21st-Century Socialism: two books by Marta Harnecker

Published online 13 July 2010.

Book Reviews:

Marta Harnecker: “Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes.”  Monthly Review 62:3 (July-August 2010), 3-78.

—.  Rebuilding the Left.  London and New York: Zed Books, 2007.

In this oh-so-brief review I shall try to convey a sense of what counts as “21st century socialism” in the ferment of leftist governance that can currently be found in certain parts of Latin America (e.g. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador).

(Crossposted to Docudharma)

Opponents of the capitalist system are often challenged to come up with “existing” alternatives to capitalism.  Of course, no such alternative exists.  The standard response, then, is that anticapitalists are working toward future alternatives to the capitalist system.  But who is doing such work?  We look, then, to Latin America, where the proponents of “21st-century socialism” claim to be working toward socialism in a new way.

In this book review essay, I will look at two books on the South American phenomenon of “socialism of the 21st century,” both by Marta Harnecker.  Harnecker is a Chilean social scientist/ activist/ journalist, credited in the Monthly Review with a “lifelong process of spreading the ideas of Marxism-Leninism,” which is, in my reading here, leavened with quite a bit of practical wisdom as to what works and what doesn’t work in the struggle for a better world.  Harnecker currently lives in Caracas; she is familiar with Chavez and the workings of the Bolivarian Revolution.

The point of this review will be to glean ideas from Harnecker’s explanations of “21st century socialism” in Latin America (and specifically in the Venezuelan context) as well as to see what of her text might be applicable to the US political context.

The Monthly Review piece claims that all of Harnecker’s books can be found at rebelion.org, though reading Spanish is a plus.  There is, nevertheless, plenty of Marta Harnecker in English on the Web: here are some selections:

Socialism is a search for a fully democratic society.  This link offers an interview combining criticism of the Latin American “Left” with a brief discussion of the on-the-ground situation in Bolivia.  The paragraph from the text cited below, for instance, suggests a transformation in the idea of “revolution”:

What’s happening is a renovation of left-wing thought. The ideas of revolutions that we used to defend in the 1970s and 1980s, in practice, have not materialised. So, left-wing thought has had to open itself up to new realities and search for new interpretations. It has had to develop more flexibility in order to understand that revolutionary processes, for example, can begin by simply winning administrative power.


Venezuela’s experiment in popular power is a description by Harnecker about what they are doing there.  Harnecker’s discussion of Chavez suggests the process at work:

The great merit of Chavez is that he is a leader who promotes popular organisation — who is convinced that the force of this process is in the organisation. Chavez is always calling for more organisations and inventing new organisations. At times, too many.


There is also Marta Harnecker’s ZSpace page, moreover, offers a large collection of texts by this extremely prolific Latin American socialist author.


The primary theoretical question of the two books of Harnecker’s which I have selected is this: how are the various resistances to neoliberalism in South America to count as “socialism”?  This question is especially interesting when one looks at the Venezuelan example, as Harnecker is an adviser to Chavez living in Caracas.  The class divide in Venezuela is exceptionally severe, though not as bad as it was before Chavez came to power, and Venezuelan politics is still somewhat corrupt, as it was before Chavez came to power.  In Harnecker’s 2005 interview with Hugo Chavez (“Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution“), the main topic of discussion at the beginning is the provision of basic social services to Venezuela’s poorest residents.  At any rate, the term “21st century socialism” seems to have been adapted to the notion of “socialism” as a promise to be attached to the actual goings-on in these countries.  The discussion in the books I’ve selected is, however, somewhat theoretical, without on-the-ground observation, though it can be said that Harnecker (who lives in Caracas) has indeed done her homework in this regard.

Thus, outside of the more spectacular events of Venezuelan politics (the failed coup of 2002; the capital strike of 2002-2003; the defeated 2007 constitutional referendum, and so on) the main focus of “building socialism” in Venezuela appears to be the provision of basic services to the poor through the “misiones” — which is to say, building a welfare state.  What precisely does that have to do with socialism?  Have the “21st century socialists” gotten caught up in their own hype?  This question is also of importance for Bolivia, Ecuador, and the other countries of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, which was promoted as an alternative to George W. Bush’s FTAA, the “Free Trade Area of the Americas.”

In this review I will discuss the 2007 book Rebuilding the Left, then I will review the Monthly Review “book” (actually a full journal-length article) in the 2010 July-August issue here.  The book “Rebuilding the Left” is a problem-solution essay in book form.  It has three parts: 1) discussing the current situation in Latin America, 2) criticizing the Left of the present day, 3) suggesting a way forward.  Harnecker’s essay is primarily written for a Latin American audience — however, here I also want to make comments here as to what her advice might mean to a US audience.

The third part of Harnecker’s book-essay interests me the most.  Her criticisms of the Left in the second part are reassuring, to be sure: she is not at all interested in the sectarian “Marxism-Leninism” that you see in the US, nor (for that matter) the sectarian parties Harnecker has apparently seen in Latin America.  Rather, she wants to see the Left form internally democratic, popular front parties.

Harnecker suggests that the important thing to remember in the struggle for socialism is that a situation be created in which socialism is seen as possible.  Chapter 8 of Rebuilding the Left is dedicated to this:

For the Left, politics must (therefore) be the art of discovering the potential that exists in the present concrete situation in order to make possible tomorrow that which appears impossible today. (p. 67)

Perhaps this philosophy explains the “welfare state” moves in Venezuela, that they are regarded (by Harnecker and Chavez and other 21st-century socialists) as a sort of ground-clearing for more that is to come, later.  In our own interests here in the US we can also say, moreover, that this is good advice for US progressives in their current situation.

Too many of America’s government officials and their corporate friends seem intent upon making impossible tomorrow what is possible today: Social Security, for instance, or the “peace dividend,” or the public option in health insurance.  We here in the US are, then, engaged in a defensive struggle, to avoid having our utopian dreams forced into further compromises for the sake of “realism.”

This is not likely to get any better with the Republican victory projected for later this year, though it needs to be said that our problem is not really who is in office but rather the extent to which we are organized behind an alternative vision of society.  Thus in the “Monthly Review” piece Harnecker expresses a good degree of optimism about the situation in Honduras (Monthly Review, p. 17).  Even though the Honduran government was put into power through a coup d’etat, Harnecker believes that the Honduran public is well-mobilized to succeed.

Here is how Harnecker sees the main political problem faced by the Left in capitalist society:

But there is a danger that, once it has become the government, the Left limits itself to managing the crisis while continuing to implement the essential elements of neo-liberal economic policies: this is what some Left governments seem to be doing.  This kind of behaviour is detrimental not only only in so far as it fails to alleviate the suffering caused by the neo-liberal model as quickly as and to the degree needed, but also — and this is even more dangerous — in that it could annihilate the Left option for years to come. (Reclaiming the Left, p. 43)

The reference, here, appears to be to Brazil, and the inertia plaguing the regime of Lula and the PT in the Brazilian government, but this is also what we’re doing in the US as well.  We have a “Left” here in the US which has pledged its allegiance to politicians who support neoliberal economic policies, and so at some point the public will conclude that “liberals are useless,” and politicians will no longer even pretend to cater to them.  This will not be a good thing for anti-capitalists such as myself — so I do not think there is any comfort to be drawn from this trend.

Against the impending foreclosure of our dreams, Harnecker suggests that we need “utopian goals (as) a source of inspiration” (p. 70) and that we need to recognize “politics as the art of building a social force in opposition to the system” (p. 71).

More specifically, one of Harnecker’s organizational goals is that the Left should be “drawing up a social project that is an alternative to capitalism.” (p. 77)  This is a goal that is still regarded as “unrealistic” in the US political context, but we ignore it at our great risk.  Perhaps it is just the domain of science-fiction writers or other “specialists” in the art of speculating about the future, while the rest of us go forth into that future wondering in desultory fashion as to what might happen next.  As the growing capitalist system would seem to beach itself on the shores of a finite planet, however, it would seem to me to be best that we plan for a post-capitalist contingency.  Instead of considering “post-capitalism” as a possibility, however, progressives have pretended that an agenda of humanistic government support for the the welfare of ordinary people is compatible with a government which largely serves as a handmaiden to predatory corporate interests.  We have also been pretending that an expanding capitalist system is compatible with a finite planet Earth, and as ecological crises compounded we looked for quick culprits to blame without considering the necessity of a system-wide transformation to change things.

Those are really the main lessons I thought could be drawn from Harnecker’s “Rebuilding the Left,” without my having learned more than I currently know about Latin American politics.  The Monthly Review piece is more distinctly fitted to the Latin American experience, and more directly confronts the question above of how “21st century socialism” can be called “socialism.”  With respect to the Venezuelan experience, the primary difference Harnecker sees between “21st century socialism” and the mere provision of a welfare state is the creation of a different form of democracy, “delegated democracy.”  The fundamental idea behind it is that “socialism” can be regarded as a two-step process: 1) the “socialists” acquire some form of government power, and 2) the “socialists” set to work at creating an alternative democracy within the democracy, to replace bourgeois democracy in each nation with real democracy responsible to the people.

Here is how it looks at the local level:

Chavez’ initiative to create communal councils — which was fullowed some time later by his proposal for worker’s councils, student councils, and peasant councils — is an important step toward forming real popular power and how this power should then be expressed in the communes.  It is only if a society based on worker self-management and the self-management of community residents is created that the state will cease to be an instrument over and above the people, serving elites, and will instead become a state whose cadres are the best of the working people.  (p. 38)

In the subsequent pages, Harnecker lays out the model of “delegated democracy” promoted in the councils.  The central ideas of this model are apparently that 1) the delegates selected by the people come from grassroots organizations or organized communities, and 2) delegates are responsible for following “agreements reached” with those who elected them, who would then have power of recall over delegates who strayed (pp. 41-42).

Moreover, Harnecker lays out a model of economic control for “21st century socialism” which is radically different from what happened in the Soviet Union.  The author describes the Soviet experience as one of the mere “statization of the means of production” (p. 44) — nothing really changed except that control over the processes of production was transferred to state bureaucrats — thus the Soviet Union is described as a regime of “state capitalism.”  The “elementary triangle of socialism” (p. 43) is granted three components: social ownership of the means of production, worker organized production, and satisfaction of consumer needs.  In sum, the society must have root-and-branch control over what is produced and how it is produced, and the point of production must be the satisfaction of basic needs for all.

Now, of course, real-life present-day Venezuela is an oligarchy of wealth and power, most of which accrue to an elite, propertied few, though certain industries (e.g. oil) are subject to a degree of state control.  One can see as much in honest discussions of Venezuelan life, e.g. Charles Hardy’s “Cowboy In Caracas.”  But the extent to which this model (or something like it) appears as a goal of Venezuelan society will be the extent to which “21st century socialism” is a real thing as opposed to being a fiction.

Harnecker then proceeds to discuss the problems of “transition,” in which there will be two kinds of state coexisting in each nation — the state which is controlled by the people, and the state which is the leftover state of capitalist economic society.  The state, then, is viewed as inappropriately organized for popular rule, and the ultimate project is the construction, from scratch, of a new type of state which would be so appropriately organized.

The ultimate vision promoted here is of a society increasingly characterized by decentralized power-sharing which is capable of learning from, and correcting, its own mistakes, and in which authoritarianism is itself characterized as a mistake.  We might also consider how the idea of “21st century socialism” can also be applied to the US context.  We could certainly create a more decentralized form of democracy in this country than the form we currently have, in which rather broad and expansive powers are granted to the President, who is chosen through a vast process of centralized raising of campaign funds and courting of political party officials.

It needs to be said, in conclusion, that Harnecker does not have solutions for all of the problems facing new Latin American governments embarking upon “21st century socialism.”  Problems of ecology and of education, for instance, are given too brief a mention in the two texts reviewed above, and Harnecker’s endorsement of the old Leninist idea of “democratic centralism” in Rebuilding the Left is vague and indistinct.  I would nevertheless endorse a thorough reading of Harnecker, as a writer who can think concretely about a better way for the human race who has a good deal of new, constructive, and practical thinking about how to get there from here.  We borrow ideas and move forward.


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