Alice got up to leave. We are still here. . .and we sing. . .still.footnote1

One bleak Saturday, a year or so after Pinochet had handed office back to the civilians, I found myself sheltering from a storm in Valparaiso’s Plaza Victoria. The square was deserted except for the sentries outside the imposing hq of the Chilean navy and a solitary, well-groomed figure in a typical businessman’s grey suit, clutching a briefcase and struggling against the driving rain. ‘That,’ I proclaimed to my companion, ‘is why Chilean capitalism is so strong: these entrepreneurs go to work in the rain at weekends.’ Two days later we attended a meeting in Santiago at which some independently-minded Communist Party militants who had just freed themselves from the formidable dominion of Corvalán and Teitelboim were trying to resolve their precarious organizational status and political direction. Simultaneously renouncing and perfecting the discourse of orthodoxy, these comrades, who hail from one of the most loquacious of radical currents, entered into a prolonged tussle over whether they should retain their independence or enter the rightward-moving Socialist Party, now a junior party in the government, and become tribunes for genuine radicalism in a still significant forum. Wearying of the predictable points of-order, we made to leave, only to be accosted at the door by the quartermaster of one of the factions, anxious that he was about to lose two vital votes. It was the man in the grey suit. The figure that I had so confidently identified as representing capitalist prowess was, in fact, one of its dwindling band of opponents, his urgent weekend labours significant in an entirely different sense.

Jorge Castañeda has peppered his marvellous, sprawling book with penportraits and vignettes hat are a good deal livelier than this, but all share a profoundly elegaic air.footnote None of the figures to whom we are introduced retains both their early radical convictions and their optimism; more than a few are burnt-out guerrilla fighters. Perhaps this choice is unsurprising from an author who insists upon the continued relevance and importance of the Left but who is also prepared to declare openly what many believe yet will not state: ‘The only thing left to fight for is a future that is simply the present, plus more of the same. . .’ (p. 243). In fact, Castañeda’s book is brimming with ideas, concrete proposals and creative insights, but he is clearly at pains to depict the scale of the defeat of the Left—both in Latin America and abroad—as starkly as possible so as to dispel any illusion as to the corresponding scope of the challenge that still confronts it. It is both a weakness and a strength of the book that its author endeavours to fight on all fronts, providing us over nearly five hundred pages with a synoptic history of the region’s Left between 1959 and 1993; an assessment of the balance of forces following the end of the Cold War; a primer on the political economy of development; a treatise on democracy; and a portfolio of precise policy proposals. The extent of the text’s ambition certainly renders it prey to criticism on a variety of technical and stylistic grounds, but an altogether more prominent feature resides in its generosity—Castañeda is not in the game of composing sophisticated jeremiads; if he identifies a problem he also suggests a solution, however humdrum or unpalatable that might be.

A Mexican academic who was educated in France, has worked in the us and writes a regular column for Newsweek, Castañeda has assembled a book that is neither strictly scholarly (although there is an exceptional range of written and oral sources) nor populist, but rather, written in a mid-range, plain-speaking tone that assumes little of the reader (certainly not that they know the patois of leftism), imparts calm confidence, and progresses with an almost disturbing fluidity. This makes for maximum accessibility and registers the quite distinct politico-intellectual sensibilities of Europe, North and Latin America, but it does not always permit a proper focus. The same voice used to condense the ideas of Gramsci and Foucault is employed to describe guerrilla feuding in El Salvador, outline the problems of import-substituting industrialization, and assess the character of Fidel Castro. Not everything emerges unscathed, the politics doing better than the ideas, the micro faring less well than the macro, and the contemporary winning out over the past. Yet despite the book’s generalist expression, its organization suggests a target audience that is either Latin American or already quite knowledgeable. There is no summary presentation of the region’s political history; it is some two hundred and fifty pages before we are given proper statistics for modern economic performance, and four hundred before the social structure is fully illustrated. This arrangement has led some critics to combine the (plausible but misleading) description of Castañeda’s work as ‘social-democratic’ with the unfounded charge that he undervalues the power and destructiveness of neo-liberal capitalism.

The book is organized in three broad sections. The first surveys the record of the Left—understood in a very general, relational sense—since the Cuban Revolution. The second discusses Latin America’s distinctive intellectual tradition and its modern social movements in rather broader terms, and then assesses the political balance of forces in the conjuncture opened by the collapse of Communism in 1989. The final part of the text draws on—and occasionally recapitulates—these to address the three issues that Castañeda identifies as crucial to the radical cause—nationalism, democracy and the formulation of a new economic model—each of which is treated in first a diagnostic and then a prescriptive chapter. In my view this final section, which comprises some two hundred pages, could stand alone as a coherent and compelling text, and as such it would assuredly serve a more directly political purpose, at least within Latin America. Yet the book deserves to be taken in its rich, controversial entirety with the aim of reviving a debate presently in some danger of being made moribund by the mutually reinforcing strains of twisting neoscholasticism and bone-headed recitation of doctrine, both of which prosper on distress and neither of which offers tangible reward.