Nicaragua: A historic opportunity lost?
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sun Apr 28 18:54:43 MDT 1996
In 1961, Fidel Castro announced to the world that he was a "Marxist-
Leninist". This marked the beginning of a deepening of the Cuban
revolution and a decisive move toward abolishing capitalist property
relations. In the article "Historic Opportunity being lost" that appears
in the book "The Rise and Fall of the Nicaraguan Revolution", SWP
leader Larry Seigle renders his verdict on the Sandinista revolution:
"The opportunity to extend the socialist revolution, the opportunity to
join with Cuba in constructing socialism, is being lost. Unless there is
a fundamental reversal of the course--unless the anticapitalist direction
and actions of the early years of the revolution are reasserted--the
government will be restructured and consolidated on the basis of the
capitalist property relations that exist."
Never once in this article or the book is there an attempt at a Marxist
explanation of this turn of events. In 1979 there was a "good" FSLN
that had just taken power. This FSLN, according to an SWP document
of the time, had created a government whose foundations are
"established by the revolutionary displacement of the bourgeoisie from
political power, the assumption of that power by an administration
based on the popular masses and that commands a new army, and the
initiation of far-reaching changes in property relations." Then,
sometime during the mid-1980s, the FSLN changed its mind for no
explicable reason and started to accommodate to capitalism.
It is astonishing to see a Marxist organization ignore the approach that
Marx himself used in explaining counterrevolution within a
revolution. Marx used the phenomenon of Thermidor to explain the
retreat of the French revolution in the decades following 1789. Class
relations in France favored a consolidation of bourgeois rule within the
context of monarchical forms. Jacobin democracy went into retreat.
Trotsky used Thermidor to explain the victory of Stalin in the USSR.
In his "Revolution Betrayed", he rejected the idea that there was
something unique about Stalin's character that could explain his
success. His victory emerged out of changing social relations in the
USSR. Trotsky said, "It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling
group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control
of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs.
A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the
revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the
Thermidorian bureaucracy, as first in its midst."
I have tried to explain the counterrevolution in Nicaragua in similar
terms. However, Nicaragua's retreat is not the result of pressure from a
Nicaraguan bourgeoisie within its borders. It stems from the combined
economic and military assault from US imperialism that left the
country battered and exhausted. This attack took place at exactly the
same time that the USSR was dropping all ties to its socialist past and
was willing to hand Nicaragua over to Washington on a silver platter.
These are the material conditions that led to a shift to the right by the
FSLN, not its loss of nerve. It was a change in the relationship of class
forces internationally that led to Sandinista vacillation and, finally,
In order to understand the objective factors which led to this defeat, it
is not helpful to compare Nicaragua to Cuba. A better comparison
would be with the USSR in 1921. Both countries had been through a
costly civil war. Both were isolated economically and politically. The
survival of the USSR depended on breakthroughs in the west. When
such breakthroughs failed to materialize, the revolution went into a
steep decline. Lenin was all too painfully aware of the precarious
situation the USSR faced back then.
Nicaragua's situation, as any reasonable person would recognize, was
much worse in the mid-1980s than the one that Lenin had faced. The
SWP was perplexed why the FSLN did not mobilize its membership
and supporters to step up the attack on Nicaraguan capitalism shortly
after the Sandinista army had defeated the contras. Seigle wonders
why the Sandinistas simply didn't assign army veterans to go where they
were needed most. He says Sandinista cadres were "ready to
step forward into leadership positions in the ...government."
The opposite was true. These Nicaraguans were ill-prepared. They
lacked both the training and the experience to administer public
affairs. Being a good soldier does not mean that you can be a good
administrator. The biggest problem Nicaragua faced was its inability
to move people into these types of positions.
Lenin faced similar problems in the USSR. He commented in a late
speech "Better fewer, but better", that "our state apparatus is so deplorable,
not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat
its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past,
which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not
yet reached the stage of a culture that has receded into the distant past."
Both Nicaragua and the USSR lacked the level of technological and a
dministrative know-how to make steady progress, let alone great strides.
Revolutionary zeal is no substitute for these skills.
Another problem that Nicaragua in the mid-80s shared with the early
USSR was economic collapse. The solution to the economic crisis in Nicaragua,
according to Larry Seigle, was liquidation of the big farmers and
ranchers, including those who sympathized with the FSLN . Their
properties should have been turned over to the workers who would run
them as socialist enterprises.
There has been so much misunderstanding about Bolshevik attitudes
towards this question that it would be useful to hear Lenin's thoughts
on the rural bourgeoisie. Commenting on agrarian questions in 1920,
Lenin said that the "expropriation even of the big peasants can in no
way be made an immediate task of the victorious proletariat, because
the material and especially the technical conditions, as well as the
social conditions, for the socialization of such farms are still lacking."
This describes Nicaragua's dilemma after the revolution and all
through the 1980s, including the period immediately after the end of
the contra war. Nicaragua, like the USSR, lacked the technical and
social conditions to transform agriculture along socialist lines.
I had direct experience with this problem. In recruiting agronomists
and veterinarians for state farms in Nicaragua, it became immediately
apparent that the sorts of skills that an American volunteer possessed
could not easily be transmitted to Nicaraguan farm-workers. State
farms in Nicaragua were large-scale, technologically advanced
agribusinesses that the Somocistas had owned. When the reactionaries
fled, their hirelings fled with them. Running these immense ranches or
cotton plantations requires more than revolutionary zeal. As Lenin
stated, it requires sufficient "technical" and "social" conditions.
An ancillary question is not addressed by Seigle. What happens to the
owners of expropriated farms and ranches? Many of these proprietors
are deeply rooted to their holdings. Would they shrug their shoulders
and say, "I guess if the revolution needs my property to be
expropriated to achieve socialism, I'd better cooperate." This is not
what happens, does it? Liquidation of a substantial class like this
requires a massive campaign, including armed support, to make it
succeed. Given the international context, such measures could only be
characterized as an ultraleft adventure. The sight of farmers and
ranchers resisting nationalization would have given Washington an
excuse to step up the contra war again as well as given it a newly-
created social base to recruit from.
Even if the FSLN had moved ahead with such nationalizations, it
would have not ended inflation, Nicaragua's basic economic problem.
In the mid-1980s, the Nicaraguan currency had begun to be as
unstable as the German deutschmark of the 1920s. I remember
stopping at restaurants that one day to the next would raise the price of
a meal. The working-class and poor of Managua could simply not keep
pace with rising prices. War spending caused these rising prices.
Underfinanced popular benefits such as nutrition and health also led to
spiraling prices. Seizing someone's ranch would have absolutely no
impact on this problem. Furthermore, the inflation tended to wear away
at the base of support that the FSLN had enjoyed historically. This was
obviously Washington's intention. Contra war and economic blockade
could only result in inflation since the government needed to print
money that had no underlying capital support. Inflation, in turn,
causes mass suffering and discontent.
Seigle tells of a conversation he had with a rural union organizer in
Matagalpa who he describes as a "class-struggle fighter who has been
through many battles." Seigle has some difficulty understanding why
this revolutionary doesn't understand the wisdom of seizing the
property of Nicaragua's rural bourgeoisie. The union organizer says,
"We need peace...We need to buy some time under peaceful conditions
to allow us to get the economy back on its feet." Furthermore, the
European nations that Nicaragua relies on is pressuring them to
tolerate the private sector. He concludes, with obvious common sense,
that "Within this broader framework, confiscating this little farm just
doesn't make sense."
Seigle will have none of this. He says, "Many of us have heard one or
another variation on these 'geopolitical' arguments. They disorient and
confuse even revolutionary-minded workers who are trying to find a
way to defend the revolution's conquest."
It is simply amazing that a presumably Marxist thinker like Seigle
would assign no weight at all to what he calls "geopolitical"
arguments. Another way to describe geopolitical arguments is
objective global conditions. Lenin, unlike Seigle, was acutely aware of
the role they could play. In "Better Fewer, but Better", Lenin spells out
the limitations that the imperialist nations have imposed on the USSR:
"They failed to overthrow the new system created by the revolution,
but they did prevent it from at once taking the step forward that would
have justified the forecasts of the socialists, that would have enabled
the latter to develop the productive forces with enormous speed, to
develop all the potentialities which, taken together, would have
produced socialism; socialists would have thus proved to all and
sundry that socialism contains within itself gigantic forces and that
mankind had now entered into a new stage of development of
extraordinarily brilliant prospects."
These are sobering words, aren't they? They have nothing in common
with Seigle's facile assurance that socialism in Nicaragua was on the
agenda and that the Sandinistas alone were responsible for its failure
to take root. Lenin in 1923 expresses pessimism about the USSR's
chances, while Seigle urges the Nicaraguans to press ahead. This
country, which in proportion to the USA had lost the equivalent of a
million people in civil war, simply needed to press ahead. Seigle
advised this country, which stood in total economic collapse and that
could no longer rely on a rightward shifting USSR, to escalate the
class war and liquidate the rural bourgeoisie.
It was all very simple, you see. All they had to do was follow the
Cuban road and "force" the USSR to support it. He says, "The Cuban
workers and peasants began building socialism, earning authority and
respect among revolutionary-minded fighters throughout the world.
They stood up to imperialism, to the blackmail and aggression--as the
Nicaraguans did in defeating the contras--and in the course of that
fight they won the aid they received from the Soviet Union and other
This is an astonishing statement, to say the least. Did the Cubans "won
the aid they received" from the Soviet Union? Seigle doesn't seem to
understand that the Kremlin does not operate on this basis. It operated
solely on the basis of realpolitik. Whatever served the foreign policy
needs of the USSR's was what they supported. The Cuban revolution
took place within the context of the Cold War and the nonaligned
movement. The USSR did not defend Cuba because of Cuban
boldness. It reached out to Cuba the same way it reached out to Egypt
and for similar reasons. Egypt was a useful ally in the strategically
important Mideast, while Cuba could offer a listening-post into the
United States. This island which was only ninety miles from the US
had genuine strategic and military value.
Nicaragua's revolution took place within the context of the collapse of
international communism. Not so long after the ink was dry on
Seigle's article, Yeltsin became the President of the USSR. Could
Nicaragua have "won the aid" of Yeltsin's Russia? The FSLN had a
much better sense of the drift of world events than the ultraleft
Socialist Workers Party.
Everybody except "Marxist-Leninists" like Seigle seem to recognize the
direction of world politics today. Vietnam, China and Cuba make
concessions each day to world capitalism while all of the workers
states have either become capitalist or are rapidly evolving toward it.
Social democracy all across the planet is shifting to the right and
helping to undermine the social legislation which defined nations such
as Sweden and West Germany.
This unfavorable situation does not exist for the SWP and it doesn't
for a very simple reason. Groups such as these operate in a hothouse
atmosphere where every strike or every anti-imperialist outburst
represents the opening of a new revolutionary period. Unlike Lenin,
they see only advances, never retreats.
The notion that a poor and isolated country like Nicaragua could
achieve "socialism" is ludicrous. Lenin did not think that socialism
could be built in the USSR unless it received help from a communist
country with an advanced economy. To cite Cuba as an example for
Nicaragua to follow is misplaced since the Cuban revolution developed
under exceptional circumstances that will never be repeated.
It is essential that Marxism re-evaluate many old shibboleths. The
paradigm of socialist revolutions in underdeveloped nations is deeply
problematic. The socialist revolutions of the twenty-first century will
probably have an entirely different dynamic and character than the
colonial revolutions of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They will occur in
advanced capitalist nations or they will have little chance of
succeeding at all. To prepare for these momentous events, it is
necessary to build a Marxist movement that is made up of the most
critical-minded workers, farmers and intellectuals.
This new Marxism will not arise out of existing "Marxist-Leninist"
groups who have a tendency to anoint themselves as "vanguards" when
their memberships number in the hundreds. This is not the method of
Bolshevism, it is a sectarian approach that Lenin would have rejected.
This new Marxism will learn from movements that have succeeded or partially
succeeded in the recent past, such as the FSLN. The FSLN, the FMLN, the
Workers Party of Brazil and other formations--whatever difficulties they
encounter on the road to power or while in power--must be studied.
We can still learn much from the movement that the FSLN built. It
was non-sectarian but revolutionary. This combination will be essential.
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