Chris Harman


Swimming with the Tide of Revolt

(May 2002)

Chris Harman, Swimming with the tide of revolt, Socialist Review 263, May 2002.
Copyright © 2002 Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As renewed political crisis sweeps Argentina, Chris Harman following a recent visit to the country argues there is a huge opening for the revolutionary left, provided it breaks from its sectarian past

“It must have been fantastically exciting,” a lot of people said to me on my return from a visit to Argentina last month.

It was exciting. But not, as most people imagined, because of continual mass demonstrations, clashes with the police, the expropriation of banks, and so on. I did go on one 120,000-strong, very enthusiastic demonstration – but demonstrations like that across the world seem two a penny these days after Barcelona and Rome. In general, however, the tempo and size of street demonstrations had fallen massively since the overthrow of the De la Rua government on 20 December.

The real excitement came from the level of political discussion. Everywhere people were discussing issues that normally only revolutionary socialists raise – how society can be changed, how to stop the slide into economic chaos and mass impoverishment, and what is to be done about the question of “power”.

Such questions are common currency in the asembleas, the weekly meetings of activists, each 50 to 100 strong, which meet in some 100 districts in Buenos Aires. Demands that only revolutionary socialists ever used to talk about – nationalisation of the banks and the privatised firms, support for unofficial strikes and factory occupations, jobs for all, and ample welfare benefits – are now taken for granted by layers of people in and around the asembleas.

This is particularly significant because Argentina was for more than half a century after 1945 a country where the socialist left was marginalised by the power of Peronism – the doctrine that a powerful leader could solve the problems of the working class by allying it with “patriotic” sections of business against imperialism and the old landed oligarchy. Suddenly Peronism seems like a marginal doctrine, while it is ideas usually associated with the left that are finding a big audience. These are the circumstances revolutionary socialists dream of, when we are suddenly swimming with the tide and not against it.

But there is a problem. It has to do with the Argentinian revolutionary left itself. Split into around four reasonably sized groups and some 20 smaller ones, it has a tendency for sectarian infighting and simple denunciation of anyone influenced by other ideas. There have even been occasions in which non-socialists have had to intervene on demonstrations to stop fights between the members of the different groups. This makes it very difficult for the left to act as a focus for the massive, growing, political radicalisation of tens of thousands of people.

Breaking with old habits

Karl Marx noted long ago that during periods of defeat, demoralisation and isolation for the left there is a tendency for sectarianism to flourish. Socialists survive politically by cutting themselves off from the pressures of wider layers of people around them, and by identifying with half-forgotten traditions. Such habits become a serious problem once new struggles and new movements emerge:

“The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real labour movement always stand in indirect proportion to each other. So long as the sects are justified (historically), the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary ... What is antiquated tries to reconstitute and assert itself within the newly acquired form.”

In Argentina the revolutionary left has been triply isolated – first during the years 1945-75, when the most bitter battles of the working class were fought under the banner of Peronism, second by the terrible repression of the military junta that ruled from 1976-83 and murdered 30,000 opponents, and finally during the short-lived neo-liberal boom of the early to mid-1990s.

What developed in those periods were particularly rigid versions of supposedly “orthodox” Trotksyism, which took as their starting point marginally different versions of what Trotsky said during the late 1930s. They applied certain of his formulations from the grimmest period of the 20th century – “midnight in the century”, as Victor Serge called it – and applied them in a completely ahistorical manner to the very different conditions of the post Second World War world. Their members often fought heroically in the face of repression from gangster union officials working in conjunction with the state. But as organisations they ended up fitting perfectly Marx’s description: “The sect sees its raison d’etre and its point of honour not in that it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth distinguishing it from that movement.”

Only one of the Argentinian groups, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), seems to have any sense of the damage being done by sectarianism. That has become a vital problem for the whole movement in Argentina today. For winning people to a coherent revolutionary socialist viewpoint is not just a matter of counting heads to see which “party” is bigger than another. It is a question of dealing with the central issues facing the movement that erupted on the streets in December.

That movement was able to overthrow the De la Rua government. But it has not been strong enough to stop the Duhalde government following essentially the same course, of placating domestic and international capital by negotiating with the IMF over new cuts packages at a time of ever deepening economic crisis. The repressive state apparatus has remained completely intact, and so has capitalist control of industry.

Already, early in March, the right wing media were noticing signs of a decline in the level of popular mobilisation and beginning to express the hope that they might be able to get rid of the Duhalde government from the right with a “civil-military” government. The huge demonstration to mark the anniversary of the 1976 military coup on 24 March showed that there remained an enormous amount of life in the popular movement and halted their manoeuvres, for a time at least. But there must be a danger of increasing unemployment and impoverishment demoralising people enough to give the right new opportunities.

A way out of the crisis

People’s attitudes do not remain static during an enormous economic crisis that is shattering their lives. If a left wing movement does not succeed in showing them a way out of the crisis, then many can be attracted to scapegoating ethnic minorities (in the case of Argentina, immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay, or small shopkeepers from China or Korea) and the notion that a military “strongman” has the answers. Revolutionary hope can give way to counter-revolutionary despair. It is precisely because people are beginning to understand this that discussions are arising within the asembleas about the question of “power”.

But the asembleas and the allied movement of the unemployed piqueteros are not by themselves strong enough to solve the problem of power. They are minority movements, even if powerful minority movements – there are perhaps 120,000 piqueteros but 4 to 5 million unemployed; there are tens of thousands of people involved around the asembleas, but 7 million people in Buenos Aires and another 9 million in its wider metropolitan area.

There is a danger with both movements that they are so carried away with their successes that they do not see the wider tasks of deepening their base of support – especially among the millions of workers who still have jobs, whose union leaders managed to keep them from joining the movement that overthrew De la Rua as an organised force.

At the same time there are powerful currents who believe that the question of power can be postponed pending elections in a year’s time, when they hope one or other left parliamentary force will do well. This is not surprising. At times of great social upheaval large numbers of people begin for the first time in their lives to see the need for massive social change, but still take for granted essential features of the capitalist society they have been brought up in. Reformism, the idea that you can use some of those features to produce a better society, inevitably emerges as a mass force in such situations. It is a force expressing people’s desire for a massive shift to the left, but also a force misdirecting and frustrating their efforts to achieve that shift.

Reformism is not simply a question of a few leaders who inevitably betray the movement (as most do). It is a first staging post for millions who are entering into struggle. Its influence cannot simply be wished away – or denounced away. Even people who chant enthusiastically on demonstrations “Que se vayan todos” (“Get rid of the lot”) can still be attracted by the idea that this or that “honest” politician can offer an easy way forward.

It is precisely for this reason that the role of revolutionary socialists is so important. For they should have the experience and understanding to go through friendly discussion with people (“patiently explain” as Lenin put it in April 1917) about what is wrong with this approach, and point them in a different direction.

But this requires that the revolutionaries break with their own sectarianism. It cannot be done while each revolutionary organisation sees its main task as recruiting more people to its own magic slogan. It also cannot be done simply by denouncing the reformist leaders. It is necessary to prove in practice the limitations of their approach.

The key here, as Alex Callinicos pointed out in last month’s Socialist Review, is the united front tactic elaborated by Lenin and Trotsky in 1921, and practised before this by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The reformists attract support by raising particular demands which they cannot win so long as they rely on reformist methods. It is up to revolutionaries to offer to fight alongside the reformist organisations over these questions. If the reformist leaders take up the offer then the revolutionaries can prove in practice that the non-reformist methods of mass struggle from below work. If the reformist leaders refuse that shows that they are not serious about winning such demands.

So the Bolsheviks in the early summer of 1917 demanded, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers” – even though it implied leaving in place the remaining reformist socialist ministers. By raising it they showed those ministers would not break with capitalism. In the same way, in the early autumn they demanded that the soviets take power, even though they were still led by Menshevik and Social Revolutionary reformists, and the ensuing government would have been a reformist government.

The method is absolutely central in Argentina today. For instance, the piqueteros movement is divided into two blocks. One is made up of the different organisations influenced by the far left, and denounces the present government. The other, much bigger, influenced by the CCC organisation and the CTA union federation, is prepared to negotiate with the present government over the implementation of public works schemes. There is a tendency for the left piqueteros simply to denounce the leaders of the bigger bloc. This is simply not good enough. It is necessary to focus on certain objectives that exist in common, and insist that the reformist leaders agree on joint action to fight for them. If they agree, joint mass struggle will soon show it is more effective than negotiations with a government which is under the thumb of big business and the IMF. If they refuse they will lose influence to the left. The united front is not a “revolutionary united front”. It is a united front between revolutionaries and reformists around demands which the reformists claim to agree with but cannot fight for using simply reformist methods.

A united struggle is needed

The issue of the employed working class poses even bigger problems. Massive unemployment and job insecurity mean most people with jobs are afraid to struggle collectively unless their union leaders give them the go-ahead. But all three union federations support the Duhalde government, and the two Peronist CGT federations that organise most manual workers are notoriously corrupt. They deliberately held their members back from the struggle which overthrew the De la Rua government, and from participation in the movement afterwards. This has massively weakened their old cast iron control. The “Que se vayan todos” on demonstrations is directed as much against them as against the government politicians. Another favourite chant is “Where are they, I cannot see, where are the leaders of the mighty CGT?”

But that still leaves untouched their influence over certain layers of workers. Even today, if they called for strikes, many workers would follow. If they do not call for strikes these rarely happen. Fear of losing that influence means that they claim they are pressurising the government to make reforms – particularly to offer more public works schemes and to provide benefits for the unemployed. Again, it is no good the movement simply denouncing them. It has to take up the limited reforms they claim to stand for and demand a united struggle to achieve them. If it does not do this it is providing them with opportunities to pretend that they are doing things for the employed working class, and to reassert their control over it. The result can only be to leave the piqueteros and asembleas isolated from the workers whose labour keeps the Argentinian economy going, and whose participation in the struggle alone can resolve the question of power.

The potential for the revolutionary movement in Argentina is massive. The way the government is caught between the opposed pressures of the IMF and the Argentinian masses means more great conflicts are unavoidable. Wide sections of people are beginning spontaneously to move towards a revolutionary socialist understanding of what needs to be done. But this spontaneous process is unlikely to provide the sort of strategic and tactical direction the movement needs in time for the next confrontations. That is why it is of the utmost importance that sections of the existing revolutionary left learn from the mass movement and break with their old sectarian postures.

Last updated on 25 November 2009