Thursday, February 3, 2011

Journalism, Revolution and the State

QMS, January 2011

At the beginning of the 21st century the theoretical debates of yesteryear have become once again the burning questions of our time. For centuries, questions surrounding the nature of the state and the seizure of state power have provoked debates and divisions within political organizations of all kinds. In the 20th century, the successes of revolutionary organizations in seizing state power ignited these old questions with a new imperative. By the end of the 20th century, however, the experience of degeneration and collapse in these countries diminished the urgency of these questions, removing them largely to the theoretical realm. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, political and economic developments in South America have re-ignited them. In Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in particular, revolutionary social movements of different kinds have catapulted self-proclaimed anti-capitalists into state power. No one disputes that these developments are of tremendous historical significance. But the turbulence and contradictions that have arisen around the seizure of state power in these countries reveal unanswered questions of equal weight. Many of them are older, some newer. The answers will define the meaning of the new millennium, for a world poised on the brink of oblivion, with only revolution to save it.

What is the role of the revolutionary journalist amidst these world-historical forces? Whether as distant observers, embedded reporters, or active partisans, journalists are on the front lines of understanding and answering these questions. The information, knowledge and perspective that journalists create today will become the history of tomorrow. The ability of journalists to determine both contemporary and historical perspective has been greatly amplified recently by major innovations in communication technology, considerably raising the stakes in the ongoing debate about their role. Given this power and responsibility, what is the role of a revolutionary journalist today in navigating the contradictions of the state and the revolution? This essay will attempt to answer these questions as they are being raised today, rooted both in the urgency of the present and in the living weight of the past.

The common and crucial contradiction within the ongoing revolution throughout Latin America is between the social movements, which have made the seizure of state power possible, and the state itself, including of course the leaders which represent and control it. In the last decade, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa have all suppressed and attacked organizations that fought for their respective ascents to state power. In October 2010, Fernando Leon and Erin Rosa summarized in Narconews that “[t]hroughout the entire continent social movements have two options: being co-opted by the government, or being physically and regularly attacked.”1 Leon and Rosa go on to allege that in some cases, social movements are suffering even more under the new governments (which they helped put in power) than under previous regimes.

This continental contradiction puts the revolutionary journalist in a difficult predicament. Is it society or the state that must be defended? The revolutionary governments in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela are all under enormous pressures from capital and its representatives, both internal and external. Attempted coups in Venezuela and Ecuador and a secession movement in Bolivia are likely only the public tip of an ice berg of enmity aimed at sabotaging the movement towards socialism of the 21st century. These states need and deserve the defense of journalists who can report to the world about the remarkable process of revolutionary transformation being led by these states. All this is true. But it is not the whole story. In December 2007, the Ecuadorean army invaded the poor Amazonian community of Dayuma with guns, clubs and tear gas, attacking the village in retaliation for resisting the extraction of oil from the nearby countryside. In December 2010 street demonstrations in Quito against the new Freshwater Resources Act met with similar repression from the Ecuadorian police. The same month in Bolivia, popular demonstrations against increases in gas prices were likewise repressed by the army and police on the orders of Evo Morales. In Venezuela, when auto workers occupied a Mitsubishi plant in 2009 with demands for self-management, and two workers were murdered, the government did nothing to defend the workers but pressured their union to settle a contract with Mitsubishi. Union leaders from the factory in Barcelona allege that Chavez was both concerned about international diplomacy with Japan and threatened by the example of autonomy that the workers set for all Venezuelan unions.

In the last decade, revolutionary journalism in South America has been divided by these contradictions. Some have attempted to defend both the states and the social movements, citing extenuating circumstances, but as violence escalates, this compromise becomes more and more abstract and irrelevant. A few journalists have sided definitively with the social movements and voiced grave condemnations of the states that have betrayed what were some of their most militant supporters. And others have taken up the defense of the state, often denouncing opposition groups as gringos, petty-bourgeoisie, or agents of US imperialism.

In 2009 I was drawn into this debate myself after returning from living for three months in Caracas, Venezuela. US journalism today almost without exception is neatly divided between outright demonization of Chavez and the revolutionary process, and unabashed hero-worship of Chavez and everything the revolution has accomplished. Between these mutually exclusive perspectives which both deploy endless streams of rhetoric and statistics out of context, there is very little analysis or understanding of the real situation on the ground. I naively imagined that my more in-depth research and analysis of the structural contradictions of the Bolivarian revolution would be welcomed by the US left. Instead it has been met usually with skepticism, confusion and denouncement.

This is not the first generation of journalists to be divided along these lines. The debate surrounding the role of journalists in these South American countries is strongly reminiscent of the debates surrounding journalism in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century. Should foreign journalists report on the contradictions and controversies of the revolutionary process, or is any criticism counter-revolutionary? How were revolutionary journalists in Russia to report on the plight of the anarchists, or the Kronstadt sailors, who were some of the strongest supporters of the October Revolution but who quickly became the most strongly persecuted victims of the Bolshevik state? What was more important and urgent, the defense of the revolutionary state, or the defense of the people who built the revolution?

The experiences, decisions and writings of journalists who faced these difficult questions in Soviet Russia may help to inform our understanding of the current contradictions of journalism in South America. Emma Goldman, exiled from the United States, arrived in the USSR with high hopes and for two years worked for the Bolshevik government in a variety of functions. Eventually, her experiences led her to condemn the Bolshevik party and she escaped the country. On the other side, John Reed and Anna Louise Strong, also visiting journalists from the United States who lived and worked for years in Russia, ultimately sided with the revolutionary government and defended even its controversial actions in their articles and books. Reed and Strong did not overlook the contradictions of the revolution; all three journalists were diligent investigators and all of them were personally connected to the immense sacrifices that the Russian people made, willingly and unwillingly, for the revolution. But in the end their different views about the nature and purpose of revolution led them to tell very different stories.

How can we know, as journalists or as readers of journalism, which stories are legitimate? Which journalists are authentic? In her book My Disillusionment in Russia, Emma Goldman writes a chapter on what she calls “the traveling salesmen of the revolution”. Most, Goldman writes, did not speak the language or make even a pretense of looking beyond the surface. These were groups of foreign journalists, delegates and adventurers who were entertained lavishly, taken on tours of Potemkin villages, and finally sent home to write glowing reports of the revolution. A modern-day equivalent of this diverse class of idealists and charlatans has been pioneered by Oliver Stone in his utterly superficial documentary ‘South of the Border.’ But Oliver Stone is joined by more complex figures, such as US lawyer and South American television personality Eva Gollinger, who in recent allegations has denounced the Federation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) for being agents of US imperialism. Because of their criticism of the government of Rafael Correa, and their alleged receipt of money from USAID, she calls them counter-revolutionaries. If Gollinger had a real connection to the historical dynamics of the revolutionary process in Ecuador, she could never have made such an accusation against CONAIE. CONAIE has earned a reputation throughout South America of militant radicalism and dignity. In an interview with Narconews, Oscar Olivera said “I would put my hands into fire for CONAIE... they are absolutely legitimate movements, from the grassroots, with a transforming perspective, with historic memory.” (Leon and Rosa 2010) If, by Gollinger’s standards, accepting money from foreign agencies makes a group counter-revolutionary, then Correa himself is practically a CIA agent.2

But shaming Gollinger or other traveling salespeople of revolution does not answer our deeper questions about journalism, revolution and the seizure of state power. John Reed, Anna Louise Strong and Emma Goldman were all authentic journalists in the sense that they didn’t refuse to see contradictions, they worked closely with the revolutionaries, and they lived by strong principles and convictions, not only about revolution but about themselves. Today, authentic journalists can disagree about the contradictions of the state and revolution in Latin America. What is at stake today in Latin America is much larger than the question of authentic journalism. The question which will divide authentic, revolutionary journalists as much as everyone else is the question of state power.

Karl Marx famously wrote in the aftermath of the Paris Commune that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” A month later in a letter to Louis Kugelmann, Marx went even further, writing that the imperative for revolutionary movements and organizations in relation to the state is “no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the real precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.”3 Many Marxists today may be uncomfortably surprised to hear that Marx himself endorsed the call to ‘smash the state’. But to a certain limited extent, the world has learned from the repressive and bureaucratic excesses of ‘socialism of the 20th century.’ One of the promises of ‘socialism of the 21st century’ being made in Latin America today is that the state will have a more benevolent role. Beyond this idealism, however, our collective understanding of the nature of the state in the revolutionary process is still vague and largely improvised.

The states of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are certainly not being smashed today. On the contrary, they are if anything consolidating their power both through securing international allegiances and resources and through repressing or co-opting popular struggles. The early promise of communist theory was that given the success of the revolutionary movement in destroying class antagonisms, the state would “wither away”. In retrospect this seems to be one of the great understatements of history. Given the historical precedent, it seems today that the withering away of the state needs a theory and a science at least as sophisticated as the science of the demise of capitalism. But behind the nature of the state and state power a still larger question is lurking, which must be answered first. What are the ultimate goals of the revolution? How will state power help accomplish them?

Today in South America the conflict is between two visions of revolution, and two interpretations of the revolutionary theories of Marxism. On one side is a vision of modernity made possible by socialism, a vision of a metropolitan South America where the exploitation of 500 years of conquest is finally atoned for with all the rewards of 21st century industry and technology. On the other side is a vision which wants nothing to do with the technological modernity which it has been sacrificed for. This indigenous, often matriarchal interpretation of revolutionary theory aspires after a sustainable, zero-growth, ecological socialism in the face of the rapacious industrialization which threatens to tip the planet over the brink in the near future. This vision too is Marxist -- rooted in an understanding of alienation and dialectics. Both visions are revolutionary, both are authentic, but they are diametrically opposed.

If you believe in Marxist Manifest Destiny, that the industrialization and technological development of all the world’s peoples is inevitable, then you must side with Correa when he dispatched the troops to quell indigenous uprisings which threatened oil production, which comprises over 20% of Gross National Product and almost half of Ecuador’s state budget.4 If you desire the planned industrialization of Venezuela and Bolivia, you must support Morales in crushing street demonstrations against gas hikes and Chavez in suppressing workers autonomy. Industrialization is prerequisite for entering the global economy on equitable terms, and the global economy is a necessity if socialism of the 21st century in South America will have all the technological comforts and amenities that are modernity’s promise. But industrialization requires military discipline that can tolerate no dissent. Russian history bears witness to this reality. Vladimir Lenin wrote that industrialization is both the productive source and the material foundation for socialism. “Large-scale machinery,” he wrote “...calls for absolute and strict unity of will... today the Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.”5 Two years later in 1920, Leon Trotsky took this logic a necessary step further, saying in the Ninth Congress of the Bolshevik Party that “it is essential to form punitive contingents and to put all those who shirk work into concentration camps.” Today the presidents of Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, while they lack the candor of Lenin and Trotsky on this point, insofar as they pursue industrialization, are headed for nothing less. The contradictions between society and state in Latin America are bound to be exacerbated in the coming years as the conflict between revolutionary visions intensifies.

Adolfo Gilly famously commented that one must first believe in progress in order to call oneself a progressive. Perhaps his statement is more complex than at first glance. Our notion of progress is rooted in a Western European conception of linear history whose accomplishments are inextricable from the centuries of misery, collapse and degradation that “progress” has meant for the world’s indigenous peoples. Ward Churchill for one has been adamant that from an indigenous perspective, being a progressive is not far from being in favor of genocide. Insofar as the socialism of the 21st century cannot liberate us from the ruthlessly quantitative ideology of modernity and into a more qualitative cosmovision that demands the harmonious coexistence of all life on Earth, we must question its relevancy for the fifth world. Eduardo Galeano poses the terms and the stakes of the question with characteristic poesy:

“In the West: the sacrifice of justice, in the name of liberty, on the altars of the goddess of Productivity. In the East: the sacrifice of liberty, in the name of justice, on the altars of Productivity. In the South, there is still time to ask ourselves if this goddess deserves our lives.”6

Having embarked on a quest to understand the role of journalists in the revolutionary process, we have been led through the burning questions of our time to confront nothing less than the purpose of human history and civilization. In Latin America today all the great world historical forces -- capitalist, communist, and indigenous -- contend for the meaning of revolution and the role of state power in getting us there. Journalists are on the front lines. Only by their definitive stance in this most definitive of conflicts can we measure their authenticity.

Two simultaneously parallel and perpendicular narratives of political radicalization form my perspective on this subject. As a young anarchist, I participated in street demonstrations in the United States which led inevitably to confrontations with the police. Excitement quickly led to disillusionment as routine brutality and persecution made it apparent that ours was not a winning strategy. Years later I found myself in Caracas, Venezuela, amazed. In the United States I could never have conceived of what it must be like to have a state on your side. So much is possible when you don’t have to fight the cops at every turn; occupied factories, office buildings, sporting arenas. Millions of people getting health care and education for the first time in generations. I am not blind to the many contradictions within the process of transformation and I remain critical of a great deal, but in many ways, Venezuela made a socialist out of me.

The second narrative begins in Oventic, one of the five autonomous villages of the Zapatistas known as Caracoles, where I stayed for two weeks. I was overwhelmed and changed by this experience. In conversations and classes, over lunch, at parties and at refugee camps, it marked a point of no return, of commitment to a lifetime of struggle from below. I departed ready to denounce all political parties, all vanguard parties, all notions of state power, that could never build from above what these autonomous communities had built from below. Several weeks later I was in Cuba, in a very different revolutionary world. The Cuban revolution, to the extent that it can be understood as an ongoing process, seems stuck in the past. Their revolutionary billboards are banal and faded compared the Zapatista murals. Many Cubans I met seemed as afraid of being overheard criticizing Fidel as the Zapatistas I met were scared of the army or the paramilitary. But on the other hand, the Zapatistas are a few thousand farmers, hemmed in on all sides, and while there have been substantial improvements in health and education, they are still victims of poverty. In Cuba, millions have been liberated from the struggle for basic survival. For all its many contradictions, Cuba remains an undeniable example that the state can change things for the better, if not for the best.

The moral of the stories is that I have become at once an anarchist and a communist, a black bloc Bolivarian, a Zapatista Guevaran. I’m well aware that these are quite irreconcilable identities, nonetheless, I remain them. As Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” Is this a petty-bourgeois notion? Does a revolutionary process demand the strict codification of ideology, or can a certain degree of plurality exist in our ideas about the world in which we want to live? Camino preguntando. Contradictions not only determine the future but also the present, on the largest scale and the most intimate. Bertold Brecht wrote that “in the contradiction lies the hope.” We must hope that he was right.

1 Ecuador's CONAIE and Defamation by “Journalism of the State”, Historic Organizers of Latin American Struggles Refute the Distortions Made by a US Lawyer, By Fernando León and Erin Rosa, Special to The Narco News Bulletin, October 12, 2010:
2 The Ecuadorean government under Correa received $50 million from the US military in 2009 alone, and the dreaded USAID financed the Constutional Assembly. (Leon and Rosa 2010)
3 Cited in The State and Revolution by Vladimir Lenin
4 Amazonía ecuatoriana: relatos de la colonización petrolera, por Observatorio Petrolero Sur
December 9, 2010,
5 Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, April 12, 1918
6 Ser Como Ellos, by Eduardo Galeano, 1991