Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 27, 2007

How not to write about Venezuela

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

In the latest issue of Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the state-capitalist International Socialist Organization, there’s an article by Lee Sustar titled “What does Chávez have in store for Venezuela?“. He asks rhetorically if Chávez is “correct in his recent statements that the ideas of Marx and Lenin are outdated, and that private property has to be preserved in a socialist Venezuela?” He also writes “Chávez himself, quoting the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg out of context, declared that trade unions should be subordinated to the socialist party–i.e., the PSUV.”

When I asked Sustar to provide references for these assertions, he replied with respect to the first: “It was on Alo Presidente, which you can hear online.” I have not been successful in tracking this down. He also provided a link to an article on aporrea.org by Miguel Angel Hernández that began with this quote from Chavéz:

El Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) no tomará las banderas del marxismo-leninismo porque es una tesis dogmática que ya pasó y no está acorde con la realidad de hoy”…“tesis como la de la clase obrera como el motor del socialismo y de la revolución están obsoletas”… “El trabajo hoy es otra cosa, es distinto, está la informática y la telemática, y Carlos Marx ni siquiera podía soñar con estas cosas.

Roughly translated, this says:

The PSUV doesn’t call itself “marxist-leninist” because it is a dogmatic thesis that has passed and doesn’t accord with the reality of today…the thesis of the working class as the motor of socialism and the revolution is obsolete…the worker of today is another thing, is distinct, is involved with information and telecommunications technology and Karl Marx could not have dreamed of these things.

Maybe curiosity killed the cat, but I am dying to know what was between the ellipses in Chavéz’s quoted remarks. It also might be possible to make a distinction between Sustar’s characterization of Chavéz saying that Marx and Lenin were obsolete and his actual words, namely that “The PSUV doesn’t call itself ‘marxist-leninist’ because it is a dogmatic thesis that has passed and doesn’t accord with the reality of today.” Calling oneself “Marxist-Leninist” is pretty stupid in fact.

The other problem is in trying to find a smoking gun that proves that Chavéz is some kind of phony socialist based on what he says about Marx or Lenin. If he can be judged on this litmus test, then all the glowing references to Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg et al in his speeches should get him an early parole for good behavior. Now, I don’t want to try to convince the ISO comrades that they are taking the wrong approach–a daunting task to say the least–but you simply can’t judge Hugo Chavéz on this basis. It is a talmudic approach to politics. When you sit around poring over texts in order to establish the sanctity of a political figure, you are bordering on the theological.

On the Luxemburg business, he was just as–er–helpful:

Not hard to find. Google “Chávez” and “Luxemburgo.”

As it turns out, Sustar was most likely referring to an interview with Orlando Chirino that appears in the latest issue of International Socialist Review, another ISO publication. When asked about the independence of the Venezuelan trade unions, Chirino replies:

The President has tried to use Rosa Luxemburg’s writings to support his arguments against trade-union independence—but we have to see her positions in the particular political and historical context in which she put them forward. When she discussed the question of trade-union autonomy she was referring to the German Social Democratic Party and arguing against syndicalist and bureaucratic tendencies within the unions.

Well, maybe so but I would like to read what Chavéz actually said. In these two cases, we have quotes ripped out of context and a characterization of what Chavéz said. I don’t want to sound like a spoilsport, but it seems to me that the revolutionary press should aspire to higher standards. For example, when Lenin was polemicizing against Kautsky, he made sure to give the devil his due.

One feels even more convinced of this when examining the remarkable way in which Kautsky “interprets” Marx’s “little word” about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Listen to this:

“Marx, unfortunately, neglected to show us in greater detail how he conceived this dictatorship ….” (This is an utterly mendacious phrase of a renegade, for Marx and Engels gave us, indeed, quite a number of most detailed indications, which Kautsky, the Marxist pedant, has deliberately ignored.) “Literally, the word dictatorship means the abolition of democracy. But, of course, taken literally, this word also means the undivided rule of a single person unrestricted by any laws-an autocracy, which differs from despotism only insofar as it is not meant as a permanent state institution, but as a transient emergency measure.

“The term, dictatorship of the proletariat’, hence not the dictatorship of a single individual, but of a class, ipso facto precludes the possibility that Marx in this connection had in mind a dictatorship in the literal sense of the term.

“He speaks here not of a form of government, but of a condition, which must necessarily arise wherever the proletariat has gained political power. That Marx in this case did not have in mind a form of government is proved by the fact that he was of the opinion that in Britain and America the transition might take place peacefully, i.e., in a democratic way” (p. 20).

We have deliberately quoted this argument in full so that the reader may clearly see the methods Kautsky the “theoretician” employs.

Turning to Socialist Action, a group that is valiantly but foolishly trying to resurrect American Trotskyism, we don’t get much better. In the latest issue of their newspaper, Gerry Foley has an article titled “Chavez Projects a Non-Marxist ‘Petro-Socialism’ in Venezuela.” He too is ready to jump all over Hugo Chavéz for not upholding Marxist verities, based on that elusive “Alo Presidente” program.

Chavez himself has chosen this moment to declare that the “Twenty-First Century Socialism” he offers has nothing to do with Marxism.

This statement was commented on July 27 by the Aporrea website, an independent left website that supports the Chavez government in an interview with Stalin Perez Borges, a leader of the radical trade-union federation, the CUT, who has joined Chavez’s new party, the United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) : “Well, the president said in the last “Aló Presidente,” the Venezuelan Socialist Party will not take up the banners of Marxism-Leninism, because this is a dogmatic thesis whose time is past and it does not suit today’s reality. . . .

Moreover, in relation to the role of the working class, he said: ‘The theses that the working class is the motor force of socialism and revolution are obsolete. … Work today is different, it is the information and telecommunications industry. Karl Marx could not even dream of these things.’

The main difference between Foley and Sustar apparently is over the choice of the Venezuelan leftist trade union activist that they have adopted as their vehicle for channeling the depraved anti-Marxist ravings of Hugo Chavéz. Foley prefers Stalin Perez Borges, while Sustar depends on Orlando Chirino.

I suppose it would be too much to hope that the ISO or Socialist Action could muster the effort to get one of their reporters down to Venezuela and conduct an interview with Hugo Chavéz themselves. Obviously you can save the price of an airplane ticket if you plaster together pieces of aporrea.org or some other Venezuelan website.


  1. Louis’s points are well taken. I agree completely with his points.

    Some people are going out of their way to find fault with Hugo Chavez, though they do so based on the thinnest kinds of documentation and the ISO is by no means the only perfectionistic trend of this type, though it seems to be the largest group of leftists in the US following this kind of approach. Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party as well as the Spartacists and Socialist Action all have detailed critiques in their press to demonstrate what’s wrong with Chavez. But really they should start with the actual facts in real life, but, alas, they don’t.

    One could put it diplomatically by saying these people don’t appreciate or else they completely underestimate the obstacles someone like Hugo Chavez is up against in 2007 from a culture where the people were taught ferocious anti-Communism for numerous decades.

    No one can know what’s on the mind of another person, and, besides it’s more important to gauge people and movements on the basis of what they do than what they say.

    Back in 1958, while Fidel was still in the mountains of Cuba, he told Andrew St. Clair of LOOK magazine that he wasn’t a Communist. It’s worth looking carefully at his formulation explaining this: http://www.walterlippmann.com/fc-02-04-1958.html

    The problem which all of these group share in common is something exactly the opposite of the most fundamental tenets of Marxism. They are idealists, in the sense that they have a preconceived notion of how a revolution is supposed to be articulated, how it is to be organized, and how it must be structured. and if the revolution doesn’t fit their preconceived notion, so much the worse for the revolution.

    And as the Cuban Revolution has long been an acid test for the different trends on the political left, so today, Venezuela’s Bolivarian process is similarly an acid test and a dividing line.

    JOSEPH HANSEN: Cuba, The Acid Test, A reply to the ultra-left sectarians hansen-cuba-the-acid-test.html
    It is incredibly sad that my old friend Gerry Foley, who speaks so many languages, who helped recruit me to the Young Socialist Alliance in 1962, could write this kind of nonsense as we are seeing the living extention of the revolution into Venezuela today, and from there on to all of Latin America.

    Walter Lippmann
    Los Angeles, California

    SOCIALIST ACTION (August 2007)
    Chavez Projects a Non-Marxist ‘Petro-Socialism’ in Venezuela
    by Gerry Foley /

    Chavez’s obituary of Marxism came at the same time as the retiring minister of defense, Raúl Isías Baduel, declared in a speech that Chavez’s socialism must not be contaminated with Marxism. The New York Times article referred to above said that this statement aroused an uproar in the military.

    It seems, in fact, to have indicated that the base of reaction in the armed forces has not been eliminated, nor therefore the danger of a future coup, or at least right-wing threats to keep Chavez from beyond the framework of what is tolerable to the local capitalists and their foreign backers.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — August 27, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Chavez et al program may (or may not) be socialist, but his reforms are improving the lives of the people in the country, with noticeably reduction in poverty and improvement in the quality of lives of the masses. See:

    Click to access venezuela_2007_07.pdf

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — August 28, 2007 @ 2:13 am

  3. The Revolutionary CP recently had a piece on Chavez in their weekly newspaper. They disagree with his use of Venezuela’s oil resources to empower the government and urged Chavez to look towards localized food production instead.

    Comment by Doug — August 28, 2007 @ 2:28 am

  4. I think you’ll find that Chavez says what he likes about Marx and Marxism, Trotsky, Trotskyism et.al. depending on the audience and situation. He is neither moving left, nor right. He doesnt need to as the oil bonanza pays for everything. This only becomes a problem when some of the left, including the Unrepentant Marxist, are WAITING to see if Chavez will fulfill some dream of 21st century socialism. Some attribute most of the leadership to Chavez (eg Aussie Green Left) others are careful to stress that the workers are pushing Chavez (Petras and Militant)and must stay to some extent ‘independent’. But all in fact have substituted for the revolutionary party a familiar Latin American figure, well understood by Trotsky 50 years ago, the semi-Bonapartist ‘red general’ who balances between imperialism and a weak national bourgeoisie and the exploited masses. Their dream is the old Latin American nightmare of the the left pressuring the popular front to the left while the right organises its counter-revolution.

    Comment by Dave — August 28, 2007 @ 4:59 am

  5. Fantastic piece.

    When I come across items like this, I always find myself wondering whether the polemics are directed out of some sort of malice or whether it’s laziness. In answering this, I find that a variant of Hanlon’s razor is useful: never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by laziness.

    I think your piece does a great job of illustrating this point.

    Comment by paulitics — August 28, 2007 @ 5:05 am

  6. When you sit around poring over texts in order to establish the sanctity of a political figure, you are bordering on the theological.

    It’s ironic that you wrote that because you pored over Sustar’s text to establish the blasphemy of his arguments. Your whole post is devoted to two sentences where Sustar in passing mentions Chavez’s take on Lenin and the gang as well as his stance on private property. Then, you take a line from the Orlando Chirno interview, and presto you have a critique of the ISO! But you glossed over the political substance of both pieces.

    There are major fights brewing within Venezuela’s unions about how much independence (if any) they should have from the Chavez government, how to relate to the party Chavez has created, how to fight the government for good contracts for state employees, etc and you focus on whether or not Sustar has a link to some speech Chavez gave at some point over the last 2-5 years? These topics get at the heart of what the concrete shape of what 21st century socialism will be and what are the class forces shaping the revolutionary process.

    When I saw your post, I was afraid Sustar’s piece consisted of Chavez quotes and an accompanying denunciation of X position a la WSWS.org. What I found instead was a thoughtful anaylsis of where the class struggle is headed in Venezuela, what political forces there are on the ground shaping that struggle, and an account of the splits and regroupments that are developing in tandem with the class struggle.

    How not to write about Venezuela? How about how not to write about someone’s writing on Venezuela?

    Comment by Binh — August 28, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  7. Binh, I was particularly interested in Sustar’s missteps on the two particular items I identified. If he had not committed these offenses against political clarity, I probably would have not commented on the substance of his article which is indistinguishable from Socialist Action or the CPGB for that matter.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 28, 2007 @ 4:54 pm

  8. Comments made by Michael Lebowitz on Marxmail and PEN-L mailing lists:

    And, further, the comment about Marxist-Leninist must be seen in the context of the position of the PCV (Vzlan CP) which officially rejected joining in the PSUV because this was the time for the broad anti-imperialist struggle whereas the (always later) struggle for socialism would require a Marxist-Leninist Party.

    I don’t have the specific sources that Louis is looking for but there are transcripts of the ‘Alo Presidente’ programmes on line. One recent programme (#287) from the state of Vargas (devoted to the idea of socialist cities) was described by ABN, the Bolivarian news agency on 22 July; there, he said roughly:

    “I respect deeply the thesis of Carlos Marx and his great contribution to the humanity with the discovery of socialism”, affirmed Chávez from the place where the first socialist city of the country is being constructed.

    He added: ‘I am socialist, bolivariano, revolutionary. I respect the Marxist route, but I am not Marxist. I cannot share that thesis because that is a determinist vision of the socialism”.

    He remembered that Marx, “deceived and manipulated, got to approve the invasion from the United States to Mexico and from England to India because he thought that was the route towards capitalism and that soon, as a product of the development of the productive forces, would enter the socialism”.

    “Under that argument, we, the backward countries, never would arrive at the socialism because we would have to wait first that they invade us, that they develop us, and then soon to go to socialism”, the Chief of State explained while she talked by telephone with a listener.

    Yes, Marx gave some details about how to go from capitalism to socialism, but “that capitalist system was very different from the wild Capitalism of our days and, for that reason, the socialism of today corresponds for us to detail it”.

    Jeesh! You mean that we have to do some concrete analysis???? Of course, Marx wasn’t a ‘Marxist’ either (nor was Lenin).

    ps. re the ‘working class’: probably means the organised-in-trade-union group (which some might view as an aristocracy of labour in Vzla); it is to be noted that he’s communing with Negri (his guest for the unveiling of the constitutional proposals) these days.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 28, 2007 @ 7:37 pm

  9. Walter said…”The problem which all of these group share in common is something exactly the opposite of the most fundamental tenets of Marxism. They are idealists, in the sense that they have a preconceived notion of how a revolution is supposed to be articulated, how it is to be organized, and how it must be structured. and if the revolution doesn’t fit their preconceived notion, so much the worse for the revolution”…

    Exactly and on top of it most of the members are academic types and students.Who spend more time talking than doing.They latch on to one or two aspects of Marx’s writings and then try and make every thing fit,in short they try and make the working class fit some preordained theory(usually their own) or supposed path to socialism.Well life works quit different and is much more complex and nuanced,so they just reject.
    No revolution will ever fit with these groups,unless they are the one leading it(god forbid)

    Comment by Dirk — August 29, 2007 @ 2:53 am

  10. While I’m sure no one in Venezuela reads Socialist Action, or saw its full-page assault on the Bolivarian process, the following commentary from Cuba’s Prensa Latina news agency gives readers a good idea of how the Chavez government is using the oil which nature has given to the country:

    Venezuelan Oil Backs Economic Growth

    Caracas, Aug 28 (Prensa Latina) Venezuela’s oil industry is a key element in the sustained growth of the domestic economy, based on one of the world’s largest reserves of crude oil.

    The hydrocarbon sector, which has proved reserves of more than 88,000 barrels, is the engine pulling comprehensive productive and social programs in Venezuela.

    As part of those programs, authorities will create new branches of the state-owned company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), an initiative that is being debated by the Central Planning Commission.

    The project consists of setting up seven PDVSA branches, including PDVSA Servicios, PDVSA Industrial, PDVSA Gas Popular, PDVSA Naval, PDVSA Agricola, PDVSA Desarrollos Urbanos and PDVSA Ingenieria y Construccion.

    That measure will expand the company’s influence on several economic sectors such as food production and housing, among other activities.

    The government has ratified Venezuela’s sovereignty over its natural resources, which have been available to the people after the reforms made over the past few years.

    In addition, the government has strengthened that sovereignty in the constitutional reform, as the State reserves “the exploitation of liquid, solid and gas hydrocarbons due to sovereignty and development reasons, and national interest.”

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    Comment by Walter Lippmann — August 29, 2007 @ 2:06 pm

  11. […] Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist, has a piece on Hugo Chavez, inquiring if Chavez actually said something that was attributed to him. Here’s what Chavez […]

    Pingback by Politics in the Zeros » How many angels can dance on the head of a Marxist pin? — August 31, 2007 @ 4:15 am

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