Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 20, 2007

Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution, conclusion

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

After reading and reviewing Richard Gott and Michael Lebowitz on Venezuela, it is time for me to make my own modest contribution to understanding the unfolding revolution. I do not claim to be an expert on Venezuela, but after 40 years of writing about and trying to make a socialist revolution, I do feel qualified to speak about connections between the two.

To start with, I would argue that Venezuela marks the first significant step forward for the revolutionary movement in a period that has been marked by retreat since 1990. That year, the FSLN was voted out of office in Nicaragua–a consequence no doubt of the unwillingness of the USSR to offer strong support for a budding socialist society. Within a year or two, the Soviet Union would give up on socialism altogether. This led to a sense of futility among the Sandinistas and a willingness to adapt to global capitalism. FSLN leader Victor Tirado wrote an article declaring “the end of the cycle of anti-imperialist revolutions.”

Shortly on the heels of the FSLN defeat, the ANC and the Workers Party in Brazil also decided that there was no alternative to capitalism (TINA) even though they never quite put it in so many words. Of course, within a decade both Lula and Thabo Mbeki would have no such problems saying such a thing.

After being put on the defensive for 15 years, there is finally a government that is willing to stand up to the imperialists and to press forward with radical structural reforms. Ironically, this government is a product of a social explosion that took place in 1989, just a year before the long retreat would begin. History has a way of moving in contradictory directions, as Karl Marx observed in the Eighteenth Brumaire:

But the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still traveling through purgatory. It does its work methodically. By December 2, 1851, it had completed half of its preparatory work; now it is completing the other half. It first completed the parliamentary power in order to be able to overthrow it. Now that it has achieved this, it completes the executive power, reduces it to its purest expression, isolates it, sets it up against itself as the sole target, in order to concentrate all its forces of destruction against it. And when it has accomplished this second half of its preliminary work, Europe will leap from its seat and exult: Well burrowed, old mole! [A paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5: “Well said, old mole!”]

If Hugo Chavez and his comrades make no other contribution to the working class movement than to reverse the long reactionary slide, then we must tip our hats to them.

Of course, some leftists–the dreamers of the absolute–will not be happy unless communism arrived in Venezuela tomorrow. Since it is obvious that Hugo Chavez is not a Lula, his ultraleft critics have to carry out a delicate task of triangulation. They must offer some solidarity with the “process”, but remind their readers that Chavez must ultimately be swept away. In “Bolivanarchism: The Venezuela Question in Our Movement,” Nachie advises his fellow anarchists:

As for the question of Chavez himself; while even an anarchist does not have to be familiar with the rhetoric of the “lesser of two evils” to realize that he could potentially be a progressive force in the country, we also have to look no further than his reception at recent World Social Forums to see the very real dangers of a dictatorial personality cult (growth in the popularity of the “Chavista” red beret certainly doesn’t help). What interests us most is the extent to which Chavez will allow himself to become obsolete. That is, will his projects of self-management and self-reliance in specific communities and the country as a whole transcend the need for a figurehead? Will the Revolution be able to entrench itself so sufficiently in the nation’s culture and politics that it could continue without – or beyond – him? Has it already? One of the most interesting things about the aforementioned Citizen’s Reserve army is that is that in the event of another coup or Chavez’ assassination, it could serve as a vehicle through which to push the Revolution beyond the bourgeois/democratic boundaries that it has so far respected.

How generous of comrade Nachie. I am sure that Hugo Chavez will not have a troubled sleep after reading this, knowing that he is not 100 percent rotten–only 95 percent so.

The anarcho-Marxists of the State Capitalist tendency put things in pretty much the same way. In an article that appeared in the January 2007 issue of Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the British SWP, party leader Chris Harman acknowledged that “Chavez has moved to the left as he reacts to the feelings of the million or more people who have played the key role in these movements from below.” This probably represents a passing grade, a gentleman’s C, I suppose. But even if he has moved to the left, he is still incapable of going the whole hog:

But there are still limits to his radical actions.

Most of Venezuelan big business remains untouched – and Chavez insisted in a recent speech that there was still an important role for the “national bourgeoisie”.

Chavez’s moves are not going to stop the corruption and bureaucracy which affects not only the parties of the electoral coalition, but the non-elected hierarchies of the state machine.

The top ranks of the civil service remain stacked with people appointed under the corrupt pre-Chavez system. And the armed forces continue to be full of career officers who share the values of the Chavez-hating upper-middle class.

So what is the hope of the Venezuelan people? They rest on the shoulders of people like Orlando Chirinos, a Trotskyist leader of the UNT (the pro-government trade union) and Por Nuestras Luchas (“By Our Struggles”) that “is influenced by traditions of urban guerrillaism and autonomism and looks to organising the poor, the peasants and the indigenous groups.”

From Harman’s cautionary note about Chavez and the “national bourgeoisie,” one would think that the caudillo was working overtime to maintain private property. But as early as 2005, a good two years before the current deep turn of the revolution, Chavez was giving the green light to expropriations:

Venezuela’s government seized the assets of the country’s largest paper product plant Venepal yesterday, after bankruptcy was finally declared last December.

The troubled company stopped production in September, 2004 threatening to sell off the plant’s machinery to pay off creditors. Workers at the plant who had not been paid for three months, organized a national campaign to encourage the expropriation of the factory, which culminated in yesterday’s official announcement.

The nationalization of Venepal was accompanied by a US$6.7 million credit, necessary to restart production. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the declaration to expropriate the factory after the National Assembly -with the support from opposition parties- declared Venepal to be of “public benefit and social interest” last Thursday – which is a legal prerequisite for expropriation.

While one might plausibly have an orientation to an Orlando Chirinos, who does at least have a working class base of support, one wonders what popped into the head of Chris Harman when he decided to promote Por Nuestras Luchas. This group, which is influenced by guerrilla warfare and autonomism, is the last thing that the Venezuelan people need on the face of it. I would go into more depth about this boneheaded recommendation, but since this group is so obscure, I could find no petard that they have hoisted themselves on to this point. It seems rather likely that they no longer exist. One would hope that if the British SWP comrades go casting about for groups whose reputations they seek to boost, they would be a bit more assiduous. After all, they don’t want to get hoodwinked like a lot of Trotskyists did with a spurious “left opposition” group in Ukraine some years back.

Fundamentally, the anarchists and the State Capitalists–despite their furious disagreements over the “Russian questions”–share an idealistic conception of how revolutions are made. I don’t mean “idealistic” in the sense that young people are dubbed idealistic when they join the boy scouts or girl scouts (although there is an element of that.) Instead I am referring to the belief that one must have “correct” ideas in one’s head and then go out to bend historical forces according to those ideas. This involves perfecting what Marxists call a “program”, which is really much more of a set of dogmatic ideas based on past history than anything else. If one lacks such a “program”, then one is doomed to failure.

I would argue that the revolutionary program can never be worked out in advance, but must arise out of the class struggle through the constant interaction between thought and action, which is constantly bumping into the harsh but necessary classroom experience afforded by the class struggle. To believe that a revolutionary party (or nucleus of a party) can exist outside and prior to the unfolding revolutionary movement is an idealist error. It is analogous in some way to the statement once made by an individual that he had plans to become a capitalist as soon as he put together $100 million. In reality, the act of putting together that much money and becoming a capitalist are identical. By the same token, one can only develop a revolutionary party with a correct revolutionary program in the act of making a revolution. Whatever flaws they have exhibited along the way, the independent Marxist cadres of the Venezuelan revolution who have emerged out of the experience of groups like Causa R and the MAS have much more in common with what Lenin was trying to do than all of the self-proclaimed Trotskyist vanguards.

I want to conclude with some thoughts on the question of “21st century socialism”. Although I agree that the USSR was a nightmare, it would be a mistake to think that a postcapitalist society (I hesitate to use the word “socialism” for the same reason that Trotsky did when he described the USSR as being in transition between capitalism and socialism) can be launched on foundations other than those of October 1917. Although I am a solid supporter of the Venezuelan government, I believe that qualitative changes are necessary before genuine socialism can come into existence. In some ways, the sectarian left is not wrong to point out that the state is hobbled by the “corruption” and “bureaucracy” that Harman referred to. Sooner or later, that sort of thing will have to be rooted out like a cancerous growth.

For obvious reasons, the Venezuelan revolutionary movement has to proceed cautiously. Unlike Cuba in 1959, Venezuela cannot rely on a powerful socialist government for trade and subsidies. It has to play with the cards that it has been dealt by history. Considering the success of Hugo Chavez and his comrades to this point, we might say that he is one of the sharpest card players in the history of our movement whose shoulder we should look over, rather than kibbitzing that he is some kind of Kerensky to be thrown into the ashcan of history.


  1. I honestly think that a number of the members (or leaders at any rate) in these sects, on some level would really find a greater degree of satisfaction and relief in the defeat of the Bolivarian revolution than to have to re-think their sacred dogmas. This would simply re-affirm what they “already know” (which of course is everything, too bad the working masses of the world just don’t seem interested/responsive), and allow them to return to business as usual without the emotional discomfort of watching something cracking the mould or having to expend the effort of insincerely acknowledging a (real world) struggle that doesn’t conform to a preconceived cookie cutter model. Business as usual of course has for decades (inspite of whatever merits a given members or groups activism in the protest marches of the anglo-american world may have) since their inception involved sitting around dispensing back seat criticism of why every real revolutionary process isn’t really up to snuff enough for their liking. At its best it’s a combined “holier than thow” posturing with ineffectual lip service to solidarity, at its worst it’s dovetailed with imperialist machinations and the beat of the war drum.

    Comment by Michael — April 20, 2007 @ 10:49 pm

  2. Louis, here you appear to commit yourself to the Bolivarian Revolution. Yet if you think that there has to be a qualitative change in the revolution what might that be? You say it will be based on the foundations of October 1917. How did October happen without a program developed in advance, and changed according to the situation, made possible only by a Leninist Party? Or perhaps you place Lenin in a similar position to Chavez today, as the real leader, substituting for the party.

    Lenin’s leading role was only possible given that the Bolshevik program was the result of decades of revolutionary experience. Lenin on the State takes note of Marx on the Paris Commune and imperialism. The class character of the state is not limited to evidence of bureaucracy and corruption. These are symptoms of a particular class rule.

    Similarly the Bolshevik assessment of the revolutionary situation in Russia which led to the adoption of Lenin’s April Theses is a ‘qualitative’ leap that cannot be ignored in Venezuela. So which part of the revolutionary program can be left to the current ‘class struggle'(as if it began yesterday) exactly?

    And which class forces in what sort of organisation will be responsible for implementing that program within the working class? If you think that the qualitative leap is to get rid of the bureaucracy and corruption then all that is needed is a left wing of the Bolivarian movement to keep the revolution ‘honest’. Perhaps this could be done by bloggers from outside Venezuela without the active role of organised workers.

    This would be to sow illusions in a populist regime that has held back the independent organisation of workers. So long as even ‘self-proclaimed Trotskyist’ groups hold the Chavez’ regime to be progressive, then they act as a leftwing of a bonapartist bourgeois regime that is actually capable of no more than a break with neo-liberalism and not capitalism as such.

    This is not to say that revolutionaries reject Chavez reforms any more than the Bolshevik program rejected the February revolution. But history does have vital lessons for us, and among them, are the overthrow of the bourgeois state, and permanent revolution. Fortunately, the revolution in Venezuela, will be determined by the leading role of the working class and not internet self-proclaimed ‘marxists’.

    Comment by Dave — April 21, 2007 @ 3:45 am

  3. Dave, you really need to drop the whole “Bolshevik” fetish. It is not healthy for a college professor to walk around all day fantasizing about 1917. See the movie “Morgan” for more insights on this fundamentally neurotic condition.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 21, 2007 @ 1:10 pm

  4. “…then they act as a leftwing of a bonapartist bourgeois regime that is actually capable of no more than a break with neo-liberalism and not capitalism as such.”

    And how do you propose any faction in Venezuela breaks with capitalism – “as such?” Do you think there is some kind of 10-step program, perhaps akin to a weight-loss diet, at the end of which a regime liberates itself and says, “finally, we have done away with capitalism – as such!”

    Socialism in isolation is a guaranteed path to disaster. For all your invocation of Lenin – or rather this must be a symptom of said invocations – you fail to grasp that main lesson of Lenin’s project. An exhausted and isolated country stripped of bourgeois expertise and assets overnight is doomed.

    Chavez’s regime is trying to orient the country and the continent toward a model that is (a) less dependent on America, (b) more dependent on the continent’s own production and resources, and (c) more savvy and responsive to the contradictions of world capitalism. These are buffer measures designed to give the movement’s goals some breathing space to demonstrate its achievements.

    Achievements, as in tangible improvement in people’s lives, such as have occurred over the past four years. That is worth more than a thousand slogans about overthrowing the “bonapartist bourgeois regime,” as if Chavez and Hillary Clinton are fundamentally the same thing.

    What would happen if, instead of current steps, all assets were nationalized tomorrow morning, all foreign companies thrown out? Then, indeed, a few “internet Marxists” who love to bandy about the Marxist version of taster’s choice terminology (“seize the commanding heights!”, “grab the means of production!”, “expropriate the expropriators!”) would be thrilled. Meanwhile, the country would be fucked.

    Comment by M. Junaid — April 25, 2007 @ 6:24 am

  5. Thanks for this well thought out contribution, Louis.

    You might be interested in this piece I wrote for the Guardian (UK) back in February.

    Co-editor, http://www.21stcenturysocialism.com

    Comment by Calvin Tucker — April 25, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  6. As a “state-cap,” I think the UK SWP lined up with that group because it fits with their semi-anarchist/movementist orientation embodied in groups like Left Turn in the U.S. and because the ISO is on good terms with Chirinos.

    Your readers may be interested in a blog by one of Chirinos’ comrades, Miguel Angel Hernandez:


    I would also argue that the World Socialist Web Site is a lot more wrong and more guilty of the kind of ridiculous Chavez-phobia that you are talking about than Chris Harman. But I appreciate your thoughtful post even though I disagree with some of the conclusions.

    Comment by Binh — April 26, 2007 @ 6:02 pm

  7. […] are not the only one to make this kind of mistake. Louis Proyect is another. In the third part of “Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution” , on his challenging weblog The Unrepentant Marxist , we can read: “I would argue that […]

    Pingback by Venezuela: don't overdo it, comrades (part 2) « RedRebelRanter — May 25, 2007 @ 11:16 pm

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