Ideas for the Struggle #1 Insurrections or Revolutions? The Role of the Political Instrument


This is the first in a series of articles on “Ideas for the Struggle” by Marta Harnecker.

1.  The recent popular uprisings at the turn of the 21st century that have rocked numerous countries such as Argentina and Bolivia — and, more generally, the history of the multiple social explosions that have occurred in Latin America and the rest of the world — have undoubtedly demonstrated that the initiative of the masses, in and of itself, is not enough to defeat ruling regimes.

2.  Impoverished urban and rural masses, without a well-defined leadership, have risen up, seized highways, towns, and neighborhoods, ransacked stores and stormed parliaments, but despite achieving the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people, neither their massive size nor their combativeness has been enough to develop from popular insurrection into revolution.  They have overthrown presidents, but they haven’t been able to conquer power and initiate a process of deep social transformations.

3.  On the other hand, the history of triumphant revolutions clearly demonstrates what can be achieved when there is a political instrument capable of raising an alternative national program that unifies the struggles of diverse social actors behind a common goal; that helps to cohere them and elaborate a path forward for these actors based on an analysis of the existent balance of forces.  Only in this manner can actions be carried out at the right place and right time, always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.

4.  This political instrument is like a piston that compresses steam at the decisive moment and — without wasting any energy — converts it into a powerful force.

5.  In order for political action to be effective, so that protests, resistance, and struggles are really able to change things, to convert insurrections into revolutions, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required, one that can create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their differences, have a common enemy; that is able to strengthen existing struggles and promote others by orientating their actions according to a thorough analysis of the political situation; that can act as an instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and struggle.

6.  We are aware that there are a number of apprehensions towards such ideas.  There are many who are not even willing to discuss them.  Such positions are adopted because they associate this idea with the anti-democratic, authoritarian, bureaucratic and manipulating political practices that have characterized many left parties.

7.  I believe it is fundamental that we overcome this subjective barrier and understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not thinking of just any political instrument, we are dealing with a political instrument adjusted to the new times, an instrument that we must built together.

8.  However, in order to create or remodel this new political instrument, the left has to change its political culture and its vision of politics.  This cannot be reduced to institutional political disputes for control over parliament or local governments; to approving laws or winning elections.  In this conception of politics, the popular sectors and their struggles are completely ignored.  Neither can politics be limited to the art of what is possible.

9.  For the left, politics must be the art of making the impossible possible.  And we are not talking about a voluntarist declaration.  We are talking about understanding politics as the art of constructing a social and political force capable of changing the balance of force in favor of the popular movement, in such a way as to make possible in the future what today appears impossible.

10.  We have to think of politics as the art of constructing forces.  We have to overcome the old and deeply-rooted mistake of trying to build a political force without building a social force.

11.  Unfortunately, there is still a lot of revolutionary phase-mongering among our militants; too much radicalism in their statements.  I am convinced that the only way to radicalize a given situation is through the construction of forces.  Those whose words are filled with demands for radicalization must answer the following question: What are you doing to construct the political and social force necessary to push the process forward?

12.  But this construction of forces cannot occur spontaneously, only popular uprisings happen spontaneously.  It needs a constructor.

13.  And I envisage this political instrument as an organization capable of raising a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism.  As a space that directs itself towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of social movements instead of manipulating them, and whose militants and leaders are true popular pedagogues, capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people — derived from their cultural traditions, as well as acquired in their daily struggles for survival — through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer.  As an orientating and cohering instrument at the service of the social movements.

Bibliography of Marta Harnecker’s Works on This Theme

La izquierda después de Seattle, Siglo XXI España, 2002.

La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo posible lo imposible, México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1999; España, Siglo XXI Editores, 1ª ed., 1999, 2ª ed., 2000 y 3ª ed., 2000; Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000; Portugal, Campo das Letras Editores, 2000; Brasil, Paz e Terra, 2000; Italia, Sperling and Küpfer Editori, 2001; Canadá (francés), Lantôt Éditeur, 2001; El Salvador, Instituto de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas Farabundo Martí, 2001.

Hacia el Siglo XXI, La izquierda se renueva, Quito, Ecuador, CEESAL, 1991

Vanguardia y crisis actual or Izquierda y crisis actual, Siglo XXI España, 1990.  Under the title Vanguardia y crisis actual: Argentina, Ediciones de Gente Sur, 1990; Uruguay, TAE Editorial, 1990; Chile, Brecha, 1990; Nicaragua, Barricada, 1990.  Under the title Izquierda y crisis actual: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1990; Perú, Ediciones Amauta, 1990; Venezuela, Abre Brecha, 1990; Dinamarca, Solidaritet, 1992.

Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile, where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973.  She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution and on the nature of socialist democracy.  She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.  This article was translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, in which it first appeared; it is revised and reproduced here for educational purposes.  The original article “¿Insurrecciones o revoluciones?  El papel del instrumento político” is available at <>.  Click here for a Portuguese translation.