Bolivia’s vice-president on the challenge of a new left for the 21st century



by Álvaro García Linera

The following is a speech given in Athens by Bolivia’s vice-president on June 20, 2015, at the Eighth Resistance Festival. Edited for publication, the text appears in the current issue (No. 15) of La Migraña, a magazine published by the Bolivian government.
In a previous article I summarized García Linera’s comments, toward the end of his presentation, on the situation in Greece at the time, just two weeks before the Greek people voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to reject the moves by the Eurozone leaders to impose further indebtedness and austerity on them. This is my translation of the rest of his presentation.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

Greece’s crisis: The challenge of a new left and the resurgence in Europe

I was asked to address the question, What are the characteristics of the left in this, the 21st century?

As Marx said, basically we have to recognize the movement that is unfolding before our eyes, the real movement that is developing here in Greece, and in Spain, Ecuadoimager, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other parts of the world, that is revealing innovations and new themes in the construction of the processes of emancipation.

Given that no revolutionary process is definitive or a formula but instead is a flow with advances, retreats and uncertainties, we do not know whether the new left — or what we call a new left — will deliver humanity to a new destiny in the following century. Perhaps it will do so, or perhaps it will fail. What is clear is that there is a resurgence, a new debate and new experiences; and it is this that I wish to address, starting with five aspects,[1] and then reflecting briefly on what is happening in Greece.

Characteristics defining the emergence of the contemporary lefts
1. Social movement transformed into a drive for state power. Representative state governance and social governance

One of the new things, if we take into account what happened in the second half of the 20th century, but not so new if we go back to the early years of that century, is the relation between party and social movement.

The experience of the left in the 21st century has altered the debate that we inherited from the 1940s. Then the main issue was the vanguard, a party of cadres, of professional revolutionaries with their activists, their intellectuals, their central committee (which was the brain and the epicenter of the revolution) and collective actors (fundamentally, workers or peasants) who had to follow and support the decisions, the road traced by that vanguard — an armed vanguard, electoral vanguard or clandestine vanguard, but always the vanguard.

Today it no longer happens that way — and it’s not only that previously it failed but that today it no longer functions. The living experiences of the social struggles in the world at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century are showing us another type of articulation. They are showing us that in some cases the party structures arise from the social movement itself; that the frontier between social movement and party is very ambiguous, porous; and that the party structures (which provide a certain scope for cohesion, unity, principles and organization) maintain very direct, free-flowing and organic links with the social organizing structures and with the emerging social movements.

That is good because it breaks with the concept of the vanguard and an unconscious mass led by it. It shows us that the mass is not so “mass” and much less that it is unconscious, and that civil society is complex. It builds leaderships, thinks and sometimes needs centers of cohesion and control (a party). However, these centers of cohesion and control are not what is fundamental; in fact, they are only necessary and have leadership capacity if they are permanently fostering their organic link (their metabolism) with the social organizations, with the social movement.

Sometimes this shocks people who come from the old school, used to the discipline, the democratic centralism, the cohesiveness, the permanent militancy and the quasi-Jesuitical view of politics as a mission and commitment. But that’s the way it is.

Today, the party affiliation is more lax, more flexible, more ambiguous. And one has to know how to understand those new languages and begin to act in terms of those new spiritual predispositions of the people.

This ambiguous frontier between social movement and party — now not a vanguard but a party, more compact and unifying — while it is something new, something that can be appreciated in the distinct European and Latin American experiences, leaves us with two lessons. The first, that there is no new left that is detached from the social movement; and the second, that there is no successful social movement that does not have, by necessity, a continuity, an organic extension in party structures striving for state power.

That is, a political party will be successful in its proposals for social, economic and political transformation in so far as it has continuity, participation, and links with collective, plural actors. Moreover, the old political systems do not break down unless there is a strong social movement that bursts onto the scene, breaks or smashes the state domination and reconfigures social identities. In turn, if the social movement still wants to be something more than a protest and an indication of discontent it will have to have some extension at the level of the state, and to be able to translate itself into a determination to gain management and control over the state.

However, it is not that the social movement has to lead into a state, since in fact the social movement is more than the state, and confronts the state. Nevertheless, its effectiveness will be gauged in its capacity to work in conjunction with a state actor: to be a social movement outside of the state but with the ability to influence, affect and transform the state. Perhaps the new thing now in the left is that it is an actor of state transformation and simultaneously an actor outside of the state. That, in turn, is going to characterize the forms of government of the new lefts.

Electoral state legitimacy and representative governability: parliament, ministry, state institutions, parliamentary majorities and agreements; but parallel to this extra-state legitimacy, outside of the state — in the society, the streets, the factories, and the mobilizations. The revolutionary stability of a political party of the left will have to have those two pillars: representative state governance and social governance.

The possibility of continuing to carry out changes in the institutions of government, of the state, the laws and the functioning of the parliament itself will always lie in the ability to have a force of extra-parliamentary social mobilization (outside of the parliament), which will be what drives transformations within the parliament and the executive and judicial organs themselves. This is, then, a new system of dual political governance.


2. New material and social condition of the working class. The plebeian form of collective and contemporary action

A second change that I note in the emergence of the new lefts — sometimes not so new because they include a lot of the past experience — is the quality of the social movement.

Two things are happening as a result of the recent processes of globalization of the economy of the last 30 or 40 years: a change in workers’ conditions, in the material conditions of the working class, and an increasing complexity in social conditions.

In the first case, the old composition of working class, big industry, huge factory, a worker stronghold, unionized, disciplined, that passed on knowledge from workers with more experience to younger ones, and that created loyalties on the job based on that transmission of knowledge and hierarchies, controlled by the worker, has disappeared.

Today there are more workers in the world than there were 30 years ago. There is an overwhelming proletarianization of jobs, including those we think of ourselves as middle class and professional. However, it is simply another means of proletarianization, fragmented, diluted, nomadic, without loyalties within the workplace structure and without transmission of knowledge from older to newer workers. Today, knowledge is controlled by the firms and not by the older workers who passed it on to the young worker, as in the case of skilled labour. There are no unions [or rather] there is a huge process of de-unionization, the unions are small and cover only a small part of the working class. We have the emergence of young workers with other mentalities and sensibilities, and a feminization of the working class, with another kind of concerns and languages, different from the classic male chauvinist and centralized language of the union in a big plant.

This is a process of transformation of the class, whose condensation in discourse, organization and collective myths capable of converting it into a visible political force will take decades. The working class that we knew in the Twenties, Thirties or Forties of the previous century took at least one hundred years to mature.

This new working class, which is still dispersed and fragmented in its political visibility, in its constitution as an acting political subject, has yet to go through a long and emergent process that corresponds to the new material composition of the working class, both continental and global. But parallel to this process, we have the emergence of more plebeian social actors or subjects, that is, who develop not according to where they work but according to their interests, and who are more plural and more flexible in the way they interconnect. I am referring, for example, to the mobilizations over the debt, basic services, education, that bring together workers, bus, taxi and truck drivers, shopkeepers, students, neighbours and professionals.

The structures of organization and control of those social subjects are also more flexible and more casual: they last for a time (a few months) and later dissolve after having achieved some result, in order later to convene again and mobilize around other subjects and with distinct hierarchies. There is no longer a unique center of mobilization or a single line of action. In one mobilization a particular sector will take the leadership; in another, another sector. In some cases, the unions will take the leadership, while in others it may be the students who bring together unions and neighbors, or perhaps the public employees in the transportation industry bring students and professionals together.

The processes of mobilization are becoming more complex, and we revolutionaries must know how to understand the quality, flexibility and concerns of collective action, which we have named the plebeian form of contemporary collective action, and which corresponds to the primary levels in the construction of the worker identity and the workers movement.

3. Concerning democracy in the sense of democracy as a space for achieving socialism

A third new aspect in the debate in the left of the 21st century is the question of democracy. The old school of party membership had taught us that it was simply a tool, a means or a route among many other particular means or routes for obtaining or arriving at an end: socialism. That is, one more tool, available along with other tools, that we could use or leave aside — because a tool is something that one can use or stop using on certain occasions — something circumstantial.

This conception of the democratic as a tool — elections, votes, parliament, representation — is being and must be modified by a conception of democracy as a space of accomplishment (and not only as a means).

The democratic in the full sense, the Greek sense of the word, must be viewed as the place for the achievement of socialism itself. We cannot have socialism, much less communism, if it is not like an expansion, like the radical surge in democratic practices in all conditions of life: in the university, in the college, in the street, in the neighborhood, in day to day life, in the party, in the economy, in the management and control of the economy, the banks, the factories, and in agriculture.

Democracy cannot be viewed as a temporary means toward an end, since it is really more the scenario or territory where the construction of the socialist horizon unfolds. And here we are referring not only to a democratic road to socialism — as opposed to the armed struggle or undemocratic road — but to the fact that socialism either is democratic or it is not socialism. In other words, socialism either is participation and increasing deliberation of society in all the circumstances of life, in the definition of public policy, in the control of the factories, the universities, the educational systems, the financial systems… or it is not socialism.

4. An alternative model of economy and society in the short and long term. The transitional program of the left

A fourth theme — perhaps the most urgent in the experience of the left in the 21st century — is the alternative model of economy and society in the long term, namely, the communist horizon; but also the alternative in the economy and society of today (2015, 2016, 2017), because the emergence of the new left or the resurgence of the left in Latin America or Europe is inexplicable without the need for some alternative. If neoliberalism were operating marvellously, generating well-being for the people, we would have no left; or, in any case, we would still have those “fake lefts” in charge that do not differ in any way from the European or Latin American ultraright, like the European Social Democracy.

The left emerges in the midst of neoliberalism because there are breakdowns, because there is discontent in the population, people are unhappy and their expectations are unfulfilled. So the left emerges in order to resolve today — not as some distant dream for 700 years from now, but today — the peoples’ problems: work, employment, growth, distribution, justice, dignity and sovereignty.

Accordingly, the lefts that are emerging now are obliged to think about a post-neoliberal economic program of transition (using the old language of the 20th century), a transitional program of democratization of public institutions, cleaning up public administration, which is full of corrupt scoundrels. The left is obliged to think about that.

And while each country and region has its own particular features and needs, in the case of Bolivia our transitional program — amidst an unchecked neoliberalism — was very clear. Economically, nationalization of natural resources; politically, an indigenous government; socially and institutionally, a Constituent Assembly to reconstitute the long-term social pacts.

We are talking about a very precise, concrete, viable and tangible program that was responsive to the expectations of the people. A concrete proposal to respond to concrete needs, because the people and the society have very concrete needs. However, we must not forget that the concrete is also the most complicated.

Of course we intellectuals can analyze things, but to make the synthesis of multiple determinations — what is concrete, as Marx says — is what is most complicated and difficult. The people have concrete needs, and as revolutionaries, intellectuals, committed academics, party members and activists, we have to be able likewise to have concrete answers….

[1] In this edited text, as in his oral presentation (pages 25-32), García Linera says he will discuss five aspects, but actually identifies and discusses four, the fifth possibly being what he goes on to say about the situation in Greece. – RF.



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