The so-called “transitions to democracy” have been a key policy of US imperialism to prevent the upswing of proletarian revolution, as a way of offsetting the decline of its hegemony after its defeat in Vietnam. It encompasses a number of developments on the world arena since the mid- 1970s. The recent success of Mexico’s “negotiated transition” is the most recent instance of this. This article is intended to deal with the nature of such transitions, their significance and their scope.
1. Victorious democratic revolutions or democratic counter-revolutions?
To understand and analyse the “transitions to democracy” from the angle of the proletarian revolution, we should first deal with a methodological issue. To that end, we should start from the definitions made by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, when analysing a complex issue in the imperialist epoch i.e. the nature of revolutions against “dictatorial” regimes in the imperialist countries, such as Fascism and Nazism-the by-product of a declining capitalist system.
Trotsky argued, when discussing with Italian Marxists in Mussolini’s Italy:
“With regards to the ‘anti-Fascist revolution’, the Italian question is more than ever deeply related to the fundamental problems of world Communism i.e. the so-called theory of permanent revolution (…) All this points out to the problem of the ‘transitional’ period in Italy. In the very first place we should clearly answer: a transition, from where to where? A transitional period from the bourgeois (or ‘popular’) revolution to proletarian revolution is one thing. A transitional period from Fascist dictatorship to proletarian dictatorship is quite another thing. If we contemplate the first viewpoint, the first question that arises is that of bourgeois revolution, and it all just boils down to determining the role of the proletariat in it. The question of the transitional period to the proletarian revolution will come up only after this. If we take up the second view, then there is this whole series of battles, upheavals, changing situations, sudden shifts, which make up the different stages of proletarian revolution as a whole. The process may well go through a lot of stages. But in no case will result in a bourgeois revolution or else that strange hybrid, the so-called ‘popular’ revolution.(…) Does that mean that Italy will not become again, for some time, a parliamentary state or a ‘democratic republic’? I believe -and I think that we totally agree on this – that that possibility is not at all ruled out. However, it will not be the outcome of a bourgeois revolution but rather the abortion of a stillborn proletarian revolution, one that is not yet mature enough… If a deep revolutionary crisis breaks out and mass battles are fought but the proletarian vanguard does not seize power, it is likely that the bourgeoisie will restore its domination on a ‘democratic’ basis”.
As we see, Trotsky did not rule out the transition to a bourgeois democratic regime. Nevertheless, he called this transition “the abortion of proletarian revolution”. Certainly, this is what happened at the end of World War II after the betrayal of anti-Fascist revolution by the Communist Party that nurtured imperialist democracy e.g. in Italy, France or Greece.
By the end of World War I, Trotsky said, referring to the emergence of the Weimar Republic in Germany, “(…) As for the German revolution in 1918, it is very clear that it was not the democratic culmination of a bourgeois revolution, but rather a proletarian revolution beheaded by Social Democracy, or to put it more accurately, a bourgeois counter-revolution disguised, after the victory of the proletariat, in pseudo-democratic forms under the circumstances.”
This conception remains today fully valid to analyse the various kinds of “transitions to democracy” that were set up in the wake of the demise of “authoritarian” regimes -to which Marxists brand “Bonapartists”. The latter encompassed a number of various regimes, such as the old one-party Stalinist systems in the Soviet sphere; “personalist” dictatorships as that of Franco in Spain or Salazar-Caetano in Portugal in the weaker imperialist countries; or the military dictatorships like those in South America. Following Trotsky’s method, we say that none of these transitions was the result of a victorious revolution, but rather its derailment or abortion.
This policy was first undertaken by the mid-1970s in Portugal, Spain and Greece, was later to be implemented in some semicolonial countries in the 1980s, and also the deformed and degenerated worker states. It became more and more the main thrust of imperialist policies in this period. The various kinds of such policy shall be called “democratic counter-revolution”.
Contrariwise, American right-wing political commentators like Samuel P. Huntington, have claimed-in a book pusblished two after the downfall of the Berlin Wall- these transitions are “The third wave of democratisation at the end of the 20th century”. Huntington says: “The third wave of democratisation in the modern world began in a not very convincing and unwilling way, 25 minutes after midnight, on Tuesday 25th April 1974 in Lisbon, Portugal… The April 25th coup was the remarkable beginning of a world-wide movement towards democracies (…) During the following 15 years, this democratic wave swept through the whole world; nearly thirty countries have gone over from authoritarianism to democracy” .
Huntington operates with a “procedural” notion of democracy, one characterised by the “selection of leaders through competitive elections by the people they govern”.
From a radically different viewpoint, various radical organisations, including some of those claiming allegiance to Trotskyism , hold that a wave of democratic revolutions is sweeping across the world.
Such non-dialectical approach leads them to mistake a “democratic revolution” with its very opposite, a “democratic counter-revolution”. In Mexico, this was dressed up as the victory and legitimisation of the “negotiated transition to democracy”, sponsored by the PRI-PAN-PRD, in the elections on July 2nd, a policy aimed at preventing the revolutionary overthrow of the PRI regime.
Thus, they end up beautifying imperialist policies from the left, when these can only bring about increasingly decaying bourgeois democratic regimes.
Such policy gained a new lease of life as a defensive backlash implemented by American imperialism after the defeat in the Vietnam war, and made its debut during the aborted Portuguese revolution. It became an increasingly offensive weapon, and even became a pre-emptive tool against the independent mobilisation of the masses against bankrupt authoritarian regimes.
This represents the culmination of US imperialism’s foreign policy, and its use of the banner of “democracy” all along the 20th century to disguise its own rapacious nature, and also cover up the worst crimes against the masses worldwide. This feature has been the hallmark of US imperialism, ever since its birth, its hegemony and right through to its decline -one related to the particular conditions of its development.
Trotsky claims that: “In its very essence, US Imperialism is mercilessly tough, predatory -in the whole sense of the world- and criminal. However, due to the specific conditions of its development, it has the chance to disguise itself in the robe of pacifism. It does not do so in the way the parvenu imperialists from the Old World do, where everything is clear. Due to the specific conditions of the US’s development, its bourgeoisie and its government, this pacifistic mask seems to be adhered to the imperialist face in such a way that it ca not be torn up.”
Thus, at the beginning of the century, the US arose as an imperialist power using the banner of democracy, as it was clear in Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” after World War I . During World War II, the US fought for world hegemony with rival imperialist powers such as Germany and Japan, a struggle depicted as a one between “democracy” and Fascism. In the post-war years, the US played the card of formal “decolonisation” so as to undermine the old European powers. The campaign against the totalitarian regimes in the East was the ideological justification for the “Cold War”. It was used as a prop to consolidate its hegemony, bringing both its sphere of influence and its own proletariat under control -as during McCarthy’s anti-Communist hysteria- while supporting dictatorships like Suharto’s in Indonesia. During the last 25 years -when the US share of the world’s GNP has went from 50 down to nearly 30 %- the “democratic counter-revolution” policy is the way US imperialism tries to buttress the historical decline of its hegemony.
Such policy was made possible in the post-war period by buying-off the counter-revolutionary leaderships in the working class and mass movements -the Stalinist bureaucracy and its system of states in particular, the Communist and Social Democratic parties and, last but not least, the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist leaderships in the semicolonial world. It was the role played by them -as we shall see below- that enabled imperialism to recover from defeat in Vietnam and then launch a counter-offensive from the 1980s onwards.
2. The Vietnamese Revolution: a Pyrrhic victory for the mass movement.
The US’s defeat in Vietnam revealed its great weakness to successfully deal with world revolution. The heroic resistance of the masses in Vietnam along with the mass protests in the US demanding all troops be withdrawn brought the most murderous war machine ever to a standstill, thus bringing about the first military defeat of American imperialism. The Vietnamese victory was the climax of the workers’ and people’s upswing begun in France in May 1968 -anticipated by the 1967 anti-war protests in the US itself. This rising tide swept through the semicolonial countries, the deformed and degenerated workers’ states right through the imperialist countries, thus opening up the first major crisis of the Yalta/Potsdam Order . This also nourished the first post-war revolution in an imperialist country, the 1974-75 Portuguese revolution that could have massively boosted the workers’ and people’s upswing, by taking advantage of the beleaguered US power. It is surprising that this balance of forces -by and large favourable for the mass movement- is overlooked by many radical intellectuals and organisations. For instance, James Petras sees the onset of the neoliberal offensive in a series of defeats inaugurated by Suharto’s bloody coup, which crushed the Indonesian revolution in 1965. Thus, he glosses over the fact that US imperialism was to suffer the most serious defeat ever just ten years later. Such approach is intended to downplay the responsibility of the Stalinist leaderships, and petty-bourgeois nationalists in this dramatic turn-about of the class struggle.
Unlike the victorious Russian Revolution in 1917 -which boosted the morale and the strength of the workers’ and mass movements all over the world, the triumph of the Vietnamese Revolution and its extension to the rest of Indochina (Laos and Cambodia) were turned, almost immediately, into its opposite, i.e. an additional demoralising factor for the working class the world over. It was the most Pyrrhic revolutionary victory of the whole post-war period. Far from ushering in a phase of heightened class struggle worldwide, it paradoxically saw the prelude, a few years later, of the “neoliberal offensive”.
This can be explained by the following developments:
Firstly, the extremely deformed character of the worker states that were led from their very beginning by reactionary and ultra-nationalist Stalinist bureaucracies. This led to major internal disasters, like the murder of millions of peasants under the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and fratricidal wars like those of China-Vietnam and then Vietnam-Cambodia.
Thus, the victorious Russian Revolution nurtured a revolutionary vanguard that founded dozens of young Communist Parties, and then the Third International in 1919 as the chief of staff of world revolution, whereas, the Vietnamese victory just deepened the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the proletariat.
Secondly, this outcome was compounded by the betrayal of leaderships of various political strands – the Communist Parties in particular- of the largest working class upswing since the end of WW2. These revolutionary developments laid new milestones of revolutionary subjectivity, like the Chilean cordones, the coordinadoras in Argentina, the Popular Assembly in Bolivia. Furthermore, this was expressed in the radicalisation of ample layers of workers, students and other popular sectors, not only in the semicolonies but in the main advanced countries as well – May 1968 in France, the “Hot Autumn” in Italy 1969, the Prague Spring of 1968 in the Soviet area of influence, etc. All counter-revolutionary apparatuses were overtly opposed to this revolutionary workers’ movement in the making. Their class collaboration policies led to a series of defeats and derailments that hit the mass movement very hard.
Thirdly, these leaderships actively prevented the revolution in the semicolonies from coming together with that in metropolitan countries -as we shall see below.
Thus, by defeating proletarian revolution -through derailment in the imperialist countries and bloody repression in South America- imperialism was able to turn the tables, turning its weakness in a relative strategic strength. Let us point out, in passing, that this development gave the lie to the Beijing-based bureaucracy’s view claiming that imperialism was a “colossus with clay feet”- a very fashionable view back in the 70s. No matter such overoptimistic “view”, the defeat of this revolutionary rehearsal by the working class brought about a massive setback for the workers’ conquests -gained through decades of fight.
This enabled imperialism not only to hold the reins of power, but to launch the so-called “neo-liberal” offensive, one that went hand in hand with the policy of “democratic counter-revolution”.
3. The Portuguese revolution strangled: “democratic counter-revolution” comes into play.
The policy of “democratic counter-revolution” first came into play when the proletarian revolution in Portugal was derailed and defused back in 1974 – a revolution quite similar to that of Russia in February 1917. As a result of their counter-revolutionary intervention in the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the armed forces were in disarray and completely worn-out. Part of the officers and non-commissioned officers created and rallied around the MAF (Movement of the Armed Forces), leading the April coup against Caetano’s dictatorship.
Huntington’s recollection of the events is poignant: “During the following eighteen months of the April coup, Portugal was a twister. MFA officers split up in conservative, moderate and Marxist factions that fought each other… Six provisional governments succeeded each other, and the following administration had less authority than its predecessor. New coups and counter-coups were staged. Workers and peasants went on strike, demonstrated and took over the factories, the farms and the means of communication … The revolutionary outburst in Portugal was similar in many aspects to that of Russia 1917, Caetano being Nicholas II, the April coup the February revolution, the dominant groups in the MFA as the Bolsheviks, similar economic upheavals and popular uprisings , even Kornilov’s conspiracy found an equivalent in the defeated attempted coup of the right wing led by Gen. Espinola, in March 1975. That resemblance did not go unnoticed for clever commentators. In September 1974, Mario Soares, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government and leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party met with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Washington. Kissinger rebuked Soares and other moderate leaders for not doing enough to prevent a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship from seizing power.
-You are like Kerensky…, I believe in your sincerity, but you are being naïve -said Kissinger to Soares.
-That’s true, and I don’t want to be like Kerensky -replied Soares.
-Nor did Kerensky -Kissinger replied back.
Portugal, however, followed a path other than Russia. The Kerenskies won. Democracy was victorious. Soares became the Prime Minister and later on the President.”
The European bourgeoisie -particularly the German bosses through Social Democracy-, along with US Imperialism -which had supported the Portuguese dictatorship for years- expropriated the democratic aspirations of the masses, using these as a weapon to hold back both the revolutionary process and the self-organisation of the fighting masses. Soares led the bourgeois counter-offensive against the workers’ and tenants’ commissions that arose at the peak of the mass resistance against the failed coup of Espinola on March 11. But unlike Kornilov’s failure in Russia, which resulted in Bolshevism gaining the majority in the soviets as a prelude to the October uprising, the leadership of the MFA and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), -no matter Huntington’s parallel- were both a hindrance for the victory of the revolution. The PCP, in collusion with sectors of the MFA, staged a “left” military putsch that enabled Soares to defuse the revolutionary process and set up a lasting Social Democratic government.
The success of the democratic counter-revolution in Portugal shows, as Trotsky put it, that: “…Fascism is by no means at all the only instrument of the bourgeoisie for fighting against the revolutionary masses… In the absence of a strong revolutionary party of the proletariat, a combination of pseudo-reforms, radical speeches, yet more radical gestures and repression may render more real services to the bourgeoisie than Fascism itself”.
The aborted Portuguese revolution became a victory for imperialism which helped the latter to turn the tables in its favour, both in Europe and worldwide.
The key lessons drawn from this imperialist victory dictated this very policy of democratic counter-revolution was to be implemented in the face of the revolutionary upswing in Spain after Franco’s death in 1975 -itself influenced by the Portuguese events. These aborted revolutions, although did not finish off the world upswing that had started in 1968 -as shown by the victorious Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions in 1979- did, however, defuse proletarian revolution in the imperialist heartlands.
The Sandinista revolution, which took place in the backyard of US imperialism, spread through to El Salvador, and the Iranian revolution, which shattered a key counter-revolutionary arrangement in the Middle East- both broke to pieces the regional status quo. However, they failed to link up to the strongholds of the world proletariat in the imperialist heartlands. This, along the nature of the leaderships at the head of those revolutions -a petty-bourgeois nationalist clique in the first place, and a section of the Islamic clergy in the second- eventually led to their later failure, thus enabling imperialism to keep those strategic areas under its grip.
4. Democratic counter-revolution: a defensive tactics turns into an offensive strategy
In the early days of the democratic counter-revolution, imperialism resorted to it as a defensive tactics due to its extreme weakness in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam. However, it increasingly became a strategic offensive weapon against the mass movement during the 1980s. Such development took place against the background of the first major global-scale economic crisis ever, which put an end to the post-war boom.
Thus, the so-called neoliberal offensive -a bourgeois backlash in response to that global economic crisis that eroded major conquests of the mass movement- came hand in hand with the democratic counter-revolution.
Both the imperialist democracies and some bourgeois democratic régimes in the semicolonial world were instrumental in implementing such counter-offensive against the masses.
The Carter administration resorted to the banner of “human rights” and “democracy” to push ahead with its foreign affairs agenda. Later on, under Reagan it became a cover-up for political, economic and even military counter-offensive against the masses in the advanced countries, the semicolonies and the deformed/degenerated worker states alike.
We can see this shift in imperialist politics in Henry Kissinger’s book “Diplomacy”: “For Carter human rights were the basis of his foreign policy, and he promoted them so aggressively among the US allies, that even his calls for righteousness occasionally threatened internal cohesion. Reagan and his advisers took one step further, using the human rights agenda as a weapon for overthrowing Communism and democratising the Soviet Union, and therefore as a key for a pacific world”. Such world-encompassing policy means, according to Kissinger, that “the US would not passively wait for free institutions to spring up, nor would they restrain themselves to resist direct threats to their security. Instead, they would actively promote democracy, rewarding those countries fulfilling those ideals and punishing those that did not (even in those cases when they did not entail a challenge or a threat for the US). Thus, Reagan’s team turn the goals of the early Bolsheviks upside down: the democratic values, not those of the Communist Manifesto would be the wave of the future. And Reagan’s team acted coherently, exerting pressure on Pinochet’s régime in Chile, the authoritarian Marcos régime in the Philippines supporting reform; the first one was forced to accept a referendum and free elections, in which he was replaced; the latter was overthrown with the aid of the US”. In this case, the US marines intervened to help strengthen Cory Aquino’s government, which resulted in the beheading of the revolution.
It is surprising how naïve the left is with regards to the “transitions to democracy” -given how the shrewdest policy-makers of imperialism regard such policy.
We should also emphasize that the banner of “democracy” so aggressively resorted to by US imperialism went along with low-intensity wars such as that in Southern Africa and punitive defeats, such as Jaruzelsky’s coup d’état in 1981 aimed against a revolution that nourished Solidarnosc in Poland. To these we should add the defeat of Argentina in the Malvinas war at the hands of Anglo-Saxon imperialism.
Such counter-revolutionary victories resulted in a renewed “imperial might” over the semicolonial world, and also nurtured bureaucratic-restorationist forces in the East. They also boosted the policy “democratic counter-revolution”. Thus, the military coup in Poland crushed the left-wing within Solidarnosc, while moderate wing was preserved, along with the overt meddling of the Church. This process culminated in the “round table agreements” in 1989 between Jaruzelsky and Walessa. The “transitions to democracy” in South America are another point in case. These range from the less-controlled Argentine transition, to the Chilean “transition from above”.
5. The Stalinist bureaucracy’s last commitments to world imperialism
The emergence of Solidarnosc in Poland, the heightened imperialist pressure through Reagan’s “Star Wars”, and imperialism’s use of the banner of democracy as a weapon against the USSR are to account for Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost. The latter were an attempt at a self-reform of the CPSU in order to prevent events like the Polish revolution from happening in Soviet soil. Gorbachev pursued these goals at home, while helping imperialism abroad to push ahead with “democratic counter-revolution” to defuse “regional conflicts” in the hope of getting investments from the West. Such were the aims of the Gorbachev/Reagan summits, culminating in the last counter-revolutionary commitments of the Stalinist bureaucracy to world imperialism.
Thus, Stalinism in Central America -through its regional agent, Fidel Castro- prevented the Nicaraguan revolution from spreading abroad -a policy expressed in his notorious “Nicaragua must not become a new Cuba”- and also put down the Central American revolution by a series of pacts like those of Contadora in 1984 and later on Esquípulas in 1987.
The ongoing black revolution in South Africa, which had peaked in the 1980s, was led to the blind alley of negotiation by the leadership of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which granted the white bourgeoisie’s economic rule and its state apparatus in return of a few concessions. In the Iceland summit of 1986 between Reagan and Gorbachev, the latter committed himself to cut down on financial aid to “client” states and proxy leaderships in the Third World, namely the ANC. The New York Agreement in 1988 between the USSR, Cuba, the US and South Africa finished the Angola war. In that summit, the USSR made clear she was no longer willing to support the ANC’s armed struggle.
However, despite the concessions to imperialism, the weakened Soviet bureaucracy could not prevent the masses from overthrowing the CPSU-based party-state régime.
The emerging revolutionary developments against the Stalinist régimes in 1989-91 -an embryonic political revolution- were soon derailed. In a nutshell, a democratic counter-revolution was the shape that the advance of social counter-revolution took on, with the establishment of governments, and later on, regimes pushing ahead with capitalist restoration. The previous Glasnost/Perestroika policy contributed to this, and although it could not prevent the CPSU from collapsing in the USSR itself, it did, however, succeed in legitimising people like Yeltsin, who were essential for leading the mass protests to a blind alley.
In more general terms, such outcome is not only to be explained away by the harmful effects of decades of Stalinist rule on the mass movement’s consciousness and organisation, but also because of an unfavourable balance of forces as result of a whole series of counter-revolutionary defeats and detours through the decade.
6. The failure of “Communism” and the victory of “the market & democracy”
The inroads of social counter-revolution in a democratic disguise in Russia nourished the view that the market and democracy were “universal models”. That was the highest point of an imperialist offensive disguised in democratic robes, aimed at keeping its domination of the world. Such was the main thrust of Clinton’s foreign policy, based on the alleged fact -as the think-tank Stratfor puts it- that “societies currently democratised will tend to defend market reforms as much as human rights. Democracy, human rights and market reforms are mutually reinforcing concepts.” This fallacious imperialist propaganda underpinned the US neoliberal offensive during the first half of 1990s, which was also boosted by its victory in Iraq. The liberalisation of the local economies, privatisation, the deregulation of the labour market and many other measures were all pushed under the banner of the fight against the corruption of semi-colonial, resulting in a massive offensive against the masses worldwide. Such is the background of the mean bourgeois democratic regimes coming out of these transitions during this period, which turned out to be more and more hollow, grudgingly giving away reforms and concessions in a piecemeal fashion, ever since this policy came to life in the Portuguese revolution. Haiti is a point in case, showing the meanness of it. In 1994, the US, restored Jean Bertrand Aristide as the elected Haitian president -after being ousted by a US-backed coup in 1991- by resorting to the marine corps. He was just a façade for a new American protectorate, a puppet that was to implement a neoliberal agenda.
7. Different kinds of transitions
Bourgeois sociology classifies the different kinds of democratic transitions by focusing on the external features of them. While analysing them as a uniform wave, it hides their diversity, which reflects different balance of forces between the classes and also the role played by the leaderships of the mass movement.
From our point of view, we can chart three general kinds of transitions. Of course, they can not be considered as “pure” types, but they rather combine different features, and also blend between them.
We call them “transitions in the wake of derailed revolutions”, “post counter-revolutionary transitions” -those coming in the wake of crushing defeats of the mass movement- and “democratic transitions as a weapon of capitalist restoration”.
In this article we will only refer to the first two ones -transitions in capitalist countries. That is why the third type of transitions -which involve the former USSR and Eastern Europe- will not be dealt with here.
A) Transitions in the wake of derailed revolutions
As we said earlier, the success of the bourgeois policy applied in Portugal was an example of how a revolution can be choked due to the role of counter-revolutionary leaderships. This weapon was ever since used by imperialism to prevent the revolutionary demise of various régimes and also avoid overtly revolutionary upheavals. It was all about preventing a re-run of Portugal. The best example of these kinds of transitions is post-Franco Spain in the 1970s and South Africa in the 1980s. The cross-class policy of the Spanish CP and Social Democracy in the first case, and the ANC in the latter led to a derailment of these revolutionary developments via pseudo-reforms that kept the core of the bourgeois regime alive (see below).
B) Post Counter-revolutionary transitions
The best example of this kind of transitions took place in Latin America’s Southern Cone, where the workers’ and popular revolutionary upswing was defeated through counter-revolutionary coups that resulted in tens of thousands murdered, missing and exiled. In the case of the bloody Pinochet coup, it brought about a historical defeat for the Chilean workers’ movement, which had taken important steps towards class independence in the form of the industrial cordones. In Argentina, Gen. Videla’s dictatorship annihilated the best elements of a generation of workers, students and people’s fighters that took part in great events such as the Cordobazo, Villazo, the Coordinadoras.” After such bloody defeats came “the return of democracy” in the 80s, as in Argentina, where the dictatorship was hanging from a thread after the defeat in Malvinas. Likewise, Uruguay and Brazil were also on their way back to democracy. The Chilean repressive regime remained relatively intact, encapsulated by a restricted bourgeois democratic régime, relying on the strength of the previous Pinochet régime which granted immunity for the armed forces.
8. Decomposing democracies.
In stark contrast with the post-war boom, when economic growth both in the imperialist countries and some prosperous semicolonies made room to buy off broader sectors of the mass movement, thus boosting political and social stability, today’s economic offensive tends to undermine the basis of the social pacts. No matter the different tempo in the imperialist countries and the semicolonies, chronic unemployment, polarisation in the middle classes between better off layers and an impoverished majority, the inability of capital to give major concessions for improving the living standards of the masses are all factors set to undermine the foundations of bourgeois-democratic regimes.
This results in a tendency to the decomposition of these régimes, even in their more formal features. Bourgeois sociology regards reality as a dichotomy contradiction between “democracy and dictatorship”, deliberately covering up its class nature, and also the tendency at work in these regimes to incorporate more and more Bonapartistic features.
Moreover, bourgeois democracies in the semicolonies were born out of a “pact of impunity” for the stalwarts of the previous dictatorial regimes. The foundational pacts of these republics included The Economist’s advice in 1987 for the new “democracies” regarding their attitude towards the military when it said “forget the sins of the past, or at least do not embark in punishing them.”. That was exactly the inspiration for the “Due Obedience & Full Stop” act and the pardons in Argentina -absolving the military of their past crimes. The same applies to the “Navy Club Pact” in Uruguay 1984, and so on. Likewise, the apartheid executioners in South Africa were absolved just for “telling the truth” about their past atrocities. Reconciliation with former repressors is a generalised policy right from beginning of these “democracies”, showing its degraded nature.
Such decomposition is also manifested in the surrender of all political parties-conservative and “progressive” ones alike- to the diktats of the bourgeoisie, becoming the managers of the businesses of big capital, which in turn turns the electoral contest in a farce. On top of this come the increasingly shameful bankrolling of candidates by big business, the increasing power of the “lobby groups” on MPs, the marketing of candidates as mere objects of consumption, are some of the main features of a tendency at work both in rich countries and semicolonies. The latter have also witnessed the frequent use of presidential decrees; the introduction of non-elected officials that take decisions affecting the destiny of millions -e.g. negotiations with the IMF. The mechanism of re-election is also a way for holding to power, even writing off the alternation in power.
As Perry Anderson says in his book, discussing against Fukuyama: “Today democracy covers reigns supreme in more territories than ever before. But it also turns out to be weaker, as if the more universal it turns, the less real content it harbours. The US are a paramount example: a society in which less than 50 % vote, 90 % of congressmen are re-elected and a position is held because of the millions it yields. In Japan, money is even more important, and there is not even a nominal party alternation. In France, the assembly has been reduced to a nuisance. Britain does not even have a written Constitution. In the recent-born democracies in Poland and Hungary, electoral apathy and cynicism are even above US levels: less than 25 % of voters took part in recent elections. Fukuyama does not suggest anywhere there is any possibility to improve in a significant way this sad scenario.” These words written in 1992 remain valid through and through after a decade of “neoliberal” offensive against the masses. After 9 years of economic growth, the US electoral process point in the same direction.
The ever-increasing decomposition of “democratic” forms is tearing off the veil of “bourgeois democracy as the best robe for capital”, appearing instead, in the eyes of the masses, as a “democracy for the rich”.
9. Why some semi-colonies have endured long-lasting bourgeois democratic regimes?
Shortly before the outbreak of WW II, while bourgeois democracies were overrun by Fascist regimes in most European countries, Trotsky said: “Only rich nations can afford democratic regimes”. The increasingly unequal distribution of global wealth between the semi-colonies and the imperialist heartlands; the take over of large multinational companies in the semi-colonies exploiting cheap labour in pursue of super-profits; the royalties paid for imperialist concerns; the increasingly suffocating weight of the foreign debt in all semi-colonial countries; the exploitation of immigrant labour in the developed countries themselves, all are instruments used by imperialism to keep its privileges and give imperial democracies an enhanced base of stability.
Trotsky also held that in backward countries -which make most of the planet- “the weakness of the national bourgeoisie, the lack of governmental traditions in small communities, the pressure of foreign capitalism and the relatively fast growth of the proletariat undermine the basis of any kind of stable democratic regime”. These definitions have been valid for the whole seventy years elapsed ever since they were written. The unstable position of bourgeois democratic regimes in the semicolonies has nourished different types of a sui-generis bonapartism that have been the rule of bourgeois domination. On one hand, we see those relying on the mass movement for support against imperialist pressure, namely Cárdenas in Mexico in the 1930s and later on Gen. Perón’s government in Argentina, or else the late 1960s-early 1970s Torres régime in Bolivia and Velazco Alvarado in Peru, etc. On the other hand, there are those cases in which such regimes are forthright instruments of finance capital, in the shape of a police dictatorship, namely in Argentina the 1955 coup, Onganía’s coup in 1966 and Videla’s in 1976. Banzer’s coup in Bolivia is another point in case, etc.
However, the last 15 years have actually seen the emergence of bourgeois democratic regimes in Latin American and Asian countries such as Korea. Therefore, Trotsky’s analysis might appear to be flawed. Moreover, many of these regimes have settled in and enjoy a relative stability, namely Argentina, where this type of regime has lasted for over 17 years. Why have these bourgeois democratic forms lasted for so long?
The retreat of the labour movement in the wake of previous defeats -the bloody coups in the Latin American Southern Cone-, along with neo-liberalism’s subsequent attacks that atomised its ranks and weakened its forces -thus bringing about a “crisis of subjectivity” in the working class movement- and the nefarious role of the official leaderships of the mass movement have all played in the hands of the bourgeoisie in these countries, which could now afford to resort to ever-decomposing democratic forms for keeping its domination.
This provided the background and the cement for a wide unity of the bourgeoisie, rallied around the imperialist plan, in a reflection of the closer intermingling between the native bourgeoisies and imperialist capital, which gave a relatively more solid stability to these regimes -all these while the working class had walked off the scene for a long period.
This situation is periodically reinforced by means of economic upheavals such as sky-rocketing inflation, mass unemployment, a steady attack on labour conquests, etc, which capital resorts to for terrorising the working class.
In the case of Southeast Asia, the class structure of the main countries in the region, such as Korea and Thailand, has changed dramatically. These countries used to have an overwhelmingly rural population, but then became industrialised countries with a broad -and in many cases mostly- urban population with a strong working class and a new middle class. Such development was a result of the international economic crisis of the mid-1970s, after which these countries became centres for the accumulation of capital for world capitalism. This partial development of the productive forces there resulted in significant changes in the class structure, bringing about an increased economic and social mobility. The “authoritarian” forms of government became more and more of a hindrance to preserve the domination of the ruling elites, being replaced for bourgeois democratic forms -in a pre-emptive way- to channel the aspirations of the new social actors, which expressed themselves in democratic mobilisations and demands.
An additional element that gave such regimes in the semi-colonial world a longer lease of life was their transformation into the so-called “emerging markets” in the early 1990s -a development encompassing some of the countries we are referring to. This boosted the growth of a privileged middle class layer that became the social base of these regimes. In clear contrast with the old middle class, this social layer lives off the crumbs coming from the increased imperialist take-over and constitutes the main foundation for these decomposing democracies.
The elements pointed above explain the reasons why bourgeois democratic forms have in many cases spread beyond the richest nations, becoming -under these conditions- the most efficient way of keeping bourgeois domination.
10. A declining crusade
The early 1990s saw the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Europe -the heyday of the “third wave of democratisation”- which sparked off an ideological backlash claiming “the victory of democracy and market”. However, right at the turn of the new century, the initial frenzy is dying out.
The failure of the reformist attempt at the restoration of capitalism in the former USSR and the worsened global economic crisis since 1997 have started to undermine the foundations of the economic onslaught disguised in “democratic” clothes. Thus, the effectiveness of the policy of “democratic counter-revolutionary” seems to be wearing thin.
The 1999 imperialist intervention in Kosovo exposed the crisis of the humanitarian mumbojumbo used by imperialism to cover up its military operations for a whole decade.
The tendency to the ever-increasing decomposition of democracy and the monopolies’ increasing meddling in every aspect of social life have brought to life vanguard movements question their rule, this time in the imperialist countries themselves, as it happened in Seattle 1999.
The big hindrances blocking the advance of restoration have provoked the rise of a Great Russian bonapartism that showed its aggressive ugly face in Chechnya. The Indonesian transition, the by-product both of the economic collapse and the revolutionary events that ousted Suharto has proved to be very unstable -finding it still hard to settle in-, the exact opposite of other semi-colonies, namely the hitherto “successful” and “peaceful” Mexican transition from the crisis-ridden PRI regime to the presidency of Fox.
In this sense, Mexico is undergoing a late transition. As opposed to the domino effect sweeping Latin America in the early 80s, the present background hinders its settlement. This can already be seen in the instability-ridden regimes in the North Andean region of South America swept by recurrent mass uprisings, thus weakening those regimes to the utmost. This has led to several governmental reshuffles in Ecuador, overt civil war and increasing US imperialist intervention in Colombia, mass uprisings and state of siege in Bolivia, together with the efforts of Fujimori’s reactionary bonapartism to hold on to power, which has fuelled mass protests on the very day he took office, resulting in six people killed. Last but not least, the populist-type bonapartism of Chávez in Venezuela is another reflection of this.
Thus, the “neoliberal model” has come up against recurrent uprisings by sectors of the Latin American mass movement, highlighting a tendency -not yet apparent in the strongest countries, aggravated in the weakest links- to the exhaustion of bourgeois democracy.
If such tendency has already expressed itself in some political developments and currently unstable regimes, what might happen if the world economic crisis deepens with a “slowdown” of the US economy in the next few years? This would certainly write off one of the factors ameliorating the tensions running through the regimes in the 1990s. They managed to alleviate their crisis with the help of a rapidly growing US economy (namely Mexico after the ‘Tequila’ crisis). An aggravation in economic conditions, with increasing tensions in the international state system and the rise of overt class struggle will all the more wear out the leverage of bourgeois democracy. To this we should the beleaguered position of all misleaderships, the demise of the world Stalinist apparatus among them, and the shift to the right of all union and reformist leaderships, all of them instrumental in providing a bulwark against those tensions.
These elements will hasten the rotting of bourgeois democracy and will force the world bourgeoisie to resort to more efficient weapons -such as bonapartism or bigfrontism in case of a mass upsurge-, rather than the policy of “democratic deception” that has rendered so many fruits to imperialism during the last 25 years.
Spain: His Majesty’s Communists and Socialists
In 1975, the moribund Franco regime was cornered. Spanish capitalism was shattered by major upheavals, a result of the world crisis. Workers fights were on the rise; Franco’s death opened up a crisis around his succession. The bourgeoisie was mired in a deep leadership crisis, torn between the die-hard “bunker” -staunch Franco partisans- and the upswing of the mass movement. The recession was a big hindrance when it came to making any significant economic measure. Thus, the leaderships of the Spanish Socialist Worker Party (PSOE) and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE)(*) enabled both the King Juan Carlos and Suárez -a former official in the Franco regime- make the transition from Franco regimen to parliamentary democracy keeping both the army -Franco’s repressive apparatus- and the monarchy as two mainstays of the new regime. Thus, the reform of Franco’s regime would proceed in two acts. First, by bringing in political reform and then by signing the Moncloa’s Pact -October 1977- by means of which both the PSOE and the PCE agreed to an agenda of austerity. The Spanish case shows the key role played by reformist leaderships and their class-collaboration politics for granting bourgeois régime’s survival, amid a widespread economic crisis and a mass upsurge. The hasty pace of a three year-long transition showed these elements in clear light.
(*) The mass struggles forced them to make some adjustments, but both sides -the Suárez government and the reformist PSOE and PCE- ducked from waging an overt struggle in order to save the bourgeois régime. In every critical moment, both PSOE and PCE went for a class-collaboration policy. In September 1976 most opposition parties rallied in the “democratic opposition”. The bureaucratic leaderships tried to atomise the wave of strikes that spread by late 1976. Through direct negotiations with Suárez, PCE and PSOE allowed for the first political victory of the monarchy with the referendum on the reform laws in December 1976. The UCD -Suárez’s party- won the majority in the June 1977 elections, thus strengthening the government’s position. Nevertheless, the turnover reflected the heightening of proletarian mobilisations; in the large industrial centres, the workers’ parties -drove underground during Franco’s rule- gained an overwhelming majority. In the autumn of 1977 the wave of strikes peaked. Then, achieving a “social pact” became the top priority for the bourgeoisie. The bureaucratic leaderships agreed to and then signed the Moncloa Pact in 1977.
South Africa: a black figure to preserve white power
As we said before, a similar policy was implemented in the 1980s in order to prevent the victory of black revolution. The mobilisation and militancy of the black working class had grown to the point that it could no longer be kept at bay just by repression -thus threatening the white bourgeoisie’s rule (**). US imperialism had noticed the time for change had come, thus pressing De Klerk’s government and other representatives of the white ruling class into accepting some kind of concessions -i.e. a largely restrained “government of the (black) majority”. The agreement reached between De Klerk and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership dictated the formation of a government with representatives of all political parties, headed by Mandela. But restrictions would remain in place until the 1999 elections. The ANC leadership, especially Mandela, accepted to make an agreement with the white ruling class in exchange for a place for themselves into it. They granted the bourgeoisie that no fundamental change would take place. Meanwhile, the ANC leaders committed themselves to the implementation of the austerity drives dictated by white big business, and granted that no action would be taken against the executioners of the old regime, etc. In other words, they caved in all along the way in exchange for cosmetic reforms of the apartheid -otherwise the transition could have never proceeded.
(**) Zach de Beer, chairman of the Anglo American corporation, foreseeing this threat in 1986, warned: “All of us understand that the years of the apartheid have drove many blacks into rejection of both the economic and political system. But we just can’t let the child of free enterprise be thrown away with the dirty water of apartheid” (Financial Times, 10/6/1986)
Argentina: Bipartisanship and the salvage of the Armed Forces
Argentina witnessed a revival of workers fights and middle class unrest, both of which undermined the social foundations of the dictatorship. The military defeat in the Malvinas War at the hands of the UK-USA imperialist coalition brought about its collapse. A revolutionary crisis thus burst into the open, which was rapidly defused by Gen. Bignone’s interim government. This relied for support upon the so-called Multipartidaria -a political alliance formed by all opposition parties, including the Communist Party. The final act of this deviation came a year and a half later at the October 1983 elections. Raúl Alfonsín, the leader of the Radical Party -a party that overtly supported Videla’s coup- was elected president. This outcome was greatly influenced by the lasting sequels of the previous defeat endured by the Argentine working class on one hand, and the pacifist mood nourished by the imperialist triumph in the war on the other -which reinforced the country’s submission. The dual crisis of the armed forces -for their role in the repression and the military defeat- led to the incarceration of the former military rulers and repressors in the first years, and fuelled military pronouncements and mobilisations against the genocide alike. The peronist-radical bipartisan regime manoeuvered by bringing in legislation that eventually ended in total impunity for the military guilty of genocide.
Chile: an “Armoured” Democracy
In Chile, the transition proceeded along the lines of Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution. This granted a continuing military power in the civilian government, a fact expressed in the continuity of Pinochet as head of the army, the existence of non-elected senators -actually appointed by the armed forces- who blocked any constitutional changes -among others. This bonapartist domination came after the defeat of the 1983-86 struggle against the dictatorship, which had fuelled several workers’ strikes, national protests, etc. Its defeat compounded the appalling consequences of the crack-down in the 1970s. The discontent with the régime was later channelled to the 1988 referendum for “Yes” or “No” on the continuity of Pinochet’s rule, which legitimised the 1980 Constitution. The defeat of the “yes” vote inaugurated the presidency of Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, thus ushering in a cycle of Concertación governments, which built upon the economic “achievements” of Pinochet’s dictatorial regime and consecrated the impunity for the military.
Mexico: the latest “achievement” of the democratic transitions
The triumph of the Mexican transition has a more preventive character, for it is not the result of a democratic deprivation of a mass rise. Thus, all along its development, it combined elements of the other transitions we have already studied. The first trials of self-reform of the PRI régime come from the mid-1970s, without a historical defeat on the back of the masses, but as a consequence of the student rise that ended up in the Tlatelolco massacre. It speeds up hand in hand with Imperialist penetration during the Lamadrid government. Electoral fraud in 1988 marks the failure of this first self-reform trial and the rise of a mass democratic movement. Only the treacherous nature of Cuahutémoc Cárdenas’ PRD enables a deeply delegitimised régime to survive with the settlement of the Salinas government. However, the peasant uprising of 1994 sustained on a broad solidarity movement with Chiapas in major towns, and then the Tequila crisis forces the régime to take a preventive policy standing on the PRD and the EZLN as its left wing. In the beginning as a new self-reform trial of the PRI régime and later on as in 1997 -together with the victory of C. Cárdenas as Mexico City mayor- as an “accorded transition to democracy” of the PRI together with the PAN and the PRD. Economic recovery and the lack of a mass rise (***) turns the transition to the right as the victory of Vicente Fox of the PAN (a conservative party) shows. All along this process the US played an essential role that can be compared -in a certain extent- to the Bonaparte-like role of King Juan Carlos in the Spanish “transition”.
Nevertheless, despite its preventive character, the huge tasks it will have to face for consolidating itself resemble, in some aspects, the Russian transition. From a structural point of view and due to their genesis, both in Mexico and the ex USSR it is necessary to dismantle a huge bureaucratic control structure that submits mass organisations which sustained the PRI régime over decades. Nonetheless there are a lot of differences between both cases, since in one case a social counter-revolution has to be carried out and the other case is about consolidating the domination of the Mexican bourgeoisie on the basis of a more stable bourgeois régime. The legitimisation of the “accorded transition” is a big step forward.
(***) The strike of the students of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) that lasted over a year was the only serious trial -in a radical sense- that confronted the “accorded transition”. The poisonous attacks of its agents, from rightist V. Fox to centre-leftist PRD and even the Subcomandante Marcos together with the organic intelligentsia of the régime, show that the struggle of the General Council of Strike (CGH) of the UNAM students had the capability to question the reactionary nature of this transition. Support of the strike in parts of the working class, large democratic demonstrations against repression shows that this process advanced the major contradictions that the new Fox government will have to face.
1. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution.
2. In his book The Third Wave Huntington points that “the most important modern formulation of this concept of democracy was Joseph Schumpeter’s in 1942. In his first study ‘Socialism, Capitalism and Democracy’ Schumpeter accounts the handicaps of what he calls the “classic theory of democracy” that explains democracy in terms of “the people´s will” (source) and “the common good” (target). Efficiently tumbling these prefaces Schumpeter advances what he calls ‘another theory of democracy’. The ‘democratic methodology -he says- is the institutional agreement for reaching political decisions in which individuals exercise the power of deciding through a contest by means of the people’s vote’. Soon after World War II… an increasing number of theoreticians supported the concept of procedimental democracy, in Schumpeter’s form. Near 1970, the debate was over and Schumpeter had won”. As we can see, nothing has changed in the conceptualisation of democracy, a hundred years after the definitions of Max Weber, the father of bourgeois sociology (see Imperialismo y degradación de la democracia burguesa in the current issue of EI).
3. The Socialist Workers Movement of Argentina (MST -affiliated to the UIT) in their journal Alternativa Socialista of June 5th, 2000, regarding the latest elections in Mexico heralds “good and bad news”: on one hand “… the people’s rebellion ended up with the reign of the PRI” but on the other hand “a pro-US, rightist candidate won”. As for Mexican Socialist Worker Party (POS -member of the LIT) in its after-election issue of El Socialista blushlessly states: “Labastida (candidate of the PRI) defeated; a democratic revolution triumphed”. “It’s a democratic revolution because the most important decision, that’s who’s the president of the Republic was grabbed from the president that leaves the office and the people took it in its hands. On July 2nd, Mexicans became no longer the subjects of the president-emperor but citizens. This turn is a historical change, as important as the triumphant revolt of Madero ninety years ago”.
4. This characterisation stands on Nahuel Moreno’s theorisation on the necessity of a “democratic revolution” against “authoritarian” régimes as a first step for socialist revolution. I.e. a revolution in the political régime, keeping the social foundations of the bourgeois state. Moving out of the theory of permanent revolution and changing it for theories that are alien to Marxism like the “theory of democratic revolution” inevitably leads to adaptation to bourgeois democracy, separating the struggle for structural and formal democratic demands from the prospect of socialist revolution. Those that do not discern a bourgeois democratic régime from Fascism on the basis that they are both forms of the dictatorship of capital are falling in far-leftism. But those that sustain that , as a first step for socialist revolution there have to be carried out revolutions in the political régime of the bourgeoisie are close to reformism. They make the opposite mistake of those that resemble democracy and Fascism but seeing them as two irreconcilable régimes. This conception relates them to bourgeois sociology, not accounting states for their class character but for their “procedures.” Then, essential distinctions is not between bourgeois and proletarian states but between “totalitarian” and “democratic” states. This is the common core of the odd coincidence between Huntington, who sees a “third wave of democratisation” and these currents that see an “uninterrupted advance of democratic revolution”.
5. Leon Trotsky, On Europe and the United States.
6. They promised universal welfare, the reign of peace, the right of nations to self-determination, punishment for criminals like the Kaiser and reward for the righteous, etc.
7. The agreements of Yalta and Potsdam parcelled the world into influence areas, between the Kremlin bureaucracy and US Imperialism. Framed in counter-revolutionary collaboration, the “cold war” was the politics of US Imperialism for restraining its domination and play its established role.
8. It did not give place to a radicalised vanguard, as for example in mostly in Latin America after the triumph of the Cuban revolution or a as a reflection of the Chinese cultural revolution in 1967. The existing Trotskyist currents, though strengthened during the early years of the mass rise, did not make a real revolutionary alternative to the official leaderships of the worker movement.
9. Though strategically US Imperialism successfully tackled the consequences of this defeat, it hasn’t yet resolved the “Vietnam syndrome”: i.e. its reluctance to deploy land troops for its counter-revolutionary operations, as the privileged tactics of air fighting shows, as in the latest Balkans war.
10. Even the CIA after its prominent role in the bloody Pinochet coup in Chile, and with strong criticisms inside the US, was used by president Gerald Ford as a necessary instrument for saving the “Portuguese democracy”.
11. Leon Trotsky, Germany, the key of the international situation, November 26th 1931.
12. In the first case, Sandinism assisted in the rebuilding of the régime, ending up pacifically surrendering power to pro-imperialist bourgeois government of Violeta Chamorro in 1990. In the second case it replaced the old régime, under the flags of religious fundamentalism, consolidating a reactionary theocratic régime. Both results were aided by the Imperialist policy of supporting the contras in Nicaragua and promoting the fratricidal Iran-Iraq war that bled both countries for 8 years.
13. The strength of this Imperialist politics lied in the joining the US of the main counter-revolutionary performers, namely the European Union and the Vatican among the Imperialist countries.
14. Though this “apostle of democracy” tried to respond to the Iranian revolution with the rescue of hostages inside the American embassy in Teheran, this operation failed when helicopters fell down.
15. The so-called “second cold war” in the 1980s during the Reagan government had a more offensive character than in immediate post-war, since the US more and more directly interfered in the Soviet-dominated area.
16. This is the case of Angola and Mozambique, both Portuguese colonies that achieved independence in 1975 and were drowned in civil wars due to South African and US intervention.
17. See EI no. 8 and 15.
18. James Petras, criticising the bourgeois view calls these régimes “electoral neo-authoritarian régimes”, “neo because it has differences with the past, but it also has features we could clearly identify as authoritarian… Different from old authoritarianism since there are elections, individual rights, but not affecting the patterns and structures of power and decision” (Democracy and capitalism. Democratic transition or neo-authoritarianism).
19. The Economist, Aug-29-1987.
20. Pacto del Club Naval.
21. See Entre Seattle y las elecciones presidenciales in this issue.
22. Leon Trotsky, Trade unions in the epoch of decay of Imperialism.