The mole is a gentle mammal that steadily excavates tunnels in the earth, and then, when least expected, breaks the surface and emerges above ground. Its subterranean activity and, above all, its unpredictable upsurges made the insolent little beast a symbol of Revolution in the 19th century. Marx famously adapted a line from Hamlet to salute its endeavours in the 18th Brumaire: ‘Well burrowed, old mole!’ Emir Sader’s A Nova Toupeira—to be published in English by Verso as The New Mole—is devoted to the appearance of the creature’s offspring in Latin America in recent years. For at the start of the 21st century, the continent presents a striking contrast to most of the rest of the globe: left-leaning governments, often backed by radical popular movements, are in power across much of its territory, from Argentina to El Salvador, in a span embracing the region’s largest power, Brazil, and its major oil producer, Venezuela.

What explains this exceptional and hopeful conjuncture? There are plenty of works studying specific national experiences on the continent, as well as a growing literature dedicated to the recent resurgence of the left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador—both sympathetic and hostile accounts. Very few books, however, try to give an overall picture of current developments across Latin America as a whole; among these, even fewer are written from the left. It is ironic that, among works available in English, the book that has dominated the field to date, Michael Reid’s Forgotten Continent (2007), comes from the pen of the Economist’s correspondent. Against this, The New Mole stands out in providing both an analytical synthesis of truly continental scope and a substantial alternative to the mainstream perspective.

Born in São Paulo in 1943, Sader is the author of dozens of books and essays on the politics of Brazil and Latin America, as well as on the fortunes and strategies of the left—from Estado e Política em Marx (1983) and studies on the revolutions in Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua, to Cartas a Che Guevara (1997) and Século xx (2000), an ‘unauthorized biography’ of the 20th century. Currently head of the Latin American Council for Social Sciences, he is not only an influential social scientist, but also an unrepentant militant, who has never reconciled himself with the established capitalist order; one of those who has not replaced his ‘red’ wine with mineral water or Coca-Cola. As he relates in the book’s autobiographical introduction, Sader became an activist in 1959 when, together with his brother Eder, he was invited to join a small ‘Luxemburgist’ group. His first task was to distribute a socialist newspaper, the front page of which celebrated the triumph of the Cuban revolution over the Batista dictatorship.

Like many of his peers, Sader was deeply affected by the sudden, energizing eruption of the mole in that Caribbean island, an event that influenced the course of the whole continent. Speaking of those years, he observes that there seemed to be a sort of Hegelian convergence between theory and reality, Marxism and revolution. He describes Che’s famous dictum, ‘either socialist revolution or a caricature of revolution’, as ‘the slogan that gave meaning to our lives’. In the early 60s, it seemed that forward movement was irresistible; thereafter came a string of setbacks and defeats, from the 1964 military coup in Brazil to the restoration of capitalism across the Soviet bloc after 1991. Yet for Sader, these reverses are no reason to give up: capitalism in its present form is more unjust than ever, responsible for wars, hunger, widespread deprivation and the destruction of the environment; and as long as capitalism exists, socialism will remain on the historical horizon as a possible alternative.

The New Mole is therefore structured as an enquiry into the present forms of anti-capitalist struggle in Latin America and their future prospects. Sader’s analysis begins by dividing the history of the continent since the Cuban revolution into six cycles of political struggle. The first ran from 1959–67, a period in which, under the influence of the Cuban revolution, rural guerrillas emerged in several countries; Che Guevara’s death signalled the end of this first wave. In the second cycle, from 1967–73, urban guerrillas replaced the rural ones, while Salvador Allende attempted a unique experiment in Chile. Between 1973 and 79, in a third phase, the left seemed to be defeated, as military dictatorships were established in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, joining a long list of countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru—already under martial law. A fourth cycle began in 1979, when the Sandinista National Liberation Front took power in Nicaragua, and lasted until 1990; in these years, guerrillas mounted a powerful challenge to governments in other Central American countries, in particular El Salvador. The fifth period Sader identifies ran from 1990–98, inaugurated by the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and the fall of the ussr, after which Cuba lost Soviet support and began to undergo the hardships of the ‘special period’. Above all, neoliberalism was triumphant across the continent in this cycle, gaining the adherence of former nationalist or social-democratic parties, and occupying the whole political spectrum.

In the most recent phase, however, neoliberal hegemony encountered successive setbacks. The election of Chávez in Venezuela in 1998 was followed, after the turn of the century, by anti-government uprisings in several countries—presidents were forced to flee their palaces in Argentina in 2001, Bolivia in 2003 and 2005, Ecuador in 2005—and victories at the polls for progressive forces of various shades: Lula of Brazil in 2002; Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay in 2004; Evo Morales of Bolivia in 2005; Rafael Correa of Ecuador in 2006; Fernando Lugo of Paraguay in 2008. The sense of a ‘left turn’ in Latin America was confirmed by the consolidation of many of these forces: Chávez survived an attempted coup and recall referendum to win a second term in 2006; the same year, Lula was re-elected; Morales and Correa retained office in 2009, and José Mujica succeeded Tabaré Vázquez in Montevideo; Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, won the Brazilian presidency in 2010.

What explains the collapse of neoliberalism in the continent that had once, as Sader notes, been its laboratory? He points to the economic failures of Washington Consensus policies which, though they did rein in inflation, produced increasing government deficits and made the countries in question highly vulnerable to speculative attacks; within a decade, the neoliberal model had produced devastating crises in the region’s three largest economies: Mexico in 1994, Brazil in 1999 and Argentina in 2001. The ‘opening’ of Latin America’s economies also had far-reaching social consequences: deindustrialization and the expansion of the financial sector brought rising unemployment and an intensifying concentration of income among the wealthy. These processes were accompanied by the fragmentation and informalization of the labour force, and the impoverishment of the majority of the lower- and middle-income layers. In Sader’s view, though neoliberalism was successful on the ideological plane, it failed to create the social bases necessary for its legitimization and prolongation: within a few years it had ‘exhausted its hegemonic potential, without having fulfilled its main promises’. Economic crises and social injustice triggered the fall of at least ten governments—this time as a result not of military coups, but of a loss of legitimacy.