“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” These were the words of the radical Thomas Paine on the dawn of a great era of revolution that would bestow onto humanity the ideals of the Enlightenment. In this “postmodern era” Paine’s words ring hollow. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the illusions upon which a nightmare reigned have been stripped bare. Much of the “radical left” has been exposed as not only incapable, but also unworthy, of being standard-bearers for democratic radicalism.
Despite the backdrop of recession and the public outcry against the finance bourgeoisie, this still appears be an era of organizing, compromise and slow progress for working people. A welcome change after decades of unrelenting capitalist assault on our social safety net, but still not the time of any great counteroffensives. Progressive movements in the United States do not have the vision, much less the power, to begin the world anew. That is not to say that major advances can’t be made for working people, but any dreams of the “expropriation of the expropriators” will have to go unfulfilled for the time being.
Real revolutionaries however continue the task of “beginning the world over again”, whether we are cognizant of their work or not. These pioneers are driven not by high-minded idealism, but rather by naked self-interest, a force that drags them across the world, uprooting, destroying and rebuilding the world after their own image. Neither the faux “proletarian internationalism” of conservative Communist bureaucrats nor the yearnings of reactionary “radicals” for a simpler time for bygone eras of state protectionism or agrarian idyllicism, could have manifested the explosion of productive forces that the world has seen in India, Brazil, China and elsewhere. Yet the chaos of any revolutionary upheaval inevitably conjures up counterrevolutionary forces. The oft-ignored victims of this much heralded progress; the landless peasant in Bengal, the slum-dweller in Rio de Janeiro, those lacking running water in Mumbai amidst the shadows of newly constructed luxury hotels that sport olympian swimming pools and sparkling fountains.
Yes the multitude have struggled since time immemorial, victims admittedly more of underdevelopment than of capitalist exploitation or imperial plunder, but as small segments of the population become enormously wealthy, become interlinked to a world culture of commodities and continue to ignore those whose sweat laid the foundation for their prosperity; the contradictions erupt. Landless farmers become Maoist guerrillas, shack dwellers become an organized political force and newly urbanized workers organize into unions. Poor and marginalized people go to the polls. There was a reason classical liberals feared any form of electoral democracy.
From our windows in the developed world we see a fairly stable system amid a corrective period. Though we may draw strength for the important battles of the day from Paine, Debs, Luxemburg and Marx, only the most deluded amongst us see the “final hour” approaching. Yet for many other Americans, our brothers and sisters of Latin America, these are revolutionary times. Much of the hemisphere stands ready to shake the shackles of hundreds of years of colonial and neocolonial abuse, overcome petty inter-American rivalries and begin the work of building new egalitarian and democratic social structures in place of those decrepit ones built upon antagonism and exploitation. Yet these egalitarian dreams will have to be balanced with the burdens of underdevelopment, the looming climate crisis and with respect to indigenous groups that are only now joining the polity.
As a disciple of Hal Draper, I have a tendency to look at social upheavals and the new socio-economic orders that occasionally follow them, as either arising “from below” or “from above”. Revolutions from below follow the tradition of Karl Marx, the revolutionary socialist who came to socialism by his early advocacy of liberal democracy and his encounters with the limits of this otherwise progressive development. Marx wrote, “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.” Revolutions from above include the elitist, bureaucratic, messianic and altogether misguided ventures that are both too numerous and too painful for me to recount. Looking at the Bolivarian Revolution through just this lens is a bit problematic.
Chavez’s win seemed at first to be nothing more than a parliamentary victory for a bombastic social democrat. His electoral success was driven by the legacy of neoliberalism and corruption that had plagued Venezuela for decades and driven the impoverished masses towards Chavez’s anti-corruption and poverty eradication platform. Chavez burst onto the Venezuelan scene after attempting a left-wing putsch in 1992 after an extended period of popular discontent, economic free fall and violent state repression that took by some estimates 3,000 lives. The chaotic episode called the Caracazo also featured the suspension of civil liberties—giving Chavez’s Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200, some justification for extra-parliamentary action, but nonetheless this attempt at “revolution” was an abject failure. It did serve, however, to emblazon his fiery persona on the Venezuelan consciousness.
Few could have predicted that the left in Venezuela under the open banner of socialism, no less, would be in an almost hegemonic position for the first decade of the 21st century. The old model of corporatism was corrupt and broken in Venezuela and failed throughout the 80s. The neoliberalism that replaced it combatted inflation, but brought with it income inequalities and the slashing of vital public utilities. It was discontentment with this form of capitalism that swept Chavez to power. “Watch what Chavez does, not what he says,” was the line of the State Department. El commandante’s fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric and wealth redistribution promises were politically expedient, but would soon collide with “reality”. We have reason to question many of our nation’s intelligence experts, but they can be pardoned for their lack of foresight in this instance. The political composition of Latin America in 1997 was right of center, neoliberalism was the ruling creed, Argentina was an economic model, Cuba was collapsing, oil prices were low, and Chavez faced hostility in the legislature, the courts and the private media.It should have ended right there. Maybe a will-intended increase in social spending coupled with a spike in inflation, an IMF loan, a restructuring, some tough medicine austerity programs and as a parting gift maybe a nice free-trade agreement for Venezuela’s enthusiastic cooperation with Plan Columbia. That should have been the way history unfolded. That was, after all, the way history unfolds in this interminable age of the end of history. “But alas, history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims,” and the men and women of Venezuela have gone on for nearly twelve years writing the first drafts of a new history for their continent.
Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg’s celebrated pamphlet, was an assault on the revisionism of many of the leading members of the Second International, Eduard Bernstein in particular. Luxemburg shattered illusions about where reformism was leading the German social democrats writing, “That is why people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.” Luxemburg understood the value of reforms and the battle for democracy, but made it clear that her goal was the political conquest of power by the working-class and not a more humane version of capitalism. European Social Democracy during the post-war period was able to create a kinder capitalist order that gave the blessings of a strong social safety net alongside steady GDP growth. Yet the period left the levers of power firmly with the capitalist class and did not challenge structural power. It was rule more by class cooperation not struggle. After the collapse of the Keynesian consensus many of the gains of the post-war period were rolled back. Rosa Luxemburg’s compared the reformist struggle without an emancipatory vision to Sisyphus—condemned to rolling a boulder up a steep hill only to be have it roll back down.
What makes Chavez different? How did electing a “democratic socialist” party lead to some structural change in Venezuela? It wasn’t done purely through parliamentary work, rather much of the impetus came through popular referendum. The 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela wrapped itself in the veneer of Simón Bolívar. The words of Marx’s essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte come to mind,“in like manner a beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue,” for the new constitution went far beyond what Bolivar could have envisioned, much less advocated. Its 350 articles make it one of the longest constitutions in the world, testament to its protagonist vision. In addition to protecting personal freedoms, like free assembly and free speech, it guaranteed to all Venezuelans free education, free quality health care, access to a clean environment and enshrined the rights of minority groups to uphold their traditional cultures and languages. Replacing the three-branch system that characterizes most bourgeois democracies, the Bolivarian Republic separates power into five branches, including an electoral branch that independently overseas elections and most importantly citizens’ branch that exercises popular power. Popular power that manifests itself in the form of “Bolivarian Circles” and “Community Councils”, organs of participatory democracy. The constitution has been reproduced in mass and is available in subsidized grocery stores in the barrios and rural regions of Venezuela--- the government has made it a priority to make sure the people of Venezuela know their rights.These embryos go beyond demagogy and corporatism, they represent a structural challenge to traditional forms of capitalist government. This aspect of the Bolivarian Revolution rekindles the idea, despite the cries of John Holloway and the postmodernists, that we can change the world from “below” not by avoiding power, but by taking it. The growing cooperative movement, the nationalization of certain occupied factories, the more equal distribution of oil wealth through social programs, the pan-American projects like ALBA and Banco del Sur, these are the parts of the Bolivarian Revolution that I cannot help, but extol.
But there is another, more problematic side to the Bolivarian Revolution, and it involves the persona and personalism of Chávez himself. Chavez is still immensely popular with the Venezuelan people, especially the poor and previously marginalized who have benefited from his extensive social programs. Chavez supporters proudly proclaim themselves to be “Chavistas” as opposed to “revolutionaries” or “socialists” and Chavez has united much of the Venezuelan left into a new umbrella party under his leadership—PSUV. Chavez’s soaring rhetoric has a worrying messianic character, he has repeatedly referred to Jesus Christ as the “first socialist revolutionary” and in his speech following his 2009 referendum victory called for the establishment of “a kingdom of heaven on Earth”. Liberation theology has deep roots in Latin America and the majority of the Venezuelan people, Chavez included, are Catholics. He may be merely communicating through the language of the Venezuelan masses. Rather than allowing reactionary neo-fascist elements in the Venezuelean opposition to claim the domain of religion for their own purposes, Chavez is smart to engage the polity at this level. His calls for the “kingdom of heaven on Earth” should cause some pause however. Not only is this the type of language that fueled 19th century pre-Marxist “utopian” socialism, it was also part of the language used during the dystopian ventures of the 20th century. It is messianic language, language not compatible with secular, democratic and genuinely socialist values. (Not to mention the idea of a dull place like heaven, ruled by a benevolent despot doesn’t sound enticing-- to me at least.)
Vast swathes of the Bolivarian Revolution appear to be parodies of the Peronist, “national socialist” model that failed in the 20th century. State wealth is used by the state bureaucracy to create conditions of dependency. The lives of the poor are marginally improved in the short-term, but once wealth falls these programs are cut and inflation will need to be combatted by the whip of the free-market. The corporatist model breeds contemptible dependency upon the capitalist state and cannot be considered socialism by any stretch of the imagination. There are some elements of the PSUV that are pushing the country down this road however. Additionally a very real corruption and a crime epidemic plague Venezuela and must be addressed by Chavez. Certain segments of the finance and national industrial bourgeoisie have also benefited from Chavez’s regime and the increased public sector spending, testament to the uneven development of the socialist project in Venezuela.
Though an increase in investment in health, education and basic social services should be applauded these steps are not revolutionary measures though this fact is often obscured by Chavez’s fiery rhetoric. Creating 21st century socialism, especially in the developing world will mean creating a pro-growth socialism that embraces certain aspects of the markets, values worker ownership and devolves power to the class-conscious people rather than centralizing it in the hands of one man or one party. Despite the establishment of organs of participatory democracy it is not clear that Chavez believes that the executive and legislative should eventually become subordinated to citizens’ power.
A few weeks ago Chavez said that the economic crisis, “shows the advantages of China’s model”. Chavez’s attempts to strong-arm the Venezuelan trade unions under the umbrella of PSUV must be watched, perhaps his love of the Chinese “model” also extends to state-run “trade unions”? Chavez also made significant overtures to theocratic Iran and Russia. This is not to mention Chavez’s uncritical and unfettered support for the Castro brothers in Cuba. With Venezuela’s huge influence on the Cuban economy it is not an overstatement to say that Chavez could if he wanted, guide the Cuban statist regime towards the embracement of a more libertarian socialism—he does not however, which makes one question whether Chavez plans to use the organs of popular power as organs of his power, much in the way that grassroots organizations are used to defend the Cuban dictatorship. Chavez has also never spoke out about the betrayal of Sandinista values by the disgraced Daniel Ortega, moreover his general willingness to seek common cause with any group that opposes the United States should not be applauded as “socialist internationalism”, but should be regarded as what it really is—narrow-minded parochialism. Chavez can’t be blamed for seeking trading partners, but his assertions that these are radical or counter-hegemonic actions are dubious. Proletarian internationalism is not the same as “popular front anti-imperialism”. While Iranian Marxists continue their battle in their country in the spirit of Mansoor Hekmat, it is counter-revolutionary to heap uncritical praise upon their reactionary government. Kurds, women and workers across Iran, members of the democratic left deserve the support of self-proclaimed “socialist governments”. The same should be said of the real Sandinistas, anti-authoritarian leftists in Cuba and the Chinese proletarians fighting for worker's rights in their “workers’ state”. What Chavez does in his own nation’s interests is one thing, but let’s not confuse this with some sort of new charting of a multi-polar world.
Unlike Marx, Chavez did not come to socialism by way of liberal democracy. As seen by his 1992 putsch attempt he always had issues which such systems (though their wasn’t much liberal about martial law). Admittedly, the 2002 coup shows that the opposition doesn’t have much in the way of respect for bourgeois democratic models either (the bourgeois part is always more important than the democratic part). Much of the international left recently defended Chavez’s refusal to renew the RCTV broadcasting license. RCTV broadcasted many fallacies about the Chavez regime, compared him to Hitler and supported the coup attempt against him. Chavez was well within his legal right to refuse to renew the contract of this station, especially when considering that the private press is relatively unfettered and anti-Chavez in Venezuela. The non-renewal of RCTV was a tactical victory for Chavez in the battle for hegemony in the Venezuelan media, but it was a strategic loss. It called into question Chavez’s credentials as a democrat. Members of the American left that are opposed to restrictions on “hate speech” or any kind of encroachments by the state upon civil liberties--- no matter how “bourgeois” these liberties may seem --- should be critical of future acts of this variety by the Venezuelan state. Activists should also be critical of Chavez’s court packing, which was done in a legal manner, but in a spirit not in keeping with democratic values. Though the claims of an “illiberal democracy” in Venezuela are mostly right-wing propaganda there is no reason to not question Chavez’s actions.
It is undeniable that since the unprecedented popular overthrow of the right-wing coup in 2002 Chavez has charted a more explicitly “socialist” course. What kind of socialism this means is harder to deceiver. Chavez has quoted thinkers from Gramsci, to Luxemburg, to Trotsky, to Keynes in an admittedly sort of incoherent way. Not surprisingly, Bolivarian Revolution seems like an incomprehensible mix of participatory democracy, authoritarian populism, welfare capitalism and corporatism. It is thus impossible for anyone of any political persuasion to uncritically support the Bolivarian movement as a whole. Chavez has derided right-wing bureaucratic elements of his own party, but also attacked, in ways reminiscent of Stalinist attacks on anarchists and Trotskyists during the 20th century, left-wing “extremists” and “counter-revolutionaries” trying to derail the Bolivarian process. We should not heed these calls, the pace and fervor of the revolutionary process is for the working-class of Venezuela to decide, not Hugo Chavez. (It is also important to remember that part of the left-wing of the PSUV and some “Marxist-Leninist” forces to the left of the party want to implement something close to the Cuban “model” in Venezuela, so the dichotomy between left and right is not as easily dissected as we may want to believe).
If the broad left maintains its grip on Latin America and establishes itself as an almost hegemonic force it is necessary for principled libertarian socialists and anti-authoritarian Marxists to direct a frank critique at this left. We have already been down both the roads of Peronism and Stalinism. It will be up to intellectuals and workers in Venezuela and abroad to pressure the Chavez regime towards a real revolutionary course in Venezuela and elsewhere. It's either this or the same tired “ghosts walk about again”.