The Two Lefts of Jorge Castañeda

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Update 5/3/2016: this essay has been published in Spanish by Nexos.

I’m honored to be making my debut in Dissent, a magazine I greatly admire. To my mind, Irving Howe navigated the Cold War about as well as anyone on the American scene: rejecting both accommodation to capitalism and U.S. power while remaining clear-eyed about authoritarian socialisms elsewhere. This piece is part review of Jorge Castañeda’s Amarres Perros, part interview, and part meditation on the problem of the two lefts. It was gated for a while, but is now fully available online. Here are the opening paragraphs:

In 1981, as revolution and counterinsurgency raged across Central America, Mexico’s secret police believed they had bagged an important spy: Jorge Castañeda Gutman, the son of the foreign secretary. According to surveillance carried out by theDirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), Castañeda was an avowed “Marxist Leninist” who had betrayed his country on behalf of the Cuban government, by using his father’s connections to help foreign revolutionaries from Central America. DFS agents collected photographs of him consorting with the guerrilla leadership from El Salvador and dramatically stamped “espionage” on his file.

A quarter century later, in 2006, Jorge Castañeda published an article in Foreign Affairs that would have shocked his DFS pursuers. The essay, “Latin America’s Left Turn,” popularized a theory he had been advocating for more than a decade. The possibility of revolutionary change, he argued, had ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving Latin America’s left no choice but to become “modern”—by which Castañeda meant embracing a pluralist commitment to democratic electoral politics and a pragmatic openness to markets and international trade. Part of the left, including many veterans of Communist parties and guerrilla movements, had already done so. Castañeda called this group the “right left”—a pun, intentional or not, on the two senses of the word “right”—and pointed to Chile’s post-dictatorship governments as an archetypal example of modest social reform pursued within a broadly capitalist framework.

But Castañeda worried that much of Latin America’s left had failed to learn the lessons of 1989. These governments formed an alternative authoritarian populist tradition that Castañeda labeled the “wrong left.” Exemplified by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s indefatigable Fidel Castro, this left was closed-minded, stridently nationalist, economically reckless, indifferent to democratic norms, and irrationally anti-American. Jorge Castañeda, once seen as a Cuban agent, was now pleading the case of the moderate left against its radical opponents—in a journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

And here is the closing:

Castañeda’s “two lefts” schema—the result of decades of firsthand experience—still provides a useful starting point for analysis. There are real differences within Latin America’s left. But Castañeda’s distinction loses purchase on reality when it hardens into a cudgel that is used to beat the “populist” left to such a degree that it becomes impossible to understand why those governments came about, or what achievements have sustained their popularity. Such a position can only be justified if social democracies are judged exclusively by their successes, and populist governments only by their failures. The actual historical record should stimulate critical self-reflection from partisans of both sides. If deeply entrenched inequality means that Latin America still needs democratic socialism, the question of how to get there brings to mind a joke that Eric Hobsbawm used to tell: an Irishman is asked the way to Ballynahinch and replies, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

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