Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 17, 2007

Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution, part 2

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Michael Lebowitz is economics professor emeritus of Simon Fraser University in Canada, who has been living in Venezuela for a number of years. This gives him some unique insights into the revolutionary process there.

Michael Lebowitz

Those insights are shaped by his general approach to the problem of how to create alternatives to capitalism as explored in his “Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class,” a Palgrave-Macmillan book that was awarded the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2004. Although I have not read this book, it supposedly explains, in the words of reviewer Jim Devine, that “one-dimensional and automatic Marxisms were able to develop a textual basis because Marx never wrote his planned book on wage labor.” Although I find this approach intriguing, my own analysis of the problem of how “one-dimensionality” in Marxism tends to focus on institutional inertia associated with the emergence of a bureaucracy in the USSR, as well as the left-sectarian dialectical opposites embodied in the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. If there is one good thing that has emerged out of the collapse of the USSR, it is possibility that Marxist scholars and activists will no longer be shackled by the past.

For Lebowitz, the importance of Venezuela is that it opens up the possibility of working people beginning to take control of their lives in a way that past socialisms could not. Freed from the bad anti-democratic and economistic habits of the past, the movement can start afresh. In an interview with the Weekly Worker, he explains:

This is exactly the sort of thing that is happening here in Venezuela at the moment. There are many contradictions and problems, but the thing that is exciting is that the people are asserting themselves from below, starting to articulate their own independent demands, developing a new sense of themselves. They are doing that in the context of a constitution that stresses the development of human potential and that this is only possible through participation and protagonistic activity.

So the constitution which puts this forward as a goal functions in a dialectic with masses of people who are trying to follow through the logic of their own struggles. Chávez encourages these movements but, as they develop, the pressures on Chávez from below grow, too.

I see some of the things that are happening in Venezuela as exciting because I think the stress on the development of human capacity — and on this only being possible from below, through mass struggle — is absolutely critical. There are many contradictions, but this is key.

Coming on the heels of “Beyond Capital,” Lebowitz’s “Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century” is a groundbreaking attempt to provide a theoretical and political context for what is taking place in Venezuela today, with the final two chapters getting into the complexities of economic development in a revolutionary society.

The phrase “build it now” refers to the act of launching elements of the new society in the existing one. If this seems controversial at first blush, it might not on further reflection upon classical Marxist theory. In terms of “transition,” we should keep in mind that this is exactly the way that capitalism began to emerge within the nooks and crannies of feudal society. We tend not to think of socialism in the same manner since the emergence of socialist institutions has tended to coincide with the seizure of power in Soviet-type revolutions. On the day before the revolution, capitalism exists everywhere. Shortly after its triumph, the state issues a set of laws that convert property to public ownership and the armed people defend those measures.

The other key term is “the 21st century.” Lebowitz is in full agreement with Hugo Chavez that the socialism of this century will not look like that of the past. He writes, “We need to understand that socialism of the twenty-first century cannot be a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all initiative is the property of state officeholders or cadres of self-reproducing vanguards.” He adds, “We need to recognize, too, that socialism is not the worship of technology–a disease that has plagued Marxism and which in the Soviet Union took the form of immense factories, mines, and collective farms to capture presumed economies of scale.” (This section of Lebowitz’s book can be read online at: http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1511.)

Concretely, this would include the creation of cooperatives and various forms of worker self-management, as stipulated in Article 70 of the new Venezuelan constitution:

launching “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity,” and in the obligations noted in Article 135 which “by virtue of solidarity, social responsibility and humanitarian assistance, are incumbent upon private individuals according to their abilities” — the elements of a Socialism of the 21st Century are there in ideal form.

With all due respect to Michael Lebowitz and Hugo Chavez, this emphasis on cooperatives–as opposed to the immense state-owned and bureaucratically directed factories and farms of the Soviet Union–is not exactly contrary to what Lenin was calling for at the very end of his life in the article “On Cooperation“:

It seems to me that not enough attention is being paid to the cooperative movement in our country. Not everyone understands that now, since the time of the October revolution and quite apart from NEP (on the contrary, in this connection we must say—because of NEP), our cooperative movement has become one of great significance. There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of the old cooperators. Often they are ridiculously fantastic. But why are they fantastic? Because people do not understand the fundamental, the rock-bottom significance of the working-class political struggle for the overthrow of the rule of the exploiters. We have overthrown the rule of the exploiters, and much that was fantastic, even romantic, even banal in the dreams of the old cooperators is now becoming unvarnished reality.

Indeed, since political power is in the hands of the working-class, since this political power owns all the means of production, the only task, indeed, that remains for us is to organize the population in cooperative societies. With most of the population organizing cooperatives, the socialism which in the past was legitimately treated with ridicule, scorn and contempt by those who were rightly convinced that it was necessary to wage the class struggle, the struggle for political power, etc., will achieve its aim automatically. But not all comrades realize how vastly, how infinitely important it is now to organize the population of Russia in cooperative societies.

Of course, we know how things turned out in the USSR. All of Lenin’s emphasis on a slower pace and greater grass roots initiative was thrown out the window and the country was lashed into a forced march toward industrialization by Stalin. Ironically, a return to the early 1920s is being marked to some extent by aspects of the Cuban economy today, with its willingness to allow agricultural coops to flourish as well as exploiting foreign investment without sacrificing the interests of working people.

To Michael Lebowitz’s credit, he acknowledges that self-management or workers control in and of itself is no panacea. In chapter six (“Seven Difficult Questions), he deals at length with the experience of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which at the time was considered the first alternative to Stalinist economic practice. Despite the promise of worker cooperation and self-management–especially the possibility of resolving the contradiction between “thinking” and “doing”–the reality often did not match up to the expectation.

The most fundamental problem reported by Michael is the failure of workers to override decisions made by management. After a long and tiresome day’s work, they lacked the energy to educate themselves about factory problems beyond the purview of their own job. When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Doug Henwood’s shrewd observation about Michael Albert’s PARECON on the LBO Mailing List: “People want to delegate decisions and get on with their lives, not engage in endless dickering and bickering. You could never sell radical economic change if it meant more work.”

An even more serious problem revolved around the need to sustain enterprises for whose products there was a declining demand. Under capitalism, we know what happens but what about socialist Yugoslavia? As it turns out, they continued to produce goods for which there were no buyers. The workers did not suffer, but the economy did.

Additionally, there was a problem with workers solidarity not extending beyond the plant gate. The workers in one plant might resent those in another if their goods and prices were seen as out of whack with expectations. Viewing Yugoslavia, Che Guevara worried that competition could “introduce factors that distort what the socialist spirit should presumably be.” Furthermore, in an effort to make their own plant competitive, workers would often introduce labor-saving technology. When this phenomenon became generalized, it led to a contraction in the availability of jobs as anybody introduced to the ABC’s of Marxism might have warned. It seemed that Tito was resolving one set of contradictions associated with the USSR but introducing an entirely new set.

After recounting these sorts of problems, Michael poses the questions: In a system of self-management, who looks after the interests of the working class as a whole; and how can solidarity between worker-managed enterprises and society as a whole be incorporated directly into those societies?

With the negative example of Yugoslavia having been established, he turns to economic development in Venezuela today in his final chapter, titled “The Revolution of Radical Needs: Behind the Bolivarian Choice of a Socialist Path.” It is the most closely examined study of the Venezuelan economy that I have seen to date and justifies purchase of the MR book on this basis alone.

It zeroes in on the transformation of the oil industry in Venezuela, which is among the most powerful anti-capitalist acts of the past 25 years–taking place most notably in a society in which capitalist property relations still dominate.

Initially, economic policy in Venezuela did not consider alternatives to capitalism. It was in line with the perspectives found in Osvaldo Sunkel’s “Development from Within: Toward a Neostructuralist Approach for Latin America.” Sunkel is a Chilean economist who favored nationalist (or endogenous) development of the sort that UN economist Raul Prebisch advocated in the 1950s and which Juan Peron (despite Prebisch’s opposition) acted on. Endogenous is another word for inward, which was the hallmark of import substitution and other measures associated with Prebisch. Basically, the inspiration was less Cuba than Japan and the Asian Tigers. Chavez read Sunkel’s book while in prison and called for it to be read in schools, ministries and state-owned enterprises.

Of course, as might be obvious from the past 10 years in Venezuelan history, events are driven less by holy texts than they are by the exigencies of the class struggle.

Whatever insights that were gained from the writings of a pro-capitalist/nationalist economist like Osvaldo Sunkel, they had to give way to the deeper anti-capitalist logic of the needs of a hungry and largely underemployed population. As soon as Chavez proposed a series of measures to fund cooperatives and gain greater revenues from the sale of oil, the local capitalists and their allies on Wall Street and in Washington sensed that they were dealing with a logic that would lead to deeper structural reforms. This was no Lula that they were dealing with. It was obvious from the beginning that Chavez would not sacrifice the needs of the Venezuelan people to the needs of global capital.

After the April 2002 coup was crushed, Chavez had the political capital he needed to transform PDVSA, the state-owned oil company known in the U.S. as Citgo that has made cheap heating oil available to poor people. Before the coup, the only people benefiting were the fat cat Accion Democratica functionaries at the top of the company. 18,000 old guard PDVSA managers and technicians were fired and Chavez announced, “We resume the offensive.”

This ushered in a period that Michael refers to as “radical endogamous development.” It was a series of reforms known as “Vuelvan Caras” (Turn Your Faces) that recognized that Venezuela was no South Korea. It had a vast informal sector and was saddled by debt. This meant that it was necessary to foster the development of cooperatives and associations that could make the most immediate impact on poor people’s lives. These were the economic analogue of the Cuban-staffed clinics that appeared in the country around the same time. When Chavez first became President in 1998, there were only 762 cooperatives in the country. At the time that Michael Lebowitz was writing his book, there were 84,000.

In his closing speech to the 2005 World Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005, Chavez said, “We have to reinvent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will have to emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” Even sounding like a convert to Cliff-thought, he added, “But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.”

In my final post on Venezuela, I want to take a closer look at the question of what the Soviet Union represented and whether there can be a socialism that has absolutely no connections to that experience, as well as to make some projections about the ultimate course of the revolution in Venezuela.


  1. –“People want to delegate decisions and get on with their lives, not engage in endless dickering and bickering. You could never sell radical economic change if it meant more work.”–

    Michael Albert conceived workers participation in the decision making as part of their work. Not as extra-time work, but as part of the natural involvement in a balanced job complex.

    Comment by Seb Tal — September 27, 2007 @ 10:59 pm

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