Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 18, 2008

A sectarian version of the lessons of Nicaragua

Filed under: Latin America,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Typical Nicaraguan home: Permanent Revolution
could have brought peace and prosperity, however

As somebody who was very involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was curious to see what Claudio Villas had to say in an article titled “Nicaragua: Lessons of a country that did not finish its revolution” that appears on the In Defense of Marxism website. For those who are not familiar with the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT) that produces this website, a word or two of introduction might be necessary.

The IMT is a fairly orthodox Trotskyist grouping that is the result of a split by the late Ted Grant and Alan Woods from the so-called Militant Tendency now led by Peter Taaffe. Both groups project themselves as the core members of a Fourth International that will supposedly vindicate Leon Trotsky’s political legacy. Neither group has shown the slightest interest in rethinking what the Bolshevik experience might mean in a context other than turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia, but the Grant-Woods tendency has demonstrated an enthusiasm for the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela that does not fit exactly into the October 1917 template.

Villas states that his article studies “the lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution” in order to help “understand the ongoing processes in Venezuela today.” As becomes obvious in no time at all, Nicaragua becomes one of those negative examples that the Trotskyist movement dotes on. Forever wagging its finger at the mass movement, it assumes that calling attention to a betrayal is conducive to correct revolutionary practice. This is what I call the subway preacher school of Marxism. Once a week or so, I get stuck on the number one train going up to Columbia University with a free-lance preacher who lectures the subway car about the perils of sin. Let me put it this way, preaching against sin or reformist betrayal might make the preacher feel good but it hardly changes people’s behavior.

I was struck by the similarities between Villas’s article and those I have read about Cuba in the Trotskyist press, which revolve around the incapacity and unwillingness of the guerrillas to link up to the working class. As one example, he writes, “For the first time, the workers in the cities mobilised in a massive and independent manner with their own political slogans. But because there was no revolutionary leadership of the workers’ movement this meant that all the attention and expectations of the working class became focused on the FSLN, in spite of the fact that the Sandinistas only had 500 armed guerrillas.”

Keeping in mind that the total population of Nicaragua in the 1970s was about 3 million, an army of 500 combatants would amount to something like 50,000 in a country the size of the USA. What are the chances that a rebel army this size could be put together without a massive and powerful movement in the cities? Next to zero, I would say.

Part one of Villas’s article is filled with idealist errors that are hardly worth commenting on. He analyzes everything that went wrong in Nicaragua as a function of an incorrect theory, namely a belief in the progressive bourgeoisie that the FSLN picked up from the CP. It includes a patronizing swipe at both Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, who launched the FSLN in a bid to consummate Sandino’s struggle against imperialism in the 1920s. Both men, unlike the Grant-Woods tendency, believed in collaborating with the “national-colonial bourgeoisie”. For his part, Villas understands the way forward even though the misguided reformists will not listen:

The extinguishing of capitalism in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949 and in Cuba in 1960 demonstrated that social and economic development in the underdeveloped countries could only be achieved on a non-capitalist economic basis, in other words, on a socialist economic basis that involved a break with private property and the taking over of the means of production and finance. There are no exceptions to this law.

When you reduce this paragraph to its essence, you will discover that it contains a tautology that can be reduced to a few words: “Socialism can only be achieved through socialist revolution”. Keeping in mind that everybody on the socialist left, from Alan Woods to the late Gus Hall, agrees that socialism is the goal, the only real difference would be about the need for revolution and for resolute struggle against the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the intellectual recognition of such a task does not translate easily into practical politics.

For its over 75 year existence in Latin America (not to speak of the world), Trotskyism has remained a very marginal force, including in Nicaragua itself where voices similar to Villas’s were heard. Why did the FSLN gain the allegiance of the masses and why did the Trotskyists stay small and irrelevant? I would suggest that the appeal of both Sandino’s movement and the FSLN would be lost on the comrades of the In Defense of Marxism website, who have a mechanical understanding of Bolshevism. Leaving aside the question of the FSLN’s “reformism”, there is something quite different about the way that they got started and the way that Villas believes revolutionary parties should be built.

Unlike the IMT, the FSLN rooted its program and language in the Nicaraguan framework. By utilizing Augusto Sandino as a symbol of their revolution, they tapped into the psyche of the Nicaraguan people. They also eschewed the iconography of the Russian Revolution, which is a dead giveaway for a sectarian mindset. For example, the IMT home page has images of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on the left and a hammer-and-sickle on the right. These images might appeal to those “in the know” but not to the average Nicaraguan peasant who went to church every Sunday. Whatever mistakes the FSLN made (and they were plenty), they did not make the mistake of such sectarianism. As we look back at the wreckage of the 20th century revolutionary movement, we have to come to terms with sins of commission and sins of omission–to return once again to the example of the subway preacher. Everybody knows that the CP’s have sins of commission to repent for, but what about the Trotskyists? By maintaining sectarian habits that keep them small and marginal, don’t they have a responsibility for the failures of revolutions to succeed in countries where they have a toehold? These “sins of omission” will prevent you from getting into communist heaven.

Part two of Villas’s article consists mainly of a lecture derived from Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, whose sage advice the FSLN refused to pay attention to. Instead of setting up Soviets, creating militias, nationalizing Nicaraguan industry, dividing up the land and extending the socialist revolution beyond their borders, they were content to operate what amounted to a Nicaraguan version of Kerensky’s government, which soon fell apart because of its inner contradictions. He writes:

The Sandinista leadership ruled the country together with the treacherous national bourgeoisie during the first months of the revolution. However, the economic crisis continued to get worse. But the bourgeoisie, by now reassured that the FSLN leadership had halted the revolution, left the economic problems for the Sandinistas to sort out. The first move of the FSLN in the National Reconstruction government (made up of just 5 people) was to install a State Council. This was a bourgeois-democratic body made up of 33 members in which all the social, political and trade union forces that accepted the Sandinista leadership were represented. In 1984, this parliament was transformed into the Nicaraguan National Assembly, by now a bourgeois parliament with a leftwing majority.

In this manner, the FSLN leadership preserved the traditional parliament and government structures of the capitalist state. Executive power was concentrated in the hands of the National Directorate which was chaired by the President of the Republic. In 1984 in a few days more than 80% of the population over the age of 16 registered on the electoral register. The election results revealed the huge support of the masses for the FSLN.

One of the most remarkable things about this entire exercise is the almost entirely absent reference to American imperialism and the terrorist army it funded and organized. The word “contra” is mentioned infrequently and not assigned its proper weight. Villas even blames the FSLN for giving backhanded support for the terrorists: “While the government was subsidising the private sector through tax cuts to get its support and collaboration, the capitalists boycotted the economy and supported the Contras!” He also thought that it was not really responsible for the collapse of the revolution: “Despite their treacherous role, it was not the fascist Contra paramilitaries that defeated the revolution. Popular resistance had demoralised the Contra and they had been cornered by the mid-1980s.” Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan people were so demoralized after a decade of war that they gave their vote to a candidate supported by the USA who promised an end to the war if and only if she was elected.

Most people in touch with reality understand that nothing can stop a country that is 100 times the size of a country it wants to destroy from its goal, including the correct application of the Permanent Revolution. In 2006, the GDP of Nicaragua was 5 billion dollars, while that of the USA was 13 trillion, or 13,000 billion. Try to imagine what an economy that is nearly 3000 times as large as the economy of its victim can do. Apparently, the IMT cannot. Even if the FSLN had carried out the strictures set down by Villas, the revolution was doomed from the beginning. It occurred at the very moment that the USSR was transforming itself into a capitalist society and had no interest in lining up with an enemy of its new friends in Washington, DC.

Villas’s solution to Nicaragua’s economic woes are laughable: “The narrowness of the productive base of a country as small as Nicaragua, which had fewer inhabitants than Caracas or Havana, meant that to stimulate genuine development what was required was a truly revolutionary initiative such as the expulsion of the bourgeoisie, and the establishment of a Socialist Federation with Cuba.” A Socialist Federation with Cuba? Good grief. It was just around this period that the socialist foundations of the Russian economy were being dismantled and support for Cuba cut off. This led to an “emergency period” that most commentators viewed as coming close to destroying Cuba as well as Nicaragua. Talk of a “socialist federation” is simply empty rhetoric. Words are cheap for a sectarian group that has never had responsibility anywhere in the world–and never will–for putting food on a worker’s table.

I have my own analysis of why the Sandinista revolution collapsed and would recommend that people read it in its entirety here.

I would only like to conclude with this excerpt:

Trotsky sharpened his insights as a participant and leader of the uprising of 1905, which in many ways was a dress-rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. He wrote “Results and Prospects” to draw the lessons of 1905. Virtually alone among leading Russian socialists, he rejected the idea that workers holding state power would protect private property:

“The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.”

Does not this accurately describe the events following the Bolshevik revolution in October, 1917? The workers took the socialist path almost immediately. If this alone defined the shape of revolutions to come, then Trotsky would appear as a prophet of the first magnitude.

Before leaping to this conclusion, we should consider Trotsky’s entire argument. Not only would the workers adopt socialist policies once in power, their ability to maintain these policies depended on the class-struggle outside of Russia, not within it. He is emphatic:

“But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

While there is disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the exact character of the Russian revolution, there is none over the grim prospects for socialism in an isolated Russia. We must keep this uppermost in our mind when we consider the case of Nicaragua. Well-meaning Trotskyist comrades who castigate the Sandinistas for not carrying out permanent revolution should remind themselves of the full dimensions of Trotsky’s theory. According to this theory, Russia was a beachhead for future socialist advances. If these advances did not occur, Russia would perish. Was Nicaragua a beachhead also? If socialism could not survive in a vast nation as Russia endowed with immense resources, what were Nicaragua’s prospects, a nation smaller than Brooklyn, New York?

13 Comments »

  1. Trotskyists tend to fetishize the idea of natinalization, as if the formal expropriation of capitalist private property were the solution to all problems.

    An interesting assessment of the Nicaraguan revolution, particularly the role of its founding leader Carlos Fonseca Amador, can be found in the book Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution by Matilde Zimmermann

    Her Zimmermann´s view is that the Nicaraguans went wrong in not following the Cuban road. She did an immense amount of research in Nicaragua and provides a wealth of information on the life and work of Carlos Fonseca, but she doesn´t seem to grasp that the situation the FSLN faced in the 1980s was radically different from that which the Cubans faced in the earliest stages of their revolution. Not least among these was the fact that the USSR was not willing to help the Nicas as it had the Cubans.

    Proyect´s detailed discussion of Nicaragua was enlightening and worth studying.

    The same kinds of sectarian criticisms are being made today against Evo Moralez and Hugo Chavez by perfectionistic-minded radicals who also fetishize the formal ownership of private property, regardless of whether or not the revolutionary workers and state have any way to operate these properties once expropriated.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 18, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

  2. Thanks for your response to the Villas critique, one that I assume is representative of other pieces that appear on “In the Defense of Marxism” website. I was curious as to your opinion of the WSWS? I often find that many of their articles/analyses can be quite good, except when they usually end with some type of call for revolution behind the leadership of their party, the Socialist Equality Party. These calls for revolution and their general critiques of all left movements/tendencies as treasonous, betrayals, and/or reactionary have consistently struck me as sectarian and not very useful. Would you place the WSWS in the same league with the IMT? In your opinion does David North have something to contribute to revolutionary change? I believe that he and his group are generally effective in breaking down the daily news and our present conjuncture (though they have tendency to consider the ultimate “crisis” of capitalism to be upon us every year), but I see nothing in their political program that offers much hope for transformative change. Thanks again.

    Comment by Will — January 19, 2008 @ 12:49 am

  3. I have very high regard for the WSWS cultural reviews, as well as their high-level economic and historical analyses. It is when it comes to strategy and tactics that they fall short. For example, they have done nothing to build the antiwar movement in the USA and rely on making suggestions from the sidelines. As long as you understand that they are not the future revolutionary party, I can recommend them strongly.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2008 @ 12:57 am

  4. Louis you are doing your own preachin’ here – at least to one converted Lippman.
    First you establish your authority as ‘very involved with Nicaragua Solidarity’
    Good on you.
    Then you take a sectarian swipe at Militant (they need a much better critique than this) and in your first shot at Villas – why didnt the large urban movement join forces with the 500 FLN – you read it exactly in reverse, the tiny FLN couldnt join forces with the urban movement. But his point was that the FLN was not marxist and did not seek to unite the workers and peasants.

    You then rubbish those who try to use October 1917 revolutionary lessons.
    One of those might have helped you actually answer the question the Villa poses. That without any Bolshevik programmatic lead to unite urban workers with peasant guerrillas, the isolation the two main classes must lead to the defeat of the revolution.

    The underlying precondition for this to happen is of course a Bolshevik party, something else you do your best to badmouth. For the Bolsheviks socialist revolution means expropriation of the bourgeoisie. What does it mean for you?

    As to your menshevik fatalism (the product of the demoralisation and collapse of the revolutionary left in the US), you say Villas ignores US imperialism in Nicaragua. Oh really, the same way the Bolsheviks ignored the World War, Kornilov and the civil war in the USSR?

    You say a ‘socialist federation with Cuba’ was laughable in 1979. Apart from the Castro leadership opposed to permanent revolution, the people of Cuba and of the rest of Latin America would have responded. Its cliched to say that Trotsky and Lenin said the fate of the revolution in Russia depended on the outcome of the German revolution. What is never said by you is that these were not possible without Bolshevik parties. That is why the massive revolutionary movements that responded to the Russian revolution did not escape counter-revolution.

    Comment by Dave — January 19, 2008 @ 1:36 am

  5. I am glad that David posted his comment since it helps me to illustrate the points I was making about Trotskyism. For people who want to find out more about his New Zealand micro-sect, go here:

    http://www.geocities.com/communistworker/

    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2008 @ 2:02 am

  6. It would be helpful for me and others who do look at the IMT website from time to time to see what you make of Alan Wood’s analysis of where the Venezuelan revolution is headed without certain nationalizations.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — January 19, 2008 @ 2:26 am

  7. I think Alan Woods is right but the problem is the lack of a revolutionary hegemonic force in Venezuela that can carry that out. The left-wing of the trade union movement has that understanding but it is too weak to lead it. My guess is that these various perspectives will be fought out in the Socialist Party that Chavez has founded. It will be a real test for the revolutionary left to see if it can persuade the masses to push the struggle to its conclusion.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2008 @ 2:46 am

  8. Hello Louis,

    Federico Fuentes, based in Caracas and La Paz, sent me the article “Nicaragua: Lessons of a country that did not finish its revolution” yesterday. I read it quickly, and sent off a brief response to him that I attach below. Later he sent me a link to your blog response to the same missive.

    I write about Nicaragua with almost thirty years experience in the Sandinista movement, and seventeen years as a militant of the FSLN, and as a Nicaraguan citizen since 1990. I have three granddaughters and live the life of a worker, albeit better paid than most because of my language skills. Both my son and his wife work, and we are all Sandinista in orientation, but only I am a member of the FSLN.

    Your response to Claudio Villas’s two-part article is effective, but meets him mostly on the terrain of showing how his arguments fail to square even with the Marxist categories and theories it is written to defend.

    There is a more important level that needs more attention, that of historical fact and reality.

    I cannot take the time or space here to deal with all the erroneous statements found in both parts of the article. All I can do is advise the readers to handle the item with care, and demand, next time, a description of the contents the way federal regulations now demand on food, beverage, and drug packaging.

    My brief response to Federico (who sent me Part 1 of the article not to express agreement with it, but I suspect, rather dismay) dealt with a couple of obvious errors of historical fact. The writer is simply either ignorant of Nicaraguan history and reality, or knows it only from news clippings and essays in the far left press over the years, or is open to willful distortion of established fact.

    One should also note the slanders against Fidel Castro and the Cuban communist party leadership, who, if we are to believe Claudio Villas, exerted pressure on the “Sandinistas to maintain their alliance with the democratic bourgeois governments in Central America and the Caribbean instead of with the USSR.” The defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution, it seems, is due to their failure to totally embrace and become totally dependent on the USSR, instead of relying on a pluralistic array of alliances that included aid from Nordic countries, from Canada, and from some friendly Latin American governments. And that was on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the restoration of capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the USSR itself!

    To be very frank, people capable of writing such nonsense do not live in the real world, they live in the world of an ideologically driven church, the world of the WORD (theirs, of course).

    One only need imagine what these folks say in the confines of their own meeting places about the Cuban and Venezuelan leadership, who relate to the current FSLN leadership as comrades and allies, members of ALBA, and their bridge into the rest of the region (where important signs of change in our direction have taken place in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and even Costa Rica). But then, they have to be careful because saying too much might upset their apple cart in Caracas where at the moment Hugo Chávez gets good marks from the jury in the UK. So Chávez merits our support for what he does in Venezuela, but falls flat on his face in Nicaragua because he dances a good tune with Daniel Ortega and gives cover to Fidel’s secret agenda of supporting the national bourgeoisie wherever it seems to be able to stand on its own feet.

    Other errors of fact are mentioned in my note to Federico below.

    <<Hi Federico,

    <<I was wondering when the Woodsites would get around to saying something about events here.

    <<The article itself might have been written by a computer program supplied with sufficient data and facts by a good historical researcher.

    <<But it reveals considerable ignorance of that same history, especially since it operates with categories that hardly existed here during the period of the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty. The urban masses that led the insurrections were not working class in composition in the main, they were plebian masses largely self employed “informal” sector workers, and in engaged in small trading activities. The (unionized) industrial working class was tiny, and the crafts unions predominated in the organized union movement. Public employees and teachers had a big weight compared to other sectors, but were pro dictatorship in their majority because of relative privilege. Of course there were exceptions, some of them outstanding. It was among students and teachers, and among health workers that the FSLN started to be able to recruit in the early days.

    <<The second big error of the article is to say the FSLN had nothing to do with the urban insurrections, but entered the cities after they were liberated. This is false in the case of all the major cities, including above all Estelí and Managua. Three successive insurrections in Estelí in the spring and fall of 1978 and then in July 1979 were led by the FSLN and by Comandante Zorro. León was liberated by a combined insurrection and occupation of Sandinista armed units led by Comandante Dora María Téllez. The Managua insurrection was punctuated by a strategic retreat of most of the population of the eastern barrios of the city known as the Repliegue Táctica. Around 25,000 marched in the dark of the night from east Managua to Masaya, about 30 kilometers southeast of the city. This evacuation was led by the urban section of the FSLN, in coordination with the national directorate. Key figures were Comandante Carlos Nunez Tellez, Comandante Mónica Baltodano, and Julio Lopez Campos, and many others whose names were on the lips of tens of thousands of people during all the years of the revolution.

    <>

    To the note above that I sent to Federico, I would just here add a couple of points:

    • I would like to ask Claudio Villas how he thinks the FSLN could have pulled off the evacuation of a whole sector of the capital city, the most working class sector where many of the industries were located, if it had no roots in the urban working class? Maybe the liberation theology priests pulled it off? To this day none of those very fine compañeros have claimed credit for leading the evacuation of Districts four, five, and six of the Capital. That would have been ridiculous because everyone in Managua knows who led that action, just as everyone in other cities knows who led the insurrections where they live.
    • What is true is that the sweep, vigor, and scope of the mass uprising took the divided leadership of the FSLN (the three-way split was only healed in March of 1979, partly under the impact of the mass uprisings and partly under the prodding of the Cuban CP leadership) by surprise and compelled a rethinking of strategy and tactics. But to say the FSLN did not lead the insurrections and the revolution is simply absurd. Only sheer ignorance or willful distortion could allow for such an assertion.

    How does the expression go? – There, but for the Grace of God, go I, or something like that.

    No thanks!

    Felipe Stuart Cournoyer
    Managua

    Comment by Felipe Stuart — January 19, 2008 @ 4:14 am

  9. In the older article you link to here, there is a summary of the tasks of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” requires in a late-developing capitalist country (democracy, national liberation, agrarian reform). Is that from your own reading of Trotsky directly? If you drew that from another source you could recommend, I’d be interested to check it out. I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Trotsky’s work (in part because I share your dislike for the sectarianism of worshipers) but this analysis of national development in particular seems very interesting to me.

    Comment by Brian Zbriger — January 22, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

  10. Brian, this is a good summary by Trotsky on this:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/pr10.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — January 22, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

  11. Fair enough. Then again Louis try a little thought experiment. Substitute the term “Iranian Revolution” and whatever brand of politics you prefer for “Trotskyism” (changing the region natch). Bit of an affinity there.

    Comment by johng — January 23, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  12. I am part of the IMT but am not a ‘worshiper’ of Trotsky, and also don’t apply the theory of permanent revolution formalistically. I also have more belief in peasants that most Trotskyists. I don’t at all see how this article is representative of the IMT. Alan Woods’ work is generally amazing. Also, I think that you can’t really call yourself a Marxist without being involved in something, even if it is a ‘sect’. I know it is kind of funny to be an entryist within an entrist party, though I think it is necessary if that is your best option. I thus urge people to join the best ‘sect’ that they can access in their nation, state or city that will help them to become better at fighting for socialism through both theoretical and practical experience.

    Comment by TOR — August 12, 2009 @ 1:11 am

  13. I’m catching up with this older post much much later. I spent a few months in Nicaragua in 1986: I’m finding your critique both in this polemic and your longer paper quite thought-provoking. Thanks.

    Comment by ish — May 3, 2010 @ 7:19 pm


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