Reform or Revolution

Colombian President Gustavo Petro in a televised address from the Casa de Narino in Bogota. EFE / Confidencial.

The controversy raised by Colombian President Gustavo Petro is trivial today, it was resolved a century ago.

By Hector Schamis (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – “Before, it used to be questioned in many intellectual analyses if it was a reform or a revolution. It seems to me that they go hand in hand. Reforms could lead to a revolution. The attempt to restrict reforms could lead to a revolution.”

These were the words of Colombian president Gustavo Petro this past May 1st, uttered from the balcony of Casa de Narino presidential palace. They resonated in Colombia and beyond, a sort of travel through time and space of post-Marxist socialist thought. All of a sudden, it sounded like an invitation to review those “brainy” debates between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg, on reform and revolution.

The fundamental contribution of reformism was to question Marxist orthodoxy in its essential premises. The argument was that there are no economic laws to maintain that industrial employment will be the majority (over time, rather the opposite occurred). The proletariat has no reason to pursue socialism, therefore, there is no historical certainty to produce any revolution, and that this is not explained by any supposedly false conscience, an otherwise paternalistic notion, but by rational interest.

On the European left, the controversy raised by Petro is trivial today, it was resolved a century ago. To dismantle capitalism is not rational for the salaried employee. To reform it is, to distribute wealth it is necessary to create it first. Legitimate power does not come from the barrel of a gun or from a mob, but rather from a ballot box. Social and political equality is not the product of a fictitious revolutionary heroism but arises from gradual conquests negotiated under the institutions of bourgeois democracy.

That is the sense of reformist socialism, social democracy. Because the only revolutions that did not derive into repressive autocracies were precisely the burgeois-democratic revolutions of the 18th century in Western Europe and North America, of the 19th century in Latin America and the 20st century in post-communist Europe.

To the amazement of the dogmas, the working class does not want a classless society. It pursues welfare, upward social mobility, and property. Civil rights, competitive democracy, the welfare state, and collective negotiations of salaries have been, and continue to be, the instruments to build such prosperity.

The societies with the greatest social equity and most individual freedom on the planet are those that have been governed by social-democratic reformism, which today even advances private solutions in health and social security, precisely. This in order to save tax-based resources and alleviate the systems to give priority to the most vulnerable. Petro perhaps is not aware of that.

A capitalism that works through progressive taxation of individual earnings, but low corporate tax burdens to motivate foreign investment, open trade, job creation and productivity. To the original Scandinavian model are now added the Baltic nations with a similar objective: prosperity, equity, and freedom.

This is the definition of left that many present-day “leftists” ignore, especially in Latin America. The debate that Petro raises has also passed its expiration date there. It had arrived in the 1960s by the hand of the Cuban Revolution and its proposals for armed revolution and violent seizure of power. “Neither coup nor election, insurrection,” was often heard at that time, a slogan that had certain popularity among middle class university students.

As a strategy for the seizure of power it failed miserably and tragically, in addition to the fact that in Cuba it had already failed as a development strategy. So much so that, when the democratic transitions of the 1980s came about, the Latin American left embraced human rights, a notion inherent to “liberal” constitutionalism; the alternation of power, a notion proper to “bourgeois” democracy; and the “market” economy, pillar of the capitalist system.

Suddenly the definition of the left became essentially reformist. Utopia ceased to be Cuba and became Scandinavia. And this was thus reflected in the governments of Alan Garcia, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ricardo Lagos, among other leftist presidents. Menem himself reversed the alternative development model traditional of populism, convinced of the need to make capitalism work efficiently.

Consider the following: in the 1920s, the four Scandinavian countries were underdeveloped. They had a production structure based on natural resources, with highly concentrated land tenure and low per capita product; in fact, comparable to that of Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, among other Latin America countries. By the 1950s, Scandinavian countries already outperformed them by more than 60%: reformism, institutions, and democracy. I invite the reader to search online for the statistics of this century.

Going back to the past with dogmas and extemporaneous debates is not exactly progressivism. The future of progressivism will either be reformist, by definition pragmatic, or it will be unsuccessful.

*Original text published by Infobae.

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