Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Dancing with Dynamite - social movements and States in Latin America
By Benjamin Dangl
AK Press
Pbck. £12.00

History teaches us that one of the central problems of any successful revolution is that once revolutionaries gain power they become conservatives or, even worse, congeal into authoritarian regimes. How can we ensure that a revolution maintains its momentum for change and radicalism? How can the grass-roots movements that brought about the change ensure that they are not neutered and absorbed into the new power structures? Mao was very much aware of this dilemma and the Chinese Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward, followed by the Cultural Revolution were attempts to maintain a ‘permanent revolution’ and prevent ossification happening.

Dangl takes seven Latin American countries that have recently experienced radical grass-roots movements that have successfully led to progressive governments. He examines the relationship between these movements and the new governments in the context of how radical and democratic grass-roots movements can maintain their momentum without undermining the progressive governments that are fulfilling many of their hopes.

His is an anarchist perspective, but he knows Latin America well and he provides a clear and sympathetic account of the tectonic changes that have happened there over recent decades. In a mixture of factual narrative, vivid description and interviews, Dangl gives us a comprehensive overview of what has been happening and poses some apposite questions.

In Venezuela, for instance, he shows how a radical restructuring of political power, never before seen in Latin America, has transformed the country. On the other hand power is very centralised around Chavez and clientism is still inherent in the system. Chavismo could easily be transformed into even more of a personality cult than it already is. Dangl, while fully supporting the present governments, certainly doesn’t wear rose-tinted spectacles and pinpoints the potential problem of charismatic leaders like Chavez, and Morales in Bolivia, who are the repository of people’s hopes and aspirations, and wield enormous power. They won power on the tsumani of a mass movement of the poor and dispossessed, but they still have to build the effective power structures to maintain their revolutions. Since coming to power, Chavez has devolved an enormous amount of power to the people and encouraged participatory democracy at grass-roots level, but will that be maintained? Some elements in the government undoubtedly do see local movements and organisations merely as transmission belts of state policy (similar to what happened in the socialist countries) A dependency upon such central and powerful figures holds its own dangers.

The anarchist solution to radical political change probably places too much faith in the effectiveness of local autonomy and fully devolved power, but a highly centralised state system is certainly not the answer either, as has been well demonstrated. A useful and thought-provoking book.

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