On November 24th the Wall Street Journal ran an article that was highly flattering to Stalin–Ivan Stalin González, that is. Stalin (he prefers being called by this name) is the leader of the privileged university students who are on the front-lines opposing the proposed constitutional reforms that would make the government more directly accountable to the people beginning with an end to term limits.
Stalin’s background would be familiar to those who run into his counterparts in the radical movement in their own countries:
Mr. Chávez’s description also hardly fits Mr. González. The 27-year-old, sixth-year law student grew up in a poor household that dreamed of a Communist Venezuela. His father, a print-machine operator, was a high-ranking member of the Bandera Roja, or Red Flag, a hard-line Marxist-Leninist party that maintained a guerrilla force until as recently as the mid-1990s. Its members revered Josef Stalin as well as Albania’s xenophobic Enver Hoxha. As a boy, Mr. González remembers packing off to marches with his sisters, Dolores Engels and Ilyich, named in honor of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
As a young man, Mr. González burnished his leftist credentials, joining Marxist youth groups and following his father into the Bandera Roja. He traveled to Socialist youth conferences in Latin America.
(The WSJ article can only be read in its entirety by googling “Ivan Stalin Gonzalez” from google/news.)
Hugo Chávez described Bandera Roja thusly:
Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries.
Unlike the miserable ultraleft sectarians in Bandera Roja, the Marxists who have helped to elect Hugo Chávez do not see themselves on any such “holy mission.” Indeed, it is the absence of such self-aggrandizement that has so disoriented much of the left outside of Venezuela, at least those sectors of the left that still clutch to “vanguardist” illusions. While most of them are not nearly as bad as Bandera Roja, they still see Hugo Chávez as an impediment to the True Revolution that is gathering momentum at the grass roots level. In this scenario, the only thing that can save Venezuela is some kind of latter-day version of the Soviets in 1917 and a working-class revolutionary party to lead them toward a seizure of power. While Chávez’s government is a decent social democratic alternative to the neoliberal solution that the US would prefer, it falls short of their ideals–the operative word being ideal.
To his great credit, James Petras–a former ultraleft critic of Hugo Chavez–has a much better understanding of the true political stakes in Venezuela now and has repudiated the ultraleft in a Counterpunch article:
The CIA-Embassy reports internal division and recriminations among the opponents of the amendments including several defections from their ‘umbrella group’. The key and most dangerous threats to democracy raised by the Embassy memo point to their success in mobilizing the private university students (backed by top administrators) to attack key government buildings including the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council. The Embassy is especially full of praise for the ex-Maoist ‘Red Flag’ group for its violent street fighting activity. Ironically, small Trotskyist sects and their trade unionists join the ex-Maoists in opposing the constitutional amendments. The Embassy, while discarding their ‘Marxist rhetoric’, perceives their opposition as fitting in with their overall strategy.
Unfortunately, the International Socialist Organization, a sizable state-capitalist group in the US, still retains the kind of ultraleft conceptions that Petras once held.
In the latest issue of their newspaper, there’s an article on the showdown in Venezuela which basically describes three camps in Venezuela: the rightwing that is getting its marching orders from the US, a center consisting of Hugo Chávez, many of his well-meaning radical supporters plus a status-quo minded elite getting rich off the oil exports, and a genuine working-class left that shares their ideals of “revolution from below.”
One of the most cited figures from this unblemished leftwing group in the pages of Socialist Worker is a self-described Trotskyist trade union leader named Orlando Chirino:
For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald the “Stalinization” of the state and state control of the labor movement “along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,” he said in an interview.
Chirino, a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms. He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.
Today Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.
Well, what can one say? Despite his Trotskyist bona fides, Chirino opposes the reforms alongside comrade Stalin Gonzalez. He also is cozy with the rotten newspapers and trade union that tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Politics makes strange bedfellows, doesn’t it?
If you read the Socialist Workers newspaper, as I do, you will be familiar by now with their split personality. They are a source of excellent analysis and information on the class struggle in the US but when it comes to Cuba and Venezuela they are–how should I put it–full of shit. For them, Cuba occupies the same place as Dante’s Inferno while Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is a purgatory that will be rescued by the likes of Orlando Chirino. But maybe not Chirino himself since the ISO still has a shred of good sense to support the constitutional reforms even if it is only grudgingly.
In the past Orlando Chirino has been a kind of North Star for them, a source of goodness and received wisdom. In August of 2005, they had a breathless article titled “Venezuela’s left comes together” that would leave the reader with the unmistakable impression that the cavalry was coming to the rescue in Venezuela. It reported on a July 9 meeting that included Orlando Chirino’s Opción de Izquierda Revolucionaria and a student collective from the Central University of Venezuela, a bastion of counter-revolutionary resistance to Hugo Chávez today and where Stalin Gonzalez is enrolled. One can only wonder if Comrade Stalin was at this meeting hyped by the Socialist Worker newspaper as a sign of hope for Venezuela. I bet that he was.
I imagine that the odyssey of Chirino and these students to the right probably did not pique the interest of the brain trust that runs the ISO too deeply.
They must have been totally smitten with a figure like Orlando Chirino who told them:
Therefore, I think that [Chávez’s] project has a short lifespan. I’m not talking in terms of years, but rather as a historic project of a way out of the crisis and misery that capitalism offers. That model doesn’t provide a way out, and today, there isn’t the space nor is there a sector of the capitalist class that wants a decisive confrontation with imperialism.
So in less than three years, Chirino discovered that the way to decisively confront imperialism was to make common cause with its chief supporters in Venezuela. As Larry David would say on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: “Interesting, very interesting.”
Now, if I were the editor of “Socialist Worker,” I might want to try to reconcile two apparently contradictory positions. Is Chirino still a representative of the left? If so, maybe it is because he stills says that he is for a working-class revolution. But then again, so does Stalin Gonzalez. According to the WSJ:
For all his disappointment with Mr. Chávez’s brand of leftism, Mr. González still holds a candle for his revolutionary heroes. He has a signed copy of a seven-hour speech Fidel Castro delivered at the university several years ago. “I never got bored,” he says.
Apparently, being a member of the Fidel Castro fan club does not ensure that one will not lose one’s way politically.
Although it took me a while to get over my own initial skepticism toward Hugo Chávez, I never for a minute thought that ultraleftists like Orlando Chirino were some kind of revolutionary alternative. I had seen them in operation in Nicaragua in the 1980s and figured out that small groups posturing as Bolsheviks trying to wrest power from the Menshevik FSLN were more than a nuisance–they were doing the CIA’s work.
In George Black’s very fine chronicle on the Nicaraguan revolution titled “Triumph of the People”, there is a chapter on the counter-revolution that is mainly focused on the contras and their “peaceful” supporters. Within the chapter, there are also a few pages devoted to groups led by the Stalin Gonzalez’s of those times.
The most notorious of them was the Simon Bolivar Brigade, a guerrilla group composed of Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN. They regarded the FSLN in the same exact way that Orlando Chirino and Stalin Gonzalez regard Chavez today–as an obstacle to the full flowering of the revolution. The Brigade was led by the Socialist Workers Party in Colombia, a section of the Morenoite Fourth International that can best be described as virulently ultraleft. Considering the bad reputation of this group and a similarly named group in the US that used to be in an alliance with the Morenoites, my recommendation to aspiring Leninists worldwide is to not use this name. Of course, if you have already adopted it–like the group led by Alex Callinicos–you have my permission to continue using it.
Part of the problem dealing with the Brigade, which had embarked on a series of premature strikes and land occupations, was that it insisted on remaining armed and existing outside of the framework of the Sandinista military command.
When the FSLN sat down for a meeting with the Brigade on August 14, 1979, it found itself confronted with a demonstration of 1,000 workers who had been brought there by the Brigade in the belief that the meeting was about wages and trade union questions. After deciding that the Brigade was not serious about becoming part of the broader revolutionary process, the FSLN expelled sixty non-Nicaraguan members to Panama.
The Frente Obrero (FO) was not Trotskyist, but it posed the same kind of threat to the revolution as the Simon Bolivar Brigade. Originally a faction of the FSLN, the FO was expelled in 1972 after being implicated in a plot to assassinate the entire FSLN leadership. Fortunately, the plot failed because the FO could not recruit enough members to carry out the task. As George Black describes the FO, the kinship with Stalin Gonzalez’s Bandera Roja should be obvious:
From the early 1970s there were suspicions that the FO had close ties to Somoza’s Office of National Security (OSN). Although its ideology was not consistent, the FO’s basic orientation was towards Peking, and it held this line until the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, when it switched its allegiance to Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Towards the end of the decade, it managed to build a limited base in the working class, and had its own student movement, the Comites de Lucha Estudiantil Universitaria (University Students Fighting Committees: CLEUS).
In the early stages of the revolution, the FO proposed a government that would include bourgeois parties and themselves. Just like Stalin Gonzalez, they were adept at cloaking opportunist behavior in fire-breathing revolutionary rhetoric.
After the FSLN took power and began to concentrate on the immediate tasks of reviving an economy that had been devastated by earthquake and civil war, the FO’s newspaper demanded the ‘active sabotage of the economic plan in order to bring power back into the hands of the people’. To show that they meant business, the FO, which had far more members and influence than the Morenoites, launched a series of paralyzing strikes in the sugar refineries. In Chinandega the results were devastating. Stacked sugar cane rotted, causing the loss of a half-million cordobas per day–all in the name of socialist revolution.
Eventually the sugar refinery workers called off the strike in exchange for immediate social wage improvements, as well as government action on local health and housing problems.
The FO was determined to push on, however. When cane cutters returned to the fields, they were met by FO supporters who slashed their truck tires and threatened them with guns and machetes, just as Stalin Gonzalez’s goons did recently at the Social Work building in the Central Venezuelan University.
One cartoon in Barricada, the FSLN newspaper, depicted an FO activist floating on a cloud above a group of workers, with his head buried in a book. The caption read “Having seized political power, proceed to…” George Black said that the cartoon “summed the FO up nicely.” Too bad that it sums up some of our comrades today who decided to promote a wing of the radical movement in Venezuela that was on a collision course with the revolution.