Zibechi: A Left for the 21st Century
By: Raúl Zibechi
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, those who joined the militancy often heard a phrase: “Being like Che.” With that, an ethic was synthesized, a conduct, a mode of assuming collective action inspired by the personage which –through giving his life– became the compass for a generation.
“Being like Che” was a motto that didn’t expect militants to follow point-by-point the example of someone who had become an inescapable reference. It was something else; not a model to follow, but rather an ethical inspiration that implied a series of renunciations in the image and resemblance of Che’s life.
Renouncing comforts, material benefits, including the power won in the revolution, being willing to risk your life, they are central values in the heritage that we call “Guevarismo.” For a good while, those were the axes around which a good part of the leftist militancy, at least in Latin America.
That left was defeated in a brief period that we can situate between the State coups of the 1970 and the fall of real socialism, a decade later. It didn’t come out of the big defeats unscathed. Just as the fall of the Paris Commune was a parting of waters, according to Georges Haupt, which led the lefts of that epoch to introduce new themes on their agendas (the party question moved to occupying a central place), the defeats of the Latin American revolutionary movements seem to have produced a fissure in the lefts at the start of the 21stCentury.
It’s still very early to make a complete evaluation of that turn since we are at the beginning of it and without sufficient critical distance and, above all, self-criticism. However, we are able to advance some hypotheses that connect those defeats closely with the current conjuncture we experience.
The first is that we’re not talking about turning back the clock to repeat the old errors, of which there were many. Vanguardism was the most evident, accompanied by a serious volunteerism that impeded our comprehending that the reality we sought to transform was very different from what we thought, which led to underestimating the power of the dominant classes and, above all, to believing that a revolutionary situation existed.
But vanguardism didn’t cede easily. It is solidly rooted in the culture of the lefts and although it was defeated in its guerrilla version, it seems to have mutated and remains alive as much in the so-called social movements as in the parties that pretend to know what the population wants without the need to listen to it. A large part of the governments and progressive leaders are good examples of the perseverance of a vanguardism without a proclaimed vanguard.
The second has a relationship to the method, armed struggle. The fact that the generation of the 60s and 70s had committed gross errors in the use and abuse of violence is not saying that we have to throw everything out. We remember that at least in Uruguay it was thought that: “action generates conscience,” thus granting an almost magical ability to the armed vanguard to generate action in the masses only with its activity, as if the people could act by mechanical reflexes without the need for organizing and preparing themselves.
The armed organizations also committed indefensible atrocities, using violence not only against their enemies, but often also against their own people and also against those compañeros who presented political differences with their organization. The assassinations of Roque Dalton and Comandanta Ana María, in El Salvador, are two of the gravest deeds inside the rebel camp.
However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to defend ourselves. We must not go to the opposite extreme of trusting in the system’s armed forces (as the Vice President of Bolivia points out), or stripping the repressive forces of their class character. The examples of the EZLN, of the Mapuche people of Chile, of the Indigenous Nasa Guard in Colombia and of the Amazonian Indigenous of Bagua in Peru demonstrate that it’s necessary and possible to organize collective community defence.
The third question is the most political and also ethical. Within the legacy of Che and within the practice of that generation, power occupies a central place, something that we cannot deny, nor should we. But the conquest of power was for the benefit of the people; never, never for one’s own benefit, not even for the group or party that took state power.
There is an open discussion about this theme, in view of the negative balance of the exercise of power by the Soviet and Chinese parties, among others. But beyond the errors and horrors committed by the revolutionary powers in the 20th Century, even beyond whether or not it’s appropriate to take State power in order to change the world, it’s necessary to remember power was considered a means for transforming society, never an end in itself.
There’s a lot of cloth to cut about this issue, in view of the brutal corruption encrusted in some progressive governments and parties (particularly in Brazil and Venezuela), questions that few now dare to deny.
The left that we need for the 21st Century cannot help but have present the history of past revolutionary struggles. It’s necessary to incorporate that motto “being like Che,” but without falling into vanguardism. A good update of that spirit can be: “everything for everyone, nothing for us.” The same thing can be said of the “to govern obeying,” which seems like an important antidote to vanguardism.
There is something fundamental that it would not be good to let escape. The type of militants that the 21st Century left needs must be modelled by the “will to sacrifice” (Benjamin). It is evident that the phrase sounds fatal in the current period, but we cannot obtain anything without doing away with that tremendous fantasy that it’s possible to change the world voting every five years [or four] and consuming the rest of the time.
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada
Friday, January 22, 2016
Re-published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee