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Reading Marx's Capital Today : Lessons from Latin America

This paper was presented at the International conference “150 years Karl Marx's - Reflections for the 21st century” held in Athens, Greece on January 14-15, 2017. Organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung - Athens Office. The conference discussed the actuality of Marx's theoretical system of the critique of political economy 150 years on from the publication of Capital Volume I.

1. One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx published his book Capital, an intellectual effort of great breadth, with the aim of revealing the logic of capitalist production and providing workers with theoretical instruments for their liberation. Having discovered the logic of the system, he was able to foresee with great anticipation much of what is happening in the world capitalist economy today. But, we cannot mechanically apply what is outlined in Capital to the current reality of Latin America.

2. As Marx explained in the preface to the first edition, the goal of his research was not to study a concrete social formation; England was only taken as an illustrative example of the most advanced concrete expression of capitalist production at that time.

3. Marx's major intellectual effort was directed to studying “the capitalist mode of production and the forms of intercourse that correspond to it,” in order “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” That is why “it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that springs out from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves [...].”

4. We must be able to distinguish between the study of the capitalist mode of production, a theoretical abstract object, and the concrete historical study of a social formation and the study of the class struggles within it. Not keeping in mind these different levels of abstraction and applying Marx's concepts mechanically as if reality has not changed over the last 150 years, led many of our Latin American Marxist intellectuals and activists to try to insert our reality in the classic concepts, thereby preventing them from understanding the new phenomena occurring in our region outside those parameters.

5. The object of this paper is to look at these new phenomena and to carry out some reflections on what has happened in our region in the last decades, looking at the ways they approach and differ from what Marx outlined in Capital.

I. Latin America: Pioneer in the Rejection of Neoliberalism

6. Today, when there is a growing rejection of neoliberalism in the world, we should remember that Latin America was the first region to implement neoliberal policies. Chile, my country, was used as a testing ground for neoliberal policies before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government implemented them in the United Kingdom. But it was also the first region in the world after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, that gradually came to reject these policies that only served to increase poverty, aggravate social inequalities, destroy the environment, and weaken working class and popular movements in general.

Horrors of neoliberalism

7. Our situation in the 1980s and 1990s was in some way comparable to that experienced by pre-revolutionary Russia in the beginning of the twentieth century. What the imperialist war and its horrors were for Russia, neoliberalism and its horrors was for Latin America. In these circumstances, our peoples said “Enough!” and began to struggle, resisting at first, and then going on the offensive, making possible the victory of left-wing presidential candidates with anti-neoliberal programs in our region.

Popular movements: the main protagonists. The labour movement: the great absentee

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8. We can say that in each and every country, albeit in different ways, popular movements, and not political parties, were at the forefront of the struggle, especially rural and indigenous movements. The disastrous effects of neoliberalism led them in many cases to shift their focus from isolated issues to national matters, which not only enriched their struggles and demands but also enabled them to call on support from highly diverse social sectors, all of them negatively affected by that same system.

* Hit by neoliberal measures

9. Missing in much of the Latin American political scene, was the traditional workers’ movement.

10. This was due in great measure to the implementation of neoliberal economic measures such as precarious labour conditions and subcontracting and its strategy of social fragmentation that divided the working class internally.[1] Nevertheless we cannot deny that ideological differences and the personalism of their leadership also contributed.

* Domestication through debt

11. Another form of weakening the working class has been the promotion of consumerism. In making the superfluous a necessity[2] (something intrinsic to capitalist development, as Marx points out in Capital) and in promoting credit loan, a new “mechanism of domestication” was created.[3]

12. As Tomas Moulián, a Chilean sociologist, says, “indebtedness” worsens the panic of losing employment and is therefore an important “factor of social demobilization.”[4]

A mechanical application of the structure of classes in Capital

13. The critical emphasis placed on the industrial working class led Marxists to pay no attention to the specific characteristics of the continent's revolutionary social subject, ignoring the reflections that had been carried out in this respect by Latin American thinkers such as Jose Mariátegui and Haya de la Torre. For many years we were not able to perceive the role that indigenous people and Christians can play in revolutions in Latin America.

14. We applied, in a very mechanical way, the categories of classes employed by Marx in Capital to our reality in Latin America, not knowing about his later analyses regarding Russia's situation, where he could verify the important role played by peasants in a country where the industrial working class was a minority.

A wider concept of the revolutionary subject

15. It was the Salvadoran guerrilla's commandant, Schafik Jorge Handal, general secretary of Communist Party of that country, who indicated in the '80s that the industrial working class couldn't be considered the only revolutionary social sector, that new social sectors should also be considered revolutionary subjects.

II. Actual Correlation of Forces

Changes in Latin America's political landscape

16. We all know Latin America's political landscape has been radically altered since Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998. Within a few years, progressive or left candidates were elected in most of the region's countries.

17. A new correlation of forces has been established that makes it more difficult for the United States to achieve its objectives in the region.

18. But, as could be expected, the U.S. government has never ceased in its intents to stop the advance of our processes, intents that have achieved some important temporary successes in this last few years. Taking advantage of the big economic difficulties arising because of the world crisis of capitalism, and especially the drop in the prices of our raw materials, ultra neoliberal rulers had been installed in Argentina and Brazil and they are trying to block the advances of the Bolivarian revolution. Nobody can deny that the correlation of forces today is not as favourable as it was a few years ago.


19. In our region, we have governments of a very different type. A minority defend neoliberalism, but it is a minority with significant economic and political weight. The majority are progressive or leftist that are looking for alternative solutions to this system.

20. These last governments, even though very different from each other, have at least four identical planks in their platforms: the struggles for social equality, for political democratization, for national sovereignty, and for regional integration.

21. We can divide them into governments that, without breaking with neoliberal policies, emphasize social issues (until recently Brazil and Argentina), and those governments that are trying to break with neoliberal policies using the support of popular mobilization (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador).

III. Chávez’s Role


22. It was Hugo Chávez who had the courage to call this alternative to capitalism – socialism, in spite of its negative connotations. He called it Twenty-First Century Socialism, adding the adjective twenty-first century to differentiate this new socialism from the errors and deviations that occurred in implementing twentieth-century socialism. This new socialism should not fall into “the errors of the past” and commit the same “Stalinist deviations” whereby the party became bureaucratized and ended up eliminating popular protagonism.

Popular protagonism

23. The need for popular protagonism was a recurring theme in the Venezuelan president's speeches and was an element that distinguished his proposals for democratic socialism from others where the state solves problems and the people are accustomed to receiving benefits like a gift.

24. He was convinced that socialism could not be decreed from above; that it was necessary to build it with the people. And, like Marx, he understood that protagonistic participation is what allows human beings to grow and achieve self-confidence, to develop themselves as human beings and build a new life.


25. I always remember the first “Theoretical Aló Presidente,” broadcast on television and radio on June 11, 2009, where he quoted at length from a letter that Peter Kropotkin – the Russian anarchist – wrote to Lenin on March 4, 1920.

“Without the participation of local forces, without an organization from below of the peasants and workers themselves, it is impossible to build a new life.

“It would seem that the Soviets were going to fulfill precisely this function of creating an organization from below. But Russia has already become a Soviet Republic in name only. The party's influence over people has already destroyed the influence and constructive energy of this promising institution – the Soviets.”[5]

Chávez coined the term “twenty-first century socialism”

26. We can say, without a doubt, that Chávez was the person who coined the phrase “Twenty-First Century Socialism.” I say he “coined” it in the sense that he was responsible for popularizing the name, because some authors had already used it, for example, the Chilean sociologist, Tomas Moulián, in his book , which was published in 2000.

27. Conscious of the negative baggage that came with the term, the Bolivarian leader decided to explain to his people, via numerous public interventions, all the benefits that this new society would bring them, contrasting this with the situation created by capitalism. His pedagogical efforts were so successful that, according to polls before Chávez's death, more than half of the Venezuelan population preferred socialism to capitalism.

What to understand about twenty-first century socialism

28. When we use the term Twenty-First Century Socialism we are thinking of a humanist and solidarian society, with full popular protagonism. A society that applies an ecologically sustainable model of development. A model that satisfies in an equal way the population's true necessities and not the artificial necessities created by capitalism in its campaign to obtain more profit. A society in which the organized people decide what, how much and how to produce.

29. As we will see later on, many of these ideas recover Marx's original thought, synthetically expressed in some lines of Capital and expanded in later works.

30. Chávez was not naive, as some might think. He knew that the forces opposed to this project were tremendously powerful. However, being a realist does not mean one must accept the conservative vision of politics that sees it as simply the art of the possible. For Chávez, the art of politics was to make the impossible possible, not by sheer willpower, but by taking the existing reality as one's starting point and working to build favourable conditions and a correlation of social forces capable of changing that reality. He knew that to make possible in the future what today appears impossible required changing the correlation of forces at both the national and the international level. While in government, he worked masterfully to achieve this, understanding that to build political power, agreements among top leaders were not enough. The most important task was building up social forces.

31. The Venezuelan leader understood that an alternative society to capitalism simultaneously required an alternative globalization to neoliberal globalization. He never sought to build socialism in one country. Chávez was completely clear that this was not possible, which is why he put such an emphasis on shifting the correlation of forces at both the regional and international level.

IV. A Transition Starting with the Conquest of Government

Transition in advanced countries

32. The most common interpretation of Marxism up until the Russian Revolution maintained that socialism would start with the more advanced countries, where capitalism itself had created the material and cultural conditions for it, as Marx himself outlined in Capital: the concentration of capital every day into fewer and fewer hands contrasts with the ever greater “socialization of labour,” the huge development of the productive forces, “the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil,” “the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime,” “a [working] class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capital process of production,” a growing contradiction between productive forces / relations of production, collective work.[6]

33. This situation should lead, according to Marx, to a revolutionary conquest of state power that was thought to be the sine qua non that would make it possible to expropriate the expropriators, arriving at “cooperation and possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself.”[7]

34. This idea of transition – which never actually took place – has been used as an argument against Marx, but this only reflects that those who raise this issue have not read his later writings, in which he modified his initial vision and began to focus much more on the political, rather than economic, conditions for revolution.

35. In his September 27, 1877 letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, Marx maintained: “This time the revolution will begin in the East.” Why did he say this? Due to the political situation he could see brewing in Russia at the time, everything seemed to indicate that a war between Russia and Turkey would break out, and that the Russian government would be defeated, with grave economic and political consequences flowing out of this defeat.[8]

36. But Marx not only foresaw the possibility of political revolution in a backward country; he also saw the possibilities arising out of the tradition of collective property in the countryside, which could provide the basis for a transition from the commune to socialism that bypassed a period of capitalist agriculture.[9]

Transition in underdeveloped countries

37. History demonstrated that Marx was right. The construction of socialism did not begin in advanced capitalist countries that had a large and experienced industrial working class but in countries where capitalist development was only just beginning, whose population was predominantly peasant, and whose working class was a minority of the population.

38. Why did it happen like that? Because political conditions out-stripped economic conditions.

39. The outcome of the February 1917 Russian Revolution was considered by Lenin to be “the first stage of the first of the proletarian revolutions which are the inevitable result of war.” According to Lenin, it was the horrors of the imperialist war that led to these proletarian insurrections and these evils could only be cured if the proletariat took power in Russia and adopted measures that, even if not yet socialist, were steps toward socialism.

40. And, as I already said, something like this happened in Latin America.

The institutional road to socialism: a difficult transition

41. In Latin America the transition process is occurring under very different social conditions to those imagined by Marx in Capital and – even though there are some similarities – very different to those of the Russian revolution.

42. Chávez perceived early on the particularities of this transition process that he initiated in his country, and which was to become a precursor of similar processes in other countries in Latin America. Among them, that they had only been able to conquer government and not all state power, and that because of this the process of transition would begin with an inherited state apparatus with characteristics that were functional to the capitalist system, not the advancement of socialism.

43. Nevertheless, practice has demonstrated that – contrary to the theoretical dogmatism of some sectors of the radical left – you can use this inherited state and transform it into an instrument that collaborates with building the new society.

44. But this is only possible if two conditions are met. First, state institutions run by revolutionary cadres willing to adopt measures to transform these institutions. Second, an organized popular movement able to control its actions and to press for that transformation.

Changing the rules of the game

45. But we must be clear that this does not mean we can simply limit ourselves to using the inherited state. It is necessary to build the foundations of a new institutional body and of a new political system.

46. And a first step for achieving this goal is changing the rules of the institutional game. Therein lies the importance of the constituent processes that occurred in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia and enshrined those new rules in new constitutions.

47. I am convinced that it is not possible to build socialism via the peaceful road without carrying out a constituent process. But this does not mean that we can deal with this issue in a voluntaristic manner. It only makes sense to promote a process of this type once revolutionary forces believe they can obtain the electoral support required to ensure the approval of the necessary changes. It makes no sense to promote a constituent process if the end result is the approval of a new institutional framework that will act as an obstacle to change.

48. This was precisely why the Popular Unity (UP) in Chile decided against convoking a constituent assembly: they were unsure they could win. But I have always wondered, what would have happened if we had pushed our forces to the limit and gone door-to-door promoting this issue? It is important to remember that when the opposition in Venezuela proposed a recall referendum as a means to remove Chávez from power, the polls indicated they had a majority, and that there was a real risk that the vote against Chávez would win. Nevertheless, Chávez decided to accept the challenge and campaigned hard to build a correlation of forces capable of ensuring his victory.

49. That is why I have asked myself, what are the possibilities for converting the generalized discontent that exists among Chileans today toward the current institutional framework – something the youth of my country have so brilliantly exposed with their struggles – into a demand for a constituent assembly that no politician could oppose, if we were to tap into this discontent by carrying out a consciousness-raising campaign on this issue, going door-to-door, classroom to classroom, workplace to workplace?

Create new institutions (missions)

50. Apart from changing the rules of the institutional game, it is necessary to look for unexplored roads to confront the inherited bureaucratic apparatus. To provide medical assistance to the most neglected sectors, Chávez decided to create institutions to run programs outside of the old state apparatus. This was the objective of the different social missions created by the government: health, education, distribution of essential products on lower prices, etc.

51. For example, the Ministry of Health's bureaucratic apparatus was not able to respond to the healthcare demands of the very poor who lived in far away places or areas that are hard to get to, such as the poor neighbourhoods located on hillsides in Caracas, small rural towns, etc.

52. Where did that inability come from?

53. On one hand, because doctors working in the inherited health system didn't want to go to these places – they weren't really interested in providing healthcare; their aim was to make money. Additionally, they were not prepared to provide the type of healthcare that was needed, since they were basically educated as specialists and not as general practitioners.

54. While a new generation of Venezuelan doctors was being educated to meet this demand, the government decided to create Misión Barrio Adentro, building medical clinics in the cerros (hillsides) and barrios (shanty towns) to provide basic healthcare to the poorest people. The government sought the collaboration of Cuban doctors to help them in this endeavour. The Misión has had such positive results and an excellent reception from the Venezuelan people that the opposition is now saying in their electoral campaigns that it will keep the missions but will make them much more efficient.

Transform inherited institutions (the military)

55. The government is not only capable of creating new institutions more suited to the new tasks; it is also capable – up to a point – of transforming the inherited state apparatus, for example, the armed institution.

56. And a factor that can help very much in this sense is a new constitution that enshrines in its articles new ways for organizing society and establishes a new social order that serves the majority of the population, not the elites. Such a constitution can ensure that the natural wealth of a country, previously ceded to transnational companies, returns to state hands. It can ensure the construction of independent and sovereign states in which different forms of popular protagonism are promoted. And as one of the functions of the armed forces is to defend the order of a country, by defending this new order, they will thus be defending the homeland and the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, not the interests of the elites.

57. That is what happened in Venezuela. The new constitution became an important ally of the process, because defending the constitution means nothing if not defending the changes undertaken by the Chávez government. It was this constitution that allowed the majority of the Venezuelan military to rebel against the coup-supporting officers and decide to disobey the orders of their superiors.

58. For reasons of time I cannot expand here on a series of other measures for transforming important state institutions.

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