Before proceeding to an analysis of the feasibility of socialism in Nicaragua, it is essential to quantify and understand the working-class of the country:
Composition of Nicaraguan "economically active population" in 1980.
(Totals are expressed in thousands. Figures reflect portion of total working population excluding property owners, who numbered 213 thousand and 23.5 percent of the EAP. "-" indicates unavailable.)
Type of Enterprise
(Proletariat includes agricultural workers with permanent employment. Semi-proletariat refers to self-employed workers, artisans, etc.. Sub-proletariat refers to domestic workers, unemployed, etc..)
In Nicaragua, the working-class was only 20 percent of the economically active population. If you include the entire population of 4 million people, the percentage drops to 4 percent. The semi-proletarian and sub-proletarian groups swamp the proletariat. These sectors were of course powerful components of the revolution but did not have the class consciousness typical of wage-earners. Union consciousness was weak also since only 6 percent held membership. The unions themselves had not been a dynamic arena of struggle against the Somoza dictatorship.
Socialism presupposes a dictatorship of the proletariat. To call for socialism in Nicaragua in 1980 without having examined the class composition of the country is not the method of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. When a country has a working-class that is such a small minority of the population, the call for it to rule society is not a call based on historical materialism but on faith.
To put the problem of "socialist revolution" in Nicaragua in proper perspective, let's compare Nicaragua and the USSR in 1921, another country with a working-class that was a small percentage of the population.
1. Social and political development of working-class:
a) Nicaragua: Weak socialist parties, concentrated in light industry.
b) USSR: Powerful socialist party, represented in soviets, employed in huge factories based on heavy industry.
2. Strategic position of working-class:
a) Nicaragua: Sandwiched between two states hosting counter-revolutionary armies; lacked strong class-based international support.
b) USSR: Had defeated counter-revolutionary armies a year earlier. Could depend on support from left socialist parties in Europe and new Communist Parties.
3. Industrial/agricultural capacity:
a) Nicaragua: Totally dependent on imported manufactured goods; facing US embargo, its main trading partner; grew its own food, but contra war impeded cultivation and harvest.
b) USSR: Industry devastated by civil war, but could produce steel, chemicals, machine tools, etc. Agriculture resources were immense.
4. Strength of enemy:
a) Nicaragua: Faced Reagan administration bent on smashing colonial revolution.
b) USSR: Faced a recently stabilized capitalist class, but a class that had been thrown into crisis by WWI and postwar revolutionary upsurge.
Given the comparative positions of the two countries, one might expect that the USSR's possibilities were much more auspicious. This clearly was not the case. By 1921, the effects of civil war and political and economic isolation began to undermine the fiber of the Soviet state. This led Lenin to state in July 1921 that, "Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the developed capitalist countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish."
Lenin said that a USSR at peace would perish. Nicaragua's war was just starting. This nation of 4 million, smaller than many American cities, with a working class that is 4 percent of the entire population, confronted the most powerful capitalist country in the history of the world with a president who enjoyed bipartisan support for his anticommunist crusade. Trotskyists hold the Sandinistas in contempt for failing to accomplish what Lenin couldn't accomplish in much more favorable conditions. Perhaps these comrades could get a better handle on the problems of administering a state under siege if they ever managed to find themselves holding state power. I wouldn't hold my breath.
Trotskyist critics of the Sandinistas also tend to reprimand them for not carrying out "Permanent Revolution" in Nicragua.Trotsky developed his theory of permanent revolution to show how underdeveloped countries could accomplish "bourgeois-democratic" tasks. Such tasks include:
1) Democracy: Creation of a democratic republic and an end to military, theocratic, or dynastic rule resulting in institutions that allowed popular participation in political life. Reforms such as an 8-hour working day, universal public education, and the right to a free press, assembly and speech enhance democracy.
2) National Liberation: Unification of a nation and its emancipation from imperialist domination, including the creation of a unified national market and its protection from cheaper foreign goods; control of precious natural resources, etc.
3) Agrarian Reform: Abolition of all forms of slavery, feudalism or "Asiatic despotism" and pre-capitalist types of exploitation (forced labor, etc.). The end result is private farming unhindered by "plantation" type property relations. Each peasant has his own land and is free to grown crops for sale as commodities.
Trotsky theorized that the only way such tasks could be achieved in the era of imperialism was under the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat. The capitalist class in underdeveloped countries was no longer a revolutionary class and could not act boldly. He showed that the capitalist class of countries like Russia, China and Spain collaborated with the old semi-feudal priviliged classes. It preferred this to facing a working-class holding state power. These are the bare outlines of the theory.
Nobody would argue that the Sandinista revolution did not produce thorough-going democratic change. Many left critics of the Sandinistas, to the contrary, complained that there was too much democracy in Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution. One of them, sociologist James Petras, suggested that the 1986 elections should have been suspended because of interference from the US.
The question of national liberation is much more complex and raises the question of whether such an objective is possible. I will discuss this to when I assess the permanent revolution theory and its relevance to Nicaragua..
The question of agrarian reform is completely quantifiable, however, and it would be useful to review Sandinista accomplishments in this arena.
Changes in Agrarian Structure (in thousands of acres)
Comments:As should be obvious, there was a dramatic decrease in the percentage of farms larger than 850 acres after the revolution. This simply reflects confiscation of Somocista landed property and continuing action against land- owners who violated state law. For example, it was against the law in Nicaragua to allow less than 75% of agricultural property to remain unused. While the number of large estates decreased, the number of co-ops and state farms was growing. The dominant picture that emerges from these statistics, however, is that Nicaragua's main problem after the revolution was not monopolization of land by the gentry.
A close examination of Nicaragua before the revolution would reveal that it had some unusual characteristics for a Central American country.
In the first place, Nicaragua was not a "banana republic" like other Central American nations, including Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. It had minor banana production, but this reflects a more significant fact: Nicaragua's economy was not based on plantation agriculture. As a result, it did not have the corresponding exploiter and exploited classes associated with this form of property ownership. The plantation bourgeoisie typically has a huge economic investment in land and labor. Foreign capital often has ties to this sector of the capitalist class. Since Nicaragua lacked a capitalist class of this type in significant proportions, it also lacked the type of labor force that is associated with plantation agriculture. This type of agricultural workforce has similarities to the industrial proletariat concentrated in large-scale enterprises. This concentration in factory or plantation gives workers a strong organizational tradition, as well as political and trade union experience. Such was the case in Cuba.
The other important characteristic of Nicaraguan agriculture is that the farmers and ranchers had a weak presence in agro-industry, commerce and finance. This contrasts with El Salvador which had overlapping ownership between agricultural production and the rest of the economy. In contrast, the Somoza family and its hangers-on owned and controlled the non-land based sectors of the economy in Nicaragua: the mills, the banks, the export houses, etc. Since they were thieves and extorters, this led to severe conflicts with all agricultural producers, rich and poor. The Somocistas were a "kleptocracy" like the Duvaliers in Haiti or the Marcos's in the Philippines. The tensions between the Somoza family and agricultural producers as a whole was one of the main factors that led to the Sandinista revolution.
In 1979, the first year of the Sandinista revolution, the government confiscated 2 million acres of the Somoza family and its cronies. These were mostly modern farms dedicated to export crops or cattle ranching. Of even greater importance was the fact that the state nationalized the financial system and took over the export of agricultural goods. This broke the strangle-hold of the Somocistas and allowed the state to foster agricultural development in ways beneficial to the producer. The Sandinista government was liberal in the extension of credit to the farmers. By the end of 1980, for example, credit had more than doubled. Preferential treatment was given to small farmers organized in credit and service co-ops.
At the same time, limits were placed on the private agricultural sector. Farmers were denied access to foreign exchange. The state enforced social legislation regulating working conditions and wages. It protected the freedom to form unions, the first time in Nicaraguan history.
A new wave of land confiscation took place between the years 1981 and 1983 under the auspices of a new agrarian law. The state expropriated some farms because the owners had abandoned them. In most cases, it seized the property the owners were not exploiting the land according to minimum standards set by law. These reactionary farmers were in effect organizing economic sabotage. Nearly three-quarters of a million acres were distributed to campesinos who gained titles either individually or through cooperative ownership.
Farmers and ranchers were enthusiastic supporters of these reforms. On April 26, 1981, ranchers and farmers who supported the revolution founded the Union Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos (UNAG). This union would act to defend the interests of small and medium sized producers, the bulk of Nicaraguan farmers. This group supported the revolution whole-heartedly. Contras singled out UNAG leaders for assassination .
Provision of state financial support to middle- layer producers, land distribution to the poorer peasants, and a full offering of new social services never available before (medical care, literacy, etc.) should have guaranteed a solid base of support to the new government. This indeed was what took place. Support for the revolutionary measures of the Sandinista government was solid and widespread. It accounted for the substantial electoral victory of Daniel Ortega in the first Nicaraguan presidential elections since the overthrow of Somoza. This was the state of affairs until the contra war began to destabilize the Nicaraguan economy.
Accusations that the Sandinistas betrayed socialist possibilites for Nicaragua must be weighed against the realities of the Nicaraguan political economy. Nicaragua had no industry to speak of. However, the capitalist class--such as it was--was concentrated in the agricultural sector. To put it bluntly, Nicaragua was a country of the petty bourgeoisie. In the cities, the proletariat was far outnumbered by self- employed artisans. In the countryside, the bulk of the population lived on small to medium sized farms.
Who then should have been expropriated?
Should the UNAG members have been expropriated? Clearly not, since they were strong supporters of the revolution. Should it have been those farmers who were dragging their feet and not producing up to par? As has been stated, laws existed to deal with them. These laws were enforced and their land was confiscated.
Let us take at face value the idea that socialism is incompatible with the large-scale private ownership of land for commodity production. If the goal is to move away from this form of property relationship and to one that is more conducive to collective action and consciousness, how fast should this process take place? How long did it take the Soviet government to liquidate the Kulaks? Was this what Lenin would have advocated had he been alive in the late 1920s? What would Lenin have proposed for Nicaragua in 1979?
Generally, I am opposed to quoting Lenin in the way that Christian sect members quote chapter and verse of the bible, but it is interesting to note what Lenin had to say about the rich peasantry when he wrote the "Preliminary Draft These on the Agrarian Question" for the Comintern in 1920:
"However, the expropriation even of the big peasants can in no way be made an immediate task of the victorious proletariat, because the material and especially the technical conditions, as well as the social conditions, for the socialization of such farms are still lacking. In individual and probably exceptional cases, those parts of their land which they rent out in small plots or which are particularly needed by the surrounding small-peasant population will be confiscated: the small peasants should also be guaranteed, on certain terms, the free use of part of the agricultural machinery belonging to the big peasants, etc. As a general rule, however the proletarian state must allow the big peasants to retain their land, confiscating it only if they resist the power of the working and exploited people."
The Sandinistas mixed-economy was entirely consistent with the policies and outlook of revolutionary socialism. Outcries that they squandered the opportunity to become "socialist" are not based on an understanding of Nicaraguan reality. The tempo of the Nicaraguan revolution was dictated by the level of development of the Nicaraguan working-class materially and in its consciousness. As more and more of the population became proletarianized, the possibilities would increase.
How does the theory of permanent revolution apply to Nicaragua. Did the Sandinistas espouse a 2-stage theory similar to Stalin's? What would a revolutionary leadership in Nicaragua that "understood" permanent revolution have done differently? Liquidate the peasantry? Would this have hastened the arrival of socialism? Was socialism possible at all?
These are the sorts of questions that Marxists have to pose when discussing Nicaragua. I want to try to explain why "theories" that are not deeply woven together with social and economic reality on a continual basis can rapidly turn into dogma. In my concluding post, I will examine Sandinista errors and their role in the collapse of the Nicaraguan revolution.
Before responding to the question of Sandinista failure to carry out "permanent revolution", it would be useful to try to put this theory into historical context. Although we tend to connect the term to Leon Trotsky, it appeared in the writings of Marx himself. There always has been a tension in Marx and Engels between a so-called "stagist" idea of socialist revolution and something resembling Trotsky's notion of permanent revolution.
In the "Communist Manifesto", Marx and Engels provide the theoretical framework for a "stagist" approach on almost every page. In one typical passage, they state:
"The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.
But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons--the modern working class--the proletarians."
When Marx and Engels wrote these words, they had in mind the French revolution of 1789, the most representative case of a bourgeoisie acting mercilessly and decisively against the feudal aristocracy. The guillotine was a symbol of this aggressive stance.
However, Marx and Engels eventually began to question whether this "classic" model could occur in the mid-nineteenth century, the period in which they lived. They noticed that the bourgeoisie had begun to lose its nerve and sought ways to tolerate feudal relations. They speculated that it might be up to the proletariat to eradicate feudalism. Once the workers had finished this task, it might immediately take on socialist tasks. This seemed like a real possibility, if not necessity, in Germany: In the "Address to the Communist League" in 1850, they note that the bourgeoisie united with the feudal party against the proletariat. Even the German petty-bourgeoisie, which formed the shock troops of the French revolution, were inadequate to the task:
"While the democratic petty-bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a close as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only one in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians."
It is crucially important to recognize that Marx and Engels did not separate a socialist revolution in Germany from the worldwide socialist revolution. They specifically point to the need to have socialist power in "all the dominant countries of the world". Germany was but a link in a great chain. Marx and Engels saw the prospects for socialism in European terms, if not global terms. We shall return to this theme time and time again, since it is central to understanding of the Nicaraguan revolution.
George Plekhanov was the father of Russian Marxism. He served as teacher to a whole generation of Russian revolutionaries, including Lenin himself. Plekhanov adhered to a strict "stagist" understanding of the tasks of the Russian revolution. The first task was to eradicate Czarism. After a successful bourgeois- democratic revolution, the Russian capitalist class would be free to develop the country along modern, industrialized lines. By doing this, it would transform the great mass of Russian peasantry into proletarians and create the possibility for the next socialist stage.
Plekhanov's influence on Lenin is obvious when we look at "Two Tactics of Social Democracy". Commenting on a resolution for a provisional government, Lenin says:
"Finally, we will note the resolution, by making implementation of the minimum programme the provisional revolutionary government's task, eliminates the absurd and semi-anarchist ideas of giving immediate effect to the maximum programme, and the conquest of power for a socialist revolution. The degree of Russia's economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class-consciousness and organization of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible. Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place; only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the masses of the workers are informed about the aims of socialism and the methods of achieving it."
Lenin of course changed his mind about the character of the revolution. The Russian revolution of 1917 was socialist in character rather than bourgeois. To Lenin's credit, he never thought that the bourgeoisie itself would lead the revolution. This was up to the proletariat allied with the peasantry. They would create something called a "revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry." This rather untidy formulation meant that the workers would wield state power in alliance with the peasantry, d while ruling over capitalist property relationships for some time. When the workers had crushed feudal reaction and gathered sufficient strength, it would accomplish the socialist phase of the revolution. Lenin left the timing question aside, since the tempo of the class struggle can only decide its outcome. It could be a matter of days, months, years or even decades.
A decisive factor in the transition to socialism in Russia would be the outcome of socialist revolutions in Europe. The survival of a revolution in Russia was impossible without help from victories in the West. In a "Speech on the International Situation" delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, "The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia." Lenin is clearly consistent with the analysis put forward by Marx and Engels regarding the German revolution in 1850. Revolutions can not survive on their own. They have to link up with an overall assault on bourgeois power by a working-class unified under a socialist banner across nations, if not continents.
Trotsky's theory is a product of his study of the Russian class-struggle. He did not develop it as a general methodology for accomplishing bourgeois-democratic tasks in a semi-colonial or dependent country. He was instead seeking to address the needs of the class-struggle in Russia. In this respect, he was identical to Lenin. They were both revolutionaries who sought to establish socialism in Russia as rapidly as possible. Their difference centered on how closely connected socialist and bourgeois- democratic tasks would be at the outset. Lenin tended to approach things more from Plekhanov's "stagist" perspective, while Trotsky had a concept more similar to the one outlined by Marx and Engels in their comments on the German revolution.
Trotsky sharpened his insights as a participant and leader of the uprising of 1905, which in many ways was a dress-rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. He wrote "Results and Prospects" to draw the lessons of 1905. Virtually alone among leading Russian socialists, he rejected the idea that workers holding state power would protect private property:
"The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie."
Does not this accurately describe the events following the Bolshevik revolution in October, 1917? The workers took the socialist path almost immediately. If this alone defined the shape of revolutions to come, then Trotsky would appear as a prophet of the first magnitude.
Before leaping to this conclusion, we should consider Trotsky's entire argument. Not only would the workers adopt socialist policies once in power, their ability to maintain these policies depended on the class-struggle outside of Russia, not within it. He is emphatic:
"But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty--that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship."
While there is disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the exact character of the Russian revolution, there is none over the grim prospects for socialism in an isolated Russia. We must keep this uppermost in our mind when we consider the case of Nicaragua. Well-meaning Trotskyist comrades who castigate the Sandinistas for not carrying out permanent revolution should remind themselves of the full dimensions of Trotsky's theory. According to this theory, Russia was a beachhead for future socialist advances. If these advances did not occur, Russia would perish. Was Nicaragua a beachhead also? If socialism could not survive in a vast nation as Russia endowed with immense resources, what were Nicaragua's prospects, a nation smaller than Brooklyn, New York?
Our Trotskyist comrades are very picky and choosy. If a revolution is not up to their exacting standards, they will give it thumbs down. While they are unanimously in support of the Russian revolution, there is divided opinion over the Cuban revolution. Cuba tends to get some thumbs up and some thumbs down.
Let us consider Russia first within the paradigm of permanent revolution. In a very real sense, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied Eastern European states is a very real negative confirmation of the theory of permanent revolution. Let us leave aside the question of whether or not an alternative course was possible. Trotsky's best, if often misguided, efforts, failed to lead to revolutionary victories in China, Spain, France, Germany or elsewhere. The isolation of the Soviet Union led to horrible economic and social distortions that eventually led to the regime's collapse.
The Cuban revolution has served as a continuing inspiration to an entire generation of socialists and has, so far, escaped the fate of the USSR. How does this socialist island relate to the question of permanent revolution?
The automatic answer pro-Cuba Trotskyists would supply is that Castro solved bourgeois- democratic tasks through a socialist revolution. Land reform and national liberation came about rapidly and decisively through a dictatorship of the proletariat under Castro's leadership. Another key bourgeois-democratic task--formal democracy--has not come to Cuba, but supporters of Castro blame this on the constant US threat to the island's territorial and political integrity. In any case, comparison between Cuba and all of the failed half-measures in Latin America (Chile under Allende, etc.) seem to lend proof to the notion that the Cuban road is the only one that will guarantee success in the long run.
The problem with this analysis is that it tends to bracket out the second half of the permanent revolution theory, the half that deals with the need to make the revolution global. Castro and Guevara did see this need. The Cuban leadership, to its credit, was not in the habit of sterile quotation from the Marxist classics. That is why you never heard Castro and Guevara quoting Marx on the German revolution. They instead devised their own formulations that amounted to the same thing. When Che Guevara called for "Two, Three Many Vietnams", he was attempting to extend the Cuban revolution internationally. When he went to Bolivia and died in an ill-fated guerrilla adventure, he was putting his life on the line to open up a second front against US imperialism. It was his hope to relieve the pressure on Cuba and Vietnam.
Che's guerrilla struggle failed, as did countless others in Latin America throughout the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, the Cuban revolution survived and continues to do so in its present tenuous state. The question presents itself as to how Cuba has managed to escape imperialist counter-revolution for so many years. If Lenin said the Soviet Union would perish without outside help from victorious socialist states in Western Europe, how has Cuba managed to stayed alive?
The answer, of course, is that it had relied on Soviet aid. Moreover, it relied on strong Soviet aid in the crucial first few years of its infancy. Without Soviet aid, Cuba would not have been able to withstand the US embargo. Soviet aid came during a period in its history when the leadership seemed a little less inclined to grovel at Washington's feet. Khruschev felt considerable pressure in the late 1950s to make itself attractive to the so-called non-aligned nations movement and to appear as a champion of anti-colonial struggles. It was this factor, and also the importance of Cuba as a potential strategic military asset to the Kremlin, that explained Khrushchev's willingness to stand up to the bullying creep John Kennedy.
Another key to Cuba's survivability is its island status. This simply makes military organization of counter-revolution more difficult. After the defeat of the contras at the Bay of Pigs, it became more difficult to play this card again. Washington instead resorted to the brinkmanship of the Cuban blockade. Another key is Cuba's willingness to allow disgruntled citizens to leave the island. This mitigates against the possibility of a counter-revolutionary movement arising within its borders. The most important element, of course, is the Cuban leadership's determination to serve the interests of workers and campesinos as faithfully as it can. This has led to solid support for the government at times when it most mattered.
The notion that Cuba is building socialism on its own or can is simply false. The lack of Soviet aid today is throwing the island into a deep economic crisis. It is being forced to adopt a neo-NEP policy that is alienating the workers and campesinos who derive no direct benefits from these measures. While Cuba has not demonstrated the kind of gross distortions that appear in China today, there is every possibility that they may eventually appear. Castro may be a dedicated revolutionary, but the powers of a victorious imperialism are immense.
Keeping all this in mind, we simply can not offer the Sandinistas glib advice that they should have followed the Cuban road. Following the Cuban road is a meaningless prescription unless it includes being able to supply all of the relatively favorable objective conditions that the Cubans faced in 1959. Trotskyists can not supply these objective conditions. Only history can.
Understanding the Nicaraguan revolution on its own terms requires that we cease holding it up to the prism of the Cuban or Russian revolution. The permanent revolution theory grows out of the realities of the Russian class struggle in 1905. This theory is a product of the intellectual and political breakthroughs made by Russian Marxism.
Nicaragua has an entirely different dynamic and Marxists have to address this rather than invent a history of the Nicaraguan class struggle that is more to their liking.
The Sandinista revolution's roots actually precede the Russian revolution. Augusto Cesar Sandino was born in 1895, near Managua the capital. In 1923, he became a bookkeeper in a US owned oil company near Tampico, Mexico, where the flames of the Mexican revolution were still alive. It was there where he developed the political ideas that guide him for the rest of his life.
The Tampico oil fields were hotbeds of a Mexican brand of anarchism promoted by Ricardo Flores Magon. Magon's ideas left a deep impression on Sandino, but he absorbed socialist and communist ideas that were beginning to appear in Tampico as well.
When Sandino returned to Nicaragua, he embraced the cause of the Liberal Party. Sandino believed that this party would make a revolution in the Mexican model that was antioligarchical and anti-imperialist. The founder of the Somoza dynasty, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, was a prominent member of the Liberal Party. This gives us a real indication of the two-faced character of this party. When Sandino discovered the truth about the Liberal Party, he would keep his political distance while collaborating with it militarily.
In 1927 the Liberal Party had given up its struggle against the ruling dictatorship, but Sandino's guerrillas fought on, taking on the US marines who provided military backing to Washington's clients in Managua. Sandino died in a 1934 ambush and his followers dispersed.
Another important element of Sandinista ideology was Mariategui's Marxism. There was always a very strong affinity between the Peruvian Mariategui and Sandino. Mariategui promoted the cause of the Nicaraguan revolution in the pages of "Amauta", his theoretical journal. In addition, one of Sandino's lieutenants was named Esteban Paveltich, a Peruvian who was his contact with the nationalist APRA party in Peru, but who later joined Mariategui's Peruvian Socialist Party. Mariategui urged Paveltich to write a book about Sandino. Although the book was never written, Paveltich did extol Sandino in the pages of the Costa Rican journal Repertorio Americano: Sandino, who has much of Trotsky and something of St. Francis of Assissi, is capable of leading the new men...to liberty and victory."
Like Mariategui, Sandino had run-ins with the Communist International. His personal secretary was Farabundo Marti, who despite being a great Communist leader of El Salvador, was in some ways much too eager to follow the directives of Moscow. Sandino, ever the nationalist, resisted these directives and fired Marti. This breach resulted in the loss of assistance from the Comintern and the Mexican Communist Party. When Sandino declared a truce in 1933, the Comintern accused him of capitulation and declared its support for the counterrevolutionary government of Sacasa in Nicaragua.
Carlos Fonseca was the founder of the FSLN, or Sandinista Front for the Liberation of Nicaragua. Fonseca always spoke about how important the ideas of Che Guevara were to him, but there is no evidence that he was directly influenced by the writings of Mariategui. Marc Becker, the author of the book that I have been reporting on, speculates that this was because Mariategui was in disrepute in Communist Party circles in the 1950s. Since Fonseca was a student Communist then, it is likely that he observed the party taboo against Mariategui.
Tomas Borge, a cofounder of the FSLN, did read Mariategui and acknowledged his influence. Borge and fellow Sandinista Henry Ruiz lived in Peru for several months when General Juan Velasco Alvarado ruled the country. Fonseca advised Borge to look up Esteban Paveltich when he was there and to study Mariategui's writings. Paveltich was impressed with the young Sandinistas and organized support for the Nicaraguan revolution in Peru. In 1970, when Costa Rica imprisoned Fonseca and Humberto Ortega, Pavletich and Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet and revolutionary, and Jean Paul-Sartre organized an international campaign for their release. Paveltich remained committed to the Sandinista cause in the 1980s and Borge often invoked the name and ideas of Mariategui as a great influence on the Sandinista movement, along with Sandino himself.
What Mariategui, Guevara and the Sandinistas have in common is obvious. They belong to a great tradition of national Marxism that can be traced back to Gramsci, and I would argue, to Lenin himself. Revolutionary parties have to be rooted in the class struggle and traditions of the native soil. Efforts to transplant revolutionary models or to issue directives from international secretariats have been counterproductive, no matter the source. Both Stalin and Trotsky embraced this model. Trotsky never thought twice about the wisdom of telling the French Communists in 1921 what should go on the front page of their newspaper.
The efforts to reconstruct an international socialist movement must take the dialectical relationship between the need for nation-based Marxisms and collaborative relationships across borders. Despite the altogether fuzzy theoretical formulations of the Zapatistas, there is still strong evidence that they understand this relationship correctly. They address the specific class dynamic of Mexican society, but combine their struggle on this front with the worldwide struggle against capitalism (which unfortunately they tend to call "globalization".)
Once again I want to call comrades' attention to two important books. The first is the collection of Mariategui's writings that was published last year and is available from Humanities Press in New Jersey. The second is "Mariategui and Latin American Marxist Theory" by Marc Becker. The book was published in 1993 by Ohio University. I suspect that this will have to be ordered directly from the publisher if it is still in print. If it is in your university library, I recommend it thoroughly.
A 19 year old member of the Moscow-leaning Nicaraguan Socialist Party discovered the writings of Sandino in 1955. His name was Carlos Fonseca Amador. He soon broke with this party and started the FSLN, the Sandinista Front for the Liberation of Nicaragua.
He combined the home-grown nationalist and populist thrust of Sandino's movement with a Cuban revolution influenced brand of Marxism. To help publicize Sandino's ideas, Fonseca started a review called "Nueva Nicaragua". The journal, according to Tomas Borge, a comrade of Fonseca, said the Cuban revolution was a major inspiration to them. He said, "Fidel was for us the resurrection of Sandino."
Fonseca insisted on linking the contemporary struggle of the Cuban-influenced Latin American guerrilla movements with Sandino's earlier struggle against imperialism and dictatorship. Fonseca steeped himself in Nicaraguan history and Sandino's struggle in particular, which he described as a model for a new generation of Nicaraguans.
The Marxism of Fonseca and the other Sandinistas may not be to the liking of Trotskyists, but it is a Marxism nonetheless. Besides the customary texts of Marx, Engels and Lenin that inform most Marxist thought, Fonseca drew heavily upon the example of Cuban Marxism. Guevara came as close to providing a general guideline for this form of Marxist thought. He proclaimed, "the revolution can be made if the historical realities are interpreted correctly and if the forces involved are utilized correctly, even if the theory is not known." In addition, Castro and Guevara believed that practice and theory are intimately connected. One does not develop a theory first and then base a practice on it. The established socialist movement, including Trotskyism, dedicated itself to creating Marxists as a precondition for revolutionary struggle. The Cubans reversed this by stating that making revolution helps to create Marxists.
Castro said in a speech on July 26, 1966:
"We would have been in a real pickle if, to make a socialist revolution, we had been obliged to spend all of our time catechizing everybody in Marxism everybody in socialism and Marxism, and only then undertaking the revolution...If a revolutionary happens to be one who arms himself with a revolutionary theory but does not feel it, he has a mental relation to revolutionary theory but not an affective one--not an emotional relation. He doesn't have a really attitude and sees the problem of revolutionary theory as something cold."
The Sandinistas embraced this approach and made decisive breakthroughs on the military and political front through the decade of the 1970s. They learned about the class dynamics of Nicaraguan society while *in struggle*. They learned that a section of the bourgeoisie could be at least neutralized, if not won over, to the struggle against Somoza. They learned that the workers and campesinos would fight the hardest against dictatorship and for social justice. Their lessons enabled them to topple the dictatorship and create the possibilities for fundamental social change in Nicaragua.
In my next and final post, I want to take up the question of why the FSLN's type of Marxism succeeded in making a powerful revolution but did not bear lasting fruit. Most blame must be put at imperialism's doorstep, but the Sandinistas themselves made important mistakes.
The left has a tendency to see counterrevolution in black and white terms. The word summons up images of right-wing armies storming working- class neighborhoods and shooting down socialist and trade unionist leaders. It is not hard to think of the overthrow of the Paris Commune, Chiang Kai-chek's attack on Shanghai in 1927 or Pinochet's 1973 coup in Chile in this way.However, counterrevolution can come in shades of gray as well. Sometimes the very forces that made the revolution, or an element of them, can be responsible for counterrevolution. These cases challenge our ability to think dialectically. As Michael Luftmensch pointed out the other day, the FLN liberated Algeria from the French and subsequently acted as a brake on the revolution. Stalin is another complicated case. He stamped out all expressions of Soviet democracy, but fought hard against Nazism to defend socialist property relations in the USSR.
In preparing this article, I originally thought that I would make the case that the Sandinistas made some "wrong moves" as if in a chess game and that this was what led to their defeat. In reviewing much of the historical material, however, I have come to a different conclusion. The defeat of the Sandinista revolution should not prompt questions of "what wrong moves they made." It should, on the other hand, lead to a discussion of "how imperialism triumphed." Defenders of the Nicaraguan revolution have tended to fixate on the Contra army and the backing the US gave it. They anticipated a victorious Contra army in charge of Managua, with US Marine backing, of course.
The real counterrevolutionary threat was much more complex, however. It was not simply military. It was economic and political as well. I intend to concentrate on the non-military aspects in this article. It is also important to sort out the weight of Sandinista responsibility for the counterrevolution. Some people like American sociologist James Petras considered the Sandinistas to be mere Social Democrats from the outset. Therefore, they thought that no revolution had ever taken place at all. It would waste our time to refute this rather peculiar point of view. It would be much more important to address the criticisms advanced by those who thought the Sandinista revolution began as a real revolution. They have concluded that the revolution was "sold out" by the Sandinistas themselves. The most outspoken presentation of this case is made by the Socialist Workers Party ofthe United States.
In the article "Historic Opportunity being lost" that appears in the book "The Rise and Fall of the Nicaraguan Revolution", SWP leader Larry Seigle renders his verdict on the Sandinista revolution: "The opportunity to extend the socialist revolution, the opportunity to join with Cuba in constructing socialism, is being lost. Unless there is a fundamental reversal of the course--unless the anticapitalist direction and actions of the early years of the revolution are reasserted--the government will be restructured and consolidated on the basis of the capitalist property relations that exist.
Never once in this article or the book is there an attempt at a Marxist explanation of this turn of events. In 1979 there was a "good" FSLN that had just taken power. This FSLN, according to an SWP document of the time, had created a government whose foundations are "established by the revolutionary displacement of the bourgeoisie from political power, the assumption of that power by an administration based on the popular masses and that commands a new army, and the initiation of far-reaching changes in property relations." Then, sometime during the mid-1980s, the FSLN changed its mind for no explicable reason and started to accommodate to capitalism.
It is astonishing to see a Marxist organization ignore the approach that Marx himself used in explaining counterrevolution within a revolution. Marx used the phenomenon of Thermidor to explain the retreat of the French revolution in the decades following 1789. Class relations in France favored a consolidation of bourgeois rule within the context of monarchical forms. Jacobin democracy went into retreat.
Trotsky used Thermidor to explain the victory of Stalin in the USSR. In his "Revolution Betrayed". He rejected the idea that there was something unique about Stalin's character that could explain his success. His victory emerged out of changing social relations in the USSR. Trotsky said, "It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorian bureaucracy, as first in its midst."
I have tried to explain the counterrevolution in Nicaragua in similar terms. However, Nicaragua's retreat is not the result of pressure from Nicaraguan bourgeoisie within its borders. It stems from the combined economic and military assault from US imperialism that left the country battered and exhausted. This attack took place at exactly the same time that the USSR was dropping all ties to its socialist past and was willing to hand Nicaragua over to Washington on a silver platter. These are the material conditions that led to a shift to the right by the FSLN, not its loss of nerve. It was a change in the relationship of class forces internationally that led to Sandinista retreat.
In order to understand the objective factors which led to this defeat, it is not helpful to compare Nicaragua to Cuba. A better comparison would be with the USSR in 1921. Both countries had been through a costly civil war. Both were isolated economically and politically. The survival of the USSR depended on breakthroughs in the west. When such breakthroughs failed to materialize, the revolution went into a steep decline. Lenin was all too painfully aware of the precarious situation the USSR faced back then.
Nicaragua's situation, as any reasonable person would recognize, was much worse in the mid-1980s than the one that Lenin had faced. The SWP was perplexed why the FSLN did not mobilize its membership and supporters to step up the attack on Nicaraguan capitalism shortly after the Sandinista army had defeated the contras. Seigle wonders why the Sandinistas, simply didn't assign army veterans to go where they were needed most. He says Sandinista cadres were "ready to step forward into leadership positions in the ...government."
The opposite was true. These Nicaraguans were ill-prepared. They lacked both the training and the experience to administer public affairs. Being a good soldier does not mean that you can be a good administrator. The biggest problem Nicaragua faced was its inability to move people into these types of positions.
Lenin faced similar problems in the USSR. He commented in a late speech "Better fewer, but better", that "our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture that has receded into the distant past." Both Nicaragua and the USSR lacked the level of technological and administrative know-how to make steady progress, let alone great strides. Revolutionary zeal is no substitute for these skills.
Another problem that Nicaragua in the mid-80s shared with the early USSR was economic collapse. The solution to the economic crisis, according to Larry Seigle was liquidation of the big farmers and ranchers who sympathized with the FSLN or who were neutral. Their properties should have been turned over to the workers who would run them as socialist enterprises.
There has been so much misunderstanding of Bolshevik attitudes towards this question that it would be useful to hear Lenin's thoughts on the rural bourgeoisie. Commenting on agrarian questions in 1920, Lenin said that the "expropriation even of the big peasants can in no way be made an immediate task of the victorious proletariat, because the material and especially the technical conditions, as well as the social conditions, for the socialization of such farms are still lacking."
This describes Nicaragua's dilemma after the revolution and all through the 1980s, including the period immediately after the end of the contra war. Nicaragua, like the USSR, lacked the technical and social conditions to transform Nicaraguan agriculture.
I had direct experience with this problem. In recruiting agronomists and veterinarians for state farms in Nicaragua, it became immediately apparent that the sorts of skills that an American volunteer possessed could not easily be transmitted to Nicaraguan farm-workers. State farms in Nicaragua were large-scale, technologically advanced agribusinesses that the Somocistas had owned. When the reactionaries fled, their hirelings fled with them. Running these immense ranches or cotton plantations requires more than revolutionary zeal. As Lenin stated, it requires sufficient "technical" and "social" conditions.
An ancillary question is not addressed by Seigle. What happens to the owners of expropriated farms and ranches? Many of these proprietors are deeply rooted to their holdings. Would they shrug their shoulders and say, "I guess if the revolution needs my property to be expropriated to achieve socialism, I'd better cooperate." This is not what happens, does it? Liquidation of a substantial class like this requires a massive campaign, including armed support, to make it succeed. Given the international context, such measures could only be characterized as an ultraleft adventure. The sight of farmers and ranchers resisting nationalization would have given Washington an excuse to step up the contra war again as well as given it a newly-created social base to recruit from.
Even if the FSLN had moved ahead with such nationalizations, it would have not ended inflation, Nicaragua's basic economic problem. In the mid-1980s, the Nicaraguan currency had begun to be as unstable as the German deutschmark of the 1920s. I remember stopping at restaurants that one day to the next would raise the price of a meal. The working-class and poor of Managua could simply not keep pace with rising prices. War spending caused these rising prices. Underfinanced popular benefits such as nutrition and health also led to spiraling prices. Seizing someone's ranch would have absolutely no impact on this problem Furthermore, the inflation tended to wear away at the base of support that the FSLN had enjoyed historically. This was obviously Washington's intention. Contra war and economic blockade could only result in inflation since the government needed to print money that had no underlying capital support. Inflation, in turn, causes mass suffering and discontent.
Seigle tells of a conversation he had with a rural union organizer in Matagalpa who he describes as a "class-struggle fighter who has been through many battles." Seigle has some difficulty understanding why this revolutionary doesn't understand the wisdom of seizing the property of Nicaragua's rural bourgeoisie. The union organizer says, "We need peace...We need to buy some time under peaceful conditions to allow us to get the economy back on its feet." Furthermore, the European nations that Nicaragua relies on is pressuring them to tolerate the private sector. He concludes, with obvious common sense, that "Within this broader framework, confiscating this little farm just doesn't make sense."
Seigle will have none of this. He says, "Many of us have heard one or another variation on these 'geopolitical' arguments. They disorient and confuse even revolutionary-minded workers who are trying to find a way to defend the revolution's conquest."
It is simply amazing that a presumably Marxist thinker like Seigle would assign no weight at all to what he calls "geopolitical" arguments. Another way to describe geopolitical arguments is objective global conditions. Lenin, unlike Seigle, was acutely aware of the role they could play. In "Better Fewer, but better", Lenin spells out the limitations that the imperialist nations have imposed on the USSR:
"They failed to overthrow the new system created by the revolution, but they did prevent it from at once taking the step forward that would have justified the forecasts of the socialists, that would have enabled the latter to develop the productive forces with enormous speed, to develop all the potentialities which, taken together, would have produced socialism; socialists would have thus proved to all and sundry that socialism contains within itself gigantic forces and that mankind had now entered into a new stage of development of extraordinarily brilliant prospects."
These are sobering words, aren't they? They have nothing in common with Seigle's facile assurance that socialism in Nicaragua was on the agenda and that the Sandinistas alone were responsible for its failure to take root. Lenin in 1923 expresses pessimism about the USSR's chances, while Seigle urges the Nicaraguans to press ahead. This country, which in proportion to the USA had lost the equivalent of a million people in civil war, simply needed to press ahead. Seigle advised this country, which stood in total economic collapse and that could no longer rely on a rightward shifting USSR, to escalate the class war and liquidate the rural bourgeoisie.
It was all very simple, you see. All they had to do was follow the Cuban road and "force" the USSR to support it. He says, "The Cuban workers and peasants began building socialism, earning authority and respect among revolutionary-minded fighters throughout the world. They stood up to imperialism, to the blackmail and aggression--as the Nicaraguans did in defeating the contras-- and in the course of that fight they won the aid they received from the Soviet Union and other workers states."
This is an astonishing statement, to say the least. Did the Cubans "won the aid they received" from the Soviet Union? Seigle doesn't seem to understand that the Kremlin does not operate on this basis. It operated solely on the basis of realpolitik. Whatever served the foreign policy needs of the USSR's was what they supported. The Cuban revolution took place within the context of the Cold War and the nonaligned movement. The USSR did not defend Cuba because of Cuban boldness. It reached out to Cuba the same way it reached out to Egypt and for similar reasons. Egypt was a useful ally in the strategically important Mideast, while Cuba could offer a listening-post into the United States. This island which was only ninety miles from the US had genuine strategic and military value.
Nicaragua's revolution took place within the context of the collapse of international communism. Not so long after the ink was dry on Seigle's article, Yeltsin became the President of the USSR. Could Nicaragua have "won the aid" of Yeltsin's Russia? The FSLN had a much better sense of the drift of world events than the ultraleft Socialist Workers Party.
Everybody except the "Marxist-Leninists" seem to recognize the direction of world politics today. Vietnam, China and Cuba make concessions each day to world capitalism while all of the workers states have either become capitalist or rapidly evolving toward it. Social democracy all across the planet is shifting to the right and helping to undermine the social legislation which defined nations such as Sweden and West Germany.
This unfavorable situation does not exist for the SWP and it doesn't so for a very simple reason. Groups such as these operate in a hothouse atmosphere where every strike or every anti-imperialist outburst represents the opening of a new revolutionary period. Unlike Lenin, they see only advances, never retreats.
The notion that a poor and isolated country like Nicaragua could achieve "socialism" is ludicrous. Lenin did not think that socialism could be built in the USSR unless it received help from a communist country with an advanced economy. To cite Cuba as an example for Nicaragua to follow is misplaced since the Cuban revolution developed under exceptional circumstances that will never be repeated.
It is essential that Marxism re-evaluate many old shibboleths. The paradigm of socialist revolutions in underdeveloped nations is deeply problematic. The socialist revolutions of the twenty-first century will probably have an entirely different dynamic and character than the colonial revolutions of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They will occur in advanced capitalist nations or they will have little chance of succeeding at all. To prepare for these momentous events, it is necessary to build a Marxist movement that is made up of the most critical-minded workers, farmers and intellectuals.
This new Marxism will not arise out of existing "Marxist-Leninist" groups whose tendency to anoint themselves as "vanguards" when their memberships number in the hundreds. This new Marxism will learn from movements that have succeeded or partially succeeded in the recent past, such as the FSLN. The FSLN, the FMLN, the Workers Party of Brazil and other formations-- whatever difficulties they encounter on the road to power or while in power--must be studied. We can still learn much from the movement that the FSLN built. It was non-sectarian but revolutionary. This combination will be essential.
If the Sandinistas abandoned their original revolutionary project, the question then becomes one of what caused their retreat? Was this shift to the right attributable primarily to factors within Nicaragua or was it caused by external pressure? If it is a combination of the two factors, how much weight should we attribute to each? The FLN in Algeria caved in to pressures from the Algerian bourgeoisie. Should we group the FSLN with the FLN? Did the Sandinistas succumb to pressures from COSEP, the coalition that represented the wealthy Nicaraguan industrialists and farmers?
(In examining the question of whether counterrevolution took place in Nicaragua, perhaps it would be more correct to say that only a partial counterrevolution took place. There are, after all, some conquests of the revolution that remain intact. Many peasants still farm land that they won in 1980. Students do not have to worry about being dragged from their bed in the middle of the night by the cops, taken to the outskirts of town, and shot. All this is true. However, Nicaragua today is a place where social and economic misery reign. The global capitalist marketplace limits what Nicaragua can do. It will not be able to achieve genuine progress whether Ortega or his opponent wins the next election. This certainly is not what Carlos Fonseca founded the FSLN to accomplish.)
In a very real sense, the gains of the Nicaraguan revolution were partially responsible for their undoing. The Agrarian Reform, in particular, caused traditional class relations in the countryside to fracture. Agricultural workers and poor campesinos no longer had to sell their labor at the cheapest price to the wealthy landowner. This, in turn, led to lower production of agricultural commodities.
George Vickers pointed these contradictions out in an article in the June 1990 "NACLA Report on the Americas" entitled "A Spider's Web." He noted that the Agrarian Reform provided a reduction in rents, greater access to credit and improved prices for basic grains. This meant that small peasants had no economic pressure on them to do the backbreaking work of harvesting export crops on large farms. Even when wages increased on these large farms, the campesino avoided picking cotton on the large farms. Who could blame them?
This meant that the 1980-1981 cotton harvest, which usually lasts from December through March, remained uncompleted until May. Each of the three subsequent coffee and cotton harvests suffered as well. The labor shortage became even more acute as the Contra war stepped up and rural workers were drafted into the Sandinista army.
In addition, Nicaragua faced the same type of contradictions between town and countryside that existed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It was difficult to keep both urban proletariat and peasant satisfied due to conflicting class interests of each sector. While both classes fought to overthrow Czarism or Somoza, their interests tended to diverge after the revolution stabilized.
In 1985, the Agrarian Reform distributed 235,000 acres of land to the peasantry. This represented about 75% of all the land distributed to peasants since 1980. The purpose of this land distribution was twofold. It served to undercut the appeal of the Contras to some campesinos, since land hunger would no longer act as an irritant against the government in Managua. Daniel Ortega would simultaneously give a peasant title to the land and a rifle to defend it in ceremonies in the countryside all through 1985.
The second purpose of this land grant was to guarantee ample food delivery into the cities. This would allow the government to end food subsidies. The urban population had enjoyed a minimum of basic foodstuffs at highly subsidized prices. These price subsidies fueled budget deficits and, consequently, caused inflation.
The hope of the Sandinistas was that increases from new farm production from the countryside would compensate for the ending of food subsidies. However, what did occur was a sharp convergence between the price of subsidized food and food for sale in the retail markets. A pound of beans at the subsidized price was 300 cordobas, while retail market prices reached 8,000 cordobas. The subsidized breadbasket became a fiction while marketplace food became the harsh reality. Managua housewives became outraged as hunger and malnutrition among the poorest city-dwellers grew rapidly. The underlying cause of the high price of food was the shortage of supply. Contra attacks on food- producers, large and small exacerbated the shortage.
What was the solution to Nicaraguan hunger? Was the solution to shift to the left and attack the rural bourgeoisie? Should the Sandinistas have expropriated the cattle ranchers, cotton farmers and coffee plantations and turned the land into small farms for bean and corn production? This would have meant that foreign exchange would no longer be available for purchase of imported manufactured goods, including medicine, machinery and guns. Nicaraguan coffee is marketable overseas, while beans are not.
The simple reality was that the Sandinistas could not find a solution to Nicaragua's economic problems within Nicaragua itself. Facing a US trade embargo, it grew to depend heavily on outside assistance. The story of outside assistance was not one to bolster revolutionary morale. From July 1979 through December 1987, the nation received almost $6 billion in credits and outright donations. The US pressured other Western nations to cut back aid, but Soviet aid increased steadily from 1979 to 1987 until it amounted to $3.3 billion. Soviet aid was at a high point in 1985 when it gave Nicaragua $1 billion in assistance, but it dropped by 60% from 1985 to 1986, and declined further in 1987.
Foreign assistance could simply not overcome the ravages of inflation within the country. In 1988, the crisis reached its deepest intensity. The Sandinistas introduced an IMF-styled austerity program in February 1988 and repeated with more cruelty in June. It hit the working- class and peasantry hardest. The bourgeoisie did not feel the impact of these anti-inflationary measures. The government gave them preferential treatment in the hope that Nicaraguan agribusiness would step up production. The austerity program, as harsh as it was, did not work. In December of that year, inflation was up to 33,000%, exacerbated by the effects of a powerful Hurricane. The end result was a bankrupt "informal" sector of the economy and widespread resentment toward the government. Meanwhile, the pampered bourgeoisie continued its attack on the "Communist" Sandinistas, no matter how inappropriate this epithet had become.
What could have led the Sandinistas to embrace an IMF-inspired austerity program? For those of us who had visited Nicaragua and spoken to and become friends with Sandinistas, this came as something of a shock, but not one that should have been totally unexpected.
In September of 1988, Carlos Chamorro, the editor of the Sandinista newspaper "Barricada" tried to justify the new economic orientation. He wrote, "the new economic policy has invalidated a series of concepts that for years represented...a road map towards...the Revolution's economic agenda...'Social control,' 'secure channels,' 'price controls,' 'government subsidy,' 'preferential prices for the peasantry,' etc., are banners of a bygone era that has been left behind by reality." While he worried that the sectors of the society most hurt by the changes, namely those who don't own or run businesses, would turn against the revolution, they agreed that the "change was unassailable and necessary."
Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in "a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country," and, with respect to the Third World, "the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it." It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev's article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..
These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev's article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan's recently published "A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990." Kagan was a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become know as the "Reagan Doctrine".)
When the Contra war ended, the USSR began to cut aid to Nicaragua dramatically. It thought that Nicaragua could go it alone and urged it to rely more on Latin American countries like Venezuela and Mexico. It also made these suggestions at the same time a new foreign policy statement came out of the Kremlin that considered all governments in Latin America as legitimate, regardless of regime type. Nicaragua and Peru, in this light, had equal legitimacy.
These intense political and economic pressures had their desired effect. The Sandinista leadership adopted a political outlook that was in line with "new thinking" in the USSR. After years of revolution and civil war, they had become exhausted and isolated. They had seen their nation brutalized by endless "low intensity warfare," which to this tiny nation was of very high intensity. The vast changes that took place in the entire Soviet bloc had to have an impact on Nicaragua. It is utopian to think that it could not. It was just another victim in the powerful imperialist campaign to eradicate any non-capitalist economy. Only Cuba, Vietnam and China have remained socialist, but each country exhibits the same kind of deformations that Nicaragua began to exhibit in 1989. Initiatives in private enterprise in each country have begun to create an elite that lives extremely well, while workers and peasants suffer.
The accusation that the Nicaragua revolutionaries betrayed the possibility to move toward socialism is absurd. We can certainly say that the Sandinistas abandoned a revolutionary perspective, but the pressures on them to do so were extremely powerful. They did not forsake revolution because of common class interests with the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, but because world capitalism and a rightward moving Soviet bureaucracy beat it into submission. The Nicaraguan revolution failed for the same reason that strikes sometimes fail: The boss is much stronger.
A more long term question is whether the era of "anti-imperialist" revolutions is past. Victor Tirado, a Sandinista leader, said it was and stirred up some controversy.
We as Marxists can not evade this question, however. It brings us back to the original understanding of the Russian revolution that Lenin and Trotsky had. They thought a revolution in Russia would trigger revolutions in Western Europe. Moreover, they believed that unless such revolutions happened, Soviet Russia would perish. Isn't Tirado expressing something similar when he raises this question? Without the aid of a powerful Soviet Union, revolutions in Third World countries will either become highly distorted or perish. The infant Soviet republic degenerated when Western European revolutions failed. For identical reasons, socialism remains a precarious venture today without Soviet aid.
There is another side of this dialectic, however. The victory of the West against the Soviet bloc coincides with major changes in the relationship between the ruling class of advanced countries and the working classes. Wages and living conditions are being driven down throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. The harshness of the attack is beginning to raise questions among broad sections of the working-class. They are much less optimistic the system they are living under then they used to be. A crisis of confidence is developing. That is the source of the worry about the Buchanan campaign. It is also what is driving all of the coverage in newspapers and magazines about corporate greed.
It is entirely possible that the revolutionary movements of the future will not be so neatly segregate itself between "advanced" countries and "underdeveloped" countries. There is a growing Latino working-class that spans the American southwest down into Mexico and Central America. There is every possibility that this working-class will begin to act collectively across border. There is also the possibility that it may develop converging interests with movements like the Zapatistas.
The ruling-class of the imperialist nations has think tanks that allow it to make strategic global policy decisions. Marxism must serve the same purpose to the working-class. We need to drop a lot of the stale formulas that inhibit our growth and influence. The socialist movement of today needs to confront the world of today, not the world of 50 or 75 years ago. The Sandinistas, for all of their failings, were successful at one thing. They looked at Nicaraguan politics in an undogmatic fashion. This is an example that is still worth following.
1) Figures on the working-class in Nicaragua were drawn from an article "The Economic Transformation and Industrial Development of Nicaragua" that is found in "Nicaragua: A Revolution Under Siege" edited by Richard Harris and Carlos Vilas.
2) The table on land distribution comes from an article "Nicaragua's Agrarian Reform: Six Years Later" by David Kaimowitz in "Nicaragua: Unfinished Revolution" by Peter rosset and John Vandermeer.
3) The information on Nicaraguan agriculture before 1979 also comes from the Harris and Vilas book cited above, in the article "The Structure of Nicaraguan Agriculture and the Sandinista Agrarian Reform" by Eduardo Baumeister.
4) The discussion on Nicaraguan agriculture after 1979 comes from chapter 14 of "Nicaragua: The First Five Years", edited by Thomas Walker. The chapter is titled "Agrarian Reform" and the authors are Jospeh R. Thome and David Kaimowitz.