- Making the Revolution: Histories of the Latin American Left ed. by Kevin A. Young
In his thought-provoking introduction and review of recent academic literature on the Left in Latin America, editor Kevin Young makes some incisive critiques. He points to common portrayals of the Left as reductionist, middle class, ethnocentric, authoritarian, elitist, and arrogant, and detached from questions of ethnicity, gender, and race. These assumptions appear in both conservative and progressive studies, and Young acknowledges that there is some truth to them. But the volume seeks to complicate and interrogate stereotypes of the Left and show that oppressed groups— women, Afro-descendants, peasants, indigenous peoples—have played a vital role in Left movements and reshaped leftist politics, insisting on the incorporation of their demands within revolutionary struggles. Young posits that “twentieth-century leftists struggled against class exploitation and imperialism while also confronting racism, patriarchy, and other oppressions, and while seeking to build more democratic organizations and societies” (2).
Young makes an interesting critique of the rise of “identity politics” in recent decades, setting this tendency within the international political context in order to explain it. Class and identity are more intertwined than some scholars allow, he asserts: “The tendency to draw a sharp distinction between class and identity is largely a product of Cold War repression” (4) and neoliberalism. During the Cold War, those who challenged capitalist interests in Latin America faced torture, disappearance, and death; simultaneously, neoliberal restructuring weakened labor movements and working-class solidarity. Right-wing policies of state terror and neoliberalism “pressured movements to emphasize ethnic, gender, and other non-class identities” (4) in order to survive. The book seeks to uncover the complex links between class struggles and demands for gender and ethnic equality and inclusion, and to capture the important role of invisibilized sectors in leftist movements. Young points out that many studies of the Left focus on formal leadership, missing the impact of the rank-and-file, supporters, grassroots organizers, and sympathizers, which include women and Afro-descendant and indigenous sectors. [End Page 498]
The volume’s case studies are thick with detail drawn from primary source research. Many document coalitions and alliances among ethnic groups, women, and the Left, such as the Communist and Socialist parties, at certain historical moments. Not all of the authors explicitly link their case studies to the editor’s theoretical claims, thereby missing the opportunity to produce a deeper theoretical contribution. Some do, however, and those chapters fill out Young’s proposed themes. Space constraints permit mention of only a few chapters.
Becker directly takes on Young’s concepts, arguing that indigenous activists in Ecuador advanced their own cultural and ethnic agendas both alone and in collaboration with urban leftists fighting for socialism in the 1940s. One of the first pan-ethnic federations was formed in Ecuador during these years, but little information exists in local archives or in contemporary reports by US officials on the lookout for “communist” activity. FBI officers considered the indigenous to be passive subjects manipulated by communists (93), and that bias meant that they paid little attention to large indigenous organizing movements. “The lack of imperial interest in subaltern mobilizations contributed to the development of a distorted understanding of the left that emphasizes urban and male actors to the exclusion of indigenous and female militants,” Becker shows (79). This partial view of the Ecuadoran Left obscures the vital contributions made by indigenous people in rural areas.
Chase shows that Cuban women pressed the male leadership of the revolution to recognize their demands and interests and connected gender oppression to broader issues of class inequality and labor exploitation. Her study of major women’s organizations also illuminates the Cuban Revolution’s “efforts to incorporate and liberate women” (184). Sierra Becerra discusses the Asociación de Mujeres de El Salvador and its efforts to organize peasant and working-class women in the liberated territories and exiled in other countries. The organization deepened the participation of women in the revolutionary process, incorporated their...