[Marxism] Excerpts from Roger Burbach's "Fire in the Americas"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 2 12:38:52 MST 2004

Placed in historical perspective, the political upheaval of the 1960s 
and the early 1970s had two important effects on US society. On the one 
hand it nurtured the development of an array of Marxist thinkers and 
theorists, many of whom were able to secure positions in universities or 
affiliated research centers from which they continued to develop Marxist 
thought. Simultaneously, the social discontent and political questioning 
of the 1960s enabled a number of powerful single issues social movements 
to arise...

By the end of the 1970s, however, both the new social movements and 
Marxist thought were thrown on the defensive. A major problem was that 
no real symbiosis occurred between the different social movements and 
Marxism. They each operated in different spheres. While the Marxists 
were based primarily on campuses or directed small publishing and 
research centers, the social movements concerned themselves with 
concrete issues and looked increasingly to the liberal wing of the 
Democratic party to redress their grievances. None of the old or new 
Marxist-Leninist parties was able to bridge this gap. Some of them made 
sustained efforts to organize in the workplace and trade unions. But 
most Marxist parties were more concerned with debating who had the 
'correct political line' of the American revolution (preferably with a 
franchise from Beijing). None of the parties developed strong social 
bases to become a force in American political life. To this day the 
central issue remains that of developing a political strategy to 
mobilize and unify the different single issue movements so that they 
pose an alternative, mass pole...

Precisely because the organized Marxist left failed to develop its own 
body of native theoreticians in the earlier part of this century, it was 
from the universities and small groups of independent Marxian theorists 
that the most creative Marxist thinking began to emerge in the 1950s. In 
the Americas the Monthly Review school was in the forefront of this 
process and played a critical role in preserving Marxist thought at a 
historic moment when it was under siege

A serious problem for revolutionaries today stems from the fact that 
since the early part of this century Marxism-Leninism has been 
identified with the evolution of post-revolutionary society in the 
Soviet Union. The party and state structures that were implanted in the 
Soviet Union were generally viewed as the models for other revolutionary 
societies to follow...

A related problem stems from the fact that most Marxist-Leninists have 
defined themselves by their international perspectives rather than by 
the concrete issues of their own societies. The Third International 
considered itself to be the ultimate authority on just how Marxism- 
Leninism should be applied in all revolutionary struggles around the 
world. But when differences and splits emerged, such as the split 
between Stalin and Trotsky in the late 1920s, each new revolutionary 
formation proclaimed that its interpretation of Marxism-Leninism was the 
correct one. Instead of engaging in a concrete analysis of political, 
economic and social conditions in each country, many parties and 
theorists were caught up in the debate over who was really following the 
'correct political line'. The debates over Trotskyism, Maoism, Titoism, 
and even foquismo often divided the revolutionary parties over 
international issues with each camp proclaiming that it alone was the 
real guardian of revolutionary thought and practice...

Another important historical lesson is that theory can distort 
revolutionary practice rather than guide it. This was the case with 
foquismo. By focusing on the Cuban revolution and the initial endeavors 
of the handful of men who led it, the foquistas misled many 
revolutionaries in the Americas into believing that they too could carry 
out a revolution with a small but determined group of people. This 
perspective was reinforced by the obsession of many political activists 
in the early 1970s, particularly in the United States, with the role 
played by Lenin in the Bolshevik revolution. They saw him as a solitary 
figure who, through his iron will and clear vision, was able to 
persevere and lead the Bolshevik party to power. Regardless of whether 
or not this view of Lenin is correct, it led many revolutionaries to 
believe that they could adopt a political strategy and resolutely carry 
it to completion, no matter what the political realities...

This leads to a broader problem: once a revolutionary political theory 
has been developed it often tends to limit the imagination of future 
leaders rather than to guide them. This is not to deny the importance of 
theory. But it does mean that we have to be constantly on guard to 
ensure that theory does not become dogma. Each new revolutionary 
struggle and movement must rethink its premises and its theoretical 
approach as well as its practice. This is only possible if we apply the 
Marxist method in the most creative manner, without relying on dogma or 
letting preconceptions distort our understanding...

Che Guevara recognized the role and limit of theory in the Cuban 
Revolution when he wrote: '...this revolution is different. In the minds 
of some it is an exception to one of the fundamental tenets of orthodox 
theory. That tenet, as enunciated by Lenin, holds that without 
revolutionary theory there can be no revolution. We must recognize, 
however, that revolutionary theory, in as much as it reflects conditions 
in a society, transcends any statement of that theory. In other words, a 
revolution can proceed based on accurate historical analysis and 
skillful balancing of the forces involved without its theoretical 
framework every having been enunciated. To be sure, an adequate 
statement of theory does simplify the process and helps avoid dangerous 
pitfalls, provided that statement is in fact correct.'

The democratic impasse faced by Marxism-Leninism is one factor that has 
led to the rise of what can be called the 'revisionist populist school' 
in Latin America and the United States. Many supporters of this position 
are disillusioned revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s. Some were 
Maoists or Trotskyists, foquistas or Marxist-Leninists. Because of the 
political defeats in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, 
these disillusioned activists now feel the need to break with the past, 
to look for totally new strategies and political forumulas to challenge 
the existing order.

Although there is great diversity among those who old these views, one 
can detect three political themes that run through the populist 
revisionist movement: 1) the belief that Marxism, Marxism-Leninism and 
the traditional concepts of the vanguard party and class analysis have 
been surpassed by the realities of the late twentieth century; 2) an 
almost romantic belief that the masses and mass movements are the only 
hope for the future; and 3) the belief that significant advances can be 
made by working within the capitalist system.

In the United States these positions are reflected by the Democratic 
Socialists of America and the democratic management school. The former 
argues that it is possible for socialists to capture control of key 
political institutions in the United States like the Democratic Party. 
The latter maintains that workers, by demanding participatory rights in 
the factory and by even buying control of companies, can begin to gain 
control of their lives.

Many other intellectuals and political activists, while not taking up 
the cause of revisionist populism, feel disillusioned with Marxism and 
adrift politically. They sense that the old political formulas and the 
language of the left are irrelevant, but they see no alternative on the 

It is our position that the revisionist school and many other 
disillusioned leftists are right in their belief that it is time to 
discard the authoritarian and doctrinaire positions that derive from 
Maoism, Trotskyism and Marxism-Leninism. These tendencies are at the 
core of the sectarian political debates that tear apart the Marxist left 
throughout the world.

But the crisis of the 'isms' does not mean that Marxism and the body of 
revolutionary thought and practice that flows from it can simply be cast 
aside. The building blocks for a revolutionary movement are still found 
in this vital scientific tradition. The challenge we face as Marxists is 
to take these building blocks and apply them to the contemporary world. 
We desperately need new political strategies and formulas, but they must 
come out of the Marxist tradition...

One problem evolves from democratic centralism, the principle around 
which vanguard parties are organized. In theory it means that the base 
can influence and even participate in party decisions. But in practice 
democratic centralism often means that a small group of individuals run 
the organization from the top down. There is little room for authentic 
democratic discussion and participation.

A related problem is that in the different stages of struggle leading up 
to the political revolution there will be a need for a certain degree of 
secrecy and centralized decision-making because of the repressive nature 
of the state. But the need for secrecy and decision-making by the 
central committees has been overemphasized. Even more importantly, the 
tendencies toward secret and centralized decision- making have often 
crippled the basic drive for participation of the masses in the 
revolutionary movement. The new vanguard parties must be mass fronts in 
which the base has a direct role in deciding the direction and program 
of the party. Democracy will have to be integral to the advance and 
survival of the revolutionary movement.

Some of the most destructive features of democratic centralism 
manifested themselves in Grenada in 1983. The party leadership became so 
obsessed with its internal debate over the direction of the revolution 
that it split into two irreconcilable factions. Instead of turning to 
the masses to help resolve the dispute, an internecine struggle erupted 
in which one faction decided to physically eliminate the opposition, and 
opened up a political chasm which Reagan exploited by invading the 
country. This marked the nadir of revolutionary movements in the 
Caribbean basin...

What are the weak links in the chain of bourgeois rule? Where can 
breakthroughs be made? One weakness is that the bourgeoisie, and the 
capitalist system it controls, are driven to produce an ever increasing 
materialistic and atomized society. Truly humane values -- love, 
solidarity, etc. -- are devalued by capitalism. At present the New Right 
is trying to overcome this contradiction by emphasizing traditional 
values like the family and patriotism, but the left can respond more 
effectively by showing how social and moral disintegration are rooted in 
late capitalism.

The central contradiction of contemporary capitalism however is that it 
is increasingly undemocratic. Economic and political power are 
concentrated and centralized; the average citizen plays no role in 
running the giant corporations. In the political sphere, it is only 
centralized organizations, like business associations and trade lobbies, 
that play major roles in the selection of our political leaders. And of 
course it is the control of the media by these organizations and the 
bourgeoisie that determines what political options and messages are 
presented to voters. Moreover, Watergate and Contragate show the darker 
sides of 'imperial' presidencies and a general contempt for 
constitutional procedures.

It is the 'death of democracy' that the left can use as a political 
banner in the United States to challenge the hold of the bourgeoisie. In 
this struggle, the left can reclaim the US past, including historic 
milestones like the Declaration of Independence. It can appeal to the 
country's progressive political tradition which includes anti-war 
movements as well as political leaders like Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, 
Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Another major challenge for the left in the United States is to reclaim 
patriotism from the right. In the twentieth century, the US ruling 
classes have made patriotism virtually synonymous with anti- communism, 
anti-Sovietism, and now anti-terrorism. To support any of these causes 
is to be fundamentally 'anti-American'.

The left needs to reassert the revolutionary values of 1776 and 1860. 
Sectors of the third force [the social movements] today are far more 
supportive than the bourgeoisie of the national and democratic values 
that the nation was founded on. It is corporate capital and the national 
security state that are destroying basic values and denying foreign 
countries right to self-determination, the very right on which the USA 
was founded when it rebelled against England in 1776.

The Nicaraguan revolution expressed what is an increasingly important 
phenomenon in the late-twentieth century: the internationalization of 
class conflict. As the societies of the Americas become more and more 
interlinked, there is a tendency for class struggles to spill over 
national boundaries and to have regional and international 
repercussions. The national liberation movements are the clearest 
embodiment of this dialectic. The Cuban Revolution marked the turning 
point where class struggles began to have international ramifications 
throughout the Americas. Today in Chile, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador and 
Guatemala revolutionary movements continue this process. Their 
leadership is internationalist in vision and they receive political and 
material aid from peoples beyond their borders. And the advance of any 
single movement encourages other liberation movements, thereby 
accelerating the process of class conflict on a regional and 
international basis.

But the international of class conflict is broader than the 
revolutionary movements. Conflicts and disputes between 
non-revolutionary states and the United States are the products of class 
tensions and social pressures brought to bear by the masses on their 
respective governments. These popular pressures, combined with local 
bourgeois discontent, explain why the largest countries in Latin America 
-- Argentina, Brazil and Mexico -- have taken increasingly divergent 
stands from those of the United States. The debt crisis, the Malvinas 
conflict, the Contadora process, and the opposing stands often taken 
around critical issues in the Organization of the American States (OAS) 
reflect the growing contradictions between the national interests of the 
United States and the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The 
growing complexity of the Latin American economies, the increasingly 
important role of the national bourgeoisies, and the global economic 
crisis that has led the United States to throw up protectionist bariers 
and to extract more surplus from Latin America -- all directly affect 
the local ruling classes and stimulate a more independent self-interest.

But it would be a mistake to believe that the growing inter- hemispheric 
tensions are mainly rooted in conflicts between Washington and the 
national bourgeoisies. To a large extent the governments of Latin 
America are compelled to stand up to US imperialism by pressures from 
below. Food riots in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, and national 
strikes against austerity programs in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and 
Peru, have forced the governments of these countries to take tougher 
stands against the international bankers and to be more demanding in 
their commercial and economic relations with the United States." "We 
need to develop a revolutionary perspective that links the many 
different fronts of struggle in Latin America, the Caribbean and the 
United States. Today, we need to be insurrectional, not just in the 
final moment of the political struggle, but in our ideas, in our daily 
lives, in the organizations in which we participate, and in our dreams 
for a new world. Nor can we limit our hopes and our demands to the 
economic sphere: to do so is to fall into the trap of capitalism, since 
in that terrain it has the decisive advantage.

We have to seize the ideological initiative from the New Right, end our 
historic isolation, and carry on the battle throughout civil society. 
Because of the complex nature of capitalist societies and the 
determination of imperialism to prop up the old order, this battle will 
be long and arduous. It is no accident that the intense struggles in 
Chile, in El Salvador, in Colombia and in the Philippines have been 
going on for years. Victories will come, but they will be hard fought 
and hard won. Our revolutionary optimism must be tempered by calculation 
and realism, and our urgency to undertake each struggle should be 
balanced by a certain calm and tranquility going into each battle.

In this unfolding struggle it is important for the political parties on 
the left to put aside their sectarian differences and to begin working 
together. This was the key to the Sandinista triumph. In most countries 
today no single party has the potential to be the vanguard. To quote Tom 
Paine, an early 'internationalista', 'we must all hang together or we 
will all hang separately'. Political fronts, coalitions and unified 
blocs of parties are the only options. It is imperative to begin 
coordinating our work so there can be a political division of labor.

Political practice has advanced significantly in recent years. One can 
even detect signs that dogmatism and sectarianism are giving way to 
collective and creative fraternalism in many parts of the Americas. 
Today many different strategies that were once in conflict are being 
merged. The struggle in legal political institutions is combined with 
work among the masses. The dramatic shift in the political strategy of 
the Communist Party in Chile, the unification of the Salvadoran parties 
in the FMLN and the rise of the Coordinadora in Colombia, are all 
important examples of how different political perspectives and 
strategies are being united in common political fronts to foment an ever 
deepening revolutionary process.

It is also necessary for revolutionary formations to expand their 
international horizons and to learn from other experiences. Revolutions 
will spill over the borders of the Americas in the years to come. It has 
already happened, even the United States where civil society has been 
profoundly affected by imperial wars. Blacks and Latinos as well as 
whites will learn lessons from the brothers and sisters to the south. It 
will become gradually recognized that socialism can emerge in the small 
countries to the south without threatening the integrity of the US 
nation; many sectors of US society that were once manipulated by a fear 
of 'Soviet communism' are today opening to new political perspectives 
that arise out of the social and revolutionary movements in Latin 
America and the Caribbean."


The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list