Photo: Sierra Maestra, retrieved.
My recent piece on Venezuela and the Half-Truths of Noam Chomsky seems to have ended some of my last connections to a network of dubious friends. As the poet Antonio Porchia writes: “La verdad tiene muy pocos amigos y los muy pocos amigos que tiene son suicidas.”
It’s true that the chavista process in Venezuela raised long-dormant questions about “socialism” for me, but it also brought home the need for solidarity activists to question the meaning of “solidarity” in this and other contexts. I explored that question in depth at one point, but I think restating the questions here again (and again, and again) is urgent, especially since so many activists, especially in the U.S., aren’t even aware there are questions about how they do their work. They don’t seem to realize that their conception of “solidarity” isn’t that at all, but rather a Leninist reframing of the “white man’s burden.”
Throughout the 20th century, the Marxist-Leninist worldview was the dominant view on the Left that framed most discussions even among non-Leninist liberals (see, for instance, Frank A. Warren’s book, Liberals and Communism, and the enlightening exchange between Warren and Christopher Lasch), and it became foundational in the growing solidarity movement as it organized around national liberation movements.
They don’t seem to realize that their conception of “solidarity” isn’t that at all, but rather a Leninist reframing of the “white man’s burden.”
As one of those activists who became politically involved in the solidarity movement with sandinistas in the 1980s, I came to understand the movement from the inside. The major question that emerged was how to relate to the “vanguard” and, in some cases, which “vanguard” to relate to. Of course, the solidarity Left, especially by the 1980s, managed to cloak the Leninist nature of the movement by using stand-in terms so when, for instance, a solidarity activist talked about solidarity with the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional in Nicaragua, references were made to “the People,” often in caps. Gradually, the identification between the party deemed “the vanguard” and “the people” was made complete so that it became impossible to talk about any differences between the two forces. Those who opposed the “Revolution” were simply “counter-revolutionaries” and not the people since, in this conception, the “vanguard” and “the people” were mutually constitutive.
This might seem like some arcane distinction, but it’s at the core of the present problem on the Left, vis-à-vis Venezuela.
Even if there’s no conscious identification of the Bolivarian government as a “vanguard” (and who in the remaining Marxist-Leninist sects would be so silly as to propose that?) there is at least a powerful, unconscious identification of “the people” with the party in power that makes it nearly impossible for many on the Left to consider criticizing chavismo, and deludes them into believing that supporting it is equivalent to supporting the people.
As Jung often pointed out, until a subconscious content is made conscious, it tends to dominate the conscious mind. And so solidarity activists in the First World are often entirely unaware that their support of an elite (which is what a “vanguard” is, after all) leads them to take patronizing, elitist positions vis-à-vis the actual people which are largely indistinguishable from the imperialist stance they oppose. And so, as Jung points out, we end up casting our own shadow on our enemy who is our enemy precisely because they represent us so perfectly. Thus we have what one indigenous activist I met in Bolivia referred to as “the colonial Left” that is characterized as much by its colonialism as by its opposition to it (see my interview with Pedro Portugal Mollinedo, Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements, Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014, p. 311).
There is at least a powerful, unconscious identification of “the people” with the party in power that makes it nearly impossible for many on the Left to consider criticizing chavismo.
Ultimately this leads to the narrative Bernard-Henri Levy offers in his Barbarism with a Human Face: “The oppressor… governs a population of sleepwalkers. The oppressed is, therefore, a kind of walking dreamer, a docile and unconscious participant in his own subjection, an involuntary maker of the tools of his unhappiness.” The narrative strips the “oppressed”—in this case, Venezuelans—of their agency and makes them nothing more than marionettes in the hands of an elite. But in this case, it’s a “good” elite, the “vanguard” as opposed to the “bad” elite, imposed by the colonialist, imperialist powers, or an “oligarchy” that is never named.
Meanwhile, who’s going to represent the people, the real people of flesh and blood and bones, those who have nothing in common with any elite whatsoever but who struggle under the hardships of corrupt powers who see them as objects, “sleepwalkers” to be manipulated in a power game that the people understand all too well? Who will speak in their name, and in favor of their interests?
Perhaps we need a real solidarity movement.