No plan survives contact with the enemy. Field-Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard Von Molthe (1800–91)

The nlr carried a generally favourable review by James Dunkerley of Jorge Castañeda’s Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War which was written from a largely Spanish-American perspective.footnote1 In September 1994, shortly after this review appeared, a Brazilian edition of the book was published with a modified subtitle.footnote2 Castañeda came to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to launch this new Portuguese-language version. Yet, despite a well-concocted promotion, Utopia Unarmed has not aroused the same passionate polemic in the political and academic circles of Brazil as it did in the us and the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.

In itself, this merits closer attention and consideration. Part of the explanation possibly lies in Brazil’s still feeble and unconsolidated Latin American identity, the Eurocentric perspective of its intellectual elite and a strong national awareness of the country’s exceptional character within the continent. The excessively general and undifferentiated image of Latin America presented by Castañeda—despite repeated proclamations to the contrary—does nothing to accommodate such attitudes, and, on closer examination, a number of the book’s examples concerning Brazil do seem somewhat bizarre.footnote3 Beyond such oddities, however, Castañeda openly and courageously addresses the crucial programmatic, strategic and tactical problems posed to the Latin American Left by the defeat of its own revolutionary attempts and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe.

Utopia Unarmed seeks to push the process of political and ideological reorientation now prevalent among the continent’s Left to its ultimate political and theoretical consequences, highlighting the degree of rupture this entails with past conceptions and practices—something many of its leaders are unable or unwilling to do. In this regard, it is a late twentieth-century Latin American equivalent of Eduard Bernstein’s The Presuppositions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy. Castañeda certainly raises pertinent and fundamental questions, but does he offer an appropriate and viable alternative framework in which to answer them? My assessment is that he does not: to substantiate this claim, a closer examination of how Castañeda constructs his argument is needed.

The central assertion of Utopia Unarmed is that, faced with the twin impossibilities of revolution and socialism, the Latin American Left must change course. Castañeda explores this line of reasoning in two interrelated parts. The first, on the basis of an ambitious historical overview of the development—and defeats—of the region’s Left throughout the century, claims that ‘revolution-centred’ perspectives are exhausted. The second seeks to build an alternative ‘reform-centred’ agenda for the Latin American Left, on the grounds that the demise of the ‘Soviet Bloc’ has shown the socialist paradigm it inspired to be untenable.footnote4

The book’s historical overview examines the development of both the ‘political’ and the ‘social’ Left but its main focus is on the ‘intrigues, dilemmas and promises’footnote5 of the four main subcurrents of the continent’s ‘political Left’: the communist parties, the ‘populist’ movements and regimes, the politico-military organizations inspired by the Cuban revolution, and the ‘new reformist Left’. Castañeda approaches this theme from a very definite perspective: that of the rise, crisis and defeat (or conversion) of two ‘waves’ of guerrilla movements inspired, and generally supported, by Cuba since the 1960s—a broad array of organizations generally referred to as foquistas, fidelistas, or ‘Castroites’, who were marked by a peculiar, overarching fixation on the question of armed struggle. It is no accident, then, that the book’s narrative starts by examining the fortunes—in both senses—of the Argentinian Montoneros who are seen to be archetypal of the Latin American Left. This vantage-point, however, introduces a particular bias to the book’s historical survey, with important consequences.

The first of these is a rather curt and offhanded dismissal of the two main currents that antedated the advent of the ‘politico-military’ organizations within the Latin American Left: the communist parties and the ‘populist’ movements and regimes. The book presents the former as a ‘congenitally foreign’ and ‘imported’ political variant, ‘not rooted in the local conditions’ of the region (p. 37). This purportedly explains their ‘slow and silent’ decline into oblivion in the mid 1980s. Although both Castañeda and Dunkerley seek support for this assertion in Alan Angell,footnote6 the fact is that they simply generalize and reproduce one of the oldest prejudices against the Left held by conservative elites throughout Latin America—a prejudice that cannot withstand a conscientious and objective examination of the trajectory of the region’s most important communist parties.