I last saw Marta Harnecker and her husband, Michael Lebowitz, in Vancouver, British Columbia [Canada] in the fall of 2015. My wife and I had a wonderful dinner with them filled with energized discussion, joking and good feeling. I had no idea how old Marta was at the time, but I was always struck by her vitality and deep insight. I walked away from every interaction with Marta, whether an email exchange, Skype call or other discussion, learning something new.
I never suspected that she would soon face a medical crisis which she would not survive.
I first learned about Marta Harnecker in the 1970s when I was in the process of becoming a Marxist. A translated essay of hers on historical materialism was shared with me and I gobbled it up. This Chilean Marxist, then living in Cuba, a former student of the French Marxist Louis Althusser, had an ability to explain huge concepts in a manner through which they were both understandable and useful.
Marta wrote mainly in Spanish and my ability to read Spanish was limited. Thus, for years, until her work came to be more frequently translated into English and more broadly available, I was only able to read an occasional piece by her. Nevertheless, my interest in her thinking remained.
In 2002, shortly after assuming the helm of TransAfrica Forum, I was invited to a conference in Montreal sponsored by a progressive non-governmental organization. Marta was a featured speaker at the conference. To my surprise, she had, apparently, heard of me and we agreed to spend some time–after the conference ended–talking. Central to our discussion was the matter of how to understand what was emerging in Venezuela under the Presidency of Hugo Chavez. Marta was both careful and direct in distinguishing the Chavez administration from more traditional Latin American populist regimes (and movements). In fact, she would not use the term “populist” to describe Chavez, despite my usage of the term. That said, we both agreed that something unusual and progressive was underway and that it was critical for the Left to take note.
Over the subsequent years we continued to interact and I also got to know her wonderful husband, the noted leftist writer, Michael Lebowitz. The three of us were part of a delegation to Vietnam to engage in discussions with the Ho Chi Minh Political Academy. Over time we extended our dialogues and Marta honored me in asking my assistance on a piece that she was writing.
The loss of Marta is, however, more than a personal loss, not to minimize the personal. It is a loss for all of those who have been engaged in struggling to find an answer(s) to the crisis of socialism. Marta’s legacy must include her willingness and ability to look critically at the socialist experiments of the 20th century and distinguish between genuine advancements vs. tragic failures. This one characteristic places Marta in a category that only a few genuine socialists occupy. Falling prey to neither nihilism and cynicism, nor to outright denial, Marta recognized the necessity for advancing a project that can and should be entitled “21st Century Socialism,” and not using that term as a rhetorical slight of hand.
Marta’s work is incomplete, as is always the case with great thinkers. There is more to reflect upon and more theory to construct. Marta was trying to better understand the so-called “Pink Tide” regimes of Latin America, e.g., Chavez’s Venezuela; Lula’s Brazil, and the implications inherent in the crises that each of these regimes encountered.
Yet Marta could not be expected to provide the final answers because there are no final answers. What she did so masterfully was to serve as a runner in the relay race on the socialist road, if you will forgive the expression. She inherited a baton from the likes of Althusser and, in many respects, Fidel Castro, and continued the race. She mentored many and inspired even more. Those who had the opportunity to learn from her were never left untouched. More importantly, those who learned from her never fell victims to condescension. Marta was as a good a listener and inquirer as she was a speaker and orator. Indeed, precisely because she was such a good listener she was a good teacher.
My sadness is intense with the loss of Marta Harnecker while at the same time my joy is boundless for the work that she offered as such a dedicated fighter for justice. While we shall certainly shed tears with the news of her loss, we should also smile thinking of all that she shared with so many of us.
What a legacy to champion!