A World To Build: A review of Marta Harnecker’s Rebuilding the Left

NPC candidate Megan Romer recaps her Red Start session on Marta Harnecker's "Rebuilding the Left".

A World To Build: A review of Marta Harnecker’s Rebuilding the Left
Zenith Volume 3 - DSA Convention 2023

A few years back, I asked an internationalist friend for some recommendations on books to better understand the Latin American left, politically and historically. For a deep view of colonialist history, they told me, you need to read Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, and to understand Pink Tide politics, just read everything Marta Harnecker ever wrote. Turns out, that’s a tall order – Harnecker wrote upwards of 40 books, a number of which remain untranslated into English. But I quickly found myself drawn to her concise, bullet-pointed, blunt writing style, so different than the dense, verbose, and metaphor-laden writing of so many of her European and American peers. I read a number of her books, marveling at the clarity with which she explains historical events, offers analysis, and ties that analysis together into prescriptions for what worked, what didn’t, and how to move on. In my quest to better-understand Latin America, I found myself finally understanding the practice of historical materialism

Harnecker – born in Chile, educated in Paris under Althusser and others, a journalist during the Allende years, an exile in Cuba during the Pinochet years, and finally an advisor to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – had plenty of life experience to draw from. But coming out of the popular education movement that surged in South America in the 1960s, she believed firmly in the value of popular history, and founded the Memoria Popular Latinoamerica in Cuba to collect stories of the people and their experiences of social and political movements. This methodology informed not only her writing, but her politics, and her prescriptions for how to actually do popular democracy are damn near peerless.

This is  the core question for DSA when we debate the question of relating to the international left is it not? Yes, we want to learn from our Latin American comrades and other left parties from around the world, but what should we actually be doing with that information? How do we translate it to our conditions? What’s useful? What’s not?

In 2006’s Rebuilding The Left, Harnecker took a stab at these questions, looking critically (but never dismissively) at a variety of Latin American leftist political projects, their successes and their failures, and builds a prescription for a new sort of formation, one which she calls “a political instrument” rather than a party (though my own critical read is that this is probably an unnecessary branding exercise). She talks about multi-tendency cooperation and how both minority and majority factions should behave in order to grow the movement, how to build programmatic unity and how to manage relationships with elected officials, and nitty-gritty approaches to revolutionary protaganism/cadreficiation/organizer development.

Rebuilding the Left is best-approached in dialogue with 2015’s A World To Build, which tackles similar questions with another decade’s worth of hindsight, but given the US Left’s level of development compared to that of Latin American parties, the 2006 prescriptions offer a more realistic starting place.

A warning: Harnecker spares no golden calves. If your favored historical strain of leftism is one of your idols and icons, you may find yourself made uncomfortable by the depth of her critical analysis. Hugo Chavez famously met Harnecker when she, in her role as a journalist and popular historian, did an interview with him that lasted a brutal, unapologetic 15 hours. Chavez was thrilled with her style, appreciating the opportunity to be challenged so directly, and asked Harnecker to take an advisory role in his nascent Bolivarian government.

Among the iconoclastic rubble, you’ll find an extended takedown of the concept “politics is the art of the possible,” which brings to mind DSA founder Michael Harrington’s declaration that our org was intended to represent “the left wing of the possible.” Harnecker offers a very different vision:

“For the Left, politics must therefore be the art of discovering the potential that exists in the present concrete situation in order to make possible tomorrow that which appears impossible today. A correlation of forces favourable to a popular movement must be built, using that which, its weaknesses notwithstanding, constitutes its strengths.”

That, to me, sounds like a horizon worth pursuing. As DSA grows out of its modern infancy, an appraisal of our own power as well as our context is needed to guide our development. We must take stock of ourselves and figure out our capacity to grow a real movement for socialism in our place and time. This includes unsparing but generative critique of our successes and failures, a ride-or-die commitment to robust democratic culture, firm materialist grounding in both deep-rooted theory and rapidly-shifting conditions, and a clear-eyed revolutionary optimism. We’ve got a world to win and I’ll see you out there, comrades!