The left in government

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A balance of the historical lessons of the exercise of power by leftist parties in Europe and Latin America, based on their “Keynesian” or national-developmentalist economic policies

By José Luís Fiori*

Between 1922 and 1926, Leon Blum developed a conceptual distinction between the “conquest of power” and the “exercise of power”. The “conquest of power” was a revolutionary idea although it was not necessarily a violent act, which would lead to a new social order based on new property relations. The second concept – that of “exercise of power” – would function as a theoretical justification for when the French Socialist Party was obliged to govern, before the conditions for the conquest of power were ripe”.

As the third decade of the 2020st century begins, the left and progressive forces of Latin America are being called upon to govern Mexico and Argentina, and the same should happen in Chile and Bolivia, after their 2022 presidential elections. it is impossible for this to happen again in Brazil, and even in Colombia, after XNUMX.

At a time when the entire Latin American continent is growing – except in Brazil, for the time being – the awareness that neoliberal policies cannot meet the need for accelerated economic growth, much less the urgency of eliminating poverty and reducing of social inequality. But at a time when awareness is also growing that the old national-developmentalist model has exhausted its potential, after completing the agenda of the Second Industrial Revolution, and then losing North American support, in the late 70s.

Even in the case of the “social-developmentalism” of the Lula government, which enjoyed great economic and social success in its first ten years, there is still debate today as to why it failed to provide an adequate response to the slowdown in the world economy, the loss of its business support and the parliamentary boycott it suffered from conservative forces. Many still think that everything was the result of some “error” in economic policy, when in fact the government was surprised by a major internal sociological mutation, promoted by its own policies, and by an international geopolitical and geoeconomic “typhoon” that placed Brazil on its knees, at a “historical bifurcation” where traditional formulas and solutions no longer work.

At this moment, in order not to lose the fight for the future, it is essential that the left reread and rethink its own history, in particular the history of its relationship with the government, and with the difficulty of governing and reforming – at the same time – an economy peripheral capitalist and extremely unequal. 

The problem of the “socialist management” of capitalism only effectively arose for the European socialist and communist parties at the moment when they were called to participate, in an urgent and minority way, in the governments of “national unity” and in the “popular fronts” that emerged. formed during the First World War and the economic and financial crisis of 1929/30. Two “emergency” situations in which the left gave up – for the first time – its revolutionary objectives to help conservative forces respond to a serious and immediate challenge that threatened their nations.

At that time, the main problems were massive unemployment and hyperinflation, caused by the collapse of European economies, and the left parties had no position of their own on this subject, which was literally not foreseen in their doctrinal debates in the 30th century. Therefore, when they were called to occupy government positions, and in some cases the economic ministries themselves, they ended up repeating the same orthodox ideas and policies practiced by conservative governments before the war. The notable exception was the Swedish social democrats, who faced the crisis of the XNUMXs with an original and daring policy of encouraging economic growth and full employment, through the countercyclical policies proposed by the Stockholm School, by Johan Wicksell.

Shortly after the Second World War, by conquering the government of England and Austria, Belgium, Holland and Sweden itself, the British Labor and Social Democratic governments of these small countries experimented, with great success, with a new type of “social pact” aimed at regulating prices and wages, and a new type of democratic economic planning, inspired by the experience of the two Great Wars. After that, already in the 1950s, the European left ended up progressively formulating the basic ideas of two great fundamental strategies: the first and most successful, of building the “Welfare State”, adopted by almost all parties and social democratic and labor governments in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s; and the second, more directly associated with the French communists, which proposed the construction of an “organized state capitalism”, but which was very little used by the social democratic governments of that period, despite having exerted great influence on the “national-developmentalist” left Latin-American.

The social-democratic program of construction of the “Welfare State” combined an active fiscal policy of the “Keynesian type”, with the objective of full employment, through the construction of public and universal health, education and social protection systems, together with strong state investment in infrastructure and public transport networks. The “capitalism” project, on the other hand, proposed the creation of a state productive sector that would be strategic and that would lead the development of a dynamic and egalitarian national capitalist economy.

From the 80s onwards, but especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crisis of international communism, European socialists and social democrats joined the great “neoliberal wave” initiated and spread by Anglo-Saxon countries. During this period, the democratic transition and the neoliberalism of the socialist government of Felipe González became a kind of show case which had a great impact on the world left, and in particular on the Latin American left.

Much more than the “Keynesian defection” of the government of François Mitterrand, with its mitigated statism and “Europeanized Gaullism”. González was elected with a classic Keynesian-type government program, with a negotiated plan for stabilization and economic growth aimed at full employment and the reduction of social inequality. But right at the beginning of his government, like Mitterrand, González abandoned his initial economic policy and his project of a “Welfare State”, replacing the idea of ​​a “social pact” with fiscal orthodoxy and unemployment, as a way of controlling prices and wages, and completely abandoning the idea of ​​using and strengthening the Spanish state productive sector, which came from the Francoist period and was quite expressive.

By the end of the XNUMXth century, however, it had already become clear that the new neoliberal policies and reforms had reduced the share of wages in national income, restricted and conditioned social spending, ended worker security and promoted a gigantic increase in unemployment, especially in the Spanish case. Over time, it became clear that the new policies had a strongly “pro-capital” bias, as in the case of previous policies, but did not produce the same favorable results for workers, as was the case with the “Welfare State”. social welfare” and the full employment of the “Keynesian period”.

As a consequence, the European left suffered successive electoral defeats and ended up completely losing its own identity, by contributing to the destruction of its main work, which had been the “Welfare State”. It culminated in the dramatic case of victory and successive humiliation, by the European Union, of the leftist government of Alexis Tsipas, in Greece, in 2015. progressive hangover” that only started to dissipate recently, with the electoral victory and the formation of leftist governments in Portugal and Spain, despite not having a very clear perspective on its future in this third decade of the XNUMXst century.

In Latin America, the history of the left and its experience in government followed a different path than in Europe, but it was greatly influenced by the ideas and strategies discussed and followed by Europeans. In a very synthetic way, it can be said that everything started with the revolutionary proposal of Plan Ayala, presented in 1911 by the peasant leader of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. Zapata proposed the collectivization of land ownership and its return to the community of Mexican Indians and peasants.

Zapata was defeated and killed, but his agrarian program was resumed a few years later by President Lázaro Cárdenas, a nationalist military man who governed Mexico between 1936 and 1940 and created the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed the country for most of the XNUMXth century. The Cárdenas government carried out agrarian reform, nationalized foreign oil-producing companies, created the first state banks for industrial development and foreign trade in Latin America, invested in infrastructure, implemented policies for industrialization and protection of the Mexican domestic market, created a labor legislation, took measures for the social protection of workers and exercised an independent and anti-imperialist foreign policy.

The fundamental of this story, however, for the Latin American left, is that this program of public policies of the Cárdenas government became, after him, a kind of common denominator of several Latin American governments – “national-popular” or “national-developmentalists” – as was the case of Perón, in Argentina; from Vargas, in Brazil; Velasco Ibarra, Ecuador; and Paz Estensoro, Bolivia. None of them was socialist, communist or social democratic, not even leftist, but their political proposals and positions in the field of foreign policy became a kind of basic paradigm that ended up being adopted and supported by almost all of the Latin American reformist left, by the least until 1980.

Broadly speaking, it was these same ideals and goals that inspired the 1952 Bolivian peasant revolution; the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala between 1951 and 1954; the first phase of the Cuban revolution, between 1959 and 1962; the reformist military government of General Velasco Alvarado in Peru between 1968 and 1975; and Salvador Allende's own government in Chile between 1970 and 1973.

In the case of Cuba, however, the 1961 invasion and US sanctions hastened the socialist option, which led Fidel Castro's government to collectivize land and nationalize and centrally plan the economy. The same model that would later guide the first phase of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, in 1979, and the “socialism of the XNUMXst century”, proposed by the former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, who once again aroused the anger of the United States and ended up making Venezuela the second country in Latin America to challenge the Monroe Doctrine.

*Jose Luis Fiori He is a professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ.

This article re-edits, updates and develops information and ideas that appeared in the text “Looking at the Latin American Left”, published in Diniz, E. (org). Globalization, States and Development, FGV Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 2007.

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