James Petras’ critique of “progressive regimes”

Pratyush Chandra

James Petras has been criticised for his “ultra-leftism”. Petras doesn’t need my defence, if any at all. But since some comrades have raised concerns about ultra-leftism of the leftist critique of the sarkari left in India, I thought it pertinent to use my defence of Petras as a personal exercise in understanding this ultraleftophobia gripping these genuine comrades.

In criticising Petras, what is generally put forward is a list of few statements that he made while critiquing some of the progressive regimes in Latin America, which were ‘apparently’ proven wrong. His oft-quoted statement is about Chavez in his post-2004 referendum note, where he indicated at “the internal contradictions of the political process in Venezuela”, while simultaneously asserting that Chavez’s support “was based on class/race divisions”. Petras showed the flipside of the contradictions – while considering Chavez’s referendum win as a defeat of imperialism, he asserted,

“But a defeat of imperialism does not necessarily mean or lead to a revolutionary transformation, as post-Chavez post-election appeals to Washington and big business demonstrate…The euphoria of the left prevents them from observing the pendulum shifts in Chavez discourse and the heterodox social welfare–neo-liberal economic politics he has consistently practiced.”

He also stated that referendum results showed “that elections can be won despite mass media opposition if previous mass struggle and organization created mass social consciousness.” Differentiating Chavez from other national-populist leaders in Latin America, Petras said,

“In effect there is a bloc of neo-liberal regimes arrayed against Chavez’s anti-imperialist policies and mass social movements. To the extent that Chavez continues his independent foreign policy his principle allies are the mass social movements and Cuba.”

In his apparently pessimistic assessments about Lula, post-referendum Venezuela and now about Morales, Petras’ main focus has always been to critique the euphoric assessment of these regimes and put forward a political economic perspective of the developments. Retrospectively, one might assert that his pessimism with regard to Venezuela was not well-founded, but the fact that something did not happen is not a sufficient critique of the prognostication of what could have happened.

Petras’ pessimistic judgement and his optimistic ground engagement with various revolutionary movements in Latin America and throughout the world are two sides of the same “radical” coin – “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. His optimism allows him to see revolutionary potential within a particular situation, while his pessimism forces him to deconstruct the situation into various tendencies, class forces, class balance etc that may enhance or scuttle the realisation of that potential. For him as for other Marxists, history is not linear – at any given moment of time, there are various tendencies, countertendencies and social variables operating that synthetically determine the future – there is no single cause, and there is no single effect. Isn’t it a normal Marxist exercise – to identify this synthetic dynamics, while indicating possible “futures”? Isn’t it better to see the danger, which eventually may or may not realise into any mishap, and guard oneself against it, rather than not seeing any, and lead oneself willingly and with all enthusiasm to a dead-end? Another scholar-activist involved in Latin American transformation who never tires to talk about ‘contradictions along the path’ is Michael Lebowitz, when others are rolling drunkenly in optimist euphoria:

“The problem of the Venezuelan revolution is from within. It’s whether it will be deformed by people around Chavez.”

Lebowitz and Petras differ in their discursive tenor because of the differences in the loci of their political engagement, but they come from the great tradition of Marxists who have utilised Marxism to understand the day-to-day developments in global class struggle, without slipping into journalistic tinkering with appearances.

It would have been a different matter, if Petras had stopped short of presenting the revolutionary direction and started talking like radical fatalists and sectists. For them it is enough whether a leader or organisation has decried Stalin or not, whether s/he reads Trotsky or not, how many times s/he utters the word “imperialism” etc. For some of these people, allegiances to a particular sect, ideology is enough – a bible in one hand, and cross in another, drives away all counter-revolutionary devils around. What else are these convictions, if not “cabinets of fossils”! On the other hand, “metropolitan” leftists – Western (including many Non-Resident Third Worldists (NRTs)), Eastern, Southern…- who suffer from the guilt of unable to do anything concrete at the place of their being, celebrate every tokenism that fits into their utopia of progress, justice, democracy… In good faith (with a tinge of self-hatred and superiority complex), they think it’s their duty to “patronise” the Other, in most of their forms, of course only if these fit into their educated (non)sense.

Petras’ understanding of the Bolivian and Brazilian developments is from the point of view of the self-organisation and assertion of the working classes – urban and rural. The issue for Petras, even in his past assessment of Chavez, has been whether the political-parliamentary impact of the movements (accommodation of sections of their leadership in state formation) is enhancing and channelling the class capacity of the working class or it is simply institutionalising these movements and transforming them into representative lobbies, reducing class struggle to clashes of interest groups. The peculiarity of the new situations in Latin America, which also underlines their contradictions, to some extent derives from the statist component. The fact that the progressive governments are being constituted within the frame of bourgeois democracy poses new challenges for the popular movements and their relationship with the State. This situation makes it all the more urgent to recognise that, “We now have a state [which is not even formally workers-peasants state, like the Soviet] under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state” (Lenin), while simultaneously heading towards a fundamental transformation of the state’s character. In this scenario, it becomes a primary task of the intellectuals organically linked to the working class to be extra vigilant and identify the various contradictions and tendencies affecting its movements, while delineating the possible directions that these movements can take in a perpetual ideological class struggle within. Petras in his critiques does exactly this.

Reading Petras in West Bengal

Petras in his recent article on Morales enumerates the implications of development strategies that “progressive” governments follow to “stabilize the economy, overcome the ‘crisis’, reconstruct the productive structure”, instead of recognising the fact that they are empowered “because of the crisis of the economic system” and their task should be “to change the economic structures in order to consolidate power while the capitalist class is still discredited, disorganized and in crisis.” Interestingly what is happening in West Bengal today is precisely this, where the Left Front government is indulging in reconstruction of the productive structure the way the Indian ruling class wants. However, definitely the internalisation of the hegemonic bourgeois needs within the Left Front (LF) is completer because of its 30 years rule in comparison to the newly elected governments in Latin America. Further, the Indian LF’s political cost for not following the neoliberal policies could have been far less, as it could have lost power in a fragment of the Indian state, where it does not have any sovereignty, while gaining political leverage throughout the country.

According to Petras, the stabilization strategy “allows the capitalist class time to regroup and recover from their political defeat, discredit and disarray”, while the working class is left on the receiving end to suffer the “costs of reconstruction and crisis management”. Also, “[b]y holding back on social spending and imposing restraints on labor demands and mobilization, the regime allows the capitalists to recover their rates of profit and to consolidate their class hegemony” Clearly, the left front’s repression of the trade union and peasant self-organisation especially since the 1990s have consolidated the capitalist class hegemony – material and ideological, while demobilising the exploited classes.

The industrialisation policies of the West Bengal government have weakened its popular social base”, strengthening “the recovery of its class opponents”, and thus are creating “major obstacles to any subsequent effort at structural change”. Its “policy revives a powerful economic power configuration within the political institutional structure which precludes any future changes. It is impossible to engage in serious structural changes once the popular classes have been demobilized, the capitalist class has overcome its crisis and the new political class is integrated into consolidated economic system. Stabilization strategy does not temporarily postpone change; it structurally precludes it for the future”.

Further, to think that if a progressive “regime ‘adapts’ to the regrouped capitalist class” it can be stabilised is just an illusion, “because the capitalist class prefers its own political leaders and instruments and rejects any party or movement whose mass base can still exercise pressure.” Aren’t these some basic lessons that we must learn – in Bolivia, West Bengal and everywhere?

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