Saturday, June 28, 2008

Evo Morales: A Call for Socialism?

From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 21 April, 2008, President Evo Morales of Bolivia delivered the opening address to the Seventh Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. His speech included the following passage:

"If we want to save the planet earth, to save life and humanity, we have a duty to put an end to the capitalist system. Unless we put an end to the capitalist system, it is impossible to imagine that there will be equality and justice on this planet earth. This is why I believe that it is important to put an end to the exploitation of human beings and to the pillage of natural resources, to put an end to destructive wars for markets and raw materials, to the plundering of energy, particularly fossil fuels, to the excessive consumption of goods and to the accumulation of waste. The capitalist system only allows us to heap up waste. I would like to propose that the trillions of money earmarked for war should be channelled to make good the damage to the environment, to make reparations to the earth."

Despite the striking anti-capitalist content of most of this passage, the last sentence reveals that Morales does not have a clear conception of the socialist alternative. He still thinks in terms of the money system.

The accurate way of posing the problem focuses not on the waste of money but on the waste of real resources of all kinds – the waste of nature and its bounty, of human life and labour, of knowledge and its potential. True, money represents or symbolizes some – far from all -- of these real resources, but in a very inadequate and distorted manner. To substitute the symbol for the reality is a mystification.

Nevertheless, I would like to argue that Morales is a good deal closer to a true understanding of socialism than most of the so-called "left" in Latin America or elsewhere. The very fact that he is addressing a world forum about the future of the species and the planet suggests that he is seeking an alternative at the global rather than national level. Although nationalization forms part of his domestic policy (the oil and gas industry in Bolivia was nationalized in 2006), he does not equate nationalization with socialism.

The model of the ayllu

In a number of interviews Morales has been asked what he and his movement – the Movement for Socialism (MAS) – understand by socialism. Thus, Heinz Dieterich of Monthly Review (July 2006) asks him what country the socioeconomic model of the MAS most closely resembles. Brazil? Cuba? Venezuela? Morales does not like the way the question is put. ("[Socialism] is something much deeper. … It is to live in community and equality.") He talks instead about the traditional peasant commune or ayllu of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, based on communal landholding and "respect for Mother Earth." He himself grew up in an ayllu of the Aymara people in Oruro Province; in some parts of Bolivia such communities still exist.

In another interview, to journalists from Spiegel, Morales says: "There was no private property in the past. Everything was communal property. In the Indian community where I was born, everything belonged to the community. This way of life is more equitable." As the World Socialist Review, published by our companion party in the United States, comments: "This is more than just a variation on the leftist copout that socialism is a goal for the distant future; it is, on some level, an acceptance of it as a real alternative to capitalism" (See here.)

Rejecting vanguardism

Another indication that Morales is closer than most of the "left" to a genuine understanding of socialism is his opposition to the Bolshevik idea of the "vanguard party." The MAS, he tells Dieterich, "was not created by political ideologues or by a group of intellectuals, but by peasant congresses to solve the problems of the people." It has always rejected the pretensions to "leadership" of Leninist groups of different varieties -- followers of Stalin, Trotsky, or Mariategui (a Peruvian Bolshevik who has had great influence on the left in Latin America).

Of course, Morales is not only a thinker with more or less clear ideas about capitalism and socialism. He is also head of the government of an underdeveloped country that has to operate within the parameters of a capitalist world. As such he is no position to realize his more far reaching aspirations. At most, he has been able – like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – to divert some of the proceeds from the sale of oil and gas to making some improvement to the life of the impoverished indigenous communities.

The fact remains that an internationally known figure has stood up at the United Nations and called upon the world community to bring the capitalist system to an end. Morales' concept of socialism may be less clear than we would like, but it does at least bear some relation to the real thing. Viewed from the time when the UN and its specialized agencies are converted into the planning and coordinating centre of world socialism, this will, perhaps, be regarded as a milestone in its history.

Stephen Shenfield

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