Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2009

Reflections on Marc Saint-Upéry

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Marc Saint-Upéry

Last Sunday I put an article written in 2004 titled “The Limits of Social Movements: An untimely reflection” by Marc Saint-Upéry on the Marxmail website. It was translated by Ethan Young, a Marxmail subscriber, who quite rightly viewed it as an important contribution to an ongoing debate, even though history has more or less superseded it.

In the late 1990s the “anti-globalization” movement spawned efforts to theorize revolution on non-Marxist terms, even though lip-service was occasionally paid to Marx. In works such as Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” and John Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power” there was an attempt to write off traditional Marxist concepts of taking state power in order to construct a more just economy based on human need rather than private profit. Evoking ideas found in autonomism, ultraleft or council communism and anarchism, Hardt-Negri and Holloway became fixated on the act of struggle itself rather than the goal of seizing power. In its aversion to centralized political power through the dreaded “Leninist” party, this sector of the left squandered opportunities to make a revolution in Argentina. Setting up piquetero roadblocks became an end in itself, while the need to coordinate strategy on a national level was dismissed as outmoded Leninist thinking.

Saint-Upéry writes:

As soon as they take part in the dispute over the common good and the social order, social movements move openly and directly to politics and contribute to the definition of the political agenda. Nevertheless, the relation of the social movements with politics – much less politicians – is not usually understood in the sense of state institutions, public policy and electoral competitions. In the latest debates on social movements in Latin America, there was a certain tendency to presuppose the existence of an emphatic split between social self-organization and political institutions. This absolute dichotomy often reflects a slippery attempt at moralizing the strategic debate, and a new version of old fundamentalist impulses. Nowadays, the question is: just what is the revolution, who are the revolutionaries and the reformists, how best to distinguish the “pure” from the “impure” in order to defend the virginity of idealized social movements against any institutional contamination. The most extreme form of this purism is found in a curious book by John Holloway. However, I believe that Holloway’s thesis is only the hyperbolic crystallization of a vague but insistent ideological mood that other authors offer in more qualified forms.

He also points out certain internal contradictions in the Zapatista movement, which in Holloway’s sector of the left amounts to a kind of model:

The case of the Zapatistas is very particular for its creation of armed “self-limited” insurrection and its subsequent trajectory. In any context outside of pure coercion or institutional anarchy, the most general problem of social movements is that their essential “internal institutionality,” while original and autonomous in form, cannot overlook “external” institutionality and the problems that it raises: Who holds sovereignty? Who is the legitimate representative? – and so on. The autonomy of social movements from the political-electoral market, especially its corrupt, “for sale to the highest bidder” versions, is indispensable. To believe, all the same, that this autonomy lessens the problems of the struggle for state power, of the contentious formation of the general will, of the institutionalization of the rules of social coexistence and of public deliberation, of the equitable administration of resources, of the representation of citizens and of their active participation in public matters, is the coarsest of illusions.

I weighed in on Holloway and the Zapatistas in a 2003 article titled “Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of ‘Change the World Without Taking Power‘”. The fact that my article and Saint-Upéry’s are more than 5 years old might tell you something about how its relevancy to today’s world. In a series of blows following the 9/11/2001 events, the “anti-globalization” movement of the imperialist nations has been superseded more or less by the “war on terror” and economic crisis. In the first instance, the tasks of the antiwar movement were simply of no interest to the more ideologically-driven foot soldiers of the “anti-globalization” movement who preferred fighting in the streets over maximalist demands like “Stop capitalism” to mass actions designed to force the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 3rd world, there were even more powerful forces at work that would render Holloway’s schemas obsolete. In a series of countries in Latin America, radical governments came to power through elections, a means of struggle that the Zapatista left regarded as irredeemably tainted.

A few days after sending me Saint-Upéry’s article, Ethan Young followed up with a translation of an interview that the author gave to “Le Monde Diplomatique” in November, 2008. Despite the 2004 article’s aversion to “social movement” ideology, it is clear from the interview that Saint-Upéry is less than enthusiastic about 21st Century Socialism.

Q: Regarding this crisis, does the “21st century socialism” preached in Latin America represent an alternative?

A: Let me tell you a little story. There is a leader, extremely popular in the lowliest subsets and the least educated population sectors who explains that “here, the citizens own the natural resources collectively and we share the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” This same leader fought a battle without quarter to force the private oil companies to pay more taxes and royalties for the exploitation of the oil wells. Moreover, this person is perceived by the people as somebody “who understands our problems and speaks like us, not like the arrogant elites.”

This leader is named… Sarah Palin (her again), ultra-reactionary governor of Alaska and McCain’s running mate, who makes a gift each year of a four-digit check ($3,269 in 2008 ) to each citizen of this subarctic petro-state. Frankly, the idea that a new form of socialism will be invented from a nondescript experiment in neo- development, of caudillismo, extractivism and hyperdependence on the worldwide market and prices of raw materials, seems to me a joke in bad taste.

The global crisis will clarify the limits of so-called “21st century socialism.” In practice they are clear already, and they will be more and more so as the situation worsens. As for the “theory,” I have very closely followed some of the debates on 21st century socialism in Venezuela and Ecuador , among others. One can only be struck by the vague, spell-binding, purely emotional or abstract and sometimes quite simply delirious character of the speeches that circulate on this subject.

Beyond some well-intentioned but warmed-over declarations on the virtues of participatory democracy (which, however, functions today in Venezuela either as pure vertical manipulation, or as a security valve for popular frustrations with the feverish inefficiency of the central administration, and in general as an ambiguous mixture of both), I see no conceptual tool emerging, no proposal for a concrete institutional construction that could guide us in the search for an alternative to capitalism.

Despite everything, the socialist imaginary* seems to have recovered a certain role.

Although Saint-Upéry strikes me as a bright fellow, the comparison between Sarah Palin and Hugo Chávez is rather foolish. We should not forget that his government is a direct outgrowth of a working-class rebellion in 1989 called the Caracazo. Furthermore, Chávez has attacked the privileged bourgeois elements in the oil industry in order to reallocate profits to raise the standard of living of the poor. If he wants to equate this with Sarah Palin fighting “a battle without quarter to force the private oil companies to pay more taxes and royalties for the exploitation of the oil wells”, then who am I to quibble with a journalist using his imagination for literary effect. But the facts militate against this flight of fancy.

In fact, all Palin did was send $1200 checks to the citizens of Alaska in an obvious effort to bribe the taxpayers in an effort to secure her reelection. In contrast, Chávez’s use of oil has been as much about international solidarity as it has been about improving the living conditions of Venezuelans. In an effort that mirrors Cuba’s medical aid to poorer nations, Venezuela has supplied oil to countries on the front lines of struggle in Latin America in defiance of U.S. efforts to strangle them. Chávez has also built alliances with Iran and other OPEC nations in order to prevent the imperialist nations from exploiting a precious resource to their own advantages. This, more than anything, is what earns their reputation as “rogue states”. One supposes that Saint-Upéry missed this dimension because it did not satisfy his rather high standards for a “socialist imaginary”.

At the risk of sounding like Sarah Palin, I for one thing it is a very good thing that Venezuela uses oil to benefit the poor and that Bolivia intends to use natural gas and lithium for the same purposes. Here’s what indigenous peoples had to say about the discovery of enormous reserves of lithium in the February 2, 2009 N.Y. Times:

At the La Paz headquarters of Comibol, the state agency that oversees mining projects, Mr. Morales’s vision of combining socialism with advocacy for Bolivia’s Indians is prominently on display. Copies of Cambio, a new state-controlled daily newspaper, are available in the lobby, while posters of Che Guevara, the leftist icon killed in Bolivia in 1967, appear at the entrance to Comibol’s offices.

“The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia,” said Saúl Villegas, head of a division in Comibol that oversees lithium extraction. “Maybe there could be the possibility of foreigners accepted as minority partners, or better yet, as our clients.”

I regret that comrade Saint-Epuréy is left cold by this sort of thing, but this has a rather stimulating effect on my own “socialist imaginary”.

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