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The Ideal and the Real

Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope by Tariq Ali;

The Ideal and the Real

Robi Chakravorti

“The glimmer of an actual political alternative, however, was visible only in Latin America. There, new social movements had thrown up new political leaders. They were insisting that despite the fall of the

Soviet Union, the world was still confront

he author of the book is Pakistan-book review ed with old choices. Either a revamped born, currently a UK-based his-global capitalism with new wars and new torian, novelist, film-maker and Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope by Tariq Ali; impoverishment, chaos, anarchy, or a recommentator. He has written over a dozen LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2007; pp x + 244, Rs 350. thought and revived socialism, democratic

books on history and politics, six novels and scripts for the stage and the screen. He has been a radical writer consistently critical of American policy since the Vietnam War. The book under review presents political-historical backgrounds of three radical political leaders in Latin America, critical of Washington – Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Fidel Castro of Cuba. They are likely to be labelled as the “axis of evil” by Washington. In that context, the subtitle of the book as “axis of hope” acquires a meaning, based on hopes of an indigenous growth of radical social-economic change in Latin America inspired by these three leaders. Although they are radical and socialist, the political-historical backgrounds of their rise to power were diverse and complex. The detailed accounts of the political history of these countries are presented in the book with appropriate references.

Historically seen, Latin American countries have been afflicted with frequent acts of violence involving rebellions. But, these rebellions often involved what can be described as “Palace rebellions” and coup d’état when one elite group replaces another. Venezuela has gone through this type of “Palace revolution” several times until Hugo Chavez as an army officer once attempted a coup that failed. Later he conducted a mass movement combined with electoral politics which won him victory.

The book presents a detailed account of radical socialist, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s colourful career and what I will describe as favourable accidental factors. He attempted a revolt in 1992. He was arrested, but not assassinated. In this context, he can be considered lucky. He was not killed like Chile’s radical leader Salvador Allende in 1973 in a project masterminded

Economic & Political Weekly

march 22, 2008

by Henry Kissinger and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Political-historical contexts of the emergence of radical leaders in Cuba in the past and in Bolivia recently are complex and the book describes them in detail in six chapters and documentary materials in six appendices which cover 89 pages out of total of 244. Chapter 6, entitled ‘The Past as Epilogue’, deals with the legendary political figure Simon Bolivar who fought in the 19th century against the Spanish army occupation. He dreamed of the liberation and unification of the entire Spanishspeaking continent. Before his death in 1830, he compared his struggle to unite Spanish-America as “ploughing the sea”. It was necessary, he stressed, to start all over again. When Hugo Chavez became president, he renamed Venezuela as the Bolivarian Republic.

I am citing these illustrations as documentary evidence of the complex history of the growth of radical political culture in three Latin American countries in recent times. The three radical political leaders covered in the book and presented in colourful pictures on the cover of the book may be seen in the utopian perspective of similar political-economic changes in other parts of Latin America. The book makes many specific and generalised comments on the issue; some of them appear optimistic, some realistic.

Let me present illustrations of this type of different viewpoints reflected in the analysis and documentary evidence in different parts of the book. In Chapter 1, entitled ‘The Age of Disinformation’, an optimistic comment is made, comparing the chaos in west Asia with movements for radical social-economic change at a secular level in Latin America. To quote, in character and capable of serving the needs of the poor. These leaders were determined to rescue the stranded ship ‘Utopia’, to initiate more egalitarian, redistributive policies and to involve the poor in the political life of their countries” (p 25).

Revolutionary Romanticism

The operation of counter-revolutionary forces aided by Washington is recorded, such as Che Guevara’s and Salvador Allende’s deaths operated by Washingtonbacked militants. In this context, let me present two comments in the book, one pointing to the limitations of the success of radical movements, the other, about the ideology of “revolutionary romanticism”. To quote, “...if victories in Venezuela and Bolivia have rekindled hope beyond the shores of South America, with each government trying to implement serious social reforms in health, poverty alleviation, education, land, shelter and so on, any continent-wide generalisations would be premature” (p 34).

In colourful language, the belief in the transformation of utopia into reality as a “drumbeat” is described. There is a “big difference between revolutions and electoral victories”. Revolutions begin with excess and immoderation. They dance to the rhythm of utopian drumbeat that others cannot hear, and their leaders are always looking upwards and wondering when the rain of stars will begin. It never does and then real life begins. Bolivar and Marti, Castro and Guevara, heard that sound. Che could never stop hearing it and went to Bolivia to carry on the dance. He was still dancing when they killed him (p 123).

One should not be exclusively critical of so-called “revolutionary romanticism” as one points out the limitation of socialist practices seen in the context of their utopian clamour. The anti-revolutionary


rhetoric on human rights and democracy used by Washington and its supporters can be viewed on similar grounds.

In politics, critical discussions frequently use general concepts at a macro level and they are linked with selective choices of incidents at a micro level. There are often gaps between these two. When, for example, the terms people and democracy are used by politicians, they are abstract terms, which a study on Rousseau points out. Rousseau propagated the concept of people’s role in politics. In his view, the “People’s Will” became a holy word like the “Will of God”. One can be critical of specific acts of some groups, but not the so-called People’s Will, which is like a form of secular religion. Rousseau’s model of democratic assembly reflects this spirit. According to him, democratic assembly is one wherein all those who will be subject to a decision participate in taking; each in so doing is moved only by concern of the good of the whole and trusts solely in his own judgment, uninfluenced by others. This viewpoint reflects “abstract utopia”.

The gap between the repeated emphasis on abstract principles and the complexity of their practical applications is an area of study in politics which is generally ignored. This does not mean that abstract principles such as human rights and equality should not be used; only the complexity of their operation in reality should be noted, along with the rhetoric of their utopian appeal.

Settled, Not Solved

In the context of the operation of the “Axis of Hope” countering the “Axis of Evil” let me present an interesting comment on the complexity of politics from a book by Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Pure Theory of Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1963). To quote, “What characterises a political problem is that no answer will fit the terms of the problem as stated. A political problem therefore is not solved, it may be settled, which is a different thing altogether... While it is the very definition of a solution that it satisfies in full all terms of the problem, the settlement does not do so, since, as in a bankruptcy, there is no possibility of meeting all the claims in full. Some must be denied altogether, or all must be reduced” (p 207). Some political leaders and commentators have made colourful comments on the gaps between the ideal and the real and the limitations of the range of political action by powerful idealistic leaders. When the so-called Black liberation movement by Martin Luther King succeeded with changes in discriminatory laws, Martin Luther King is reported to have made a witty comment on the limitations of the anti-discriminatory laws. He said: “Only one change is certain – Blacks will not be lynched any more”.

Nirmal Bose, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi once wrote a letter related to the latter’s ideology of grassroots movement pointing out that it will be very difficult for a middle class political leader to work at the grassroots level since he cannot live in a slum for a long time to organise the poor. He wrote that if an outsider believing in organising the poor at the bottom of Indian society wants to live a rural farmer’s lifestyle he will have difficulty. A witty anecdotal illustration was presented in the letter. “Some Socialist workers wanting to join the poor rural farmers faced a witty comment from a farmer. ‘You may try to be rural farmer using cows to till the land. But when you try it the cow shakes its head messaging that the outsider is not a real farmer since he is unskilled to do such work’.” This letter was quoted in an article published in the Bengali magazine, Desh (December 25, 1999).

When one looks at political, social and economic change, it is worthwhile to note the gap between the elites and the masses, alongside that of the ideal and the real. This does not mean that ideals of change should not be kept; only the limitations of change in relation to the ideals should be noted.


march 22, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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