Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 18, 2007

Mike Gonzalez on Hugo Chávez

Filed under: state capitalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Since Venezuela in 2007 does not seem following the same path as Russia in 1917, it is understandable that some socialists might feel a certain kind of frustration. They accept that a revolutionary process is taking place, but only at the grass roots level. Operating on a kind of parallel track to Hugo Chávez, the poor and the working classes are used as a kind of wedge by the president to drive forward his programs, laudable as they are. However laudable, they are at best a substitute for the real thing: revolution.

The International Socialist Tendency (IST), led by the British SWP, subscribes to this guarded support of Chávez as do many other socialist groups still in touch with reality. For an example of a group unmoored from reality, we can turn to the Morenoite Trotskyist Fraction/Fourth International which describes the new constitution in these terms:

It is important to emphasize that the constitutional reform has as one of its priorities, increasing the concentration of power in the figure of Chávez. If Venezuela has a system of government centered on the President, with the present reform it will reach a greater degree of Bonapartism.

For the latest thinking in the IST, it is worth watching a talk by Mike Gonzalez that can be seen on Lenin’s Tomb. It is an extraordinary exercise in tightrope walking. While Gonzalez takes great care not to use Morenoite formulations, one cannot help but conclude from his remarks that Hugo Chávez represents a kind of plaque in the arteries of the revolutionary process.

I found the second youtube clip, which covers the Q&A part of the meeting, most instructive in this regard. It laid out a series of “problems” that must be overcome in order for socialism to be achieved in Venezuela.

Gonzalez starts out by characterizing Venezuela as an advanced social democracy/welfare state that rests on oil revenues. Since this is obviously an advance over what the Venezuelan people had before, he proposes that it is worth defending.

Insofar as the welfare state rests on a foundation of oil exports, the prognosis is guarded at best. If the price of oil drops, Venezuela will be forced to make inroads on capitalist property relations in order to fund the social programs that Chávez launched. Implicitly, it will be up to forces to his left to make this assault. For the long-term economic development of Venezuela, it will be necessary to balance internal development against oil exports. While Tina Rosenberg’s politics are conventionally liberal, her critique of petrocracy in Venezuela amounts to the same thing as Gonzalez’s. In a November 4th NY Times Magazine article, Rosenberg warns:

Even if the price of oil stays high, it may not be able to sustain Venezuela if oil production continues to drop, subsidized domestic consumption keeps rising and government spending continues unmeasured and unchecked. While other oil producers, like Russia and Nigeria, are piling up surpluses, Venezuela is spending everything it gets. Venezuela once had a $6 billion oil fund to be saved for lean years; Chávez has spent all but $700 million of it. The vast majority of Chávez’s new missions and worker cooperatives are dependent on state handouts — unsustainable when government revenue falls. A devaluation of the currency would wipe out the income gains of the poor.

Not only is petrocracy a risky operation at best, it also has the effect of sustaining a national bourgeoisie that spends buckets of money on luxury goods imported from abroad and that benefits from the corruption typical of such countries, including Nigeria as the most egregious case. After listening carefully to Gonzalez’s remarks, one is left with the impression that Chávez is incapable of rooting out these abuses as long as he is content to remain within a social democratic/welfare state framework. For a solution to the country’s underlying problems, which the new welfare state can never resolve due to structural limitations, there must be a revolution from below. In order for that revolution to succeed, a vanguard must emerge in Venezuela that rests on the proletariat.

Gonzalez identifies the standing army as another problem to be surmounted. Singling out Marta Harnecker as somebody fostering illusions in the “special character” of the Venezuela army, he invites any officer who is genuinely for social change to resign from the military as Chávez did. Apparently, Gonzalez is not mollified by the evidence that Chávez has been purging the military systematically of rightist forces for the past few years. As a good student of Lenin, Gonzalez understands that the capitalist state rests on bodies of armed men and is terribly anxious to convey that message to the Venezuelan people who ultimately face a Pinochet-type threat until the military is replaced by the people in arms.

To summarize, Mike Gonzalez proposes that the solution to capitalism in Venezuela is socialism. It is hard to quibble with that.

Yesterday’s NY Times had an intriguing take on Hugo Chávez’s new constitution that has so provoked the reactionary classes:

“We are witnessing a seizure and redirection of power through legitimate means,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, co-author of a best-selling biography of Mr. Chávez. “This is not a dictatorship but something more complex: the tyranny of popularity.”

The tyranny of popularity is reminiscent of another formulation:

In 1847, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s answer to this question was as yet a purely abstract one; to be exact, it was an answer that indicated he tasks, but not the ways of accomplishing them. The answer given in the Communist Manifesto was that this machine was to be replaced by “the proletariat organized as the ruling class”, by the “winning of the battle of democracy”.

Marx did not indulge in utopias; he expected the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question as to the specific forms this organisation of the proletariat as the ruling class would assume and as to the exact manner in which this organisation would be combined with the most complete, most consistent “winning of the battle of democracy.”

–Lenin, “State and Revolution”

You will note that for Lenin a “proletarian dictatorship,” the most advanced form of a “tyranny of popularity,” is something whose exact form would be a function of “the experience of the mass movement” and not some preordained formula.

The Times points out how this is taking shape in Venezuela:

One of the 69 amendments allows Mr. Chávez to create new administrative regions, governed by vice presidents chosen by him. Critics say the reforms would also shift funds from states and cities, where a handful of elected officials still oppose him, to communal councils, new local governing entities that are predominantly pro-Chávez.

Now, it would be a mistake to assume that the adoption of a new constitution would automatically transform Venezuela into a “proletarian dictatorship” but clearly this a country that is moving inexorably against the logic of private property. Despite Gonzalez’s dismissal of what Rosenberg calls petrocracy, it should never be forgotten that the struggle to purge the oil industry of bourgeois elements and to reallocate revenues for the benefit of social programs (including heating oil for poor people in the US) was accomplished through a revolutionary mobilization.

Ultimately, the tensions in Venezuelan society between can only be resolved by completing the revolutionary process. As is inevitably the case in such situations, that must be a function of the relationship of forces. By having a Hugo Chávez in power rather than a Salvador Allende, the relationship of forces are obviously much better. Time after time, Chávez has demonstrated a willingness to face down the enemies of progress within his borders and to the North.

Speaking only for myself, I have continuously been surprised by Hugo Chávez’s readiness to challenge the forces of reaction. Whether or not Venezuela will ultimately complete a socialist revolution is something that is impossible to predict. My reading of history is somewhat different than Mike Gonzalez’s. I don’t believe that revolutions are like works of art or scientific experiments that you plan out in advance. Instead they are projects that emerge out of a series of confrontations with the old order that involve a large degree of improvisation. They also have an element of conservatism in that they pose revolutionary tasks in terms of defending a hard-fought gain–like using oil revenues to fund social programs. Or put in another way:

People do not make revolutions eagerly any more than they do war. There is this difference, however, that in war compulsion plays the decisive role, in revolution there is no compulsion except that of circumstances. A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out. And the insurrection, which rises above a revolution like a peak in the mountain chain of its events, can be no more evoked at will than the revolution as a whole. The masses advance and retreat several times before they make up their minds to the final assault.

Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution


  1. “Singling out Marta Harnecker as somebody fostering illusions in the “special character” of the Venezuela army, he invites any officer who is genuinely for social change to resign from the military as Chávez did.”

    Is Gonzalez crazy? Surely Chávez and the revolutionary forces have every interest in having as many pro-revolution, pro-Chávez elements as possible in the armed forces, for as long as those forces exist. Meanwhile, isn’t Chávez proceeding to build a people’s militia, based on the non-military supporters of the revolution? Purge the right-wing from the army, yes, but not the left wing!

    Comment by Richard Fidler — November 18, 2007 @ 10:08 pm

  2. Louis you must not be listening to yourself.
    As the discover or at least populariser (as if your own elists count) of the Zinoviev effect, in which you include Trotsky, you now use him to support your total confusion about Venzuela by falling back into revolutionary romanticism about the ‘people’ and ‘masses’ making a revolution without a party at all.
    How low can you go?

    Comment by Dave — November 19, 2007 @ 1:18 am

  3. Louis: Brown have you considered Medication?

    Brown: Why? I’m not the one hearing voices.
    You are intellectually dishonest, nothing to do with the ‘left’.
    You quote Trotsky to represent a position that you know damn well has nothing to do with Trotsky’s position on Latin American semi-Bonapartism. Its the position of the WSF Chavez worshippers.
    You and the Aussie Green Left share this same position on this one whatever other differences you have. Chavez is the guru and the working class as revolutionary subject is fucked.
    While I don’t agree with the SWP position, even less with the NZ SW position, on Venezuela, neither claims that Chavez can substitute for the working class as a revolutionary subject.
    You do because for you the revolutionary subject is the petty bourgeois egomaniac.

    Comment by Dave — November 19, 2007 @ 4:03 am

  4. If that’s all you got out of this posting, Dave, you must not have read it very closely.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — November 19, 2007 @ 11:27 am

  5. Sorry Louis, this is unrelated to this thread (because I didn’t know how else to get in touch with you) but have you read Michael Marmot’s ‘Status Syndrome’ and/or Richard Wilkinson’s ‘The Impact of Inequality’ – they get right to the heart of why we’re socialists. There’s a related article on http://devonsocialistarticles.wordpress.com/

    Comment by Doug — November 19, 2007 @ 11:49 am

  6. Dave, calm down. It’s just a blog post.

    Here’s some more Gonzalez: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=368&issue=116

    Louis, what do you make of Chavez’s resistance to the nationalization of the iron and steel industries that the workers in those enterprises are pushing for?

    I thought Gonzalez had a lot of thought-provoking stuff to say about the living, breathing, dynamic revolution that’s going on in Venezuela, especially on the new party that Chavez is forming. You act like the UK SWP’s position on is “why aren’t they doing it the way the Russians did in 1917?” or that they talk about Chavez as if he were the reincarnation of Kerensky.

    Another thing I would recommend people read is here:

    Comment by Binh — November 19, 2007 @ 4:27 pm

  7. The British SWP *does not* refer to Chavez as a Kerensky. As I tried to make clear, this is the position of the Morenoites and other such sects. They tend to look at Chavez as much more of a socialist, but certainly not one capable of leading a revolution. Maybe the analogy would be with one of the leaders of the German CP in the early 1920s, where good intentions proved insufficient.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 19, 2007 @ 8:18 pm

  8. Who are the ‘ Morenoites ‘ ?

    Comment by Carol — November 20, 2007 @ 2:37 am

  9. The Morenoites are ultraleft followers of Nahuel Moreno:


    Comment by louisproyect — November 20, 2007 @ 3:39 am

  10. While Mike Gonzalez is an intellectually brilliant thinker, he is also an idealogue. Don´t be fooled – like I was – by the passionate language he employs to magnify the revolutionary import of the social changes of which he talks. Last thing I heard he was thrown out of Venezuela for his allergy to corruption and power-mongering (which is not of his own doing). This man will purge you for disagreeing with him. Where does that leave the betterment of the “common man”? Beware of men in cushy, leafy, well-pensioned university jobs. What do they REALLY know of the working-class, impotent struggle and sorry failure? He looks good, talks good, and boy does he live good. Yes, he ruined as much of my life as he could as well as that of others out of ego, power and good old-fashioned machismo. What, ultimately, does this man have to teach us? We´re conditoned to seek saviours. He´s not one of them, nor is chávez.

    Comment by Maureen Dolan — September 2, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

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