, says the Venezuelan socialist project under Chávez was also very specific to the country because of its vast oil reserves. Wealth generated from an abundance of natural resources made economic prosperity a more tangible possibility than in other Latin American countries, but monetised democracy is only a short-term solution.
‘The promise of 21st century socialism was to throw money at the problem,’ he tells me, ‘There were huge reserves of money which could be distributed to the poor, but that is a limited option and couldn’t be sustained. You couldn’t just focus on the economy without focusing on human rights. Socialism is about expanding democracy through work and the economy, but in Venezuela it has gone the opposite way now.’
Therefore, the West’s criticism of Chavismo and Maduro is problematic, but not wrong, as the liberties of its ‘popular classes’ have almost entirely been stripped away by poor economic management and growing hostility towards opposition. Socialism, as a general concept, has however been tied into a shallow narrative that solely equates the socialist movement in Venezuela with chaos and death, the perfect pairing for right-wingers to bash over the head of the working class electorate.
Socialist sceptics are too quick to conflate the calamitous problems now facing the Maduro administration with socialist projects in the West, and, in fact, the first decade of Chávez’s rule, which saw a huge decrease in nationwide poverty and an expansion of state ownership of key sectors. Chávez’s legacy may be tarnished by the current crisis facing the people of Venezuela, but huge support for the late leader brought about real change, even if the grassroots power of the masses was often lacking.
The emergence of two ‘lefts’ in Latin America
On the eve of the 1990s, neoliberalism and free market policies had trashed Latin American countries across the board. Capitalist consumerism and economic growth seen in the US had not come to fruition south of the border, and a growing disgruntlement paved the way for a left-wing monopolisation of power previously unseen in the region. Gabriel Hetland, assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University at Albany, New York, says the devastating effects of neoliberalism saw social inequality soar, with a doubling of people living in absolute poverty before the 2000s.
As a result, left-wing parties rose to power in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela, creating what scholars and political theorists have largely called the ‘two lefts’ of Latin America. Although Hetland argues that the conception of two left-wing movements across the region is an over-simplification, he does broadly acknowledge that there was a rough division between styles of governance: the ‘moderate’ left and the ‘radical’ left.
‘It is true that there was a moderate left in countries like Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, and a more radical left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador,’ he explains, ‘The moderate left did less to break with capitalism and did little to mobilise its people and public sectors. More radical lefts encouraged popular mobilisation and public sectors and sustained prices of goods, with the state pushing these policies. There were genuine differences on those fronts.’
Participatory democracy and grassroots socialism was a more robust driving force in, say, Chávez’s Venezuela or Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. Although Chavismo, as discussed previously, failed to implement bottom-up democracy wholly, Hetland argues that socialism at the grassroots level was a true phenomenon for a long period during Chávez’s rule, but this didn’t score any points with the West. ‘There was an idea, constructed by the US, that there was a “bad” left and “good” left in Latin America,’ Hetland tells me, ‘Rulers like Chávez were on the “bad” side because they challenged the status quo. Relations between the US and the radical left were more aggressive and anti-imperialist.’
With all the promise of left-driven emancipation, a right-wing backlash in the region has been gaining momentum over the past few years, with rapidly developing countries like Brazil returning to right-wing populism as frustration with corruption rears its head again. In a large sense, the lefts have failed to adequately address social inequality. And, as usual, Western rhetoric favours its own above all else, and criticism of revolutionary left-wing movements in Latin America has increasingly emerged because they aren’t, and never were, beneficial to US interests.
Corbynmania and Corbynistas: The rise of socialism in the UK
Socialism’s resurrection in Europe and America, however, is still a force to contend with. In the UK, Labour Party leader Corbyn is reviving the increasingly centre-left party into a bonafide revolution of the working classes and British youth. His remarkable performance in June’s general election, where his party won 3.5 million more votes than two years previously, and gained 40 per cent of all ballots cast, has made the prospect of a socialist government actually possible.
Corbyn was, until recently, very complimentary about late Chávez’s vision for Venezuela and revered the country’s apparent rejection of a failed economic model, but has since ‘condemned’ the recent anti-democratic corruption. Nonetheless, Labour’s return to socialism at the grassroots level, like Chavismo’s vision, was aided by a campaigning network of activists. Momentum, a community-led organisation, evolved out of Corbyn’s 2015 campaign to become party leader and has been working to create ‘a new kind of politics’.
Ruben de Dios, a 36-year-old London resident originally from Spain, joined Momentum and the Labour Party after becoming angered by glaring British inequality and the corporatisation of UK cities and services. He has been out on the streets of his east London borough, Tower Hamlets, proposing a socialist alternative to the Conservative Party.
‘Socialism is not just working for myself but creating something for everyone and for everyone to have a decent life,’ he tells me, ‘Should you allow corporations to run everything? It’s the neoliberals who are saying that socialism doesn’t work. What’s happening in Venezuela has nothing to do with the UK. It’s like comparing pears and apples.’
Corbyn has been propelled into political power almost overnight. His party manifesto, entitled ‘For the many, not the few’, was a call for the masses to unite and protest against austerity, privatisation and Tory dominance. And a crucial group popularising socialism and taking to the streets in the UK is young people. Labour’s ‘youthquake’ boosted their performance in the general election dramatically, with over 61 per cent of young voters casting their ballot for the party and its leader. He also had coveted ‘memability’ – An image of Corbyn ‘dabbing’ was widely shared online and printed on election T-shirts.
As Bloodworth tells me, younger generations are far more accepting of socialism than their parents’ generation. As we move further away from the Soviet Union and the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘Socialism doesn’t come with a sense of impending doom and it has less stigma attached to it,’ he explains. ‘Parents who lived through the threat of nuclear war and genocide still think socialism and communism are scary movements, but younger generations don’t see it like that.’
One young voter, 26-year-old Darryl Hutcheon from Scotland, joined the Labour Party and Momentum after seeing how socialist policies had helped his family live better lives, and that Corbynism offered him a sense of hope. ‘I liked Corbyn’s ambition to make things better and be positive,’ he explains, ‘I don’t want to say that everyone who voted Labour was a socialist, but it was partly about reducing the distance between socialist ideology and the reality of people’s lives.’
Bernie Sanders and the ‘ordinary’ man in America
Similarly, across the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders’s campaign to win the Democratic presidential candidacy, which he marginally lost out on to Hillary Clinton, has re-energised the American left. Direct parallels have been drawn between Sanders and Corbyn, and he too openly praised Chávez but has yet to make a strong statement about the demise of Venezuela. Right-wingers are calling on him to do so.
Our Revolution, a non-for-profit activist group supporting progressive candidates and policies in the US, was, like Momentum in the UK, born off the back of Sanders’s 2016 campaign. The organisation’s executive director, Shannon Jackson, has been working with Sanders for a decade in office and on the campaign trail, and is fully invested in his socialist vision of America’s future. Is Bernie Sanders’s political trajectory self-consciously socialist? I ask him. ‘Absolutely’, he replies, ‘We are advocating for what’s best for the people and the working class and saying that people need education, they need to be heard, they need to be earning enough money to survive.’
Although not surprising now, the notion of having such a popular senator openly advocating socialist-style politics would have seemed almost unthinkable a few years ago. The Democratic Party fell victim to the same problem as the Labour Party, in that they pulled their policies into the centre as a way of reconciling the schism between progressives and conservatives, propping up Hillary as presidential candidate, without recognising an urgent need for a more pronounced left-wing.
‘It’s strange to see the parallels between the UK and the US right now,’ Jackson admits, ‘The polarisation of left and right in both countries has become much more apparent. I think both have been stretched to the extremes. People have had enough so a real left-wing movement is needed.’
It’s been an incredible, inspiring year at Our Revolution. Thank you to everyone who has taken part. We can’t wait for what’s ahead! pic.twitter.com/fA2CUQcKLl
— Our Revolution (@OurRevolution) August 23, 2017
Although both Sanders and Corbyn lost their respective elections to power, momentum, quite literally, is building. With Donald Trump in the White House, Brexit hurtling forward with no plan or vision, and an uptick of white supremacist and neo-Nazi organising, a radical, revolutionary plan for a progressive future is vital. Socialism is no longer an abstract concept or ideological possibility – it’s a necessity.