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The "Correlation of Forces" as a Central Issue for the Left in Government


Iole Ilíada, Perseu Abramo Foundation, Brazil, Juni 2010


This text seeks to recapture some of the general observations made during the seminar titled “The Left in Government: A Strategic Project?” hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Brussels in May 2009. There was one underlying question that seemed to come up in all the debates throughout the seminar: Under which circumstances is it worthwhile for left political forces – which do not only wish to administrate but also overcome capitalism – to participate in government?

Looking at the multiple circumstances of each country where there is a presence of the left in governments, each process has its own peculiarities. Hence, an initial approach to this question should lead us to the following conclusion: We need to make a case by case analysis of the situation. However, we should not content ourselves with this answer because it could mean relinquishing the opportunity to identify more general categories of analysis, which are necessary if we want to interpret the political phenomena and use this understanding in order to map out a strategy for the transformation of society.

Therefore I suggest the category correlation of forces or simply “relation of forces” as a reference to the question posed. I will make use of the former expression because it has been consecrated into political writings, in particular in Latin America.

In terms of political thought, one of the interesting approaches regarding this question is the one offered by Antonio Gramsci, for whom, of course, given his Marxist affiliation, the idea of correlation of forces (or rapporti di forze) is linked to the idea of class struggle. This is also the point of view adopted in this text as a reference. So, when we talk about “forces”, we refer to “forces of capital” on the one hand, and “forces of labour” on the other hand.

We observe that the concept has been widely used; nevertheless it is important to point out that this happened without much rigour. For instance, the use of the expression an “unfavourable correlation of forces” has become commonly used as a justification for the incapability to bring about more profound advances and transformations in society. On the other hand, in particular in Latin America – given the recent rise of left forces in that region – sometimes people fall into the trap of labelling any progressive change a “change in the correlation of forces” (while at the same time the expression is hardly used, and if so, only to point towards the electoral/ parliamentary correlation between the political forces, using one part to refer to the whole expression).

Such formulations, undoubtedly, can lead to serious mistakes.

In the first case, if it is true that every political action has to be considered in the current phase of the correlation of forces, the mistake hereby is to take something for granted that by definition is dynamic, procedural; and not take into account that when talking about a relation, it is evident that the left is not a mere spectator but part of this dispute of forces. Therefore, its actions are crucial for the final outcome of the “correlation”.

With regard to the generalised use of this expression when referring to any form of progress, there is the risk of believing that the simple improvement of the living conditions of workers (or the rise in number of electorates voting progressive parties) is already a sign indicating that the left is winning the dispute and therefore also fulfilling its role.

Hence, it is worth recalling that according to the Gramscian thought, which we referred to earlier, changing the correlation of forces means displacing the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic and dominant class for the benefit of all workers. In other words, transferring power (in its diverse forms: political, economic, cultural etc.) to the working class. We do not seek to think of a change of the correlation of forces which will gradually lead us from capitalism to socialism, but rather of a process of the accumulation of forces, which at some point in time will make possible the desired rupture.

After clarifying the basics, we can now return to the initial question regarding the participation of the left in governments with the following reformulation:

Is it possible to change the correlation of forces for the benefit of the working class through the presence of the left in governments? Is it possible to achieve this through the accumulation of forces to overcome capitalism? In order to answer this question, which by no means is an easy task; let us take as an example the experiences made by the Latin American left in governments. So far the experiences appear to be very interesting and promising.

In general (taking into account the peculiarities of each case; how could it be any other way) the victory of the left in these countries was possible following a crisis of the current neoliberal model; when the adverse effects became no longer bearable for the working class and also for sectors of the middle class (but also in some cases also for sectors of the bourgeoisie). In these cases, the existence of the institutionalised electoral processes – which always enjoyed societal support coupled with a higher level of organisation – has been the means through which this dissatisfaction and discontent were expressed against those who were critical of the model and those who were capable of embodying the desire for change and its necessity.

In all these cases, the left got via elections into government but not into power. This sentence is a good synthesis of the idea that even if these processes are the product of a small shift of the correlation of forces, the factual powers, on the other hand, such as the productive system, the riches, the media etc. as well as other important sectors of the State remained in Capitalist forces. In addition, the victory came at a moment in time where the ideas of the left were far from being hegemonic in theses societies.

Analyzing the experiences of the Latin American left in governments, it is undeniable that there were significant changes. Almost all these processes improved the living conditions of the working class and led, at least in theory, to the strengthening of their organisation.

Social segments previously excluded from the political life became autonomous political subjects again. The circles in which democracy is exercised became wider creating new forms of participation and new forms of expressing “opinion and will”, to use an expression so appreciated by theorists of democracy.

In all these cases, the left and progressive forces were facing a fierce and aggressive opposition capable of resorting to coups d'état, to attempts to divide the national territory, to electoral rigging and if this is not possible, it also resorts to the media available to them in order to destabilise, and defeat these governments.

We undoubtedly face a process where social forces oppose the political and economic direction that these societies pursue. It is undeniable that the presence of the Latin American left in governments helps to counter the power of the dominant class in this intense interplay of forces.

On the other hand, we must note that the concentration of this power in the hands of the dominant classes has hardly changed. With variations from one country to another (in fact, all these generic considerations acknowledge that there are important nuances from one country to another), it is imperative to realise that those controlling the financial capital, the production, the land, the media, knowledge and science practically maintained their dominance, and even possibly increased it. From a structural point of view, these societies did not change profoundly.

But the effective transfer of power is important for the workers because as we well know, the presence of the left in governments via elections, as much as we want the presence to last, is always a transitional experience. It is necessary to make sure that these changes are turned into structural transformations difficult to be modified by right-wing governments, which may succeed us. However, it is even more important to broaden and expand the conscience, the organising capacity, social interventions and the labour struggle. In this way the aforementioned accumulation of forces becomes possible, and thus could, at a given point in time, bring about a rupture from the dominant system.

Let us get back to Latin America: The problem is that the important advances that were acknowledged as well as the lack of the more structural changes are more a matter of perception than analytical conclusion. It is evident that there is data that indicates to both (therefore one can make very positive and optimistic evaluations as well as negative and pessimistic analyses). However, this data is not even systematised, nor are there very precise studies or analyses showing the real impacts that such processes have on Latin American societies; bearing in mind that such analysis has always to consider the starting point or rather the existing correlation of forces vis-à-vis the presence of the left in government.

This lack of analysis exists partly because the left, in its experience vis-à-vis these governments, had to give concrete answers to concrete problems, whereby the empirical method prevailed. However, it is also owed to the fact that these processes are fairly recent, if viewed from a historic point of view. For a theorist it is always more difficult to capture an object in movement, whose form and consequences are continuously changing in front of his/her eyes. In addition, it is important to consider that the definition of a real correlation of forces is in itself difficult and complex and involves an integrated analysis of different aspects, which in turn include a large number of variables. Among them, we cite the analysis of classes and their fractions, their social and political organisations, the functioning of the State, including its various aspects, the general economic and social situation etc. But whatever the reasons for it might be, it is a problem that we have to face. The comprehension of these processes, their advances and limitations, their challenges and opportunities, their obstacles and origins, is essential to turn this historic experience into a successful accumulation of forces, as aforementioned.

This, of course, also holds true for the European left. By the way, in as much as it is possible to change the correlation of forces within each country, it will be difficult to win the struggle if it remains isolated. This process can only advance if the solidarity, the support and above all, the articulation and integration of the left and progressive forces as well as that of their governments and States become increasingly wider.

Returning to our initial question: Under which circumstances is it worthwhile for the left to be in power?

We could respond by saying that it is worthwhile to be in government if the left is capable of using its presence as a way of shifting the correlation of forces for the benefit of the workers. The problem is that this effect can only be realised a posteriori. Therefore, when the historic opportunity for the left arises to be in government, the left should not hesitate or renounce such task. We must rise to this challenge as demonstrated to a large extend by the Latin American left in governments.


Der Text basiert auf dem Vortrag von Iole Ilíada bei der zweiten Lateinamerika-Europa Konferenz in Brüssel, 27.-29. Juni 2010.


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