Chris Harman

Thinking it through

The clash of fundamentals

(May 2004)

From Socialist Review, No.285, May 2004.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Finding the right response to neoliberalism is not always straightforward

A comrade recently took issue with a short piece I wrote in Socialist Worker about the overthrow of Aristide in Haiti. He recognised that I was adamantly opposed to the entry of US troops and to the takeover of key cities by armed right wing groups that preceded it. But he claimed I failed to see that the whole opposition to Aristide was the work of the Haitian bourgeoisie and the US government.

There is an argument about the details of what actually happened in Haiti. There were contradictory accounts in the left wing Latin American press, with some seeing it just as a US plot and others clearly identifying left wing as well as bourgeois forces among those involved in the mass peaceful protests against Aristide. But it is certainly possible that writing at short notice several thousand miles away I misjudged the balance of forces on the ground in Haiti.

There are, however, more general issues at stake. Right across the world there are governments which in practice accept the main planks of neoliberal economics, even when they portray themselves as ‘left wing’ or ‘anti-imperialist’. They do so against the backdrop of whole continents losing out in the ever harder fight for global markets, hit by periodic crisis and showing, decade on decade, stagnation or even contraction of total output, a rise in the number of the unemployed and growing numbers of those in absolute poverty who poverty programmes hardly touch.

It is a recipe for deepening discontent, which eventually boils over into militant protest. And then the governments react with attempts to close down all channels through which discontent can express itself.

In general, the greater the discontent, the greater the level of repression – until a point is reached where governments fear losing elections and clamp down even on their mainstream constitutional political rivals. The path that began with neoliberalism ends up in quasi-dictatorship. And, as is often the case with dictatorships, repression of the exploited classes can be accompanied by demagogic attacks on prominent but unimportant elements from the privileged classes.

The effect is to turn social and economic issues into political struggles around demands for democracy and human rights. In the process, people can lose sight of the social and economic roots of these political issues. Opposition to dictatorship and repression can seem to be the question that must override all others.

The very forces that pushed for neoliberalism in the first place can now try to put themselves at the head of the new protests, and are helped by the selective repression directed at certain members of the ruling class by the regime. This is effectively what happened in Peru, when neoliberals like the current president, Toledo, and the novelist and former right wing presidential candidate Vargas Llosa were at the forefront of the public opposition to Fujimori.

Something similar has been happening in Zimbabwe. Mugabe turned to repression after strikes and violent street protests by workers against the price rises resulting from neoliberal policies. But capitalist and white landowning interests that fell out with Mugabe have been able to persuade the main opposition party to align itself with them, despite the trade union origins and working class voting base of the party.

In each of these situations the US did its utmost to bring about such an outcome. Way back in the Carter years it developed an ideology of ‘human rights’ with which it hoped to hegemonise opposition movements within its Cold War rivals. And it often did so very effectively.

What began in Poland as a massive workers’ movement from below, a response to increasing levels of exploitation as the regime tried to compete on world markets and pay back what it owed to international bankers, ended up (after massive repression) with leaders accepting the agenda of Western embassies and neoliberal think-tanks.

There was a tendency for much of the left internationally to conclude from such stories that the Western intelligence agencies were behind the collapse of the old order in Eastern Europe. This was rubbish. These agencies were taken completely by surprise by the succession of spontaneous popular uprisings from 1953 and 1956 onwards. What they could do, however, was to try to intervene with finance to promote their own ideas and interests within movements that had grown up despite them.

Their ability to enjoy certain successes should not surprise anyone. Persecuted opposition movements are often desperate for support, and do not always look closely at the price to be paid for that backing.

The important thing in such cases is for the genuine left to try to provide independent leadership to those fighting against dictatorship and exploitation. And that means breaking with the idea that we have to keep quiet either about the faults of the government (because there are dubious elements in the opposition) or about the faults of the opposition leadership (because the government is undemocratic).

This general rule has to be translated into each concrete circumstance. There are movements that clearly have a leftward dynamic even when hegemonised at first by neoliberal leaders. This was the case with the insurgency against Fujimori in Peru.

At the other extreme, there are movements which are dominated by the exploiting classes and their ideologists, even though they try to play on elements of popular discontent against supposedly left wing governments. Such, for instance, is the case in Venezuela (the veteran guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo describes Chavez as standing for ‘democratic neoliberalism’ battling ‘fascist neoliberalism’), and the genuine left has to defend the government physically against the right while trying to develop an independent current of its own.

There are many cases in between, which require careful analysis and well thought-out tactics. But you cannot arrive at these if you dismiss as inevitably counter-revolutionary every movement which neoliberals and agents of imperialism try to influence.

It is worth recalling that sections of the British and French governments rejoiced at the February revolution in 1917. They thought it would produce a bourgeois government able to fight more efficiently against Germany than the archaic and corrupt tsarist regime ever could. The masses proved imperialism wrong then – and they will do so many times in future.

The US used ‘human rights’ to hegomonise opposition movements

Last updated on 27 December 2009