Understanding the Bolivarian revolution
Table of contents
- Elections victory opens new phase of struggle
- Revolutionary lessons
- Capital can be challenged
- Socialism is the alternative
- The working people are the revolutionary class
- You must struggle for power
- The need to construct a mass revolutionary party
Based on the talk presented to the DSP Socialist Summer School January 4-7, 2007.
By Stuart Munckton
In this talk I want to look at some of the key lessons that can be drawn out of the Bolivarian revolution, eight years in from the election of Hugo Chavez as president in December 1998.
These lessons are crucial because it is the first revolution to open up since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s that supposedly ended the question of revolution. This had a big impact on radicals around the world, as well as mass consciousness. It raised the question of whether it was even possible to struggle against the crimes of the system at all. A whole of lot of lessons from the 20th century, things often understood by radicals as given truths, were thrown out. In some ways it amounted to a counterrevolution in consciousness.
A comrade mentioned during discussion at a previous talk, that in the 90s if you mentioned imperialism amongst activist circles you were considered a dinosaur. Well you can say that for a whole lot of other areas to: if you talked about class, you were a dinosaur; socialism B dinosaur; party B definitely a dinosaur.
This was a lot worse in Australia because it was unmitigated by experience in struggle. Asides from some outbreaks, generally struggle here has remained at a low ebb since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Whereas in Latin America a lot of this discussion has occurred in a context of rising struggle,. Questions such as the role of the working class, do you need to struggle for state power, what is the roles of a party, these have all been thrown up, and debated, in a context of the rise of a fresh wave of mass struggle.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that it is in Latin America, most specifically in revolutionary Venezuela, that these questions are being answered anew. So we can draw on these lessons and inject them into Australia. Questions about, what sort of social system can meet people’s needs? What sort of state do you need? Can you solve peoples needs by reforming the existing institutions, or through a revolution? What is the role of different social classes in this struggle? Do you need a party? What ideology can help us make these changes?
Elections victory opens new phase of struggle
We all know by now the huge victory that was registered on December 3 in Venezuela, with the presidential elections. The raw figures themselves are impressive enough. 7.3 million votes B the largest number in Venezuelan history B amounting to 63% of all votes cast. This is more than double the votes cast for Chavez in the last proper presidential election, in 2000, and over a million more than in the August 2004 recall referendum.
This came one week after the largest demonstration so far in the revolution B 2.5 million people on the streets of Caracas in support of Chavez’s re-election. This march itself came two days after, and was a decisive answer to, what was possibly the largest opposition demonstration so far as well, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The size of the Chavista demonstration was no doubt crucial to convincing the opposition and their US imperialist backers to accept legitimacy of the vote, and not cry fraud and attempt to mobilise to destabilise the country.
It isn’t even just that the Chavista march was many times larger than the opposition march, it is also a question of class. On the Chavista march, it was the various sectors of the working people. These are people for whom the revolution is truly a life and death struggle, and they have been disciplined by the very struggle to survive, as well as their experience as workers.
On the other hand, the opposition is made up by the much more dilettantish middle and upper class, composed of the likes of university professors, middle and upper management, doctors, lawyers, assorted professionals, marching in their expensive jewellery and designer clothes. Social sectors that, if it came to a direct confrontation, at the moment at least, would not be able to muster to organization and discipline of the Chavistas B it is too far outside their life experience. They would be swept off the streets. This factor counts as much, if not more, than the raw numbers involved.
Another point is that while he Chavista demonstration may not have been actually armed, those marching are the same people being increasingly organised into the reserves and territorial guards B as part of Chavez’s call to create the “people under arms” to defend Venezuela from attack. This is still in early stages in many ways, but those who marched are increasingly being organised into an armed force, and often the poor aren’t waiting for formal organisation to start arming themselves.
This factor, made explicit by the open planning by some armed pro-Chavez groups such as the Tupamaros to defend the barrios and the government from attack if needed after the election, no doubt was a serious consideration for the counterrevolution in weighing up whether they should try to destabilise the country or not. They clearly figured the working people would wipe the floor with them of they did.
Based on this, Chavez made explicit in his post-election speech that the results were a mandate to dramatically deepen the revolution. He explained the previous 8 years as laying the groundwork for the revolutionary transformation the state and economy that he insisted they would now make a reality. He said:
“You know that our campaign was a campaign for a national project that has been in train for almost 8 years now. I’ve mentioned that the 3rd of December will not be a point of arrival; I told you that the 3rd of December would be a point of departure. Today is a point of departure...
Today a new epoch begins within the National Project for Bolivarian DevelopmentY the new epoch that today begins will have as its central, fundamental idea, as its fundamental strategic line, the deepening, the widening and the expansion of the Bolivarian revolution, in the revolutionary democracy in Venezuelan life moving towards socialismY
That new era is the new socialist democracy. That era is the new socialist society. That era is the new socialist economy.”
The various accounts of the enthusiastic response Chavez’s comments around socialism got from the crowd are significant in and of themselves. It wasn’t just Chavez, but the working people who voted for him, who are embracing socialism and the elections as a mandate to create it.
An account from a participant in the Hands Off Venezuela brigade wrote on that delegations blog this anecdote from during Chavez’s victory speech that helps reveal the mood:
“When Chavez started talking about how Venezuela needed to reach out to its Latin American and Caribbean neighbours, the crowd started chanting ’Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!’ When he mentioned Brazil and Argentine, they chanted ’Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!’ When he finally got to Cuba, dedicating the victory to the anniversary of the Granma landing 50 years ago, and to Fidel Castro, the crowd went wild.”
In the aftermath of the electoral victory, Chavez gave a speech that has the potential to be one of the most significant of the revolution, in which he called for a new, united revolutionary party. The speech potentially defines an important turning point in a new phase of the struggle B a phase dedicated to overcoming not simply the open counterrevolutionary forces represented by the opposition, who have been repeatedly defeated and offer no serious short term threat B but the blocks to the advance of the revolution internal to the Chavista camp, as well as within much of the state institutions.
This is the block caused by corruption and bureaucracy, which holds back the implementation of the revolution’s policies, and which is not just strong in a number of institutions, but infects the Chavista camp, especially the main pro-Chavez parties that are often dominated by opportunist practices.
This is compounded by the fact that as the revolution has radicalised, as its program has moved towards socialism and away from capitalism, the main parties in the parliament and government supporting the revolution are seen by a lot of the popular movement as dominated by opportunist cliques that are often more moderate and that see such radicalism, and the accompanying move to hand power to working people in order to carry the program out, as a threat to their interests. The pro-Chavez party Podemos, for instance, which no longer has any ministerial positions after the recent reshuffle but still hold elected positions often in local councils, explicitly call themselves social democrats, and by various accounts act accordingly.
At the same time, there has been a real explosion of mass organisation. As large numbers of people have entered the political arena for the first time, this has been accompanied by huge numbers of new organisations, from more limited committees in a particular area to deal with a particular problem, through to more developed political groups. These are often localised groupings, and reflect the unevenness of mass consciousness and organisation.
So you have, on the one hand, the main Chavista parties with people in the parliament and official positions, who are often not trusted and seen as infected with opportunism, bureaucratism and even corruption, and on the other an explosion of mass organisation into a large number of dispersed grass roots groupings.
Then add to this the problem of overcoming the state bureaucracy that frustrates the revolution and the need to replace this with real power in the hands of working people. This bureaucracy is extremely strong in Venezuela, with a parasitic elite tied to oil industry developing around the state over the proceeding decades specialising in how to retain power and privilege. For this crucial task, neither the main Chavista parties on the one hand, nor the semi-spontaneous outbreak of new political groups throughout the country on the other, have proven sufficient.
In this context, Chavez’s speech to the grass roots Units of Electoral Battle set up for the presidential campaign was especially significant, because he both declared war on bureaucracy and corruption, and urged the creation of a new, united socialist party. Built from the ground up, this has the potential to unite the dispersed vanguard, and Chavez insisted it should replace the existing parties, with all their flaws. It has the potential to be a real weapon capable not just of defeating the severely weakened opposition, but the more serious and difficult enemy B the “counterrevolutionaries in red berets” who have infiltrated the revolution and weaken it from within.
Whether not Chavez or anyone else uses this term, the essence of what Chavez has called for is a mass Leninist party B a party that united the vanguard into a common organisation and around a common program. We are talking here of a real Leninist party, not the Stalinist variety that took the name, nor the “toy Leninist” sects that came to dominate Trotskyism. In fact Chavez, for the first time, explicitly referred in this speech to the experience of the Bolsheviks before Stalinist degeneration, as one that could be looked to for lessons.
This speech was widely interpreted as opening shots against the corrupt bureaucracy in the state apparatus and Chavista parties. Chavez had referred to this in his victory speech, saying: “We should redouble our effortsY in the battle against bureaucratic counterrevolutionY” He called for “a battle for a new, truly new stateY” that could defeat the bureaucracy, and said “Starting today I unsheathe two swords: one against corruption and the other against bureaucracy.”
How has it gotten to this stage, where the path has been opened for a much more dramatic deepening of the revolution?
This is a process that started, not just for national development but had an international component of Latin American regional development, in order to overcome the legacy of underdevelopment and its associated social problems.
However, in its early stages, it contained within it strong contradictions. As Chavez stated, he believed in a “third way”, that it was possible to carry out this project within the framework of capitalism, and projects for development needed to rely heavily on capitalists, backed up by the state and complemented, as set out in the Bolivarian constitution adopted in 1999, by a “popular economy” of cooperatives and small businesses. However, private capital was seen as dominant.
The early economic plans were in this framework. The first plan drawn up in 1999 even included plans for further privatisation. Chavez later said this was because neoliberals had infiltrated with government.
Even the constitution, for all its progressive features, as well as protecting the right the private property and establishing capitalism as the main economic framework, also included things such as respecting the “autonomy” of the Central Bank of Venezuela, a measure that left key economic power in the hands of the oligarchic capitalist class and was attacked by Chavez recently as a “neoliberal idea” that will now be ended.
The national development plan for 2001-07, aiming to overcome underdevelopment through bold initiatives to break oil dependency and expand a number of industries such as agriculture, also saw part of the main motor forces as private capital.
But there was a big contradiction, captured in the constitution, because the revolution promised social justice. It set out the development of a pro-people “popular economy”, involving self management or co-management. It set out the goal of “participatory democracy”, in which ordinary people would be able to exercise direct democracy. It guaranteed everyone the right to access education and healthcare. It argued the economy should be geared towards solving social needs, towards overcoming poverty and exclusion.
None of these things are possible as long as capitalism dominates the economy, as the only logic capitalism obeys is the logic of maximising profits, and this can only come at the expense of working people both through greater exploitation at the workplace, but also by gearing the state as much as possible towards trying to meet the needs of capital.
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, with the discrediting of socialism, this was a lesson that had to be relearned often as much by radicals as by the masses. It is a lesson that has been relearned by the experience of struggle in Venezuela.
In resolving this contradiction in a positive way B drawing the conclusion that you had to create socialism and this requires the empowerment of the working majority B one of the positives of the collapse of the Soviet Union comes into play: the collapse of Stalinism.
Comrade Gail Lord asked a question in a previous session about the role of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) in the revolution, pointing out that in previous revolutions the official communist parties have often played negative roles, in holding those revolutions back and often leading them to defeat. Official communist parties were able to play this role due to their association with Stalinised Soviet Union, both through prestige and often the material assistance provided.
This doesn’t exist today, there is no force with that weight behind it seeking to mislead the struggle. Some of the ideas that the Stalinist parties put forward that lead to revolutions being defeated are still around, of course. But they are no longer backed by mass Stalinist parties able to use their association with the Soviet Union to force those ideas on the revolutionary movement. So, while the revolutionary movement has started from a lower level of ideological clarity, its development has not come up against the Stalinist roadblock as in other cases.
Chile under the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende (from 1970 until the coup that overthrew it in 1973) is a case in point. Mass consciousness started from a higher point under Allende than under Chavez. Socialism was part of the vocabulary, the workers movement took it for granted that this was the ultimate goal. Marxism was widely discussed, even Allende called himself a Marxist. But the Stalinised Chilean Communist Party, despite not being the largest left party, was able to dominate the process ideologically and Allende took his lead from them. They mislead the process through the concept of the “parliamentary road to socialism” that subordinated the struggle of working people for power to manoeuvres within the bourgeois state, opening the way for Pinochet’s coup that destroyed the process and saw thousands butchered.
I don’t know enough to be able to say decisively, but my impression is the PCV is not pushing anything like this line. But even if it was, it would not automatically be able to dominate the way the Chilean Communist Party did, because of the collapse of Stalinism. The PCV is just one of a number of other parties, it has no special weight. So, while the consciousness in Venezuela started from a lower level, it has been able to take revolutionary bounds forward to surpass that in Chile, so that the organisation of working people into revolutionary state is seen as a key task in Venezuela today, as part of creating socialism.
These contradictions in the revolutionary process at its beginning, through struggle, had to resolve themselves one way or another.
Capital can be challenged
One of the first lessons that comes out of Venezuela, that is very important for mass consciousness in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the shift to right of social democracy around the world, is that capital can be challenged. It is possible to implement polices that operate against the interests of capital, and against capital’s opposition.
One of the most debilitating arguments of recent years has been that “there is no alternative”. This is the key myth of neoliberalism. There is nothing you can do, capital is too powerful. If you don’t give in to capital’s demands, if you instead place demands on capital, say to pay higher taxes, to respect the environment or to look after workers better, then capital will simply up and leave and move to another country with lower wages and less restrictions on its right to make a profit.
Venezuela has called the bluff. Venezuela has done the opposite to what is written in the neoliberal textbooks, over the screams of capital (and against political opposition backed by capital, which in Venezuela is dominated by US imperialist capital, that tried a military coup and bosses lock-out to overthrow the Chavez government).
What has happened? Capital hasn’t fled. The economy has not collapsed, in fact it has enjoyed an average 12% growth for the last three years running. And the private sector has actually grown in Venezuela. Foreign capital is still trying to get in to take advantage of this. Despite moves to make them pay their taxes and shutting corporations down for up to 48 hours if they don’t. Despite repeated increases in the minimum wage. Despite laws banning the lay off of lower paid workers, and also that make it easier for militant unions to develop.
Despite dramatically expanding rather than restricting the role of the state, both with development and expansion of state industries, but also through the redistribution of wealth away from the capitalist class and to the poor via the ever-growing number of social missions reducing poverty.
The result of minimum wage increases? Neoliberals say unemployment will increase. In Venezuela it has dropped over the last couple of years, to now the lowest point in Chavez’s presidency at 8,4% Like poverty, this still way too high, but going down.
The oil industry is another example. Venezuela is forcing foreign corporations investing in Venezuela onto joint ventures that give the state majority control. This is seriously reducing the control over, and therefore potential profits generated by, these corporations. What are they doing? Fleeing the country? Going on somewhere else to invest instead? No, they are, under protest, by and large accepting the measures. Because their options are severely limited, and making some profit is better than none.
This is capital’s key problem B there are not endless new markets to go and invest in. There is intense competition between large corporations for the resources and markets that exist, especially in oil. Also corporations that have poured capital into research and infrastructure in projects are not willing to dump all that and start anew somewhere else unless they really have to. The idea of a footloose capital traversing the globe at will, picking and choosing where it goes, is a myth designed to justify giving in to capital’s demands. Capital does not have the power to do this. Venezuela is showing this. Its bluff has been called.
Socialism is the alternative
The second lesson that follows on from this is that having begun to introduce reforms that put demands on capital and seek to ensure that people’s needs are met, the conclusion drawn by Venezuelan revolutionaries, is that you can not build the better world they are fighting for, one based on social justice, within capitalism. Instead you have to create socialism.
This is the conclusion of the contradiction inherent in the program of the revolution, captured by the constitution, between the development based on social justice so desperately needed by the underdeveloped world, and the fact that this was envisaged through a capitalist framework B which is impossible because capital only cares about its profits. You have the thesis, the need for a better world, you have the antithesis, the fact that the existing class that control the economy cannot make this happen and will fight all attempts to make it happen. This leads to a revolution in consciousness of working people and to the new synthesis: “well, fuck them then!”
If the capitalists won’t be part of building a better world, then we don’t want to be part of capitalism. That in the framework of capitalism it is not possible to meet peoples needs, carries with it such weight because it has not been learned simply be reading textbooks or studying history, but through the practical experience of struggle. Chavez openly admits he believed in a third way, but in 2005 he explained that this was just trying to “put a mask” on the beast, and that masked had fallen away, “smashed by reality”. He was now a socialist, he said, and would be until the day he died.
They learned this by trying to implement reforms to capitalism, and being faced with capitalism attempting to overthrow the government. The capitalists have rejected the Bolivarian revolution, not the other way around. The Bolivarian revolution, from its beginning, held its hand out to the capitalists, and the capitalists bit it.
It is all very well ultraleft critics saying that the Chavez government should never have done this, and condemning Chavez for this, as evidence there is not really a revolution. But how else, in the context, could the revolution have gone forward? The leadership, as much as the support base for the revolution amongst the poor, needed the actual experience of the class struggle, they needed the example of the capitalists rejecting the revolution and launching a rebellion, to see the nature of capitalism. It is all very well pointing to examples from history which prove this B these lessons were lost by the throwing out of Marxism as outdated with the collapse of Stalinism. It has taken a new example for it to be relearned.
You can see the differences on the left over Venezuela through this, even with those sections that are supportive of the revolution. The liberal left, even when supportive of Chavez, make the mistake of viewing the revolution as a static thing. Of trying to freeze something in motion, and only seeing what exists in the here and now without seeing the motion inherent in the process, that has to either go forward or back. They look at the limited nature of the reforms implemented at any one point, and try and limit the revolution to that. See, Chavez is just a social democrat! He hasn’t done this, or attacked that. For some that is a reason to support Chavez, for the ultralefts it is a reason to criticise him.
What this misses is the contradictions that exist within the process that must drive the process either forward or backwards, and that the role of Chavez at each point in struggle has been to try and drive the process forward. Faced with the rebellion of the capitalist class, Chavez had two choices: declare peace and back down on any attempt to implement progressive reforms. Or declare war in response and rely on organisation of working people to go beyond progressive reforms to overturning the system. Chavez has clearly taken the second path.
This subjective factor of leadership is important in all revolutions, and the role of Chavez has been crucial to the qualitative leap forward in consciousness of the working people to the recognition that to solve their problems and build a better society, you need socialism.
We all recognise the trajectory, which is towards the creation of a socialist state. How far down that path, what has been decisively achieved and what remains to be achieved, is open for discussion.
But if you don’t recognise this trajectory, then you are left with the freeze-frame approach that attempts to judge the revolution only by what has been achieved at any one point. So that even today some on the left say well, the economy is still capitalist overall, that despite talking about socialism, Chavez isn’t really serious about it. What exists today is the sum total of Chavez’s aims. He is just a social democrat. A more radical social democrat than three years ago, of course, the measures introduced are more radical. But they don’t in and of themselves amount to socialism.
Such people are condemned to forever being surprised by history. Chavez’s declaration in favour of revolutionary socialism at the start of 2005 stunned them, despite all signs increasingly pointing in this direction over the proceeding period.
The course is never guaranteed. Also, as the economy remains mostly capitalist, there are many more lessons about the advantages of socialism and how you go about building it that we can hope to learn in the next period in Venezuela if it continues to go forward, as all indications are it will.
One example of what is playing itself out now, is what form socialism will take. How do you create a socialised economy, democratically controlled by working people? One potential contradiction came out in comrade Davila’s speech yesterday, with a point Chavez has made himself, which is the rejection of what they call “state socialism”.
What does this mean? Well, it is still in motion, it is still playing itself out and ideas are being formulated in the middle of trying to find a practical way forward. But it is a real question being debated in Venezuela about what role do the cooperatives play in the economy, what roles does co-management play, and where does the state fit in?
At the moment these parts of the economy are the minority parts, they are experiments often parallel to the capitalist economy, although increasingly backed by the state. The key thing they are grappling with is how do you ensure that the means of production really are put to the use of society as a whole, and how do you make sure that cooperatives are not run like capitalist companies, in the interests of the owners B even if it is the workers are now the owners? How do you ensure in a factory where the workers have decision making power, that the decisions are not only in their own narrow interests, but the interests of society?
In short, how do you genuinely socialise production so it is truly owned and controlled by society, not any one section of it?
There is a recognition that nationalisation will not resolve anything in and of itself. There are plenty of examples of where even wide spread nationalisation hasn’t led to socialism. I think in Venezuela, as part of rejecting the failed Stalinist model that proclaimed itself “socialist”, there is potentially a knee jerk reaction in the other direction, towards rejecting the role of the state in providing a necessary amount of centralised control over a planned economy in its initial phase B which it is hard to imagine one country being able to move out of alone B of establishing and consolidating the new system. The degree of centralisation required cannot be decreed, the more decentralisation, and therefore direct control by working people, you can allow the better.
However, there seems a danger in simply making one group of workers the owners over a company, no matter how much of an advance this is over ownership by an individual capitalist. This is not just the model for cooperatives, which are a real advance because they take previously unorganised urban and rural poor and put them in collective and productive work, but also seems the main model of co-management, so that in companies expropriated like Invepal, decision making power is tied to the ownership of shares by a workers cooperative. This model seems to me to have big potential dangers.
Part of what they are grappling with is the corrupt and pro-capitalist state bureaucracy in Venezuela that is able to retain significant control over state industry B it defeated comanagement in the oil and electrical industry for instance. This can understandably make it seem like there isn’t really much difference between control being with the capitalists, and control with bureaucrats.
But if all you do is give the factory to the workers who are employed there, you are still confronted with the question of how o actually incorporate that company into a national plan that serves the people. The question of socialism cannot be resolved in one factory, it involves a society-wide plan. Workers management is no doubt useful to this, but is it sufficient?
The question doesn’t seem to be so much one of “state socialism”, but of what sort of state? A capitalist state, or a state controlled by a bureaucratic elite, having control over the means of production won’t create socialism. But a genuinely revolutionary state, one actually based on and controlled by the organised working people, surely is a state that, through its institutions, can play a role in ensuring the socialisation of the economy, and provide an organisational framework to help ensure production is not run simply by and for the workers who happen to work at that particular site of production, but rather for society at large.
Of course, a key part of resolving this, which Chavez repeatedly returns to, is creating a genuinely socialist consciousness amongst the population so that working people make decisions with more than their narrow interests in mind. This is why creating socialist education system is one of the five motors of the next phase set out by Chavez.
Also, these issues will be resolved through practice, and at the moment they are at the level of experimentation. The aluminium plant, ALCASA, under co-management, is an experiment led by veteran revolutionary Carlos Lanz. He had an idea for a model than might avoid the problems of the Soviet Union and be appropriate to really create socialism, called co-management. The government gave him a factory to go see if it works. What is exciting now is Chavez is indicating they are moving beyond a few experiments in different sectors, to making the alternative the dominant system, not overnight of course, but that this is their goal.
I don’t raise these potential problems out of a lack of confidence in the Venezuelan working people, who have achieved so much, to work this out successfully, but to point out that as these issues are worked out, successfully or otherwise, there will be important lessons for socialists everywhere to learn.
The working people are the revolutionary class
Within this, the working people are revealing itself as the class capable of carrying the revolution out, of actually making the program of the revolution B to break the hold of imperialism, and to develop the nation along pro-people lines B a reality. This isn’t always immediately obvious, when you look at how weak the organised workers movement is, and also how much of the working class is in the informal sector B the semi-proletarian mass of urban poor who have traditionally made up the key support base for the Chavez government.
The betrayal of the capitalist class is more obvious. To the extent to which there is even a national capitalist class in Venezuela, it is has abandoned any serious nation-building project and is tied very much to imperialist interests. In the 1980s, with the down turn in oil prices, Venezuela fell further into debt, forcing the opening up of more of the economy. As this happened, the economy became increasingly controlled by foreign capital, and power inside Venezuela fell increasingly to that section of the elite most directly tied by imperialist interests. This was made worse by the fact that, deep in debt, sectors of the economy not controlled by imperialist interests increasingly fell into disrepair.
So who is showing a commitment to help build up the national economy? It isn’t the capitalists who are rolling up their sleeves and going out there to create cooperatives in sectors of the economy that need developing. It is the urban and rural poor. Capitalists are letting firms go into bankruptcy and trying to get their cash out of the country. Workers, sporadically without much needed leadership from the divided union movement, respond, in self defence, by taking such firms over and running them under their control.
Privately-owned agriculture is dominated by agribusiness for export, or left idle, and not used to help overcome the fact that Venezuela has to import 70% of its food. This is being done by peasants organised into cooperatives on redistributed land.
Because of underdevelopment made worse by neoliberalism, the working class has been weakened, but is now being reformed. The development of cooperatives is leading to the rebuilding of the working class decimated by neoliberalism, by taking atomised members of the urban and rural poor and putting them into constructive economic units. As we are talking about over 100,000 cooperatives being formed, this involves millions of people, the increasing proletarianisation of the Venezuelan poor.
It is this social force, the working class B being rebuilt B that is actually making the revolution.
You must struggle for power
The next lesson to be drawn from Venezuela is the need to struggle for power, and to struggle for institutions that exercise power that are run by and for working people themselves.
This is very important, because one idea that became prevalent amongst radical circles after the collapse of Stalinism was that the problem was power itself. That you should not strive to for state power, but that you can and should “change the world without taking power”, as the academic John Holloway put it. The Zapatistas were looked to as the model for this. They led self-organised communities in the south of Mexico, but they rejected a struggle to take power over the whole country.
Well, the result of this is there is a profound and increasingly deep going revolution in Venezuela, not Mexico. Venezuela, not Mexico, is the vanguard of the world revolutionary movement. Why? Because the revolutionaries in Venezuela fought for power.
First, they fought to win government. If they hadn’t done this, and then sought to defend and radicalise that government against attacks by the capitalist class, then we wouldn’t be talking about a revolution in Venezuela at all. We wouldn’t be talking about all the great lessons to draw. We wouldn’t be talking about all the gains made by working people. Because while winning governmental power didn’t change anything fundamental in itself, it was able to be used as a tool to help lead the working people in a mass revolutionary battle for power B a battle still playing out.
From government, they fought to transform the armed forces away from an instrument of repression for capital and into a pro-people force, and increasingly to arm the people themselves. If they hadn’t done this, the capitalist class would have been able to carry out a successful counter-revolution and crushed the growing power of working people by force.
And they are now fighting to transform the rest of the Venezuelan state to create a new revolutionary state power based directly on the power of working people.
At each step of the way you can see how the gains are directly tied to the power of working people to enforce their will on society. It is a struggle, whether openly stated or clearly understood as such by Venezuelan revolutionaries, for a dictatorship of the proletariat and other sectors, such as the peasantry, who are exploited and want to carry the revolution against this exploitation out.
Dictatorship in this case does not mean the rule of the minority over the majority by suppression, but rather the rule of the majority. It doesn’t have to be accompanied by a suppression of the rights of the privileged minority who oppose it. Past revolutions have carried out such measures as a necessary defence against counter-revolutionary aggression, not as a principle. It has, or should never have, been seen as a good thing, but something sometimes unavoidable against the violent resistance of the old ruling class. The greatest democratic rights for all sectors of society the better, the better to be able to have an open battle of ideas, to advance in the most peaceful way forward. Revolutionary socialists have no need for vengeance, but should support the greatest extension of democracy possible.
The key question is what program is able to be carried out? How do create a situation where the program of socialist revolution, set out by the revolution and given, yet again, a powerful mandate by the presidential elections, can be made a reality?
In Venezuela the revolutionary measures actually carried out are partial because power in the hands of working people is partial. This is the meaning of the “revolution within the revolution”, of the struggle set out repeatedly by Chavez to create a “new revolutionary state”, to displace the existing state structures, described by comrade Nelson Davila in his talk to the conference as “bourgeois” and “counterrevolutionary”.
This is not starting from scratch. We have assessed there is an embryonic workers and peasants state, whereby the government is a workers and peasants government, defined according to Marxist tradition as one independent of the capitalist class, backed by a revolutionary armed forces that is no longer a tool of capital, but in the process of transformation into a consolidated working peoples army, in conjunction with the expansion of the arming of the people.
This was created through the political struggles initiated by the capitalist class in response to the 49 laws passed by decree by Chavez in November 2001 that introduced relatively minor reforms benefiting the people and restricting the rights of capital.
Before this the capitalist class hoped that the contradictions in the constitution and rhetoric of Chavez could be resolved in their favour. That it was the commitment to social justice that would be dropped. They launched a class struggle to overthrow the government that led to the coup that was defeated by a popular uprising in April 2002. This allowed the government to remove around 400 officers who revealed their counterrevolutionary intentions, as well as increasing the radicalisation and organisation of the working people.
However the uprising, which defeated the coup relatively easily as poor planning caused by overconfidence caused the coup to fall apart quickly, still didn’t empower the government to move on key parts of its program. Large sections of the working class had remained passive and were yet to be drawn into the revolutionary process. The government was unsure of how strong it was, and backed down on the key issue that sparked the coup, the attempt to impose a head of the oil industry committed to bring it under government control. They also gave the opposition the finance minister they demanded, as well as other concessions.
It was the bosses lock-out that shifted the correlation of forces much more dramatically in favour of the government, which, in no small part due to the revolt of capital itself, was now independent of the capitalist class and in a position to begin the implementation of important parts of its program via the redistribution of oil wealth through the social missions. The lock-out lasted two months and required a much higher and sustained level of mobilisation of the working people, in alliance with the armed forces. Whereas in April, the majority of the armed forces stayed out of the battle, many remaining neutral throughout, this changed during the December 2002-January 2003 lock-out.
The government got control of the oil industry, purged of the counterrevolutionaries, began the social missions, implemented measures that restricted the rights of capital such as the right to fire and the right to take their money out of the country at will, and replaced the finance minister while they were at it.
However, while this has advanced the situation, and created real gains for working people, it has not ended the struggle for power.
The hold of the pro-capitalist bureaucracy over state institutions has severely undermined the ability of the revolution to advance. It represents a significant block on the road to carrying out the socialist revolution, one that needs to be overcome through the construction of a “new revolutionary state”, as Chavez has repeatedly explained. It poses the question of the need to advance from a workers and peasants government, backed by an armed force that prevents its overthrow B which is the main content of the “embryonic workers and peasants state” formulation B to the breaking of the capitalist state as a whole and the creation of the dictatorship of the working people.
Now, ultimately you can give this whatever label you want. The label is important, but the label wont change the reality. There is a need to break the political power still exercised by the capitalist class to enable the program of the working people to imposed on society. The defeat of comanagement in key industries, the reign of terror against the campesinos in the countryside that, combined with bureaucracy, have prevented land reform from advancing beyond a certain point, the corruption that enables funds to continue to flow to the old elite at the expense of the poor B these are some of the concrete problems that have to be overcome in order for the revolution to be able to go forward.
There are some inspiring stories from the revolution B the transformation of a police station where the poor used to be tortured in Bario 23 de Enero into a community radio station is a famous one. But this is so far an isolated example. To create a revolutionary state, such examples need to be generalised.
The various police forces remain largely unreformed and thugs in uniform able to terrorise the poor. As well as the almost non-existent jailing of the assassins of campesinos, some recent court decision, such as to drop the case into the assassination of state prosecutor Danilo Anderson, murdered for pursing the coup plotters, and against an opposition mayor who led the assault on the Cuban embassy during the coup reveal the courts still need revolutionising.
The problem here is concrete and cannot be swept away theoretically. The problems in the countryside are real, and need to be overcome for the revolution to go forward. This is not the same as violence that might occur after large landowners have been dispossessed and are trying to get their property back. This is violence occurring before the successful carrying out of the agrarian revolution and is working to block the continual advance of the revolution.
You cannot tell the Venezuelan peasantry they have a dictatorship to exercise. Reality tells a different story. From numerous statements from campesino groups in Venezuela, they believe they have a national government that is on their side and has the will to implement the revolution. But they are confronted, on the one hand, with armed groups at the service of the landowners, both the police and paramilitary forces, and on the other by a state bureaucracy that frustrates the implementation of the law. When they are not cut down by the assassins bullets, they choked by red tape. Any power they exercise can only be considered embryonic, with important battles to stamp the revolution’s authority decisively on the countryside part of the road ahead. Call it what you like, this is the reality from which the revolution has to proceed.
A framework for the likely way the struggle for power plays out in a revolution is set out in the DSP constitution. Under the heading “Democracy and the struggle for workers power”, point 7 on page 126 states:
“7. The first qualitative step in establishing the democratic power of the working class is the revolutionary replacement of the capitalist government by a working people’s government based on soviets and other forms of mass revolutionary struggle”
I would think this occurred B not in the exact way explain because reality never plays out just like it is said in a program B as a result of the struggle that defeated the counter-revolutionary attempt to overthrow Chavez during the coup and the lock-out. We can discuss whether this occurred decisively with the defeat of the coup or with the lock-out, with my feeling being the lock-out although I am open to be convinced. It is a secondary question as the most important thing is we recognise it has come into being.
Of course here we have to be able to understand content over form. The question isn’t the particular individuals in the government before and after these struggles, which did change but was not the decisive point. The point is the change in social content. After the defeat of the lock-out the government based itself on an armed forces no long under the control of the capitalist class as well as the increasingly organised and radicalised (although this was still weak) working class.
But the program doesn’t end the question there, it goes on:
“8. Such a government stands at the head of a turbulent, transitional process, during which the capitalist class retains significant advantages. Unless it acts decisively to consolidate the organs of revolutionary mass struggle as the new institutions of state power, that is to replace the weakened capitalist state with a workers state, and to organise workers to assert control over the capitalists. The revolutionary foundations of the working people’s government will gradually be undermined and weakened.”
It goes on to explain that the capitalists will use their economic power to undermine the revolution, potentially causing confusion and demoralisation that can open the way for the capitalists to regain their political power and dismantle the gains.
I think B again it hasn’t played out exactly like this Bthat the struggle for power in Venezuela as it stands now, falls within this general point and that this is the meaning of Chavez’s call for a new revolutionary state to dismantle the old state. Chavez, like comrade Davila, has called the old state “bourgeois”.
It for this reason that the state power should be considered “embryonic” and the decisive creation of a dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry is a task still being carried out in Venezuela.
I think that this process of transformation, moving beyond a workers and peasants government resting on an armed force no longer controlled by the capitalist class, to the decisive smashing of the capitalist state and creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, is occurring in a relatively drawn out, or “slow” fashion in Venezuela as a result of particular conditions.
Firstly, the capitalist class in Venezuela finds itself incredibly weak politically and in now position to assume government. It’s political representatives completely discredited themselves through the process of neoliberalism and the violent repression of the 1989 uprising. This vacuum, not filled by the traditional left, created the space for an outsider such Chavez to get elected. What remained of the credibility amongst the popular classes of the political representatives of the capitalist class was destroyed beyond any repair in the foreseeable future by their actions during the April coup and then the lock-out. This is compounded by the general weakness of US imperialism, the main backers of the pro-capitalist opposition, bogged down in Iraq, heavily discredited themselves, and unable to provide the assistance the local elites need to overcome their problems.
So the capitalist class finds itself unable to pose a serious challenge for government. However, the working class has not been as strong as the capitalist class has been weak in Venezuela. If the question could just be resolved by the character of Chavez, then it would be a lot simpler. The level of consciousness and organisation of working people has been taking leaps and bounds forward, but it started at a very low level and organisationally especially remains at too low a level to decisively enforce its will. This may change rapidly, but it remains true at this point.
This has created a certain vacuum that has enabled opportunist and bureaucratic layers to take up a large amount of space. While often “pro-Chavez”, these forces are nonetheless essentially pro-capitalist, and objectively counterrevolutionary.
The creation of a working class conscious and capable of decisively enforcing its will over society to carry out the program of socialist revolution has been the key battle underway since the defeat of the recall referendum in August 2004, after which Chavez called for a deepening of the revolution and a “revolution within the revolution”. It has made gains, but has been undermined by a weakness of leadership, with the union movement especially struggling to go forward with a big internal divisions.
The movement for co-management appears to have stalled from about mid-2005 on, although it may be picking up steam again with the momentum of the presidential victory and the nationalisations announced afterwards. There are reports of discussions to establish workers councils in companies nationalised, and worker groups in the oil industry have threatened to take over installations if the foreign companies don’t agree to government demands.
The struggle for co-management needs to go forward as part of the point spelled out in point 8 above B the need for workers to exercise control over capitalists. One things that would have given this a big momentum to go forward was if Chavez’s call in the middle of 2005 for workers to take over a list of 800 plants left idle by their owners had become a reality. However, necessary leadership from the pro-Chavez union movement was lacking and only a handful or so have been seized.
If we understand the tasks still at hand, we can understand the full significance of the victories like the recent presidential victory, and the new phase of struggle signified by the moves announced since.
However, I am no sure all comrades do. In his speech at a previous Venezuela workshop, comrade Marcus Pabian argued that the April coup saw a workers and peasants armed force defend a workers and peasants government, creating a workers and peasants state. As such, he argued the use of the term “embryonic” is not essential.
I don’t agree with this, as I think it doesn’t take into consideration the degree by which the struggle for power is still going on and exaggerates what was achieved with the coup B for reasons I have explained above. Obviously, there is plenty of space to discuss this issue in as much depth as we like, through The Activist. However, one thing that we should clarify is what position we have adopted. Comrades who agree with Marcus seem to think that this position corresponds with the DSP’s formally adopted position.
Now, what is important is the reality in Venezuela, not what a bunch of people in a room half the world away thought has happened. We should be willing to change our position if reality tells us we need to. However, we should understand what the position is, The November 2004 report to the DSP NC, published in The Activist volume 14, number 5, that I presented on behalf of the NE and which spelled out our position out in detail for the first time, and which has not been fundamentally altered since, does not argue that the struggle for state power has been decisively resolved in Venezuela. It says:
“Y the decisive question in any social revolution is who holds political power. Resolving this is the decisive question facing the revolution.” (Italics added). It goes on to say “They are yet to decisively resolve what Marx referred to as ’the battle for democracy’; they have yet to raise the working class to the position of ruling class”. (Italics added)
It points out that the state is a lot more than just a body of armed people and argued against the concept that just because “there is clearly not a consolidated dictatorship of the proletariat, therefore you have a capitalist state”. It says “Venezuela is neither a consolidated capitalist or workers’ state but in a process of transition from one to the other”.
My impression of Marcus’s argument was that it went further than this and argued that in fact there was at least a workers and peasants state decisively established, and the working class is already, and has been since the defeat of the coup, the ruling class. Maybe this is the reality (although I don’t see it) but it isn’t what we said.
The report goes onto to attempt to assess where it is up to, using the formulation “embryonic workers and peasant state”, arguing that there exists a government and armed forces independent of capital and at the service of workers and peasants.
One of the things I think needs to be emphasised in all of this is that you cannot understand the unfinished nature of the struggle for power by workers and peasants by purely seeing the struggle as “for Chavez” or “against Chavez”. As the revolution radicalises, the class struggle increasingly cuts into the Chavez camp.
A lot of Chavista officials, who owe their positions to their support for Chavez, support what Michael Lebowitz has described as “Chavez without socialism”. This essentially reformist concept cuts against the ongoing radicalisation and that sees the missions, the popular economy, new institutions of popular power such as the communal councils as essentially secondary and nice additions to the main structures of the capitalist system, but not as structures that should replace that system.
Just how strong this layer is will play out in the next period. They have so far been organisationally strong, with a strong hold institutionally, but politically weak. Politically weak because Chavez is the one who sets the agenda, and he constantly radicalises it. However, the revolutionary forces, looking to make the radicalisation led by Chavez a reality on the ground, have so far been organisationally weak and lacked institutional strength.
Two important things announced by Chavez could change this, and break the hold of the bureaucratic layer. The organisational weakness could be overcome by the new party, and the institutional weakness could be overcome by the planned expansion in number and power of the communal councils. Both aim to empower the grass roots from the ground up to break the bureaucracy. But these things cannot be decreed, only created through struggle, it is not inconceivable that the more moderate, opportunist layers in the Chavista camp will find a way to dominate both.
The struggle will tell. The question of consciousness and program is not irrelevant. The struggle that will play out will occur on a much more radical and clear cut revolutionary socialist platform than in April or December 2002, when a lot of these questions were unresolved and, despite the revolt of the capitalist class, the program at that point did not go beyond the bounds of capitalism.
The struggle for power is now occurring on a program more unambiguous. The struggle to deepen the power of the working people is understood by all involved as tied to making a socialist revolution. The move from having a government, backed by an armed force, independent of the capitalist class to a decisively created dictatorship of workers and peasants will be created through a struggle around this program. It may occur quickly and without much fuss, or it may be more drawn out depending on the strength of the opposition it encounters, which is difficult to predict from afar.
The need to construct a mass revolutionary party
In order to break this deadlock, in order to move decisively forward from the embryonic workers and peasants state to the consolidated dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, requires the construction of a political instrument. This is the significance I speaking about earlier of the call for a united socialist party.
The “party question”, the need for a mass revolutionary party that unites the real social vanguard, has been put centre stage by the Bolivarian revolution. Reality has imposed this need. The need for such a party has been raised by the struggle itself, and it has done so despite deep anti-party sentiment amongst militants across Venezuela.
It has become clearer and clear that the struggle to deepen the revolution requires a political weapon. It can’t just happen spontaneously or in an ad hoc manner. The question of leadership in all spheres is getting sharper.
For example, we see the divisions and lack of a coherent way forward in the Chavista National Union of Workers (UNT) that are holding back the workers movement and the ability of the revolution to advance. Chavez lists 800 companies to take over on national TV. Only a small number are taken over, in a spontaneous and ad hoc manner as a result of the default of leadership by the UNT, that proves too weak organisationally and riven by internal factional warfare.
This is one particular clear cut example of the need to unite, from the ground up, around a clear program to go forward, the best of the militants in all spheres.
If the revolutionary forces can not find a way to lead the broader layers of working people to deepen their power, the space will be taken by bureaucrats. How do you expand and consolidate the institutions of popular power, such as communal council?. How do you organise to combat corruption? How do you organise the campesinos to defeat the campaign of terror in the countryside and break down the bureaucratic barriers to completing the land reform? How do you actually carry out a mass campaign aimed not just at increasing and maintaining the involvement of the mass of people, but at raising the ideological level in way that is necessary to actually carry out a socialist revolution?
Everything points to the importance of moving away from atomised struggles, away from attempting to resolve these problems in an ad hoc or spontaneous manner. Everything points to the need for a vanguard party in order to provide leadership. Anarchists may wish to get rid of the question of a vanguard, to consider it elitist. Reality, however, imposes itself and anyone who has been to Venezuela and seen what is going on the barrios, in the missions, in the factories, would have to be blind to not see the existence of a social vanguard.
Not all members of the barrios, or all workers in a factory, operate at the same level of consciousness or commitment. Leaders arise, either from pre-existing left organisations or movements, or through the struggle. They are the ones out there organising the communal councils and trying to convince others in their areas to get involved. They are the ones at ALCASA who work to convince the other workers of why workers management is a good thing, that struggle to get the mass of workers there to look beyond their own narrow interests to running the company for the good of society.
And these are the people that need to be organised into the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Chavez made this point, he was explicit that this party can not be an amalgam of the existing parties, it has to be built a new from the ground up based on the militants. He said all the militants need to work out in their areas who should be a member, who are the most conscious and self sacrificing. He said keep out the corrupt and drunkards.
The party question is not starting from scratch, there have been different stages of political organising to get to this point. For instance, the initial role of the MBR-200 led by Chavez inside the armed forces gave way to the formation of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) in 1997. This was an advance for its time, it moved things to a higher level. But, through the struggle, this advance became outdated itself, and what was once an advance with the formation of the MVR became a block to further progress. Chavez himself has said this.
Looking elsewhere you can see contradictory proto-party formations such as the Bolivarian Circles established in 2001. These grass roots organisations attempted to straddle different functions. This often occurs in the initial stages of developing both the necessary broad-based popular organisations required to mobilise the masses, and political parties that attempt to unite narrower sections of the vanguard.
The Bolivarian Circles attempted to be units of popular power that solved practical questions facing communities and mobilised the poor, plus ideological centres to organise Chavistas. The question of playing the first role has increasingly developed through other organisations, such as urban land committees and now the communal councils. The second role has never been adequately filled. However there have been some successes, especially the grass roots Units of Electoral Battle formed for the recall referendum. Chavez himself called for these bodies to remain after the referendum and to be developed, but the pro-Chavez parties prevented this from occurring.
Today in Venezuela, there are a large number of different groups, all playing various roles in trying to fill the need for a political vehicle for the revolution. There are many different groups, with different backgrounds and bases in different sectors, including the likes of the Socialist League, various Trotskyist groups, community-based organisations like of the Tupamaros, the Simon Bolivar Coordinator, others like the PCV, the Movement for Direct Democracy that has been led by William Izarra and that comrade Davila is involved with, and many more.
All of these groups have had something to contribute and played a positive role in some ways, with their own contradictions. But none by themselves have proven adequate. Simply continuing to build their own organisations is not going to solve the problems thrown up by the struggle. Each of these groups have been superseded by the struggle, which demands revolutionary unity.
Whether a genuinely democratic mass revolutionary party can be constructed will be seen in the coming period. It can not be decreed into being, but will have to be struggled for, and struggled against forces within the Chavista camp who have a vested interest in retaining their control over the new group.
A revolutionary ideology requires Marxism
One final point to make is on the question of revolutionary ideology, which like all other aspects of the revolution has radicalised through the class struggle. Increasingly, Marxism is being raised as at least one component of the revolution’s ideology. I think that Marxism, which is a tool to understand and act to change the world rather than a dogmatic prescription, is definitely being reaffirmed in practice in Venezuela, but as is often the case theory lags behind. But it is beginning to catch up.
The question here is not Marxism versus Bolivarianism, but of Bolivarianism taking on an increasingly Marxist B which is the ideology of the proletarian socialist revolution B content. Often revolutionaries in Venezuela, and friends of the revolution outside Venezuela, will deny the Marxist component of the revolution, arguing that it is a European doctrine, that Marx was from Europe, and that the Latin American revolution needs its own ideology based on its own traditions.
Leaving aside just how deep Marxism’s roots are on the continent, it is a false counter-position. Marxism is merging with the Latin American revolutionary traditions that the Bolivarian revolution has sought to base itself on. It is not the ideas and practice of Simon Bolivar versus Marx, but taking the essence of Bolivar’s ideology B that of national liberation, which is still, in the epoch of imperialism, a pressing question and the key question that touched off the Bolivarian revolution B and combining it with Marxism B the ideology of the socialist revolution. Something similar occurred in Cuba with the merging of the revolutionary nationalism of Jose Marti with Marxism.
This is what is occurring, and it doesn’t take much reading of speeches these days by Chavez to pick this up. Chavez is increasingly using his speeches to explain key Marxist concepts on class, revolution, imperialism and also the party. He argues that if Bolivar was alive today, he would be a socialist. This is a popular way of explaining that the goals Bolivar fought for, national liberation, today can only be achieved through socialist revolution.
And into this mix, Chavez is conscious to add other factors in working out ideology such as indigenous traditions and also Christianity.
This is still developing, amongst the broader vanguard especially. But, not in a narrow dogmatic way, intended to displace the likes of Bolivar and other indigenous traditions, Marxism is becoming an important component of Bolivarianism.
This is crucial. Marxism was condemned to history’s dustbin. It was outmoded, proved wrong. Chavez got elected in 1998, the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, in a context where for populations at large and even for many radicals, so many of the lessons of class struggle since that time that came, despite the crimes of Stalinism, to become part of the Marxist tradition, had been thrown out as outmoded. Now, through the Bolivarian revolution, through the leadership especially of Chavez, Marxism is coming back as, at the very least, a key reference point for those who want to change the world.
There are those who still deny this. In an article on the Venezuelan revolutionary website Aporrea.org, that was posted on Venezuelanalysis.com on January 23, Mary Pili Hernandez argued that neither Chavez nor the Bolivarian revolution is Marxist and produces three quotes from Chavez to prove this.
Well, they say you can prove anything with quotes and that is true ten times over with Chavez. He is extremely eclectic in his reading and influences, and very expansive on this topic in his speeches to such a degree that were you to take every one of his statements over the years of the revolution at face value, you would have him committed to the loony bin as a severe schizophrenic.
Taking all of Chavez’s quotes at face value, he would have to be the world’s first Bolivarian, Peronist, Nasserite, Trotskyist, Maoist Castroite, who is also heavily influenced by the works of that hero of “autonomist Marxism” Antonio Negri, and who repeatedly insists that “Jesus Christ is my commander”. Oh, and who has said the Soviet Union was state capitalist.
However, taking the general trend of his speeches, there is no doubt he is increasingly introducing, explaining and advocating the ideas of Marxism. Hell, he even told the heads of the Catholic Church during his inauguration as president on January 10, in response to some criticisms they had of him, that to understand “socialism of the 21st century” they should go and read Marx and Lenin, not just the bible.
One final point in this regard is a piece of very fitting historical justice. Chavez has repeatedly referred favourably to the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, going as far as to declare himself a ’Trotskyist” and says he believes in Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.
Chavez calling himself a “Trotskyist” again needs to be understood through its intent more than at face value. Chavez often quotes from Trotsky and uses him in the way that Trotsky should be used and understood B not as a distinct current or ideology of its own, but by recognising Trotsky as one of the great Marxists whose ideas need to be considered, not over and above, but along side, the other great revolutionaries of the 20th century.
This is real historical justice because Trotsky copped it from all sides during the 20th century. He was despised and slandered by the capitalist class for his role in leading the world’s first socialist revolution. And he was despised, slandered, exiled and murdered by the Stalinists for upholding revolutionary Marxism against their betrayals. And here we are, the first revolution since the collapse of Stalinism and its leader calls himself a Trotskyist!
Not just that, but at a conference of intellectuals and artists in late 2004 in Caracas, he argued that in the debate Stalin and Trotsky over whether you could have a revolution in one country, or whether it needed to spread and be international, Trotsky was right. This is possibly the first time since Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union that a world leader has, on this question of possibly Stalinism’s key betrayal, has come out for Trotsky.
In going in to bat for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, Chavez is arguing for its positive components, rather than the more sectarian and ultraleft aspects much of the Trotskyist movement focus on. That is, the parts that are answers to Stalinism: the idea that you cannot just build socialism in one country, it must spread. And also the idea that you cannot stop, in the underdeveloped world, at fighting for “national democratic revolution”, but that in order to complete that revolution it has to go over, in an uninterrupted way, into a socialist revolution.
This is directly counter to the Stalinist line that says, because the first stage of the revolution involves “national-democratic tasks”, you need to build an alliance with progressive sectors of the national capitalist class, and the independent struggle of working class must be subordinated to this.
The theory tends to run into trouble when confronted with the question of the centrality of national democratic tasks for the revolutionary movement in an underdeveloped country, and the way that the struggle around such tasks has the potential, carried out consistently, to open the road to socialist revolution, rather than the national democratic and socialist tasks of the revolution being “telescoped” into one possibly simultaneous stage.
However this isn’t really the key point with Chavez’s comments in favour of permanent revolution. Whatever the problems with the theory, Chavez’s comments are based on the positive components, the degree by which they help explain how the revolution has continuously radicalised and the socialist stage opened up. It is the positive components, which the theory shares in common with the Leninist theory of uninterrupted revolution that our tendency is in agreement with, that have actually played out in Venezuela. You cannot accuse Chavez of attempting to implement the ultraleft aspects of the theory of permanent revolution.
For re-raising the banner of revolution in the 21st century, for proving the socialist nature of any serious revolution in this century, for showing that revolution requires political power organised democratically in the hands of the working people, and for reintroducing Marxism as a crucial component of any revolutionary ideology, the international working class owes the Bolivarian revolution an enormous debt. It is this that the capitalists can never forgive Chavez. Even if they destroy the revolution tomorrow, it will be too late as the lessons remain. The flag of socialist revolution is flying again.