The Arias Peace Plan & The ASA: A Victory (For Bourgeois Ideology) and A Danger to Marxism
“Reactionary epochs like ours not only disintegrate and weaken the working class and its vanguard, but also lower the general ideological level of the movement and throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through. In these conditions the task of the vanguard is above all not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavourable relation of forces prevents it from holding the positions that it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly bought experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy ‘sectarian.’ Actually it is the only means of preparing for a new tremendous surge forward with the coming historical tide.”
—Trotsky, “Stalinism and Bolshevism,” 19371
The publication of the April issue of Socialist Challenge makes crystal clear to any interested observer that within the ASA [Alliance for Socialist Action] there exists a gulf of major proportions over Nicaragua and the so-called “peace process.” Not one, but two articles appear criticizing “The Arias Peace Plan: Six Months Later” by cdes. Robert and Neil. With all due respect to cdes. Harold and Barry, these replies are evidence that in our movement “the general ideological level” has been thrown “back to stages long since passed through.” There is a mood within the Toronto branch today of willingness, even on the part of those comrades who did not want to endorse the Arias plan originally, to reinterpret the plan in the light of the popularity of the ceasefire accord. There is no denying that it is popular: it has a wide spectrum of support—from contra spokesmen Obando y Bravo and Calero to Jack Bames and even the leadership of our own organization. But a Marxist vanguard does not determine its political line on the basis of immediate popularity.
Both Barry’s and Harold’s articles strike at the fundamental positions upon which the Trotskyist movement was built. Although many of the points we shall raise apply to both Harold and Barry’s articles, it is Barry’s that most urgently requires a reply. While parts of Barry’s document were already addressed in the document “Nicaragua, the Permanent Revolution and the Road to Workers’ Power,” we feel that the political questions in dispute are so important that it requires a full reply.
While it is rather disappointing that comrades with over a decade’s experience in the movement could churn out such a low-grade critique, what is most shocking is that the critique is based on fundamentally anti-Trotskyist premises. For Marxists, history is the history of class struggle. Conversely class struggle is the motor force of history. It is on the working class’ capacity to struggle for its class interests that we base our theory and strategy. Barry however starts from a different place. He seems to think that the paramount consideration is that of what he imagines to be practical. In an effort to be practical, he counsels that we rely “on any power that can influence the course of events.”
Instead of seeing the Trotskyist movement as one which must bring the experience of the past century and a half of socialist struggles to the battles of today, this view tends to project our role as one of pressuring those groups with “any power.” The only result of such a short-sighted orientation will be to guarantee that the Trotskyists never get “any power,” for we can only win that on the basis of openly fighting for our distinctive ideas and building a mass base for these ideas.
The Sandinistas, who are not in any sense Trotskyists, but rather left radical petty-bourgeois nationalists, have opted for a policy of conciliation and maneuver with imperialism and its contra mercenaries in the name of “practicality.” This is a mistake of major proportions. The attempt to sell the Nicaraguan workers on the idea that their interests and that of the exploiters and their hirelings can be reconciled threatens the very life of the Nicaraguan revolution. But Barry and Harold, again in the name of practicality, would have us follow along behind Ortega in this “historic compromise.” To be blunt, the methodology apparent in both Barry’s and Harold’s articles is not Marxist. It begins from the false premise that the FSLN [Front for National Liberation] is a consistently revolutionary formation, and then reinterprets reality to fit this preconception.
The theme running through Barry’s article is deeply pessimistic. He seems to think that the prospect of deepening and broadening the Central American revolution is not so much impractical as inconceivable. This appears in all three of the main arguments which he advances:
1) First, Barry suggests that to call for spreading the revolution, however “abstractly correct” (!), is in fact to “advocate doing very little;”
2) Secondly, he accepts the FSLN’s stagist theory that because the contra war has devastated the economy, it is therefore necessary to end the war before the economic problems can be addressed;
3) Thirdly, Barry argues that Nicaragua has “no military or economic weapons” to use against imperialism and therefore has no option but to enter into negotiations in the “fight for peace.” It is necessary to examine these individually in detail.
Spreading the Revolution – “Doing very little”?
A newcomer to our movement who read Barry’s piece could be forgiven for thinking that Nicaragua was the first time a revolution had encountered any economic or military opposition from imperialism or domestic counterrevolution. There is absolutely no sense in any of his arguments that there is a communist tradition from which we should seek to draw some lessons. The problems facing Nicaragua are not new. They are the same problems which confronted the Russian revolution between February and October in 1917, or which the Chinese Communists had to wrestle with in the 1920’s. In fact the documents that launched the Trotskyist movement sixty years ago, which advocated the program of permanent revolution, provide the key to the way forward in Nicaragua today.
In 1929 Trotsky wrote that, “The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable.”2 This is doubly true for Nicaragua, a small economically backward country. The option for Nicaragua to survive as an isolated workers state is completely ruled out. The fate of the revolution lies in its expanding beyond the Nicaraguan borders. Instead of working toward this end, the Sandinistas have taken to promoting Nicaraguan “patriotism.” This reached the most disgusting depths with the signing of the accords with the contras when Ortega and chief contra Calero joined together to sing the national anthem. Barry and Harold apparently think that this is clever tactical maneuvering which should be applauded, while they sneer at the perspective of completing and spreading the revolution as “doing very little.” This kind of attitude is appalling coming from leading comrades of an organization which claims the tradition of Trotskyism!
Peace, then Social Justice: The Reformist Stages Theory
To claim that the problems of Nicaragua’s economy cannot be solved until the war [is over] is to accept “two-stagism.” It ignores the fact that the major problem with the economy exists independent of the war: the active sabotage of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie. Livio Maitan, in a recent issue of International Viewpoint, actually points this out, but refuses to draw the necessary conclusions.
It has been argued that the contras have no popular support within Nicaragua. This is only partly true. It is an elementary observation that the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie are simply economic contras, they have never been, nor can they be, the friend of the Nicaraguan revolution. This is the nub of the permanent revolution: the bourgeoisie has no progressive role to play anywhere. This has been concretely demonstrated in Nicaragua. Yet in lauding the accord with the contras as some kind of “victory”—or at the very least “a potential political tool,” cde. Barry follows the FSLN down the path of promising to rebuild a capitalist economy in Nicaragua.
“Expropriate the bourgeoisie.” For some comrades this is just a slogan, suitable only for May Day banquet speechifying, but of no particular relevance to the most important revolutionary process taking place in our hemisphere this decade. But these comrades are wrong: expropriating the bourgeoisie is not just a slogan, it is the key to the entire program of Trotskyism. Trotsky argued repeatedly during the disastrous course of the Spanish civil war, as the Stalinists advised reconciliation with the Spanish capitalists, that the only road to victory was through the completion of the social revolution. He denounced those who proposed to put this task off until after the defeat of Franco for aborting the Spanish revolution, and argued in his writings that Franco could only be defeated through expropriating the large capitalist holdings and destroying the bourgeoisie. What was true in Spain in the 1930’s is every bit as true today in Central America: preservation of bourgeois property and the victory of the working people are mutually exclusive.
Social Revolution: The Economic and Political Weapon of Trotskyism
When considering the question of slogans it is useful to recall which weapons the Bolsheviks used in their struggle against the imperialists. They obviously could not put the kind of economic squeeze on the imperialists that Reagan is currently putting on Panama. It should be understood though, that the act of expropriating capitalist private property in Russia, was an economic weapon used against imperialism domestically which had enormous political (and therefore potentially economic) impact internationally. This weapon remains untested by the Sandinistas.
Did the Bolsheviks mount military expeditions against the imperialist heartlands? No, they were unable to. The Bolsheviks had all they could handle militarily to organize an army of those workers and peasants who were determined to defend their revolution against the invasion of a dozen imperialist armies and the remnants of the old bourgeois army which were funded and equipped by the imperialists. The Nicaraguans have thus far been able to organize an effective military response to the imperialist-funded counterrevolution domestically, but of course they are even less able to imagine undertaking offensive military actions against the imperialists than were the Bolsheviks.
But the similarities in tactics ends there. The Bolsheviks had a limited ability to launch direct offensive military operations against imperialism but they did what they could to attack the capitalist powers with revolutionary propaganda. In the case of Britain, the most aggressive opponent of the regime, this was an effective and successful strategy as Soviet calls on British workers for class solidarity made it much more difficult for the government to attack the revolution.
The FSLN has a different program and so it has acted differently. Rather than attempting to spread their revolution, the Sandinistas have attempted to substitute diplomatic negotiations. Harold’s argument that we should applaud the Sandinistas because they are revolutionaries, and if revolutionaries make concessions, well, we should not condemn them, is not worthy of a Marxist.
Sandinista Concessions to the Counterrevolution
What concessions have the Sandinistas made? First, they give the contras two months to rest and recuperate while they are resupplied in Nicaraguan territory. These American mercenaries are now treated as a legitimate “opposition” instead of a gang of cutthroats. The FSLN released a hundred rightist prisoners, even though an earlier experiment in which a thousand were freed last year, resulted, according to Tomas Borge, in most of them joining the contra bands. The terms of the ceasefire require the FSLN to release the rest of the three thousand counterrevolutionaries (including ex-National Guardsmen). The CIA-funded newspaper La Prensa has been reopened and a reactionary radio station has also been opened. At the same time, the property of the exploiters is guaranteed while there are disturbing reports of FSLN attempts to suppress workers’ strikes. All of this goes under the name of the “democratization” of the revolution. In reality this is the path to the eradication of the remaining gains of the revolution and the return to a status as an imperialist neo-colony.
Daniel Ortega has assured Reagan that democracy “is and always has been the objective of our revolution.”3 But democracy for whom? Democracy is not a class-neutral concept. It has a specific class content depending on which class rules the society in question, or to put it another way, which class owns the means of production.
Bourgeois “democracy,” and this is what is on the table for negotiation in Managua, is another term for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Lenin explained that, “the capitalists have always used the term ‘freedom’ to mean freedom for the rich to get richer and for the workers to starve to death.”4 Similarly, “the ‘purer’ democracy is, the more naked, acute and merciless the class struggle becomes, and the ‘purer’ the capitalist oppression and bourgeois dictatorship.”5 Having agreed to “democratize” and allow the counterrevolution a free hand, the Sandinistas have confused their supporters about the nature of the “opposition” and left themselves open to charges of “destroying the peace” in the eyes of the war-weary masses if they were to make a turn and crack down on the contras in the future.
Yet the comrades insist that the Arias peace plan (and now its product, the ceasefire) has been a “major blow to U.S. efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.” What gains are there to chalk up against the debits? Nicaragua has “gained” diplomatic recognition. The contras are supposed to be deprived of military supplies, but everyone knows that they will get supplied through “private” channels as long as their imperialist masters think they are useful. Finally, the Arias plan is supposed to have marshalled “anti-imperialist” sentiments in the region against the U.S.
Barry suggests that, “had the Sandinistas not entered the peace accord process,” they “might now be facing war with fully and continuously armed contras, but also with all of the other regimes of the region.” Any regime in the region which broke with imperialism and its “own” national capitalist class would undoubtedly face the hostility of the neighbouring imperialist client regimes. So what conclusion should be drawn? That revolution is “impractical”? The fact is that all of these regimes are extremely vulnerable to social upheaval, and the intervention of any of them against a social revolution outside their own borders, like the intervention of U.S. forces to preserve any of them against indigenous upheavals, would be deeply unpopular. Of course, there are no guarantees of success in advance, but Barry’s strategy of not antagonizing the local weak client regimes is a prescription for disaster, as a workers state which remained within Nicaragua’s artificial boundaries would be doomed—particularly given the refusal of the Soviet bureaucracy to support it.
The question that Barry does not address is why did the “murderous U.S. client regimes” propose the Arias plan in the first place? It is precisely because U.S. intransigence in Central America threatens these extremely fragile and hated governments. Theirs is merely a tactical difference with the U.S. in how best to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution.
Why did the Sandinistas agree to such dangerous concessions? Not because they are operating from a “position of relative internal political strength” as Barry imagines. In fact, it is just the opposite. With the collapse of the economy and the rapid decline of living standards, popular support for the FSLN, and unfortunately for the revolution as well, is declining. What else can you expect in a situation where a construction worker “Under the new wage structure imposed in February…is to earn 26 cordobas a day” when “A worker’s lunch costs 30 cordobas, a pack of filter cigarettes is 39, and an inexpensive pair of shoes sells for at least 400.”6
Facts are stubborn things. Slightly over 30% of the votes cast in the 1984 election were for parties to the right of the Sandinistas. In the past two months, rallies of 10,000 against the Sandinistas have been held. While it would be an error to underestimate the Sandinistas’ continuing base of support, it is far worse to ignore the fact that there exists a substantial, and growing, potential base for counterrevolution. As the economic situation worsens (due to the imperialist blockade, the contra war and the sabotage of the property owners), the Sandinistas’ support ebbs.
At the founding of the Communist International in 1919, Lenin presented a set of theses on “Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The alternatives for social development which he outlined are as valid today as they were then: “there can be no alternative but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty-bourgeois lamentations.”7
There are really only two ways out of the present situation in Nicaragua. One is through extending and completing the revolution as we argued for in the article in the January-February Socialist Challenge. This means giving up on the nationalist, class-collaborationist “Third Road” that has proven to be a blind alley. It involves breaking the power of the bourgeoisie and initiating a struggle for workers revolution throughout the region, something the Sandinistas are moving further and further away from. They are trying to make a deal with imperialism, this is the meaning of signing the Arias plan and the subsequent ceasefire with the counterrevolution and the pleas for imperialist “aid” now coming from Managua. This is the tactic of “exploiting differences within U.S. policy-making circles” over how best to strangle the Nicaraguan revolution. The latter strategy means accommodation to the Democratic Party, and if pursued to the end, ultimately the stabilization of Nicaragua as a “radical” neo-colonial state like Algeria or Zimbabwe.
Brest-Litovsk: The Opposite of the Arias Plan
Comrade Harold makes a comparison between the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiated in 1918 between the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, and the Arias plan. He suggests that in both cases we have a situation where revolutionaries are compelled to make concessions. This comparison is ahistorical. Where Lenin referred to the treaty he was forced to agree to as an “incredibly harsh, rapacious and humiliating peace,”8 the Sandinistas have applauded the Arias plan and the settlement worked out under it as a victory for peace.
More importantly, Brest-Litovsk involved conceding territory in order to preserve the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the same time as it was agreed to, the regime was actively suppressing the forces of internal counterrevolution. The Bolsheviks never consented to granting “rights” to the Russian contras and their press. Where the Sandinistas have allowed La Prensa to reopen and promise to permit full freedom of organization for reaction, Lenin’s party ruthlessly crushed the Russian fifth column and rhetorically asked “whether democracy can be preserved for the rich, for the exploiters in the historical period of the overthrow of the exploiters.”9
Working people here and in Latin America are in a position to judge the accord on its “merits” as Barry says. There is no evidence that anyone outside of Reagan’s White House ever took the contra mercenaries as any kind of legitimate “opposition” to the regime. Certainly the workers of Central and Latin America did not. Even the Honduran dictatorship was getting increasingly nervous about continuing to offer their territory as a staging area for the contras. In praising the accord, and even exceeding the requirements of the Arias plan in negotiating the political future of Nicaragua with the contras the Sandinistas have conferred legitimacy on these murderers. They have also put themselves in the position of being held to blame by the war-weary Nicaraguan masses if in the future they refuse any more of the endless concessions demanded by the imperialists and their agents.
Tasks of the North American Anti-Intervention Movement
If the Sandinistas have made an error in signing the accord, what result has there been for the anti-intervention movement in which the ASA is involved? Comrade Barry argues that it is the task of revolutionaries to promote the “elementary democratic position” of “U.S. Out Now” rather than drumming up support for the Arias peace plan. This flies in the face of most of the arguments which he puts forward in his article. If the Sandinistas are a revolutionary socialist leadership, which has neither made “a blunder nor a sell-out” in signing the accord, then why should not the defenders of the Nicaraguan revolution endorse it?
The Gauche Socialiste headline “Victory for Peace” is perfectly consistent. To argue that the peace plan was a wise move, while refusing to promote it, is indeed confusing. As Barry notes, much of the solidarity movement has opted to promote the peace plan.
Unfortunately the “rose coloured glasses” they wear are also worn by the GS and the comrades of the ASA who have claimed that the peace plan is a “victory.”
The substitution of a call for the “U.S. Out Now” does not address this problem. By itself this slogan, taken directly from the SWP’s work in the [anti-] Vietnam war movement, fails to make clear our side in the conflict. A united front on the basis of “Out Now” would have been one thing, but the job of the Trotskyists within it would be to put forward a clear position of revolutionary defeatism and politically struggle against liberal illusions about imperialism. In the past, the Toronto ASA has made the same mistake in our work in the TAIC when we tended to keep our propaganda within the limits acceptable to the NDP [New Democratic Party], Ann Pohl, etc. This led us to agree in advance to promise “Support for all peace initiatives which enjoy the support of the majority of the people struggling for self-determination within their respective nations.” By that logic, which we fortunately overturned by scrapping the old basis of unity at the November  conference, we would be bound to support the Arias plan and the current ceasefire. The TAIC issued some pretty embarrassing propaganda. For example, one leaflet had a headline that said “Social Justice, Not Communism, is the Issue.” This is completely wrong. The whole point of the permanent revolution, to which we should be trying to win anti-intervention activists, is that without communism there will be no social justice in Central America.
The conclusion of Barry’s article attempts to cover for the earlier comments contained in it, with the argument that “the peace process by itself” cannot bring peace with social justice. This, Barry says, can only occur on the basis of social revolution. But the central point is that the “peace process” is opposed to the social revolution. The Arias peace plan and the current ceasefire accord and negotiations with the contras are deliberately intended to stop the spread of the Central American revolution. The current talk of Canadian imperialist peacekeeping troops to oversee the honouring of the treaty ought to be proof enough of that. And it is not just the liberal solidarity milieu which has called for imperialist troops though, it is the Sandinistas themselves!
The Tasks of Trotskyists in the Present Stage of the Nicaraguan Revolution
In this country our task is to cut hard against these illusions. At the same time, we must not resign ourselves to merely building solidarity demonstrations, although that obviously remains an important task. We must remember Trotsky’s remark that, “Only a reformist can picture the pressure of the proletariat upon the bourgeois state as a permanently increasing factor and as a guarantee against intervention.”10 Our job is to build an organization politically capable of leading a revolution, and one of the keys to this job in the present situation is to win the best of the solidarity activists to understand that the only guarantee against intervention and counterrevolution is a policy of consistent class struggle against the capitalists, both here and in Nicaragua, not an accord with them.
Unfortunately the lead article in the current Socialist Challenge [April 1988] points in exactly the opposite direction with its “demand” that “The [Canadian] Federal government must be forced, through protest actions like that of March 19th, to openly denounce U.S. intervention, to cut off Canadian aid to and corporate activity in the repressive U.S. client states, and qualitatively increase aid and trade with embattled, democratic Nicaragua.” This tells militants who look to our newspaper for a socialist analysis that with enough pressure the Canadian imperialists can be pushed into pursuing a non-imperialist foreign policy. This is simply reformism. It is the same policy advocated by Kautsky and attacked by Lenin in his important work Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Section VII):
“The essence of the matter is that Kautsky detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, speaks of annexations [here we might substitute ‘complicity’] as being a policy ‘preferred’ by finance capital, and opposes to it another bourgeois policy which, he alleges, is possible on this very same basis of finance capital….The result is a slurring-over and a blundng of the most profound contradictions of the latest stage of capitalism, instead of an exposure of their depth; the result is bourgeois reformism instead of Marxism.”11
One last point which can only be touched on, but is posed pretty clearly in this dispute, is the question of the role of Trotskyists within Nicaragua and internationally. Is a Trotskyist party necessary in Nicaragua? Comrade Barry and Harold and others with limitless faith in the Sandinistas would apparently answer no. We say yes it is, that without a party which takes correct positions on the lessons of the communist movement this century, the chances of victory are negligible. The mistakes of the Sandinistas to date are not original, they represent an unconscious rejection of Leninism, i.e., Trotskyism. We therefore reiterate our previous statement that the task of Nicaraguan revolutionaries is to split the Sandinistas through a struggle for the program of Permanent Revolution. The best elements in their party, together with the union militants facing such a desperate economic situation today, must be broken from the class-collaborationist “Third Road” and won to the program of revolutionary Marxism. This requires the construction of a Trotskyist party in Nicaragua willing to carry out an unflinching fight against the Utopian defeatism of “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalists.
What is most disturbing is that it is necessary to fight for this perspective within the Fourth International itself, against the complacent and even willfully blind position of the leadership of the ASA (and apparently of most of the other sections as well) that all is well in Nicaragua and the FSLN is headed toward the consolidation of the dictatorship of the proletariat when it is at this point so obviously headed in exactly the opposite direction.
“The duty of a proletarian revolutionist is not to persist in mistakes, not to place ambition above the interests of the cause but to call a halt in time. It is time…to call a halt! Otherwise the scratch which has already developed into an ulcer can lead to gangrene.”
—Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism
- L.D. Trotsky, Basic Writings of Trotsky, Irving Howe ed., Random House, 1976, p. 356
- L.D. Trotksy, Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1978, p. 279
- Daniel Ortega, quoted in New York Times, January 25, 1988, p.8
- V.I. Lenin, Founding the Communist International, Pathfinder Press, 1987, p. 153
- New York Times, April 14, 1988, p.8
- V.I. Lenin, op cit, p. 155
- ibid, p. 331
- ibid, p. 330
- L.D. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, p. 267-268
- V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, International, 1980, p. 235-236