Hugo Blanco

Hugo Blanco is in Manchester on 25 February 2019, but who is Hugo Blanco? 

Hugo Blanco is an inspiration to revolutionary ecosocialists. Born in Cusco, once capital of Tawantinsuyu and now in Peru, in 1934, his first struggles were school protests. He travelled to Argentina, where he abandoned university to work in a meat-packing factory in La Plata, and his encounter with the Fourth International eventually led him back to Peru where he became a factory and then peasant organiser. He was arrested in 1963, and was in prison in Peru in the notorious El Frontón prison off the coast until 1970. After some years in exile, in Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Sweden, he returned to Peru to be elected to the Constituent Assembly there. He was deported to Argentina, to return and stand for the Peruvian Presidency, elected to Peruvian Congress where he served from 1980 to 1985. The years since he has been actively involved in land struggles, escaping government and Shining Path assassination attempts, publishing the activist magazine Lucha Indigena, and recently leading street protests against amnesty for Fujimori in the streets of Lima.

This man is beaten back and then up he pops again; he has been a tireless militant, building many radical movements against exploitation and oppression, uniting industrial and rural workers in joint struggle. I still have a poster of him that I had on my wall as a student, of him angrily resisting court officials after one of his many arrests, this one after his participation as a member of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores in a broader organisation Frente Obrero, Campesino, Estudantil, y Popular. FOCEP had gained 11% of the vote in the elections and the Peruvian state was determined that Blanco pay for that. Now we have a book that honours this life of enduring struggle, and honours it by telling us of the unfolding political context and the role of organisations Blanco helped build in order to further resistance. This is a book to marvel at and learn from. This is Blanco’s history, but also our history as part of a revolutionary tradition that has traced a parallel path, a path we should be proud to say connects with his at many crucial points.

I have set out the very brief version of his political biography here. What Derek Wall does is to flesh that out with details of his life that draw attention not only to the incredibly diverse kinds of struggle that Blanco has been involved with around the world but also aspects of his personal life. These details enrich the narrative. We learn, for example, not only of the role of the Fourth International in the international campaign to release him from prison – that I knew when I had the poster pinned up – but also of the later financial appeals for medical treatment, operations Blanco needed after lingering injuries to his head and back, results of severe beatings by police and army and prison guards. It is a miracle he has survived so long; he is, as Wall points out, someone with more than a cat’s nine lives.

The book is packed with anecdotes that have a strong political charge; did you know, for example, that Blanco was in Chile during the coup against Allende, and that he managed to escape because he was not on a death list, not on a death list because he was critical of the regime as reformist rather than one of its supporters? The accidents and ironies of history are traced with a steady hand in this book that allows us to see better how political lives are necessarily entwined with personal experience and personal costs.

You will be awestruck as you read this book, it is the kind of book you can give as a present to someone beginning to learn about politics as an introduction to what ecosocialism is about in practice, and you will sometimes laugh too, bitter radical humour. We learn something about the influence of Leon Trotsky, but also about José María Arguedas and José Carlos Mariátegui (from whom the phrase ‘shining path’ comes) and, why Blanco ‘viewed the collectivist nature of the Inca Empire, despite its undemocratic character, as an inspiration for the creation of communism in Peru’. And we learn how important women’s resistance to patriarchy has been to Blanco as well as indigenous resistance to despoliation of their land. Wall quotes Eduardo Galeano writing that one of his fourteen hunger strikes, when Blanco could go on no longer ‘the government was so moved it sent him a coffin as a present’.

This book is beautifully written, with some great turns of phrase which sum up key debates; speaking of Blanco’s interest in alternative systems of political organisation, that of the ayllu in pre-colonial times, Wall pits this against a false choice often posed to us in which ‘One alternative is the purity of inaction’ and ‘the other is action that reforms a system so as to conserve it’. Hugo Blanco is about action, action linked to genuine transformative change.

This must have been an extraordinarily difficult to write, for Wall has a triple-task here; to tell us about the life of Hugo Blanco, yes of course, but also to tell us about the history of Latin America, from the arrival of the conquistadors to the new imperialist subjugation of the continent, and, more, to tell us how revolutionary traditions and organisations of resistance, including groups affiliated to the Fourth International were built and how they split, and sometimes merged again. What drives this book forward is that Wall wants to explain, is a passionate and thoughtful author, takes pains to neatly sidetrack into some doctrinal disputes, but always in order to return us to the same question; what is to be done, and what did Blanco do in those different situations.

Another strength is that the writing of this book, it is clear, has also been as collaborative as the political life of its subject. Those who have followed Wall’s postings and pleas for help on social media over the last year will know this well. Blanco refuses honours that are directed to him alone, always preferring to draw attention to collective organisation, to others who were also co-workers. He knows that he owes his life to this common struggle; Wall describes an occasion when he was arrested, when peasants blockaded the bus he was being taken away in, forcing his release. And, the flipside of his, we see him on trial claiming responsibility for deaths in an exchange of fire with officers when the ballistics evidence says otherwise; Blanco is protecting his comrades. Wall too has drawn on the expertise of others to piece together this account, and has been very lucky to also be able to draw on Blanco’s own memories.

As Wall points out, many of the indigenous, peasant and ecological struggles that are at the heart of Hugo Blanco’s life, and reason why he left the Fourth International, actually prefigure many of the political developments inside the Fourth International in recent years; Wall writes that ‘Both the Trotskyist and the indigenous elements of his politics have fuelled his resistance.’ This book is the best of green and red politics. Few political figures have managed to trace a path that is true to both. Hugo Blanco did that, and so does this book.

 

You can order the book here.

 

Register for the meeting with Hugo Blanco and Derek Wall in Manchester here

 

This article first appeared as a book review here, where you can comment on it

 

 

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Green and Red Rules for Radicals

Derek Wall’s new book Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals (2017, Pluto Press)

Of the main complaints made against ‘ecosocialist’ politics, attempts to combine Red and Green in a radical alliance to combat capitalism’s deadly environmental and existential threat to our planet, one of the most common is that revolutionary Marxists thereby get drawn into an unholy alliance with bourgeois environmental liberals. The complaint hinges around the very real fear that left politics will be ‘recuperated’, neutralised and absorbed by mainstream ecological discourse, and we will be tempted to abandon changing the world because we are too busy building broader alliances to save it.

This new book by Derek Wall, who is former Principal Speaker of the Green Party, turns this question around, to reclaim for the left the ideas of a liberal economist, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, who died in 2012, was the only woman so far to win a Nobel Prize for economics. She was best known for her 1990 book Governing the Commons, and put the ideas in that book to work in a series of community activist projects in the US, drawing on experiences around the world. Her key argument flowed from a liberal-humanist refusal of one of the most powerful ideological motifs in the social sciences, the assumption that there is something necessarily destructive about human beings that will lead them to competitively destroy what they hold in common.

Students in the social sciences will at some point in their classes learn about the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’, described by Garrett Hardin back in 1968. The ‘tragedy’ is that people will tend to exploit the good nature of everyone else who holds resources in common, and that this selfish approach will eventually disintegrate any well-meaning attempts to build human solidarity. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument overlooks the brutal process by which land was enclosed during the early development of capitalism, and the way that the ‘commons’ – common land and herding and agricultural resources – was threatened by those who wanted to shift from community to individual ownership. Ostrom showed that Hardin’s claim was, in practice, quite untrue.

For the left, seizing back our land and what we ourselves create, ‘common ownership’, is, of course, the basis of a real movement towards communism. Our starting point is that the expulsion of peasants from the land, and the forcing of people into factories so that they must earn the wherewithal to buy back on a temporary basis what had been taken from them, is one of the foundational crimes of capitalist political economy. But that view is a tough one to win, with all kinds of very drastic consequences for private ownership of the means of production. It is not actually a view that will be won in a simple ‘battle of ideas’, it will be won in practice as people come to realise that exploitation is grounded in the dispossession of us all from the commons.

Alongside that political practice that makes communist ideas into a reality, there is a necessary painstaking process through which the left works away at the contradictions in bourgeois ideology, showing that underlying assumptions about fairness and justice are antithetical to private ownership. This is what Wall does so well in this book, acknowledging that Ostrom was ‘not a leftist in a traditional sense’, but was a profound ecological thinker and someone who was drawn by the political logic of her argument about community action into some radical positions. Her take on political action could, Wall, argues, even be interpreted today as a kind of intersectional feminist approach. This is one of the many points in the book where Wall moves back and forth from the small-scale level of theory and practice to global contexts and larger political ideas.

A brief biographical sketch grounds Ostrom’s ideas in US-American communitarian context, a context in which radicals did eventually gather around her, and try to find ways of opening up the contradictions to engage in genuinely radical ecological projects. Wall traces through some links between Ostrom’s concern with democratic governance and recent attempts in Rojava in the north of Syria to develop ‘democratic confederalism’ as, in Abdullah Ocalan’s words ‘the cultural organisational blueprint of a democratic nation’. Wall is concerned with what in socialist feminist politics was once framed as the link between the personal and the political, and here his argument is that Ostrom can be viewed as a feminist precisely because she emphasised ‘the co-production of knowledge … rather than simply developing formal models to then tell people what to do.’

Wall also shifts back and forth between some of the pernicious ideas in sociology and economics – that the human being is a ‘rational maximiser’, for example, and will always calculate what is best for the individual as they engage in some kind of game to seize resources and thereby destroy the commons – to debates about the relationship between social structure and free will; for Wall, and this is one of the implications of Ostrom’s work which does connect with revolutionary Marxism, ‘we don’t have complete free will but if we learn more about the structures that shape our behaviour we can gain more freedom’. This is what ecosocialist struggle is about, enlarging the sphere of human freedom as we learn together to take back and manage the earth’s resources.

And the rules? These include some quite radical arguments in a neoliberal world, reframing and making accessible the ideas Marxists take as their touchstone for changing the world: the rules include things like ‘everything changes’, ‘self-government is possible’, ‘all institutions are constructed and so can be constructed differently’, ‘collective ownership can work’ and ‘human beings are part of nature too’. This looks simple, but this is deceptively simple book about an economist who had a canny ability to connect what could be accomplished in a capitalist economy with a vision of a quite different world. There are complex ideas buried in this book which are made accessible by an engagement with Elinor Ostrom so that we learn from her and can find a way of radicalising her work, making it ecosocialist. Derek Wall lays out one path through which this can be accomplished.

 

You can read and comment on this review here

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