Venezuela & the Left
Marxism & the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’
In January 2007, shortly after winning re-election, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez declared: “We’re moving toward a socialist republic of Venezuela” (Guardian [London], 10 January 2007). The National Assembly then passed an “enabling law” granting the president authority to issue decrees. In December 2007, Chávez suffered a major setback when his plan to amend the country’s constitution in a “socialist” direction was narrowly defeated in a national referendum. Chávez has since promised to slow the pace of change, yet the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution,” which has mobilized millions of workers and poor people and excited many of the world’s ostensibly “Marxist” organizations, has always stood for the preservation of capitalist property.
Hugo Chávez, who was first elected president of Venezuela in December 1998, heads a state apparatus organically tied to defense of the capitalist social order. His advocacy of “socialism” reflects a distance from the ruling bourgeois oligarchy that allows him to contain the mass plebeian unrest that has periodically shaken Venezuelan society. Chávez is hardly the first left-wing “strongman” to come to power in a neo-colony. When he was assassinated in August 1940, Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, had been working on an article that dealt with this phenomenon:
“The governments of backward, i.e., colonial and semi-colonial countries, by and large assume a Bonapartist or semi-Bonapartist character; and differ from one another in this, that some try to orient in a democratic direction, seeking support among workers and peasants, while others install a form close to military-police dictatorship. This likewise determines the fate of the trade unions. They either stand under the special patronage of the state or they are subjected to cruel persecution. Patronage on the part of the state is dictated by two tasks which confront it. First, to draw the working class closer thus gaining a support for resistance against excessive pretensions on the part of imperialism; and, at the same time, to discipline the workers themselves by placing them under the control of a bureaucracy.”
—“Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” 1940
The recently defeated constitutional reform package was advertised by Chávez as setting a course “headed straight towards socialism” (Economist, 16 August 2007). The right-wing opposition and its imperialist mentors denounced “Cuban-style communism” and claimed that the proposal to remove presidential term limits proved that Chávez intended to be “president for life.”
Some of the proposed constitutional amendments, like reducing the workweek, extending pension coverage and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of health status or sexual orientation, were supportable. It is significant that there was no proposal to decriminalize abortion, access to which remains severely restricted. Other “reforms” were anti-democratic—including the removal of a 180-day limit on presidential “state of emergency” declarations, and raising the number of signatures required for a recall referendum from 20 to 30 percent of the electorate. Another amendment guaranteed capitalist property. Taken as a whole, the constitutional reform package was unsupportable.
A “yes” vote in the referendum was an endorsement of Chávez’s brand of bonapartist reformism. Yet the most deadly opponents of workers and the oppressed mobilized heavily for a “no” vote. In this situation, the appropriate tactic for revolutionaries was to advocate a spoiled ballot as an expression of hostility to the imperialist-backed opposition and no political support to the bourgeois Bolivarian regime.
Millions of Venezuelans who had previously backed Chávez came to this conclusion and refused to vote. Some may have been discouraged by the high-profile defection of General Raúl Isaías Baduel, who had played a key role in restoring Chávez after the reactionary coup of April 2002. Others were undoubtedly affected by the low-intensity sabotage campaign by rightist elements. But it seems that most workers who stayed home did so because they were suspicious of the anti-democratic political “reforms” and Chávez’s commitment to defending the prerogatives of the big capitalists.
Alan Woods, leader of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) whose Venezuelan affiliate is the Revolutionary Marxist Current (CMR), argued for “completing the Revolution” with “a massive ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum” (Marxist.com, 20 November 2007). Woods was upbeat about proposals that would have allowed the president to create new sub-national political jurisdictions to bypass state governments controlled by hostile forces.
Chávez had also proposed various grassroots institutions with limited decision-making authority. The centerpiece was to be a massive expansion of the “communal councils” of between 200 and 400 families in urban areas. In January 2007, Chávez announced that the several thousand communal councils already in existence would receive $5 billion in government funding, up from $1.5 billion the year before. The councils, which tend to have a heavily plebeian character, incorporate a variety of pre-existing formations:
“[T]he Bolivarian Circles, the Local Public Planning Committees, the UBEs [Electoral Battle Units] and the CTUs [Urban Land Committees] were all vehicles for popular mobilisation and participation which flourished to varying degrees in the early to mid 2000s, as the Bolivarian revolution developed. But they seem to have been superseded or subsumed by the rise of the communal councils, which have become the predominant structures for people power in Venezuela at present.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 10 October 2007
Chávez’s suggestion that the communal councils could form the core of a new state apparatus delighted many of his “Marxist” admirers, even though it is generally acknowledged that they are not genuine organs of proletarian power. The New Zealand section of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), for instance, which claims that there is “a dual power scenario in Venezuela,” admits that “these councils are not the same as the workers’ soviets of 1917 Russia” (“Venezuela’s deepening revolution & international socialist coordination,” 1 May 2007).
The British Workers Power group, which in the February 2007 issue of its paper had observed that the communal councils “lack the class independence of soviet-type bodies and they are not the source of the state power but a ‘participatory’ and subordinate creation of it,” subsequently flipped its position:
“…the large, partially armed, popular militia, the new communal councils, the minority of factories under some degree of workers control, the cooperatives, all show that there are important elements of dual power existing between the workers’ new organisations and the institutions of the capitalist state. A revolutionary period has begun, but the revolution, that is the overthrow of this state, has not yet occurred.”
—Workers Power, September 2007
Workers Power’s initial assessment was closer to the mark. Far from creating a situation of “dual power” or prefiguring a socialist republic, the communal councils are multi-class formations whose chief function is to strengthen Bolivarian bonapartism by tying the popular masses to the capitalist state via the presidency.
Bolivarian ‘Socialism’: Cooperatives & Co-Management
Chávez’s leftist supporters are inclined to interpret the expansion of cooperative micro-businesses and the state sector as evidence of the emergence of “socialist” property. When Chávez first took office there were fewer than one thousand co-ops; today there are tens of thousands, employing hundreds of thousands of people previously excluded from the formal sector of the economy. The government provides start-up capital in the form of loans and encourages “endogenous” networking with other cooperatives and the quasi-independent government-backed Bolivarian social “missions.” The results have been mixed:
“Experience has shown how difficult it is to decree such experimental changes in people’s lives from above. The government placed the number of cooperatives at 140,000 in 2006, but this year the Ministry of the Popular Economy announced that it counted only 74,000. Worse yet, a more recent census indicated only 48,000. Many cooperatives never got off the ground, and in other cases, cooperative members pocketed the money they received from loans or the down payments for contracts. One pro-Chávez congressman admitted, ‘Up until now, no one can say the cooperative program has been successful. In fact, there is little to show considering all the money that has been spent.’”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 28 August 2007
Many cooperatives have failed, while those that have succeeded have done so as tiny capitalist enterprises which have figured out how to turn a profit. Cooperative workers, as “owners” of marginally-viable micro-businesses, often earn less than the minimum wage. Some big companies have opted to outsource work to cooperatives rather than expand their unionized workforce.
In the countryside, the government has distributed almost two million hectares of state-owned land to over 150,000 poor peasants who in many cases belong to farming cooperatives. More than 300,000 hectares of privately-owned “under-utilized” land have also been taken over, while big landowners using their land “productively” have not been touched (Venezuelanalysis.com, 26 March 2007).
Workers in some urban cooperatives are involved in “co-managing” their companies with the owners or government bureaucrats. Some leftists have interpreted this as a form of “workers’ control of industry,” which it is not. Genuine workers’ control is characterized by dual power in the workplace, not institutionalized class collaboration. It tends to develop in pre-revolutionary situations and constitutes what Trotsky called a “school for planned economy.”
Two of Venezuela’s most celebrated examples of “nationalized” companies under co-management are Invepal and Inveval—private enterprises whose owners participated in the December 2002-January 2003 bosses’ lockout against Chávez. Hundreds of enterprises went out of business due to the lockout and hundreds of thousands of workers were thrown out on the street as a result, but very few companies have been taken over by the state. Invepal (then known as Venepal) owed its workers back wages, while Inveval (then known as Constructora Nacional de Válvulas) declared bankruptcy. In 2005, the government agreed to purchase the facilities after workers demanding nationalization occupied the premises.
At Inveval, a valve factory dependent on contracts with the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela Sociedad Anónima (PDVSA), the employees’ cooperative has a 49 percent stake, and a factory council elected by a workers’ assembly runs the operation. Yet the company, which operated at only 10 percent capacity in 2007, remains subject to market fluctuations. One factor in this was a decision by PDVSA officials to renege on signed deals (Venezuelanalysis.com, 27 July 2007).
In February 2006, workers at Inveval launched the Revolutionary Workers Front of Co-managed and Occupied Factories (FRETECO), which includes representatives from a dozen or so other companies. The project has received little support from the leadership of the National Workers Union (UNT—the main union federation) and is further handicapped by its leaders’ political loyalty to the government. The IMT reported on a FRETECO meeting in October 2006 presided over by CMR supporter Jorge Paredes:
“The gathering was officially opened at 6pm by Jorge Paredes, worker and president of Inveval, who welcomed all those present. Amongst the invited guests were representatives from the Ministry of Labour, Julio Barba from the Ministry of Light Industry and Commerce, as well as the former Minister of Environment Ana Elisa Osoria who expressed a keen interest in the struggle of the workers in occupied factories.”
—Marxist.com, 17 October 2006
The meeting concluded “with all workers and invited guests singing the Venezuelan national anthem.”
Invepal is a paper mill in Carabobo state where the government also handed a 49 percent ownership share to the employees’ cooperative. The experiment in co-management turned ugly when work was contracted out at the company’s Maracay operation:
“Required by the government to prove himself in running the company, the newly elected president employed contracted management which then proceeded to hire contract workers whose conditions were much worse than ‘worker-owners.’ The massive protests within the factory in reaction to this resulted in equally massive firings: 120 workers were fired in November 2005. They are still manning the barricades 11 months later.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 25 October 2006
In February 2005, workers’ assemblies were permitted to elect managers at the state-owned aluminum firm, Alcasa, although the president of the company was appointed by Chávez. The workers have apparently disappointed their Bolivarian benefactors. Alcasa’s “revolutionary” spokesperson, Alcides Rivero, recently complained of “a culture where workers only worked to get money” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 30 October 2007).
The situation at the “co-managed” state electrical company Cadafe is even more tense. According to one observer, there are:
“…bitter experiences in the struggle for co-management, such as in the electricity industry. It wasn’t that electricity workers no longer wanted co-management, but that they no longer raise it ‘because of the huge fight they had against the management of [state-run company] Cadafe. The management of Cadafe went out of its way to sabotage and defeat moves to introduce co-management. If you go to most workers in the electrical sector and even mention the word co-management, it sends a shiver down their spines.’ [Federico] Fuentes said the workers still raise the concept of workers’ participation, but no longer talk of co-management specifically.”
—Green Left Weekly, 2 August 2007
Yet even these limited experiments with co-management are exceptions to the rule. Chávez briefly threatened to take over Siderúrgica del Orinoco (Sidor), one of Latin America’s largest steel companies, which had laid off thousands of workers when it was privatized in 1998. In May 2007, when workers demanding re-nationalization blockaded the entrance, Sidor management responded by offering to increase production of metal piping for the domestic market. Chávez accepted the proposal and agreed to allow the Argentine Techint Group and its partners to retain their 60 percent share of the firm. Earlier this year, 14,000 permanent and contract Sidor workers went on strike for a wage hike and the payment of outstanding pension contributions. The Ministry of Labor, perhaps in recognition of the company’s previous cooperation, intervened with a request that the workers reduce their demands by half (Venezuelanalysis.com, 2 February).
Chávez also refused to nationalize Sanitarios Maracay, a ceramics factory that workers occupied for six weeks in early 2006 and then again later that year when the owner decided to close the plant. The workers responded by electing a factory council to keep the operation running. In April 2007, Sanitarios workers on their way to a FRETECO rally in Caracas were assaulted by police and National Guard forces. Twenty-one people were arrested and 14 were injured by buckshot. A month later, 3,000 UNT workers in the state of Aragua staged a one-day strike to protest this outrage.
In August 2007, Humberto Lopez, a former UNT leader at Sanitarios, led a group of white-collar employees and company supervisors who seized the plant and deposed the factory council. They made a deal with the owner, under the auspices of the Ministry of Labor, which returned the factory in exchange for an agreement to pay back wages to the workers. A system of co-management was introduced with a commission of 13: three from the Ministry of Labor and five each representing the workers and the owner (Venezuelanalysis.com, 18 August 2007).
Significantly, the government did not introduce “co-management” in Compañia Anónima Nacional Teléfonos de Venezuela (CANTV), one of its two major acquisitions in 2007. CANTV, Venezuela’s main telecommunications company and largest private enterprise, which had been privatized in 1991, was purchased back for $1.3 billion. The government also “nationalized” Caracas’ electrical utility, Electricidad de Caracas, by having PDVSA purchase the 82 percent share held by AES Inc. of Arlington, Virginia for $739 million.
‘Re-nationalizing’ Venezuela’s Oil Assets
Venezuela’s oil industry was nationalized in 1976, but in the 1990s lucrative exploration and production rights were handed out to the petroleum multinationals. Under “Operating Services Agreements” (OSAs) the foreign oil companies did not buy and sell crude, but merely acted as “contractors” rendering “services” to PDVSA (which retained nominal ownership of the oil). According to Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela’s energy minister, the “fees” paid to these “contractors” just happened to be linked to world oil prices, and the companies thereby avoided paying the 50 percent tax rate on oil profits.
Chávez ended this arrangement by converting the OSAs into “mixed enterprises” in which PDVSA holds a majority share. The royalty rates were raised and many former “contractors” were charged back taxes. Despite some grumbling, most of the foreign multinationals ultimately agreed to the new terms.
Turning the OSAs into “mixed enterprises” was merely the first step in what Chávez called the “re-nationalization” of Venezuela’s oil. On May Day 2007, the president announced the “re-nationalization” of what is thought to be hundreds of billions of barrels of extra-heavy crude oil in the Orinoco region. France’s Total, Norway’s Statoil, Chevron and British Petroleum agreed to sell part of their stake in the Orinoco Belt to PDVSA, while U.S. conglomerates ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips, which resisted the takeover, had their investments (estimated at $750 million and $4.5 billion respectively) expropriated. They have appealed to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an agency of the imperialist World Bank. In February, ExxonMobil obtained temporary court orders freezing $12 billion in PDVSA assets in Britain and the Netherlands pending the ICSID’s ruling (Venezuelanalysis.com, 8 February).
Most multinationals decided to go along with the “re-nationalization” because they can reap enormous profits. To diversify foreign participation in developing the resources of the heavy crude of the Orinoco Belt, the government has secured investments from Brazil, China, Iran and Russia. The Chávez regime has made it clear that it favors foreign ownership of a significant portion of its oil industry, as long as PDVSA maintains majority control and applicable taxes and royalties are paid.
While Marxists certainly defend the right of every neo-colony to control its natural resources, Chávez’s “re-nationalization,” which has amply compensated the oil majors, hardly constitutes a blow against international capitalism. There is nothing inherently “anti-imperialist” about nationalized oil companies, as the New York Times (10 April 2007) observed:
“During the last several decades, control of global oil reserves has steadily passed from private companies to national oil companies like Petroleos de Venezuela [PDVSA]. According to a new Rice University study, 77 percent of the world’s 1.148 trillion barrels of proven reserves is in the hands of the national companies; 14 of the top 20 oil-producing companies are state-controlled.”
The “anti-imperialist” hue of Chávez’s oil policies derives largely from the attempt to reduce dependence on the U.S. market, which currently absorbs half of Venezuela’s petroleum exports. In an era of dwindling and uncertain oil supplies, Venezuela’s estimated 300 billion barrels of light and heavy crude is a significant prize. It is possible that current calculations may considerably understate the country’s reserves. Investigative journalist Greg Palast claims that an internal report of the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that Venezuela might actually possess 1.36 trillion barrels of oil (ZNet.com, 24 May 2006). If this is true, it would make Venezuela the single most important source of petroleum on the planet and vastly increase its strategic importance.
Washington is concerned about Venezuela’s growing influence within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, like Chávez, is high on U.S. imperialism’s list of enemies, joined the Bolivarian leader in blaming rising oil prices on the weak U.S. dollar (New York Times, 19 November 2007). In September 2007, Chávez ordered PDVSA “to convert its investment accounts from dollars to euros and Asian currencies” (New York Times, 30 November 2007). Iran has long campaigned for OPEC to begin pricing oil in euros rather than dollars, a move that would considerably accelerate the deterioration of America’s international position.
Wriggling Out of Uncle Sam’s Grip
Chávez’s success in loosening Washington’s hold can be attributed to three factors: rising oil prices, which have both filled government coffers and enhanced Venezuela’s geo-strategic importance; the regime’s relative independence from the elements of the national bourgeoisie most closely aligned with Washington; and the American military’s diminished capacity for intervention in Latin America while it is bogged down in Iraq.
In May 2007, Venezuela announced its intent to withdraw from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, two key mechanisms of U.S. imperial control in the hemisphere. The IMF’s influence in Latin America has recently declined dramatically:
“IMF lending in the area has fallen to $50 million, or less than 1 percent of its global portfolio, compared with 80 percent in 2005.”
“The international lender’s worldwide portfolio has shriveled to $11.8 billion from a peak of $81 billion in 2004, and a single nation, Turkey, now accounts for about 75 percent.”
—MiamiHerald.com, 1 March 2007
In August 2007, Chávez announced that Venezuela would purchase $1 billion worth of Argentine bonds:
“With Argentina wanting to diversify its sources of financing after its 2001 debt default, Mr Chávez has stepped in, buying bonds totaling $4.7 billion before the latest purchase. With his help ‘Argentina is freeing itself from Dracula, it’s breaking the IMF’s chains,’ Mr Chávez said.”
—Economist, 9 August 2007
Chávez played a key role in launching the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South) to replace the IMF with a fund of $7 billion to promote regional infrastructure as well as research and development. The Banco del Sur was officially launched in December 2007 at a signing ceremony in Buenos Aires attended by representatives of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. The Associated Press (9 December 2007) reported that Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank’s chief economist for Latin America, claimed that “this new initiative is not perceived as a competitor,” but that is clearly what Chávez intends.
The Banco del Sur and Venezuela’s Argentine bond purchases complement the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” (ALBA), an initiative to promote Latin American cooperation launched in 2004 by Chávez and Fidel Castro to compete with the imperialist Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) project. Under ALBA, Cuba provides medical services to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in exchange for oil. In April 2006, Bolivia’s newly-elected president, Evo Morales, decided to join ALBA:
“Mr Morales has said that Venezuela has promised aid totaling $2 billion (or more than 20% of Bolivia’s GDP) since he took office. Venezuela has bought $100m of Bolivian government bonds; it has also given a loan for farming, and 5,000 grants for Bolivians to study in Venezuela.
“In April, Mr Morales signed a ‘Peoples’ Trade Treaty’ with Mr Chavez and Fidel Castro, Cuba’s communist president. Under this, Venezuela is to swap 200,000 barrels a month of subsidised diesel fuel for 200,000 tonnes a year of Bolivian soya. Cuban doctors and teachers, probably paid for by Venezuela, have already started to work on health and literacy programmes in Bolivia; Cuba is also donating medical equipment.
“‘Only in Cuba and Venezuela can we find unconditional support,’ said Mr Morales recently. He complained of ‘blackmail and threats’ from ‘other countries’. That seemed to be a reference to the United States, which has linked much of its aid to its ‘war on drugs’ and coca eradication.”
—Economist, 8 July 2006
Shortly after being sworn in as Nicaraguan president in January 2007, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega announced that his country would also join ALBA. Within a few weeks Venezuela had:
“…already agreed to forgive more than $30 million in Nicaraguan debt, provide more than two dozen generating plants to alleviate an electricity shortage and open an office of Venezuela’s development bank in Managua to offer low-interest loans to small businesses.”
—New York Times, 24 February 2007
At an April 2007 ALBA summit in Caracas, plans were developed to promote healthcare, education and economic development in the region:
“Chávez also proposed the idea of the construction of a petrochemical plant in Haiti, along with an oil refinery to refine the crude sent from Venezuela. He also proposed the construction of refineries in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Dominica, and Cuba. Chávez also said his government has plans to sell the seven refineries that it owns in the United States and to build a new network of refineries in Latin America.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 30 April 2007
Caracas and Buenos Aires have:
“…agreed to build a plant in Argentina that will turn liquid natural gas from Venezuela into usable gas. The plant will allow Venezuela to send liquid gas to Argentina by ship, a shift in strategy for Mr. Chavez as discussions for a natural gas pipeline from Venezuela via Brazil have bogged down.
“The gas conversion plant would be a joint project between Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, and the Argentine state oil company, Enarsa.”
—New York Times, 7 August 2007
Venezuela is also seeking to strengthen economic ties with Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Larov indicated that state-owned Gazprom was studying the possibility of forming a joint company with PDVSA to undertake natural gas and oil projects, while Russia’s vice president, Alexander Zhukov, acknowledged interest in future South American pipeline projects:
“Zhukov emphasized the potential prospects in the construction of the Gas Pipeline of the South. This project, promoted by the Venezuela president, would be the construction of a 10,000-kilometer natural gas pipeline from Venezuela through the Brazilian Amazon and extending south to Argentina. Its estimated cost would be around US$ 23 billion, and would transport 150 million cubic meters of Venezuelan gas per day from the Caribbean Sea to Argentina.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 23 October 2007
In 2006, Venezuela, Syria and Iran signed an agreement “to build a $1.5 billion oil refinery in Syria” (New York Times, 2 November 2006). In July 2007, the Iranian and Venezuelan governments began construction of a $700 million petrochemical plant near Tehran, with plans for an identical facility in Venezuela. A joint automobile company, Venirauto, is already in business. The first 300 units rolled off the assembly line in Caracas in July 2007, though the plan is to produce 25,000 cars annually by 2010:
“The company Venirauto, which is 51% Iranian and 49% Venezuelan, is producing two different models. The first model, the Turpial at a price of Bs. 17 million (US$7,906), is a 4-door sedan based on the old Kia Pride model. The second is the Centauro, at a price of Bs. 23 million (US$11,069), and is based on the Peugeot 405 given that the French firm is the main supplier of engines and technology to the Iranian company.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 10 July 2007
Venezuela and Iran have signed deals worth approximately $17 billion, a collaboration Chávez celebrated by grotesquely designating Iran’s Ahmadinejad “one of the greatest anti-imperialist fighters” (Associated Press, 28 September 2007).
Venezuela has also strengthened ties with the bureaucratic leaders of the Chinese deformed workers’ state:
“China’s links with Venezuela are now its strongest in Latin America. As well as the US$1.5bn already committed to Venezuela, the Orinoco joint venture [between PDVSA and the China National Petroleum Corp] could require further investment of US$3bn-4bn, making Venezuela by far the greatest recipient of Chinese investment in the region.”
—Economist.com, 10 April 2007
In August 2006, Beijing signed an agreement with Caracas that projected raising oil imports from Venezuela to a million barrels per day by 2012. (The U.S. currently imports over a million barrels per day from the Bolivarian republic.) China has also offered to provide tankers and help Venezuela construct new drilling platforms. In November 2007, the two countries agreed to endow a joint development fund with $6 billion, two-thirds provided by the Chinese Development Bank and one-third by Venezuela (Venezuelanalysis.com, 7 November 2007).
Yankee Imperialism Bristles
All of this activity has further alarmed an American foreign policy establishment already concerned by the erosion of U.S. influence in Latin America:
“The White House was outraged when Chile and Mexico, Latin America’s representatives on the UN Security Council in 2003 and two of Washington’s closest allies in the region, opposed a resolution endorsing the invasion of Iraq. In fact, of the 34 Latin American and Caribbean countries, only seven supported the war. Six of them (Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama) were engaged in trade negotiations with the United States at the time. And the seventh, Colombia, receives more than $600 million a year in U.S. military aid.”
—Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006
Latin America remains a critically important market for the U.S., which exports more than $100 billion a year to Mexico and another $50 billion to the rest of the region. Chávez’s outspoken denunciations of U.S. imperialism and his regime’s pursuit of regional autonomy have not been well received in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized Chávez as “one of the most dangerous men in the world” (Independent [London], 16 May 2006). A March 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy document complained: “In Venezuela, a demagogue awash in oil money is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region” (cited in The Progressive, 24 September 2006).
Chávez has responded to these threats with a modest expansion of the Venezuelan military. In January 2007, the Pentagon estimated that Venezuela had spent more than $4 billion on arms in the previous two years (New York Times, 25 February 2007). In 2006, when the U.S. suspended arms sales to Venezuela and blocked the acquisition of military aircraft from Spain and Brazil by denying export licenses for the American-manufactured components in them, Chávez turned to Russia, purchasing five submarines in addition to “24 Russian Sukhoi-30 two-seater attack aircraft, 34 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikovs” (Guardian, 15 June 2007).
George W. Bush, under whose watch the U.S. government orchestrated the failed April 2002 coup against the democratically-elected Bolivarian leader, hypocritically expressed concern about “the undermining of democratic institutions” in Venezuela (New York Times, 1 February 2007). The various agencies of U.S. “democracy”—including the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute—have showered financial and technical support on Venezuela’s pro-imperialist opposition. In 2006, the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) alone had doled out more than $26 million in Venezuela since 2002 to “strengthen democracy.” Eva Golinger, author of Bush vs. Chavez: Washington’s War Against Venezuela, reported:
“The work of USAID and its OTI [Office of Transition Initiatives] in Venezuela has led to a deepening of the counterrevolutionary subversion in the country. Up until June 2007, more than 360 ‘scholarships’ have been granted to social organisations, political parties, communities and political projects in Venezuela through Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a company contracted by USAID, which opened an office in the El Rosal sector of Caracas in June 2002. From the centre of Caracas, the DAI/USAID has given more than US$11,575,509 to these 360 groups and projects in Venezuela, under the program ‘Venezuela: Initiatives for the Construction of Trust’ (VICC). The majority of the programs funded by DAI focus (according to their materials) on ‘political dialogue, public debate, citizen’s participation and the training and capacitation of democratic leaders’.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 12 September 2007
Bolivarian Bourgeoisie’s Bonanza
While many of Venezuela’s big capitalists revile Chávez, others are more impressed by the fact that business is booming under the “socialist” president. The head of the Caracas Country Club, Fernando Zozaya, when asked about Chávez’s Bolivarian vision, replied: “Let’s say it’s a very special type of socialism” (Guardian, 13 November 2006). José Guerra, the former head researcher at Venezuela’s central bank, was less coy: “‘State-supported capitalism isn’t just surviving under Chavez,’ he said. ‘It is thriving’” (New York Times, 3 December 2006). A leading mouthpiece of American capitalism made a similar observation:
“Local and foreign companies alike are raking in more money than ever in Venezuela. Two-way trade between the U.S. and Venezuela has never been higher. Venezuela exported more than $42 billion to the U.S. last year, including 1 million barrels of oil daily, and imported $9 billion worth of American goods, up 41% from 2005.”
—BusinessWeek, 25 June 2007
Venezuela’s GDP, which stood at US$117.1 billion in 2000, grew to $181.9 billion by 2006 (“World Development Indicators database,” World Bank, April 2007). Low interest rates and high inflation have led to massive borrowing and a financial boom:
“[B]ank profits grew 33 percent last year, led by increases of more than 100 percent in credit card loans and 143 percent in automobile credit, according to Softline Consulting, a financial analysis firm here. The banking and insurance industries’ contribution to the gross domestic product rose 37 percent in 2006, the central bank said.
“The market looked attractive enough two years ago that the Stanford Financial Group of Houston put political risk on the back burner to open a dozen branches here. Now, remodeling its office tower in the Caracas business district of El Rosal, the bank has seen its revenue in Venezuela grow fourfold, and its credit portfolio nearly tripled last year.”
—New York Times, 15 June 2007
Members of what is called the “bolibourgeoisie”—entrepreneurs with government connections and public contracts—are not alarmed by Chávez’s talk of “transcending capitalism.” Venezuelan Banking Association director Francisco Aristeguieta, who seems happy enough with the status quo, remarked: “President Chavez is saying it’s the job of all of us for Venezuela to press ahead” (New York Times, 7 May 2007). Chávez has periodically assured his bourgeois allies that: “[W]e have no plan to eliminate the oligarchy, Venezuela’s bourgeoisie. We have demonstrated this sufficiently in over eight years” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 4 June 2007).
The main employers’ federation, Fedecámaras, lost its affiliate in the state of Bolívar because of its opposition to the regime’s proposed constitutional reforms (Venezuelanalysis.com, 27 November 2007). Alejandro Uzcátegui of Businessmen for Venezuela (Empreven), a pro-Chávez association, opined: “We think President Hugo Chávez has done a very good job” (WashingtonPost.com, 3 December 2006). Empreven is part of the Confederation of Socialist Businessmen of Venezuela (Conseven), a pro-government business federation established in May 2007. Its leader, José Agustín Campos (former leader of Acción Democrática, one of the two pro-imperialist parties that shared power before Chávez was elected), explained that Conseven “will live in harmony” with the co-managed enterprises and Bolivarian cooperatives (El Universal [Caracas], 6 May 2007).
Gustavo Cisneros, the billionaire owner of the Venevision television network, who supported the April 2002 coup, changed his mind when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arranged for him to meet Chávez in the run-up to the 2004 presidential recall referendum:
“At the meeting, according to Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Chavez compared his social programs to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“In recent comments about the meeting, the president said Mr. Cisneros, whose other companies range from breweries to the Leones baseball team in Caracas, understood he could coexist with the socialist-inspired transformation of society that Mr. Chavez says he wants.”
—New York Times, 5 July 2007
British journalist John Pilger insightfully observed:
“In Washington, the old Iran-Contra death squad gang, back in power under Bush, fear the economic bridges Chávez is building in the region, such as the use of Venezuela’s oil revenue to end IMF slavery. That he maintains a neoliberal economy, described by the American Banker as ‘the envy of the banking world’ is seldom raised as valid criticism of his limited reforms. These days, of course, any true reforms are exotic.”
—Guardian, 17 August 2007
The redistributive policies of the Bolivarian government, and Venezuela’s booming economy, have meant rising living standards for most Venezuelans. Unemployment has been reduced by half since Chávez took office, and now officially stands at 7 percent, with a majority of the workforce presently employed in the “formal” (as opposed to underground) economy. Social programs have also expanded considerably:
“Social spending will be significantly increased for 2008, to 46 percent of the national budget, up from 41 percent in 2007. This includes an increase in the funding of the social missions of the Chavez government, which will receive a total of Bs. 5.5 trillion (US$ 2.5 billion), an increase of nearly 62 percent from the 2007 level. These social missions include the national health program Barrio Adentro and the literacy and education programs Robinson, Rivas, Che, and Sucre, among many others.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 20 October 2007
According to government statistics, the rate of poverty among Venezuelan households has fallen from 42.8 percent in 1999 to 33.9 percent in 2006, while “extreme poverty” declined from 16.6 percent to 10.6 percent (Instituto Nacional de Estadística website, September 2006).
Recently, however, wages have been falling behind inflation, which is currently running at 20 percent per annum, and some basic foods have been in short supply. The Bolivarians’ attempt to hold living costs down by appealing to the capitalists to be good citizens, while freezing prices on some essentials, has led to shortages, as merchants stockpile goods while waiting for prices (and profits) to rise. Many farmers have simply sold their products across the border in Colombia. As supplies dwindled, the Venezuelan government backed down and raised the price of milk 30 percent and coffee by 40 percent. In February, Chávez announced that the price of rice, a basic staple regulated since 2003, would be increased 44 percent “to give incentive to rice producers” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 11 February). This illustrates the impossibility of finding some “third way” between a collectivized economy, where the production and distribution of goods are consciously planned, and a capitalist one, where decisions are determined by the pursuit of maximum profit.
Administrative Agents of the Bourgeoisie
While Chávez retains a substantial social base, the decision of some three million of his traditional supporters to sit out the constitutional referendum signifies that many are losing confidence in him. Of course, the Bolivarian leaders do not trust the masses, and do not want to see an authoritative alternative leadership develop within the organizations of the working class. Since it was founded in 2003 as a pro-Chávez breakaway from the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) which had supported the rightist coup in 2002, the UNT has been run by “national coordinators” appointed by its major components. In May 2006, at the union’s second congress, leaders of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Force (FSBT—the hard-core Chávistas) blocked a proposal by the UNT’s largest faction, the Classist, Unitary, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (C-CURA—led by two self-described Trotskyists, Orlando Chirino and Stalin Pérez Borges, who have recently had a falling out) that UNT members should elect their national leaders.
While not opposing elections in principle, FSBT supporters argued to postpone them to allow union militants to concentrate on campaigning for Chávez in the December 2006 presidential election. Chirino subsequently complained:
“The argument last year was that we had to give priority to the presidential elections. We were not against calling for a vote for Chávez, but we argued that the best way to campaign for that call was that it should come from a legitimately elected leadership. Unfortunately, it did not happen.”
—interview posted on the website of International Socialism , 9 May 2007
It seems clear that the FSBT feared that it could not win a vote, and that a UNT leadership with a mandate from the base might turn into a potential rival to Chávez for the allegiance of the masses. On 28 December 2007, Chirino was notified that he had been fired from his job at PDVSA. This act of political persecution—stemming from Chirino’s advocacy of a spoiled ballot in the constitutional referendum and his refusal to join Chávez’s new political party—is an anti-democratic attack on the Venezuelan workers’ movement as a whole.
When the four labor federations representing workers at PDVSA were amalgamated to form the United Oil Workers Federation of Venezuela (FUTPV), no elections were held to legitimize the leadership. C-CURA, which claims the support of a majority of Venezuela’s 60,000 oil workers and controls Fedepetrol, the largest component of the new federation, refused to endorse the FUTPV bargaining committee appointed to negotiate with PDVSA last year (Venezuelanalysis.com, 29 September 2007). Fedepetrol sought to put direct pressure on PDVSA management:
“This week, beginning Monday, July 23, oil workers have called for pickets at the gates ‘of all oil installations’ throughout the country, both administrative and operational, including ports, refineries and oil rigs, demanding the removal of the Manager of Human Resources, Dario Merchan, a relative of [Energy Minister and PDVSA President Rafael] Ramirez, who they claim has delayed negotiations for the collective contract 2007-2009, and protesting what they say are the daily violations of the existing collective contract and failure to pay workers entitlements. A further demonstration supported by more than 160 unions affiliated with Fedepetrol has also been called for the August 2nd, in front of the Presidential palace, Miraflores.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 23 July 2007
The leader of Fedepetrol Anzoátegui, José Bodas (a member of C-CURA), denounced the pro-management elements of the FUTPV bargaining committee for describing the workers who took action against PDVSA’s stalling as “counterrevolutionaries.”
In September 2007, striking oil workers were attacked by the police:
“Some 150 workers from the oil refinery of Puerto La Cruz, together with workers from the Jose Industrial Complex were marching to the offices of the Venezuelan Oil Corporation (CVP) in Urbaneja municipality to present a document to Ramirez, who was meeting with a negotiating commission of the United Oil Workers Federation of Venezuela (FUTPV), when they were intercepted by Immediate Response Group-Police Force of Anzoátegui.
“In the resulting clashes, which lasted three hours, 40 workers were arrested and three were injured, including Richard Querecuto, who was shot in the left shoulder. A bus carrying passengers was also attacked by police who launched a tear gas bomb inside causing panic and asphyxiation. With news of the police repression 4,000 workers from Petroanzoátegui, Petrocedeño, and the project San Cristóbal immediately stopped work.”
—Venezuelanalysis.com, 29 September 2007
While PDVSA and state officials sought to distance themselves from the gratuitous brutality of the police, the incident graphically illustrates how the “Bolivarian” state apparatus serves the bosses, as well as how the division between the interests of labor and capital is just as real in PDVSA as in the private sector.
The British Socialist Workers Party recently reported another example involving the public-sector union Fentrasep:
“The elected representatives of Fentrasep, the public employees’ trade union with some 1.5 million members, went to the Ministry of Labour in mid-August  to renegotiate the collective contract for their members. The minister, Ramón Rivero, is a member of the Bolivarian Trade Union Federation and an ex-Trotskyist. He refused to meet with the delegation and locked them inside a room in the ministry. No food or drink was provided; the delegates’ families passed them through the windows. After six days they were driven out by hired thugs.”
—Socialist Review, October 2007
Whatever label they affix to themselves, those who administer the capitalist state inevitably end up serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky made the following observation about the function of bureaucrats like the FSBT’s Rivero:
“The trade union leaders are, in an overwhelming majority of cases, political agents of the bourgeoisie and of its state. In nationalized industry they can become and already are becoming direct administrative agents. Against this there is no other course than the struggle for the independence of the workers’ movement in general, and in particular through the formation within the trade unions of firm revolutionary nuclei….”
—“Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management,” 12 May 1939
PSUV: Chávez’s Bourgeois Populist Party
Following his overwhelming victory in the December 2006 presidential election, Chávez announced plans to enroll his mass plebeian base and the various political organizations supporting the Bolivarian project into the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) immediately signed on along with a variety of other groups, but the three largest pro-Chávez parties outside the MVR—For Social Democracy (Podemos), Fatherland for All (PPT) and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV)—all remained aloof.
Podemos, the Venezuelan affiliate of the Socialist International, which originated as a pro-Chávez split from the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), voted “no” in the constitutional referendum. The PPT, a pro-Chávez split from La Causa Radical, voted “yes,” as did the PCV, from which the MAS and La Causa Radical originally split decades ago.
The PCV leadership, which ostensibly refuses to join the PSUV because it is not “Marxist-Leninist,” is careful not to be too independent. Several members of its Central Committee have joined the PSUV, and the PCV pledges to work closely with the new party. PCV Secretary General Oscar Figuera declared: “You will never see the Communist Party in the opposition. You will always see them accompanying the leader of the process: President Hugo Chávez Frías” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 19 March 2007). Chávez was initially angered by the refusal of the PCV and PPT to join the PSUV, but subsequently proposed a “Patriotic Alliance” of the three for the November 2008 mayoral and gubernatorial elections.
The PSUV is a mass party with a nominal membership of millions of poor and working people, as well as a majority of the legislators in the National Assembly, top state officials and pro-government capitalists. Chávez explicitly proposed it as a cross-class, populist formation open to:
“…all revolutionaries, socialists and patriots, men and women, the Venezuelan youth; I invite the workers, housewives, professionals and technicians, nationalist businessmen…to build a united political party….”
—cited in International Viewpoint, January 2007
Before the party had a chance to work out a formal program or a constitution, Chávez had already appointed Diosdado Cabello, the ultra-wealthy MVR governor of the state of Miranda, to head a “provisional discipline committee” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 1 December 2007).
C-CURA decided to join the PSUV project in January 2007 supposedly to guarantee its working-class character. But Chávez’s opposition to the existence of political tendencies within the PSUV and his declaration that the “unions should not be autonomous, one must put an end to that” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 2 May 2007) was too much for some in C-CURA to swallow. Chirino, who is associated with the International Workers’ Unity-Fourth International (UIT-CI—an international tendency led by former supporters of the Argentine revisionist Nahuel Moreno) had staked his reputation on safeguarding the “independence” of the labor movement, and so not only refused to join the PSUV but also urged his followers to spoil their ballots in the December 2007 referendum.
Stalin Pérez Borges and his supporters, who publish a journal entitled Marea Socialista y Clasista, joined the PSUV and voted “yes” in the referendum. According to Pérez Borges: “There is no contradiction between organising in the PSUV to support the revolution, and also having independent unions. Both are part of the same fight towards socialism in Venezuela” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 12 September 2007). Launching the Movement for the Construction of a Workers Party represented a left shift for Chirino, who claims to be strongly for working-class political independence but who voted for Chávez in 2006 and supported the creation of the FBT (Bolivarian Workers Front) within the CTV.
Alan Woods, perhaps the world’s foremost “Trotskyist” Chávista, denounced Chirino as one of the “sectarian clowns and half-wits” who dare criticize the Bolivarian caudillo:
“The role of Orlando Chirino and other so-called ‘Trotskyists’ who called on people to spoil the ballot papers was absolutely pernicious. These ladies and gentlemen are so blinded by their hatred of Chavez that they are no longer capable of understanding the difference between revolution and counter-revolution. This writes them off entirely as a progressive force, let alone a revolutionary one. But let the dead bury their dead.”
—Marxist.com, 3 December 2007
The IMT, which has some influence within the workers’ movement in Venezuela, eagerly enlisted as official “promoters” of the PSUV:
“The task of revolutionary Marxists is to throw themselves completely in this fight and participate alongside the masses in the creation of the PSUV. Any other policy would be utter sectarianism and would only contribute to isolating them from the real existing revolutionary movement. In this respect, the policy adopted by a section of C-CURA (the left wing current within the UNT) of refusing to join the PSUV and attempting to set up a so-called ‘Independent Workers’ Party’ is a criminal mistake which can only lead to the isolation of some advanced worker activists from the mass revolutionary movement.”
—Marxist.com, 5 September 2007
Many of the world’s ostensibly Marxist groups, impressed by Chávez’s popularity, have taken a similar view. For example, the British Workers Power group argues:
“…given the mass character of the PSUV, the fact that these masses are overwhelmingly workers, peasants and the urban and rural poor, and that socialist and revolutionary ideas are being debated in it, it would be sectarian for revolutionary communists to do anything other than join this party and participate vigorously in these debates.”
—Workers Power, September 2007
Workers Power seems particularly excited by the Bolivarian leader’s talk of going international: “Even more important, Chavez has called for the PSUV to be part of the founding of a new International.” These chronic opportunists are already pledging to join “any international initiative Chavez may promote in the months ahead” (Ibid.).
Bolivarian Reformism: Everything Old Is New Again
Such displays of opportunist appetite from supposed revolutionaries are hardly unprecedented. In the 1950s, Michel Pablo, the arch-revisionist who played a key role in the political destruction of Trotsky’s Fourth International, was similarly enthusiastic about a hypothetical “Arab Revolution.” Pablo argued that revolutionaries should join the petty-bourgeois Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) because it had a mass base: “[T]he revolutionary Marxist tendency and the essential forces of a mass Labor Party of tomorrow will emerge from the inevitable social and political differentiation within the present FLN” (“The Arab Revolution,” November 1958). Similar delusions about the revolutionary potential of mass petty-bourgeois nationalist movements are promoted by all of Chávez’s leftist admirers.
Trotsky criticized this impulse in addressing the arguments put forward by Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin in the 1920s to defend the disastrous policy of liquidating the cadres of the Chinese Communist Party into the bourgeois Guomindang:
“Every bourgeois party, if it is a real party, that is, if it embraces considerable masses, is built on the self-same principle. The exploiters, fakers, and despots compose the minority in class society….In every mass bourgeois party the lower ranks are therefore more democratic and further to the ‘Left’ than the tops….That is why the constant complaints voiced by Stalin, Bukharin, and others that the tops do not reflect the sentiments of the ‘Left’ Kuomintang rank and file, the ‘overwhelming majority,’ the ‘nine-tenths,’ etc., etc., are so naïve, so unpardonable.”
—Third International After Lenin, 1928
The job of revolutionaries is to tell the truth—not to recycle popular illusions. And the truth is that multi-class formations led by left-talking petty-bourgeois bonapartists, like China’s Guomindang in the 1920s or Venezuela’s PSUV today, are dead-ends for the working class.
Young leftists may believe that the Bolivarian “revolution” is completely unprecedented. But Alan Woods is old enough to remember how, in 1956, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser electrified the neo-colonial world by nationalizing the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company; survived a coordinated military assault by British, French and Israeli forces and then took over hundreds of foreign businesses. Eventually, Nasser proclaimed that his government was taking a “socialist” path:
“On the ninth anniversary rally of [the] 23 July 1952 coup d’état, Nasser delivered a speech in which he declared a shift in his social policy. In the four days preceding the rally, 19-22 July 1961, a series of decrees and regulations were issued which greatly extended public control of the United Arab Republic’s (UAR) [the short-lived political union between Egypt and Syria which fell apart later that year] economy. Socially, they constituted the most significant step taken by Nasser since he assumed power. Nasser defined the basic principles of this new policy as follows:
“‘The revolution heralded the end of imperialism and the liberation of the regime from domination of capitalism and feudalism—for the purpose of establishing social justice and obliterating the contradictions between the classes, and for the sake of rescuing the oppressed from the hands of the oppressors. The revolution will turn labourers into unexploiting property owners and will benefit all classes.’”
—Rami Ginat, Egypt’s Incomplete Revolution
In Nasser’s vision of “the people” leading the construction of “Arab socialism,” workers and managers shared power on company boards of directors. His political party, the Arab Socialist Union, struck an “anti-imperialist” note with its advocacy of a “non-aligned” movement of neo-colonial states. It was all positively Bolivarian.
An even closer precedent for events in Venezuela was the regime of Lázaro Cárdenas, who won Mexico’s 1934 presidential election. Cárdenas’ government, the only one on Earth prepared to offer refuge to Leon Trotsky, sponsored a national literacy program and sought to expand access to medical care for the impoverished masses. Under Cárdenas, workers were permitted to seize idle factories, and thousands of agricultural and industrial cooperatives were founded. In June 1937, the Cárdenas administration expropriated the accumulated bond debt of the National Railways of Mexico, effectively nationalizing the enterprise. A year later, on May Day, he turned over control of the whole operation to the railway workers’ union.
On 18 March 1938, Cárdenas announced the nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum resources. Faced with furious resistance by British and American oil corporations, he turned to the petroleum workers:
“The workers stepped into the breach and ran the industry through local trade-union committees which functioned in the interregnum before the national petroleum administrative apparatus could be organized. They were subject to the orders of a governmental commission in Mexico City, consisting of four officials and three trade-union leaders. Overnight, the trade-union locals had become administrative organs.”
—Nathaniel and Sylvia Weyl, The Reconquest of Mexico
Leon Trotsky, who greeted the nationalization as “a highly progressive measure of national self-defense” against imperialist domination, noted that the “expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism”:
“The international proletariat has no reason to identify its program with the program of the Mexican government. Revolutionists have no need of changing color, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery….”
—“Mexico and British Imperialism,” 5 June 1938
Trotsky subsequently commented:
“It would of course be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalization by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organizations.”
—“Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management,” 12 May 1939
Today various self-proclaimed Trotskyists heap praise on Hugo Chávez as a “socialist” despite the fact that the measures undertaken by his government fall far short of those implemented by Cárdenas.
Hugo Chávez, like Cárdenas and Nasser, is a left bourgeois populist. Yet many “revolutionary socialists” have been actively promoting the illusion that the measures introduced by Chávez are paving the way for overturning capitalism. A good example of this is an essay entitled, “Strategies of the Left in Latin America,” by Claudio Katz, an Argentine leftist, that appeared in the July-August 2007 issue of International Viewpoint, journal of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec):
“Socialist maturity requires a prior process of learning which is not improvised in the expeditious path toward power. That preparation includes social achievements and democratic conquests that are obtained through reforms. This last term is not a bad word, nor is it situated in the antipodes of revolution. It is a useful instrument to gradually develop the revolutionary leap forward, building bridges which move the oppressed closer to the socialist goal.
“A combination of reform and revolution can enable the link between immediate conquests and radical ruptures with capitalism. The first type of achievement is indispensable for creating popular power and the second for defeating an enemy that will not renounce its privileges.
“To connect reform with revolution is the way to adapt the correlation of forces and popular action with the possibilities of anticapitalist transformation in each country. But it is necessary to replace the old counterposing of both roads with their confluence.”
The “old counterposing” of the revolutionary and reformist roads, which distinguished Leninism from Kautskyism, hinged on the question of whether the capitalist state could serve as a vehicle for socialism. Alan Woods of the IMT, who shares the USec’s objectivist methodology, thinks that Venezuela’s bourgeois state has been undergoing an incremental transformation:
“In relation to the question of the character of the state we can say that the Venezuelan state is still, in the main, a capitalist state apparatus. However, this state apparatus operates in conditions of revolution and is therefore riddled with all sorts of contradictions and has been weakened as a tool of the ruling class. And at this particular moment in time it is not under the direct control of the capitalist class, in the sense that the ruling class cannot, for now, use this capitalist state in order to impose its class rule. However, this does not mean that the state apparatus even now has ceased to be a source of sabotage and blocking of the revolutionary initiative of the masses; and if it remains untouched it will eventually become a tool for smashing the revolution. It is clear that there is certain understanding of this problem among the rank and file masses of the Bolivarian revolution and even among some layers in the leadership, but unfortunately there certainly is no clear idea of how to solve this problem.”
—Marxist.com, 5 September 2007
The IMT’s former co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) seem inclined to agree, with references to “the Venezuelan state which, at this stage, cannot be described as a workers’ state” (The Socialist, 19 April 2007). This clearly implies that the CWI thinks that at some future point Bolivarian alchemy may succeed in turning the Venezuelan bourgeoisie’s repressive machine into its opposite. While such a view contradicts the core of the Marxist position on the state—i.e., that states are inextricably welded to the rule of a particular social class—this revisionist notion is consistent with previous claims by the CWI that similar metamorphoses occurred in Ethiopia, Somalia and various other places (see our pamphlet Marxism vs. ‘Militant’ Reformism).
The Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), a former USec affiliate which no longer pretends to any sort of “Trotskyism,” claims that the “transformation” of Venezuela’s capitalist state into a “workers’ and farmers’ state” has already occurred:
“In the process of transformation from a capitalist state toward socialism, the social missions have played a key role in bypassing the normal functions of the old state machine….
“The establishment and consolidation of a workers’ and farmers’ government, at the head of an embryonic workers’ and farmers’ state, which occurred as a result of the popular victory over the April 2002 coup and the December 2002-January 2003 bosses’ oil boycott, led to the development of an alternative state machine, centred on the social missions, the other popular organisations and the revolutionary army.”
—quoted in Venezuelanalysis.com, 10 October 2007
Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Program became fashionable among Chávez’s legion of foreign admirers after the head Bolivarian urged Venezuelans to read it during the 22 April 2007 broadcast of Aló Presidente, his weekly television program. Suddenly the IMT, CWI, USec, DSP and others who had previously regarded the founding programmatic document of the Fourth International as obsolete and ultra-left began to praise Chávez for treating it as some sort of social-democratic blueprint for building socialism while holding hands with the bourgeoisie. According to the DSP:
“Written in 1938, the book is an argument for how a program of struggle for increasingly deep-going reforms that, without abolishing capitalism, make deep inroads into the capitalist system, can raise the level of consciousness and organisation of the working people and open the road to socialism.”
“The transitional approach seeks to find ways to draw masses of people into political activity and increasingly radicalise the broadest layers so they are willing and able to fight for even more radical measures. This explains why, at the same time as Chavez promotes policies increasingly attacking capitalist interests, he continues in his speeches to urge the capitalist class to join the revolutionary project.”
—Green Left Weekly, 10 October 2007
Trotsky, who completely opposed such crude class collaborationism, could hardly have imagined that his Transitional Program would one day be used as left-cover by a bourgeois head of state. At bottom, the Bolivarian project is about modernizing and stabilizing Venezuelan capitalism. Trotsky’s program of “transitional” demands is a codification of the experience of the Bolsheviks in the period leading up to the October 1917 revolution, and that of the revolutionary Communist International under Lenin, in politically preparing the exploited and oppressed to struggle for state power.
The Transitional Program is aimed at mobilizing capitalism’s victims to smash the bourgeois state and the social order it defends—not to “transform” it. In explaining the demand for a “sliding scale of wages and hours,” Trotsky observed:
“It is easier to overthrow capitalism than to realize this demand under capitalism. Not one of our demands will be realized under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands. It creates a bridge to the mentality of the workers and then a material bridge to the socialist revolution. The whole question is how to mobilize the masses for struggle.”
—“The Political Backwardness of the American Workers,” 19 May 1938
Despite the claims of various “Marxists” and “Trotskyists” who have volunteered their services as publicists for the Bolivarian strongman, no “revolutionary process” is underway in Venezuela today. While there is a real danger of violent rightist reaction and the possibility of civil war, Venezuela is not currently in a pre-revolutionary situation, i.e., the normal mechanisms of bourgeois rule continue to operate. Nor is it in a revolutionary, or “dual power,” situation, which would be marked by the development of potential organs of proletarian rule and a general recognition by all strata of society that things simply cannot go on as before.
The USec’s resolution endorsing Chávez for president in 2006 claimed that the election would:
“…be the occasion to demonstrate that, in spite of the limits of the government’s action in favour of the workers and the poorest sectors in Venezuela, in spite of a state structure originating in bourgeois democracy, Hugo Chavez is a decisive support for the victory of the Venezuelan revolutionary process.”
—International Viewpoint, October 2006
The phrase “revolutionary process” is commonly employed by revisionists seeking to blur the distinction between reforming the capitalist state and working for its revolutionary overthrow. USec scribe Stuart Piper optimistically projects that the “process” underway in Venezuela is “a nationalist, anti-neoliberal, anti-imperialist revolution, within which there is a socialist revolution struggling to get out.” According to Piper, “paradoxically, both aspects are crystallised in the personality of Chavez himself” (International Viewpoint, May 2007).
The CWI has taken a somewhat less upbeat view than the IMT or USec:
“The continuation of capitalism in Venezuela and the failure to resolve the pressing social problems, together with frustration and anger at growing bureaucracy and waste, now threatens to undermine the revolutionary process.”
—The Socialist, 26 January 2006
The CWI has even expressed doubts about Chávez’s ability to provide revolutionary leadership:
“Chávez is right to see the importance of Trotsky and his theory of the permanent revolution. Yet it remains to be seen if he applies its lessons in practice. This is the key issue in Venezuela and in Latin America in general.”
—The Socialist, 18 January 2007
While posing “the key issue” as the likelihood of the Bolivarian leader going Trotskyist, the CWI also sees a role for the masses: “it will be the working class in Venezuela who will ultimately decide this [the issue of socialist revolution]—not just president Chávez” (The Socialist, 18 May 2006).
The IMT has tended to paint Chávez as the embodiment of an objectively revolutionary dynamic who “understands” the inexorable necessity to initiate a struggle to smash the state machinery he has wielded for almost a decade:
“Chavez sees the need to ‘deepen’ the revolution. He understands that the revolution cannot stand still. It must move on. He can see that every time he tries to push the process further, the bureaucracy comes up with a thousand and one obstacles. He feels that he cannot make this state machine do what he wants. The only road is therefore to break this machine and build a new one based on the workers.”
—Marxist.com, 9 January 2007
In endorsing “comrade President Chavez” prior to the December 2006 presidential election, Alan Woods pompously lectured those who lacked faith in the Bolivarian Bonaparte:
“The strength of Hugo Chávez, and the secret of his success, is that he embodies the revolutionary aspirations of the masses and gives voice to their deep desire for a fundamental change in society. He has awakened millions of people to political life and for the first time has given them hope of a change, a sense of dignity and purpose.
“There are left sectarians, who for some strange reason imagine that they are Marxists, who do not understand this phenomenon.”
—Marxist.com, 29 November 2006
There is no question that Chávez has inspired millions of Venezuelans with dreams of the golden socialist future he promises. The job of revolutionaries, however, is not to reinforce these illusions but rather to alert the masses to the fatal dangers of Bolivarian-style class collaboration. Trotsky made this point in criticizing the “tail-endist” policy pursued by Stalin and Bukharin toward the radical-nationalist Guomindang in China in the 1920s:
“But, we are told by Stalin and Bukharin, the authors of the draft program, Chiang Kaishek’s northern expedition roused a powerful movement among the worker and peasant masses. This is incontestable. But did not the fact that Guchkov and Shulgin brought with them to Petrograd the abdication of Nicholas II play a revolutionary role? Did it not arouse the most downtrodden, exhausted, and timid strata of the populace? Did not the fact that Kerensky, who but yesterday was a Trudovik, became the President of the Ministers’ Council and the Commander-in-Chief, rouse the masses of soldiers? Did it not bring them to meetings? Did it not rouse the village to its feet against the landlord?
….Opportunist policies have always been based on this kind of non-dialectical, conservative, tail-endist ‘objectivism.’ Marxism on the contrary invariably taught that the revolutionary consequences of one or another act of the bourgeoisie, to which it is compelled by its position, will be fuller, more decisive, less doubtful, and firmer, the more independent the proletarian vanguard will be in relation to the bourgeoisie, the less it will be inclined to place its fingers between the jaws of the bourgeoisie, to see it in bright colors, to over-estimate its revolutionary spirit or its readiness for a ‘united front’ and for a struggle against imperialism.”
—The Third International After Lenin
In Venezuela today, as in China in the 1920s, the fundamental task for revolutionaries is to struggle to establish the political independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie, i.e., to split the Bolivarian movement along class lines. The IMT, in rejecting such an approach, employs the same arguments that Stalin used to defend his liquidationist policy in China:
“Beyond Chavismo, beyond the Bolivarian movement, there exists no possibility of developing a revolutionary mass movement. Any attempt to do so will bring a separation of the main revolutionary layer from the majority of the masses.”
—Marxist.com, 18 October 2006
Like other leftist apologists for the Bolivarian project, the IMT has generally tended to blame “reactionaries in the state bureaucracy” for thwarting Chávez’s socialist intentions:
“There are honest Bolivarians in the government who are fighting to advance the cause of the workers and peasants and who support workers’ control and nationalization. But they are being constantly blocked by right-wing elements who sabotage the President’s decrees and undermine the Revolution.”
—Marxist.com, 19 December 2005
Recently, however, the IMT leadership has evidenced some impatience with the disparity between the leftist rhetoric of the “Bolivarian Revolution” and the pro-capitalist reality. Alan Woods, frustrated by Chávez’s attempt to placate his right-wing critics in the aftermath of the failed constitutional referendum, complained that he missed the chance to effect a peaceful transition to socialism after his electoral triumph in December 2006:
“It would have been quite possible for the President to introduce an Enabling Act in the National Assembly to nationalize the land, the banks and the key industries under workers’ control and management. This would have broken the power of the Venezuelan oligarchy. Moreover, this could have been done quite legally by the democratically elected parliament, since in a democracy the elected representatives of the people are supposed to be sovereign.”
—Marxist.com, 11 January
This confused tangle of wishful thinking and vintage Kautskyan reformism is premised on the notion that socialist revolution is a matter of correct parliamentary tactics and skillful maneuvers to gain positions of influence within the capitalists’ repressive apparatus. The IMT imagines that, if he wanted to, Chávez could use his presidential office to “legally” uproot capitalism while incrementally transforming the bourgeois state he presides over into a workers’ state.
Woods blames the Bolivarian shift to the right on “reformists” who filled the head of the glorious leader with bad advice:
“Following the advice of those who want to reach a deal with the counterrevolutionaries, Chávez granted amnesty to a number of opposition leaders connected to the April 2002 military coup and the shutdown of the oil industry which caused $10 billion dollars damage to the economy and nearly succeeded in wrecking the Revolution.”
“Chávez said he hoped the amnesty decree would ‘send a message to the country that we can live together despite our differences.’”
“‘Helped’ by his reformist advisers, the President has drawn some incorrect conclusions from the referendum. During ‘Aló Presidente’, on 6 January 2008 he said:
“‘I’m compelled to slow down the pace of the march. I’ve been imposing on it a speed that’s beyond the collective capabilities or possibilities….
“‘Improvements are needed in our alliance strategy. We can’t let ourselves be derailed by extremist tendencies. We are not extremists nor we can be [sic]. No! We have to pursue alliances with the middle classes, including the national bourgeoisie. We can’t support theses that have failed in the whole world, as the elimination of private property. That’s not our thesis.’”
—Marxist.com, 11 January
This should make it clear for those who can read that the “Bolivarian socialism” the IMT has been promoting for the past few years, like the “Arab socialism” and “African socialism” touted by the Militant tendency several decades earlier, does not involve the expropriation of the means of production—it is simply capitalism under a different name.
Workers’ Revolution: The Only Road to Socialism
One of the fundamental axioms of Marxism is the proposition that every state exists to defend the rule of a particular social class. This is why the road to socialism can only be opened by smashing the repressive machinery of the bourgeoisie and replacing it with institutions committed to defending collectivized, i.e., proletarian, property forms. A bourgeois state cannot be gradually turned into its opposite by replacing “bureaucratic” functionaries with “revolutionary” ones.
A revolutionary policy for Venezuela must begin from the Marxist understanding of the nature of state power and the necessity of irreconcilable opposition to all wings of the bourgeoisie. A Trotskyist organization would seek to build a base in workplaces from which to intervene in the unions and address members of the communal councils and other Chávista mass organizations. While taking an active role in combating the rightist opposition, it would advance the perspective of permanent revolution, which is based on the recognition that in semi-colonial countries like Venezuela the capitalists are too weak and dependent on foreign imperialism to be capable of fulfilling any of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.
Only through the creation of a Venezuelan workers’ state can the oppression of workers, landless peasants, slum dwellers, indigenous peoples and other victims of capitalism be ended. A victorious socialist revolution in Venezuela would quickly spread beyond its borders and make the creation of a Socialist Federation of Latin America and the Caribbean an immediate possibility. It would also find a powerful echo within the proletarian masses of the northern imperial colossus and awaken them to the necessity to struggle to uproot the global system of imperialist exploitation, and to utilize the powerful productive forces developed under capitalism for the construction of a rationally planned, egalitarian socialist world free from exploitation and poverty.