Empire, Religion and Liberation

— Jeffery R. Webber

Socialist Register 2008:
Global Flashpoints, Reactions
to Imperialism and Neoliberalism
Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, editors
Monthly Review Press, 2007, 364 pages, $25 paper.

“AT LEAST 10 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Sunday by Israeli fire,” today’s New York Times reports as I write this review, “bringing the number of Palestinians killed since Wednesday… to more than 100.”(1) One Palestinian in Gaza laments, “There is an attack every five or ten minutes. It keeps our nerves on edge and our senses strained. There is so much rage at what is happening; especially the scenes of murdered children and babies.”(2) According to the Israeli human-rights group, B’Tselem, approximately half of the dead were unarmed civilians, and a quarter were children.(3)

Bloody occupation continues elsewhere in the Middle East, as well. “Iraq is disintegrating faster than ever,” writes veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn. “One of the most extraordinary developments in the Iraqi war,” he argues, “has been the success with which the White House has been able to persuade so much of the political and media establishment in the US that, by means of ‘the Surge,’ an extra 30,000 US troops, it is on the verge of political and military success in Iraq.” In fact, “Very little is holding Iraq together. The government is marooned in the Green Zone. Having declared the Surge a great success the US military commanders need just as many troops to maintain a semblance of control now as they did before the Surge.”(4)

Halfway around the world in Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe tore another page from the Israeli state’s playbook two nights earlier, assassinating two senior figures of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an airstrike in Ecuadoran territory. Luis Édgar Devia Silva — aka Raúl Reyes — and Julián Conrado were murdered alongside 16 other guerrillas in the jungle south of the Putumayo River.(5)

Elsewhere in Latin America, additional forces of reaction were called into motion in response to the growing threats to neoliberal imperial order in the region. In Bolivia, in particular, the temperature of the domestic situation rose several degrees. The far-right, now organized primarily through the offices of the prefects — or governors — and “civic committees” of six of the country’s nine departments, gathered in the eastern city of Santa Cruz and announced that they no longer recognize Evo Morales’ administration as the legitimate democratic government of Bolivia.

Right-wing mobilization to crush the revolutionary aspirations of left-indigenous social movements and the moderate reformism of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government will undoubtedly intensify. Popular mobilizations defending the government from imperialism and the coupist right wing will surely rise up in response.(6)

Against these particular developments in the Middle East and Latin America, Marxist economists have been debating the wider implications of the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States, the future of neoliberalism, and the stability of capitalism at the global level. Robert Brenner had the following to say in a recent issue of this magazine:

The current crisis could well turn out to be the most devastating since the Great Depression. It manifests profound, uneven problems in the real economy that have been — literally — papered over by debt for decades, as well as a shorter term financial crunch of a depth unseen since World War II. The combination of the weakness of underlying capital accumulation and the meltdown of the banking system is what’s made the downward slide so intractable for policymakers and its potential for disaster so serious.(7)

The ongoing imperial assault in the Middle East, the leftist upsurge and developing counter-reaction in Latin America, and the vicissitudes of the world economy of late, together make the most recent volume of Socialist Register among the most politically important published in recent years. It tackles (a) the Middle East as the epicenter of resistance to imperialism in the contemporary period, the significance of Islamic forces leading that resistance, and the West’s vital hand in facilitating the rise and consolidation of these forces; (b) Latin America as the heartland of anti-neoliberal struggle, albeit a struggle chock-full of contradictions and complexities; and (c) a symposium on neoliberalism involving three well-known left economists.

Three other essays examine the popular challenges to neoliberalism in France since 1995, with attention to the various challenges thrown up by Sarkozy’s recent electoral victory; the immigrant rights struggle and the future of the labor movement in United States; and the depressing state of left alternatives in contemporary Eastern Europe, with particular emphasis on the Hungarian scene.

Iraq to Palestine…Occupation is a Crime

Bashir Abu-Manneh’s contribution to the volume presents a rigorous exploration of Israel’s colonial siege on the Palestinians. He also offers a punishing and compelling assault on the record of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The failure of secular elite Palestinian nationalism, in conjunction with the atomization and alienation brought on by the structural features of the Occupation since the Oslo Agreements of 1993, left space open for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism into the leadership of the al-Aqsa Intifada, or second Intifada, emerging at the outset of the current decade. Abu-Manneh looks back to the mass democratic insurgency of the first Intifada of the 1980s as a source for an alternative politics of liberation for Palestinians in the present context.

Three major claims are advanced. First, Abu-Manneh argues that, since Oslo, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has become a “colonial siege” bent on the strangulation of Palestinian economy and society. This policy program has, in conjunction with the international boycott since the victory of Hamas in the 2006 legislative elections in Gaza, achieved its ends with horrendous efficiency. Poverty rates have skyrocketed to between 70-80% in the occupied territories, while unemployment levels and dependence on food aid have similarly increased.

Second, Abu-Manneh illustrates in penetrating detail how Israeli colonial policy is at the root of the dire and deteriorating contemporary context in the West Bank and Gaza; however, he adds that “the Palestinian secular elite is far from blameless. They have, in fact, played a junior yet pivotal role in bringing this new regime into being. By legitimizing their people’s continued dispossession and domination by Israel, they have ended up corrupting Palestinian national aspirations for justice and self-determination. With no alternative left project in sight, religious fundamentalism was destined to carry the mantle of an abandoned nationalism and drastically increase its own popular constituency” (101)

Under the Oslo process, “the PLO became Israel’s enforcer,”  abrogating a long list of basic Palestinian claims to self-determination. It agreed to “continued control of East Jerusalem; made 60 percent of the West Bank negotiable with an illegal occupier; legitimized illegal Jewish settlements; agreed to construction of by-pass roads; legitimized prohibition on freedom of movement, etc.” (106, 107)

Third, the Occupation since Oslo did eventually generate resistance against “colonization and national denial,” beginning in September 2000 with the al-Aqsa Intifada. However, unlike the period of the first Intifada, Palestinians were now deeply atomized, desperate, and lacking in “social power and political leverage.”

Suicide bombings were part of the political expression of this despair, and the emphasis on armed struggle took away from the possibilities of mass political participation in the revolt against colonialism. “Being fragmented by checkpoints and confined to their locales ‘rendered mass action virtually impossible,’” Abu-Manneh contends. “Reflecting the effects of the siege regime throughout the 1990s, there has thus been a systematic weakening of the capacity of Palestinian society to act and organize as a national collective.” (109)

In a relatively brief article, Abu-Manneh manages to elucidate the key facets of U.S. imperialism in the area, Israeli colonialism in the contemporary period, and the dual failures of elite nationalism and religious fundamentalism as conduits for meaningful Palestinian liberation. In their place he urges the development of a comprehensive liberation strategy:

"Collective mobilization by all Palestinians around coherent national objectives is still necessary, as is clear elaboration of short-term tasks and long-term strategic goals. These cannot be achieved without democratic re-activation of grassroots forces both inside and outside Palestine. The closest Palestinians have ever come to such national-popular mobilization was the first Intifada — what Edward Said called “one of the most extraordinary anti-colonial and unarmed mass insurrections in the whole history of the modern period.” (115)

"Overall then, this is a critical and enlightening intervention. However — likely because of the length constraints of such an article — the debates around two controversial themes are given very short thrift. First, Abu-Manneh rejects the thesis of Israeli apartheid. He argues, “The process of Zionist conquest and siege is… more reminiscent of whites’ treatment of Native Indians in North America than it is of Blacks under South African apartheid.” (103)

"This position is underdeveloped in the article, a pity because it speaks directly to the strategies of ongoing Palestinian solidarity and boycott campaigns developing around the world. Second, Abu-Manneh stakes out a political position in favor of the two-state solution, referring simply to “the independent statehood and decolonization that most Palestinians want…” (115). He neglects even to engage with the advocates of the one-state solution.(8)

Shifting from Palestine to Iraq, Sabah Alnasseri offers another of the volume’s creative and myth-busting analyses: “Understanding Iraq.” In one insightful passage Alnasseri provides a portrait of the current context in Iraq, arguing that the imperialists and the domestic ruling classes increasingly rely “on armed force, and this, in particular, marks the present phase: more than 600,000 estimated dead, twice as many injured and mutilated, three times as many refugees and migrants. This is the result of four years of liberation imperialism and a democracy which was, literally, bombed into the people.” (79)

In an elaborate and nuanced thesis too rich to relay here in detail, Alnasseri rejects portrayals of Iraq as engrossed in ethnic-confessional, sectarian and civil war:

"The notion of the Iraq conflict as a sectarian conflict, which is propagated by the occupier, suggests that the spiral of violence is due not to the occupation, but is a manifestation of the internal logic of Iraqi society. Thus the responsibility is shifted to the victims of the war…" (77)

In response to the often ahistorical depictions of Iraqi society in the media and much of mainstream academic analysis today, Alnasseri provides a useful mapping of the shifting social structure of the country from the period of British colonialism, to the monarchy, to the period of republican rule between 1958 and 2003. He provides a complex picture of the development of capitalism, shifting class structures, and their interaction with religious and ethnic groups over an extended period. In so doing he denies simplistic, one-sided theses such as the influential idea that “the Shiite and the Kurds were repressed whereas the predominantly Arab Sunni dominated the state institutions as well as the economy and society.” On this, Alnasseri suggests, “Of course, winners re-write history in ways that confer legitimacy on their claims to power. And this is a case in point.” (80)

Aijaz Ahmad points to something similar elsewhere in the volume: “… the characterization of the Saddam autocracy as a ‘Sunni regime’ has taken hold, even in some circles of the left. Saddam ruled Iraq for close to a quarter century, and readers of this essay may well ask themselves just when, how recently, did they come to hear of it as a ‘Sunni regime.’” (8)

At one point, Alnasseri stresses the limited analytical purchase of ethnic-confessional explanations for understanding the conflict in Iraq as compared to analyses that turn on the politics of class struggle and imperialism: “…. Shiite and Sunni are not political categories. An oil minister, who is nominally Shiite, introduces a neoliberal law not because of his Shiite identity, or in the interests of his community or region, but in the interest of a class fraction of private owners created by the state’s restructuring of property relations…” (90)

On the political economy of occupied Iraq, he describes the opening up of the country to foreign investment “and the commodification of public and social goods and services, as well as unhindered access to the natural resources of the country…”  Labor markets were deregulated leaving “a flexible reserve army, leading to high unemployment for the sake of wage cuts, while the renunciation of subsidies for the local economy protects foreign companies from national competition. Hence, MNCs [multinational corporations] from the occupation states seize Iraqi property.”

Finally, in a particularly important passage, Alnasseri points out how “(t)he privatization of state industries, services, public facilities and infrastructure, as well as the dismissal of the workforce and state personnel on a massive scale, was achieved in the name of the so-called ‘de-Baathification’, which was an extremely effective code for the victimization of whole swathes of Iraqi society.” (94)

Alnasseri argues, again against received wisdom, that the resistance is generally secular, primarily a mélange of “liberal members of the middle class, nationalists, pan-Arabists, and socialists and communists of various stripes.” Those calling themselves “God’s fighters” within the resistance, “(jihadist, Salafist, Wahabbite, bin-Ladenist) are actually a minority, whose actions are sensationalized by the media.” This is not a simplistic argument that all elements of the resistance are therefore progressive, “or that anti-occupation attitudes are per se emancipatory, or that they do not pursue antagonistic projects. It is merely to say that the basic evil is the occupation, and only once the occupation is removed can the situation be resolved internally.” (96)

Perspectives on Religion and Politics

In another essay Gilbert Achcar addresses “Religion and Politics Today from a Marxian Perspective.” Achcar, among the most independent, thoughtful and informed of Middle East observers currently writing in the English language, offers a provocative essay comparing the phenomenon of Christian theology of liberation in Latin America and Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim-majority countries.

In this essay he sets out first to elaborate Marx’s view of religion, next to add to Marx insights from the comparative sociology of religions, and to close with an examination of liberation theology and Islamic fundamentalism. Two of his sharpest theses are sure to be the subject of further debate. The first is that an “elective affinity” between original Christianity and communistic utopianism helps to explain why “the worldwide wave of leftwing political radicalization that started in the 1960s (not exactly religious times!) could partly take on a Christian dimension — especially in Christian-majority areas in ‘peripheral’ countries where the bulk of the people are poor and downtrodden. This was the case in Latin America above all, an area where radicalization got a great impulse from the onset of the 1960s thanks to the Cuban revolution and its socialist-humanistic message.” (64)

Second, Achcar posits an “elective affinity” between Orthodox Islam defined as “strict allegiance to the Sharia” and “medieval-reactionary utopianism” that helps to explain the sweep of Islamic fundamentalism across Muslim communities in the current epoch. (66-67)
These assertions raise problematic issues. If there is an “elective affinity” between original Christianity and communistic utopianism, and if this is theoretically important, then why has Christianity — perhaps most obviously in Latin America — played such a massively anti-communistic and then anti-communist role for several centuries? Are the Muslim-majority societies fatalistically doomed forever to medieval reaction? Moreover, how to explain the advance of communist, socialist, liberal and other secular ideologies and movements in these countries at various historical junctures, not to mention non-fundamentalist manifestations of Islam? Where are the histories of these religions in the real world in this elective affinity thesis?

In his concluding section, Achcar begins to address these problems by stating that to acknowledge these elective affinities in original Christianity and Orthodox Islam “does not stem from any value judgment,”  but is rather based on “elements of a comparative historical sociology of both religions, in the tradition of Marx and Engels” and others. What’s more, identifying these elective affinities does not suggest “that there are no countervailing tendencies in them.” (67, 68)

But, most crucially:

"(T)he fact that there are different ‘elective affinities’ in Christianity and Islam does not mean that the actual historical development of each religion flowed ‘naturally’ along the slope of its specific ‘elective affinity’. It flowed naturally along the slope of the actual configuration of the class society with which each religion became interwoven – hugely different from the reality of its social origin in the case of Christianity, less so in the case of Islam."

Regarding the role of Christianity in Latin America and elsewhere, Achcar continues:

"(D)uring several centuries, historical ‘actually existing’ Christianity was less progressive in many regards than historical ‘actually existing’ Islam. And it is in the realm of the same Christian religion, within the same Catholic Church, that nowadays an ongoing bitter fight is taking place between, on the one hand, an institutionally dominated and utterly reactionary version represented by the present pope Joseph Ratzinger and, on the other hand, the upholders of liberation theology, who are finding a new impulsion in the ongoing new left radicalization in Latin America." (69)

Achcar stresses that his “elective affinity” argument does not require one to believe, for example, that “historical Christianity was essentially socialist.” Likewise, “to acknowledge the ‘elective affinity’ between the Islamic corpus and modern-day medieval-reactionary utopianism, in the shape of Islamic fundamentalism, does not in the least amount to believing that historical Islam was essentially fundamentalist — it was definitely not! — or that Muslims are doomed to fall prey to fundamentalism, whatever the historical conditions.” (69)

What then is the point of underlining these elective affinities? Analytically, this concept helps to explain the phenomenon of the “different historical uses of each religion as a banner of protest.”  It provides clues to understand why “Christian liberation theology could become such an important component of the left in Latin America, while all attempts at producing an Islamic version of the same remained marginal.” (69, 71) [The notion of elective affinity, drawn in part from the sociologist Max Weber, has also been employed by the Marxist author Michael Löwy in regard to some utopian sympathies of 20th century Central European Jewish writers such as Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt —ed.]

Just as crucially, “It also helps us to understand why Islamic fundamentalism could gain such a huge importance nowadays among Muslim communities, and why it came to supersede the left so successfully in embodying the rejection of Western domination, even though on reactionary social terms.”  To reiterate, “the superficial Orientalist impression, now widespread, according to which Islamic fundamentalism is the ‘natural’ ahistorical inclination of the Muslim peoples is sheer nonsense, of course. It overlooks elementary historical facts” (71), many of which are reviewed in an exemplary fashion by Aijaz Ahmad in his contribution to the volume.

The political implications of this analysis clearly drive Achcar’s Marxist analysis. How does this inform our attempts to change the world? First he counters certain simplistic left celebrations of anti-imperialist forces led by adherents of Islamic fundamentalism: “… to pretend that movements like Lebanese Hezbollah or Palestinian Hamas are just peculiar expressions of mass social and political protest, using Islam only as a ‘flag and mask’ or merely as a ‘language’, is to underestimate considerably the very important reactionary limitations imposed on the radicalizing potential of their membership, and even their mass following by their firm adherence to Islamic fundamentalist doctrines.” (72)

Having said this, it is obvious to Achcar that every use of Islam, like any other religion, ought to be considered in the concrete social and political environments within which it is operating. So, there are vital differences between “Islam as the ideological tool of oppressive class-and-gender domination and Islam as the identity maker of an oppressed minority, as in the case of oppressed Muslim immigrant communities in Western countries…” Similarly, there are central differences between Lebanese Hezbollah and “an organization like the most reactionary al-Qaeda…”

All this having been clearly laid out, it is nonetheless the case that “the ideological fight against Islamic fundamentalism — its social, moral and political views, not the basic spiritual tenets of Islam as religion — should remain for progressives one of their priorities among Muslim communities.” Likewise, it follows that “there is very little matter for objection in the social, moral and political views of Christian liberation theology, whereas the ideological fight against its strictly spiritual component should certainly not be considered a priority — even for hard-line atheists of the radical left.” (73)

Aijaz Ahmad’s important essay on “Islam, Islamisms and the West,” is the final one we will address on the Middle East before we turn to Latin America.

Ahmad’s piece is in part a sweeping comparative historical and geopolitical analysis of twentieth and twenty-first century world politics, which seeks in particular to provide a response to “a rampant Occidentalism which divides the world of Muslims into a simplistic binary of secularists and Islamicists, and looks at all Islamicists as belonging to the same conceptual and ideological universe — which not only exonerates all secularists as at least the lesser evil, however corrupt or dictatorial they may be, but also treats all Islamicists as being at least potentially terroristic.” (22)

One of the first things Ahmad attempts to clear up is the gross simplification evident in many depictions of politics and religion in Muslim-majority countries in the epoch we’re presently living through. For most Muslims, “being a Muslim mainly signifies the fact of birth in a Muslim family, at best a Muslim sub-culture within a wider national culture (Egyptian, Nigerian, Lebanese or whatever); while religion, even when observed, is lived as one of the many ingredients in one’s complex social identity, which is always specific, and hence deeply tied to language, region, custom, class, and so on; religious observance, if any, remains largely local and personal. This sub-cultural Muslimness itself is contextual, deeply shaped by history, geography, politics, the larger multi-religious milieu, myriad rhythms of material life.”

What being Muslim means to Muslims themselves is dependent on an array of intertwining variables: “The religious dimension of this Muslim sub-cultural existence may itself be refracted through sectarian and ideological particularity: Shia and Sunni, for instance, or various sub-sects among the Shia, the more puritanical sub-sects among the Sunnis such as the Wahabbi or the Ahl-e-Hadith, those others who may be inclined toward some transgressive tendency Sufic tradition, or still others who are inclined toward secular nationalism, communism, agnosticism, atheism, etc., and yet feel, existentially, part of a Muslim (if not Islamic) subculture.” (1-2)

In addition to these insights and a withering critique of Samuel Huntington’s infamous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, Ahmad’s key achievement in this essay is a survey of some of the key moments in American imperial foreign policy that helped to shape the rise of Islamic movements after the 1970s. He writes of Carter’s “singular achievement,” bringing “together personnel from many of these groups — from countries as diverse as Indonesia and Algeria, the Philippines and the Sudan, not to speak of Egypt and Saudi Arabia itself — and organiz[ing] them into a single, well-trained, well-financed, well-equipped force to fight communism in Afghanistan, well before any direct Soviet intervention and indeed — we have it directly from Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor — to entice the Soviet Union into the conflict.” (3)(9)

Next, he writes of Reagan’s visit with the mujahideen from Afghanistan in the Oval Office, during which Reagan called them “moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers.” Fast-forwarding to the current conjuncture, the Bush II regime has provided two major gifts of its own to the cause of advancing Islamicist movements in the last several years:

The first was to treat the hideous events of September 11, 2001 not as an international crime for which the surviving criminals bore individual as well as group responsibility, but as an act of ‘war’ against which a global war was declared in retaliation:

"Afghanistan and Iraq — whose governments had nothing to do with that crime — were invaded, other countries of the region were coerced and threatened, and Israel was given a free hand in the Occupied Territories…. It is the scale of aggression in the American response, coupled with ritual incantations of Osama’s name as the mastermind, and the televising of the latter’s defiant statements by outlets like al-Jazeera, which turned him into a household legend and even a hero for many.” (5)

Bush made a second contribution. After initiating the occupation of Iraq, “the US moved swiftly to communalize it as well, re-making it along sectarian lines…” The social horror wrought by the pre-invasion sanctions and then the invasion and occupation themselves created waves of refugees, violence, death, destruction, unemployment, devastated health and education facilities, and the cascading presence of criminal gangs and militias. “The scale of the ensuing sectarian strife — now a horrific bloodbath all around” — writes Ahmad — “has no precedent in Iraqi history” (5, 6).

Subsequently, after exploring the complexities of “Muslimness” and the racist character of liberal democracy in the Western countries, Ahmad returns again to the history of geopolitics and imperialism as a central source of so many current trends.

For Ahmad, the West must account for three pivotal sins in its contribution to the rise of Islamism. First, “it helped Islamism flourish by recruiting it as a force against ‘communism’, which encompassed not only the broadly-based communist movements that had arisen among Muslim peoples but also any regime which subscribed to economic nationalism against Western corporate capital.” Second, the West’s underlying support for the “regime change” of a whole series of secular governments during the Cold War period is a major part of today’s story:

"(B)y ensuring the overthrow of those secular regimes that were not communist (most of them were actually anti-communist) but which either tolerated communists (the Sukarno regime in Indonesia), or refused to align with the West (Sukarno again, but also Nasser in Egypt), or were even mildly nationalist in the economic domain (Mossadegh in Iran) — the West ensured the narrowing of the space for secular politics and therefore the emergence of varieties of Islamism, moderate as well as militant…”

"Third was the West’s 'cynical game of extreme pragmatism' when it came to countries where Islamism did become a major political force: “continued support for regimes like the Saudi one; the organization of the jihad against Afghan communism…; support for the most autocratic regimes, such as that of Mubarak in Egypt, against the Islamicists, adding to their claim to be ‘anti-imperialist’; displaying nothing but contempt for those Islamicists who had actively demonstrated their belief in electoral politics (in Algeria, in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, in Lebanon) and treating them as just ‘terrorists.’” (25-26)

What Aijaz Ahmad calls for, essentially, is an analysis and a politics that pays much greater attention to the historical emergence of these movements, the particularities of Islamicism and Muslim communities in different national and regional contexts, and — regarding Islamicist movements in particular — “not succumb[ing] to any of their various modes of comprehension or their conclusions or their favoured lines of action,” but embracing “at least some degree of empathy, so that, at the very least, they do not appear to us as just so many primitives that need to be contained, disciplined, perhaps even annihilated, selectively, in ‘just wars’ waged by us, the civilized. If they can be seen as particular kinds of human beings who have been produced not by civilizations or religious frenzies and fatalities but by histories, then one can at least begin to attend to these histories.” (26)

Building an internationalist global politics rooted in radical social justice is one way forward. Indeed, for Ahmad, “the secular world has to have enough justice in it for one not to have to constantly evoke God’s justice against the injustices of the profane. A politics of radical equalities, so to speak.” (37)

Latin America’s Left Turn

If the Middle East has been the focal point of direct anti-imperial resistance to the military machinations of empire, Latin America since the late 1990s has witnessed the strongest popular resurgence against imperialism in its economic form. In the current period, this has meant an uneven struggle against neoliberalism across the region’s different countries, involving many “competing configurations of social and class forces, ideologies, programs and policies,” as William I. Robinson puts it in his useful survey of the “Transformative Possibilities in Latin America.”

Robinson suggests that “Several alternatives to the dominant model of global capitalism appear to be emerging in the region. A new model of revolutionary struggle and popular transformation from below for the 21st century may be emerging, based on the Venezuelan experience, but more broadly, on mass popular struggles in Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere.” (141)

More famously than the extra-parliamentary mass actions, perhaps, parties and presidents describing themselves in anti-neoliberal terms have formed democratic governments in a whole range of countries in recent years: Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Nicaragua. Moreover, similar parties came close to victory — amidst claims of electoral fraud — in Mexico, Costa Rica and Peru.

Yet Robinson measures his reasoned optimism regarding the possible emergence of new revolutionary models in some of these cases against the variegated mechanisms through which “global capital seems to be competing to shape a post-neoliberal era,” and the domestic limitations of many of the new regimes. (141) What stands out in the record of the “pink tide” governments is that: “(1) there has been no significant redistribution of income or wealth, and indeed, inequality may still actually be increasing; (2) that there has been no shift in basic property and class relations despite changes in political blocs, in discourse in favour of the popular classes, and mildly reformist or social welfare measures.” (146-147)

The legitimacy of orthodox neoliberalism, introduced in the 1980s and 1990s in the region, is nearly everywhere ruptured at the base. Mass uprisings overthrew various presidents in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador at the outset of the 21st century, and the Chávez government in Venezuela has steadily deepened its radicalism since its very modest beginnings in 1998, mainly due to the whip of counter-revolution wielded by U.S. imperialism and a belligerent right. The working classes in that country have risen up time and again to defend the government against right-wing coups and imperial plots, each time reigniting their consciousness of their own social power and deepening their resolve to push the Bolivarian process towards ever-deeper confrontations with the logic of capital.

Still, even in the Venezuelan case, major contradictions persist, and the possibility of rollback coming from within the conservative factions of the Chávez government itself is eminently possible. As a whole, Latin America presently stands at a crossroad: “The fate of the pink tide,” as Robinson suggests, “will depend considerably on the configuration of class and social forces in each country and the extent to which regional and global configurations of these forces open up new space and push such governments in distinct directions.”

The region faces very different conceivable exits to the crisis currently facing the neoliberal project: “it has moved into an historic conjuncture in which the struggle among social and political forces could push the new resistance politics into mildly social democratic and populist outcomes or into more fundamental, potentially revolutionary ones.” (148)

The danger in moments such as these is perhaps best captured by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, quoted in Gregory Albo’s essay on neoliberalism which appears elsewhere in the volume. According to Gramsci, in times of crisis, the “ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary and disperse his leading cadres.” (355)

Emilia Castorina’s essay on Argentina, which we will examine momentarily, suggests just such an unfortunate outcome for that country after the extraordinary financial crisis and mass mobilizations of 2001-2002. But for several other countries in the region the situation remains in flux, and various possible immediate and medium-term futures remain open.

Contradictions of Neoliberalism

Robinson is a very capable guide through the structural and social contradictions of the neoliberal model in Latin America that brought us to the current crossroad. First, he suggests that “the model is highly dependent on attracting mobile and often volatile transnational finance/investment capital, with a high component of financial speculation.”  Second, the latest export boom in the region, based on non-traditional activities and linked to “regional participation in global production and distribution chains,” is inherently unstable because of “global market competition, overproduction, and the impermanent nature of production sequences in the global economy — while also accelerating ecological disaster.”

A third structural contradiction is that “the development model is based on neoliberal integration into the global economy [which] does not require (or is at least unable to couple the new accumulation potential with) domestic market expansion or an inclusionary social base.” Out of this emerges the fourth component: “the social contradictions generated by neoliberalism have led to heightened conflict, popular class mobilization, and political instability.” (143)

Indeed, what set off the entire anti-neoliberal resurgence beginning in the late 1990s was the sharp economic downturn in the region between 1999 and 2002; it “unleash[ed] counter-hegemonic social and political forces that discredited neoliberalism and brought about a new period of popular struggle and change.” (144)

What happens in Venezuela, in particular, will have major consequences for socialist struggle in Latin America, certainly, but also for the entire world. Whatever the contradictions of the Bolivarian process — and they are serious and multiple — socialism has been placed “back on the agenda at a time when the ignominious demise of twentieth century socialism seemed to discredit the very idea of a socialist project, and when the late-twentieth century global justice movement stalled as it proved unable to move beyond a negative anti-capitalism.” (149)

One of the major advances in Venezuela has been the fact that reform in the oil sector, coupled with the extraordinarily high price of oil in recent years, has provided financial resources for the development of various “missions” promoting social and economic services and activities within and for the popular classes. Social rights and a measure of dignity — so long denied — have been partially restored to the Venezuelan majority, and this has helped to fuel a reinvigoration of participatory politics from below. The social and democratic gains have been real and important over the last number of years.

Nonetheless, capitalism and the old state remain alive and well in Venezuela and the threat of bureaucratization and slow right-wing restoration of power persists. Robinson captures part of this dynamic succinctly:

"If the Venezuelan revolution’s formal democratic legitimacy is impeccable this also presents it with a paradox. As popular sectors mobilize from below, and have become concientised, and politicized, they confront resistance from state institutions that act to constrain, dilute, institutionalize, and co-opt mass struggles, to reproduce the old order. The Venezuelan state is corrupt, bureaucratic, clientelist, and even inert; this was the state inherited from the ancién regime. The civil service bureaucracy and old elites have remained in control of much of the state. (151)

In a separate essay in the volume, Margarita López Maya raises some additional concerns about the direction of the Venezuelan process. López Maya’s contribution is uneven, often restricting its vision of democracy to within the boundaries of the bourgeois state, but she does raise important questions about the centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the personalization of power in the figure of Chávez himself. In one of the more strongly phrased passages, López Maya argues:

"It is…very difficult in Venezuela [given the improbability of the domestic right-wing or the United States overthrowing the government in the short term] to accept that it is necessary to restrict criticism and join together behind Chávez’s personalistic power on the grounds that we would otherwise be assisting the enemy’s plans. It seems more reasonable to think that Chávez, with his military training and his admiration for Fidel Castro, prefers a centralized and personalized model, in the style of Cuba, for his socialist project. Some point out that this tendency towards “Cubanization” is all the more absurd, at a time when some space for political tolerance is being opened in Cuba, rather than closed down." (177)

Even Marta Harnecker, who has long been a quite uncritical supporter of the Chávez government, provides in her essay a more comprehensive list of weaknesses apparent in the current conjuncture. For example, Harnecker explains that it was suprising that Chávez unilaterally announced his decision to create a new party, provisionally called the United Socialist Party of Venezuela:

"Not because he had not referred to the issue before, or had not discussed it with the leaders of all the political parties that supported him, but rather because the news was not preceded by a profound debate on the issue and because everyone was led to believe that what they would be dealing with, at least initially, would be more akin to the construction of a multiparty ‘front,’ not a new political instrument that would imply the rapid dissolution of the existing parties, some with a long trajectory, such as the Communist Party." (186)

Brazil and Bolivia

After the series of three articles on Venezuela, the latest Socialist Register includes two important articles on Brazil and Bolivia. The Brazilian piece is an extended interview with long-time leader of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), Joao Pedro Stédile, conducted by Argentine Marxist Atilio Borón. We learn of the long history of waves of class struggle — successive stages of working class advance and retreat — over different periods in Brazil’s twentieth-century history.

Against this backdrop we are introduced to the particular history of the MST, its various strategies and ideological development, as well as the new challenges the movement faces in light of the growing consolidation of agri-business in the Brazilian countryside, and the harsh neoliberalism entrenched under Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) government. One can learn a great deal about the correlation of social forces in the Brazilian context from this interview, despite the astonishing fact that Stédile remains “affiliated to the PT” even after the government’s bitter betrayal of its rural and urban working-class origins. (211)

Wes Enzinna’s article on Bolivia’s MST is also worth reading. Enzinna provides a nuanced perspective on the challenges faced by landless peasants in the new conjuncture under the Evo Morales government. He highlights some of the limited land reforms that have been advanced, but stresses primarily the deep continuities in the neoliberal model with regard to the agricultural sector under the first two years of the Morales administration. Enzinna’s time spent with an MST settlement provides an important close-up window into a movement that has received very little attention outside of Bolivia.

This is an important service. At the same time, such a focused perspective on one of the smaller movements in Bolivia seems a somewhat bizarre choice on the part of the editors in a volume that is attempting to capture the contours of Latin America’s challenge to neoliberalism. Bolivia, between 2000 and 2005, was home to the most radical and mass- based extra-parliamentary wave of left-indigenous activism in the entire region, leading to the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents. With the election of Evo Morales in December 2005, a whole new set of complexities was opened up. Unfortunately, none of these wider questions with regard to Bolivia are taken up in the latest Socialist Register, the volume’s most glaring gap in my view.(10)

The two articles on Argentina and Mexico almost make up for this absence, however. The Argentine case provides perhaps the most powerful empirical challenge to the anarchist-autonomist-horizontalist thesis of changing the world without taking power. Beginning in 2001 there was an incredible upsurge of popular rebellion including workers, the unemployed, and sectors of the middle class whose bank accounts had been frozen and savings diminished or erased. There were road blockades by the piqueteros, occupations of factories, and neighborhood assemblies practicing democracy in the streets.

Yet without an articulated revolutionary project and a political organization or party to bring together the disparate anti-capitalist forces, the window of opportunity between 2001-2002 has slammed shut. As Robinson points out:

"Horizontalist thought makes much of the fact that the rebellion erupted without leadership or hierarchy, and that political parties and elites played no role in the movement. Nonetheless, in the ensuing years the occupied factories have not been able to present even a remote alternative to the domination of transnational capital over the economy and the country’s ever-deeper integration into global capitalism, especially through the agro-industrial-financial complex based on soy beans, while assemblies and piqueteros have become divided in the face of expanding clientelist networks and cooptation by the state and Kirchner’s Peronist faction…. To dismiss political organizations and the state because they are, or can easily become, instruments of hierarchy, control and oppression, is to emasculate the ability of the popular classes and their social movements and mass organizations to transform the institutions of power and to mount a systemic challenge to the social order.” (154)

In my view, the Argentine situation of 2001-2002 and the country’s subsequent political and socio-economic trajectory, makes French theorist Daniel Bensaid’s thesis on power and the revolutionary left all the more compelling:

"You can pretend to ignore power, but it will not ignore you. You can act superior, by refusing to take it, but from Catalonia 1937 to Chiapas, via Chile, experience shows right up to this very day that it will not hesitate to take you in the most brutal fashion. In a word, a strategy of counter-power only has meaning in the perspective of dual power and its resolution. Who will come out on top? … which class will be capable of resolving the contradictions which are stifling society, capable of imposing an alternative logic to that of the accumulation of capital, capable of transcending the existing relations of production and opening up a new field of possibilities?(11)

Elsewhere in the volume Emilia Castorina provides a sophisticated analysis of the installation and consolidation of a pragmatic neoliberal capitalism in post-crisis Argentina under the presidency of Peronist Nestor Kirchner — a trajectory undoubtedly to be continued under the presidency of his wife Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner, elected to office in October 2007."

Many of the “golden rules” of neoliberalism remained untouched under Kirchner: labor “flexibilization,” privatizations of public utilities, deregulation of pensions and mutual funds, and structural unemployment. (269)  The social consequences of this continuity are clear enough. For example, Robinson points to the fact that, “the percentage of national income going to labour (through wages) and to the unemployed and pensioners (through social welfare subsidies and pensions) dropped from 32.5 in 2001, before the crisis exploded, to 26.7 in 2005.” (147)

Castorina reiterates an important point that other scholars and activists have theorized regarding the neoliberal project of democratization in the Global South since the 1980s. This involves “a strategy of state reform and transformation of power relations — i.e. a project of capitalist restructuring based on a new form of class domination… The reality is… that neoliberalism entails a transformation rather than a ‘retreat’ of the state, and therefore a transformation of fundamental power relations between classes.” (275)

Reflecting on this process in the particular context of contemporary Argentina, Castorina examines the changing dynamics of what she calls “democratic neoliberalism” and the contradictions this type of class domination produces. Democratic neoliberalism, in this view, “is neither a ‘political’ regime based solely on rules and procedures detached from the material conditions of accumulation, nor a mere ‘economic’ system, but a specific historical articulation between the political and economic — a particular form of capitalism (neoliberalism) that evolves under democratic, or at least electoral, conditions.” (275)

What Castorina attempts to stress, drawing on the recent theoretical work of Atilio Borón, is “the intrinsic contradiction between the political and the economic; that is, between the political form of universal freedom and the anti-democratic structure of inequality in a market-based capitalist society.” (276) The chasm between political freedom and real-world material inequalities rooted in neoliberal capitalism necessarily generates conflict and instability.

The specific contradiction of democratic neoliberalism has expressed itself in Argentina in recent years through the emergence of new forms of social struggle that challenge the old ways of doing politics, but which have also shown to be susceptible to the re-establishment of revived Peronist strategies of clientelism, petty handouts, and divide-and-rule tactics on the part of the ruling class.

“On the one hand the disenchantment with conventional political practice combined with strategies of patronage and clientelism that is constitutive of Argentine democracy has been quite productive for the neoliberal political project,” Castorina contends, “aimed at locking-in the power gains of capitalist elites (transnational and local) and locking-out or de-politicizing the forces challenging these gains.” She continues, “On the other hand, and at the same time, it has opened up a new space for the mobilization of opposition by the excluded, new forms of struggle and organization.” (279)

What most disturbs Castorina when she surveys the contemporary scene of Argentine class struggle and the struggles of other oppressed groups is the possibility that Peronist neoliberalism in Argentina has been able to reproduce and extend its clientelistic networks through crisis, such as the massive one in 2001-2002. She illustrates briefly how this has operated through an examination of the piquetero movement, and the phenomena of divisions, fragmentation, cooptation, and collaboration vis-à-vis the Kirchner government that have developed over the last few years.

This analysis ought to be read by anyone attempting to come to grips with the disarticulation of radical movements in Argentina over the last number of years, and the restoration of neoliberalism through a pragmatic Peronist regime. The real strength of this piece is its sophisticated analysis of the decline of popular movements, their interactions with the state, and the sustained structural longevity of neoliberalism in the country.

It is weaker is in articulating possibilities for alternative left strategies. In one sense this weakness of strategy comes to light in Castorina’s dismissive rejection of what is termed “determinist Marxist explanations” that see the failure to develop a revolution out of the 2001-2002 financial and state crisis as a “missed opportunity… as if such an ‘opportunity’ did not entail a very complex ensemble of power relations and ideological struggles.” (271)

The same things about complex dynamics of power and ideology could be said about any revolutionary opportunity, but the revolutionary left has performed better in some of these moments and worse in others. Learning from these historical lessons is, in some sense, all we have to ground ourselves as we attempt to negotiate and respond to the terrain of the changing present. It’s difficult to come to terms with the suggestion that the rapid transition from a period of mass mobilizations, road blockades, factory occupations and so on, to a period of popular-class demobilization, atomization, fragmentation and the restoration of neoliberal capitalism wasn’t a missed opportunity — indeed, of historic proportions.

The questions that remain are (a) how might the left have done better, and (b) how might popular forces rebuild and arm themselves strategically, organizationally and ideologically to better negotiate the terrain of the next upturn in class struggle. What Castorina’s analysis does point to is that with the contradictions inherent in “democratic neoliberalism” there will certainly be such a future upturn.

Oaxaca Commune in Mexico

To conclude our discussion of Latin America, it’s important to focus for a moment on the excellent analysis of the “Oaxaca Commune” of 2006 in Mexico provided by Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui. “The Oaxaca uprising of the Spring of 2006,” they write, “was an urban insurrection in one city, with important resonances elsewhere in the state of Oaxaca. It developed novel and participatory forms of organization, struggle, and self-governance. The Oaxaca rebellion developed ‘assembleist’ forms of direct democracy in the Spring of 2006 in order to organize itself democratically, as the people of Paris did in 1870-1871, and the Russian workers did in 1905 and 1917.” (248)

The uprising in Oaxaca began as a strike by dissident section 22 of the teachers union — with a long history of struggle for democratic unionism in Mexico — and was subsequently radicalized and expanded as a result of brutal repression meted out by the state government. The Oaxaca popular movements, assembled together in the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, APPO) literally forced the state government out of the city, and instituted popular self-government and resistance at a local level for five months, until the national government assaulted the movement with a storm of arrests, disappearances, deaths and torture.

At its peak, “The APPO became the movement of the vast majority of the people of Oaxaca against the governor and his political machine. It was a multi-class coalition with proletarianized teachers at its core. It had the support and participation of other sectors of unionized and non-unionized workers, the informal sector, sectors of small business, intellectuals, university professors and students. It was a broad popular alliance within which the labouring classes of various kinds played a crucial role.” (259)

What is remarkable about this essay is the way in which it situates the Oaxaca rebellion within the context of neoliberal Mexico’s “protracted crisis of rule” (249), and the wider terrain of social struggle in the relevant period — in particular, the three-part failure of the Zapatistas, the movement against electoral fraud concerning Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s run for the presidency, and the Oaxaca rebellion, to build real grassroots and sustainable alliances with each other in order to articulate popular forces at a national level.

The authors navigate a fine line in illustrating the tremendous importance of the Oaxaca commune as an example of localized democratic insurgent self-government by and for the popular classes, while not exaggerating the possibilities for revolutionary transformation in Mexico at the time.

They provide an exemplary focus on efforts to build popular power from below in countries where the far-right has managed to maintain control of the capitalist state through the (often fraudulent) electoral process. This sort of perspective widens our lens beyond elections and new “pink tide” governments as we try to assess the prospects and limitations of Latin America’s left surge.

One absence in the Oaxaca piece is the lack of attention paid to the extraordinary leadership role of indigenous-proletarian women in the uprising.(12) In fact, questions of gender and racial oppression and resistance on these fronts receive too little attention in the latest Socialist Register as a whole.


There wasn’t space to discuss them in this review — which focused on the Middle East and Latin America — but Raghu Krishnan and Adrien Thomas’s aticle on “Resistance to Neoliberalism in France,” and Kim Moody’s “Harvest of Empire: Immigrant Workers’ Struggles in the US” (a version of which has appeared in Against the Current 127 and 128), were additional standout articles in this collection. The symposium on neoliberalism, to which Alfredo Saad-Filho, Elmar Altvater and Gregory Albo contribute, also provides some important overall reflections on the staying power of neoliberalism at the international level despite its advanced crisis of legitimacy in most of the world. This symposium is worth examining, though less accessible than other essays in the volume given the rather more abstract character of the discussion.

In sum, the latest Socialist Register has quite accurately identified the global flashpoints in the various struggles against imperialism and neoliberalism. Events unfolding in Latin America and the Middle East as I write this review continue to demand our attention. The rich theoretical, analytical and political frameworks offered in a large number of the essays provide us with an important resource as we attempt to get a better understanding of imperialism and neoliberalism and the forces that are leading the resistance against them, such that we are in a better position to add our weight and a revolutionary socialist perspective to these accumulating popular forces.


  1. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli Ground Forces Pull Out of Gaza,” New York Times, March 3, 2008. Available  at: www.nytimes.com.
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  2. Quoted in Jennifer Loewenstein, “Gazan Holocaust: The Day the Earth and the Sky Traded Places,” Counterpunch, March 3, 2008. Available at: www.counterpunch.org.
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  3. “A Bloody Incursion: Israel’s Intervention in Gaza,” The Economist, March 3, 2008. Available at: www.economist.com.
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  4. Patrick Cockburn, “ ‘Iraq’ Falls Apart: The Turkish Invasion,” Counterpunch, February 28, 2008. Available at: www.counterpunch.org.
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  5. Justin Podur, “Colombia Assassinates FARC commander Raúl Reyes,” Colombia Journal, March 3, 2008. Available at: www.colombiajournal.org; Richard Gott, “Colombian Deaths in Ecuador: Uribe’s Illegal Cross-Border Raid,” Counterpunch, March 3, 2008. Available at: www.counterpunch.org; “Ecuador rompe relaciones con Colombia,” El Tiempo, 3 de marzo, 2008. Available at: www.eltiempo.com; for Colombian historical context and more detail on Uribe’s government see Forrest Hylton, Evil Hour in Colombia, New York and London: Verso, 2006; for the role of Canadian imperialism in the extractive resource industries and neoliberal economic restructuring more generally in Colombia, see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “Imperialism and Resistance: Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2008: 63-87.
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  6. “Seis regiones desconocen la condición demócrata de Evo,” La Razón, 3 de Marzo, 2008. Available at: www.la-razon.com.
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  7. Robert Brenner, “Devastating Crisis Unfolds,” Against the Current (January-February), 132. Available at: www.solidarity-us.org; for a video-taped debate on these matters, between Robert Brenner and Canadian political economist Sam Gindin at the Brecht Forum in New York City, go to: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/bg020108.html.
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  8. Abu-Manneh does address the issue at greater length in the following: “The Question of Palestine: An Interview with Bashir Abu-Manneh,” New Politics, Vol. 11, No. 4, 2008. Available at: http://www.wpunj.edu/newpol/issue44/Abu-Manneh44.htm.
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  9. See also the relevant chapters of Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. London and New York: Verso, 2003.
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  10. For the historical context behind Bolivia’s contemporary popular movements see Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. London and New York: Verso, 2007; for my own perspective on recent developments since the ascension to office of Evo Morales see a three-part series of essays forthcoming this year in Historical Materialism, as well as Jeffery R. Webber, “Dynamite in the Mines and Bloody Urban Clashes: Contradiction, Conflict and the Limits of Reform in Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism,” Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes, forthcoming 2008.
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  11. Daniel Bensaid, “Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!”, International Socialism Journal (Summer) Issue 95, 2002. Available at: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj95/bensaid.htm.
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  12. See Lynn Stephen, “ ‘We are brown, we are short, we are fat… We are the face of Oaxaca’: Women Leaders in the Oaxaca Rebellion,” Socialism and Democracy 21,2 (July), 2007: 97-112.
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ATC 135, July-August 2008

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