Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2012

Whither ’21st century Venezuelan socialism?’

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

A guest post by Saroj Giri


Capitalism Expands but the Discourse is Radicalized: Whither ’21st Century Venezuelan Socialism’?

by Saroj Giri

University of Delhi


‘Protagonistic democracy’, ‘initiative from below’, or ‘autonomous agency’ is presented by critical left supporters of Venezuelan socialism as counter-balancing Chavez’s statist top-down tendencies. Why should it only counter-balance and not go beyond Chavismo and any reified state power? This has to do with presenting it, often unwittingly, as an undifferentiated bloc, albeit internally highly democratic and empowering. What therefore needs to be highlighted is internal contradiction and differentiation within protagonistic democracy, so that what Marx in the Communist Manifesto once called ‘a line of march’ of the movement as a whole is emphasized – something overlooked by scholars like Michael Lebowitz. Without a ‘line of march’, the most radical democratic practices can get boxed into a ‘bloc’ fighting a reified, externalized enemy. ‘Class struggle’ gets reduced to a populist fight against ‘alien elements’, ‘conspiratorial foreign oligarchs’ and so on – is this not the experience of ‘21st century humanist socialism’ so far?

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  1. Dear Louis,
    I thought from your subject header that you might be raising the quite valid question about the continuing attack on worker management in Venezuela, which came to a head a few days ago with the unilateral removal from above of the worker-elected president of ALCASA [who had been anointed by Chavez in 2010]. This is only the latest in a disturbing sequence of events which does relate to the question you posed and about which I’ll write some day if I can ever finish my very late book [“Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’: The Conductor and the Conducted”] for which MR has been waiting patiently [and advertised as available last month!].
    What your subject header did refer to, though, was what you described as a ‘guest post’ by Saroj Giri. To put it politely, this was a very unfortunate piece which is to the credit of neither the author nor the publisher, Critical Sociology. I sent the following e-mail to the author early this month upon seeing the article but have received no response. Since the author has presumably now agreed to circulating the article as a guest post, I’m passing on my note to provide a bit of balance— especially since I don’t have the time to write a proper response.
    best wishes,

    ——– Original Message ——–
    Subject: Re: re Capitalism Expands but the Discourse is Radicalized
    Date: Wed, 01 Feb 2012 12:04:43 -0800
    From: michael a. lebowitz
    To: saroj giri

    Dear Saroj,
    Thank you very much for sending me your article from Critical Sociology. I’ve only had a chance to look at it quickly but confess that I am rather baffled by it. Firstly, the title promises some discussion of how ‘capitalism expands’ in Venezuela. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I commented upon it in the recent collective interview conducted by Jeff Webber and Susan Spronk and published in Historical Materialism. So, naturally, I wanted to see the evidence you have assembled on this point. So, what was the basis of your title? A tiny reference to an article by Eric Toussaint. If I recall Eric’s piece, his source (direct or indirect) was some data offered by Victor Alvarez (a person with whom I worked at Centro Internacional Miranda). But where did Victor get his data? Very simply from the Venezuelan Central Bank national income data compiled by the bourgeois economists working at the bank. I and and several other economists tried unsuccessfully to convince Victor that it was nonsense to draw that conclusion from the data. Data does not speak for itself. If you look at sector after sector, you see the expansion of state industry [not, in my view, to be confused with socialism] and the contraction of capitalist weight. So, what generates the BCV data? Very simply, as income of the masses increases [and necessities are free or subsidised], their disposable income increases which allows them to purchase more consumer goods that are imported. Since consumer imports and import processing are the sector still dominated by domestic capital [and foreign, eg, in the case of car assembly], it shows up in the GDP data as a growth in the capitalist sector. How else would you expect it to show? Since when, though, is the import sector the commanding heights of the economy? As compared to, eg, oil, steel, aluminum, cement, communications, etc— all firmly in state hands [and, indeed, added to it]. I haven’t bothered to look at the effect of the constant price corrections done by the bank economists– I know they play havoc with estimates of the oil industry contribution but I’m sure that revaluing imports when currency exchange rates are so critical can have significant effects. Now, why haven’t I or the others written criticisms in Venezuela of Victor’s argument? Very simply because we are not looking for publications and do not see the political harm of the political argument that capitalism is still too strong there; arguing, instead, that capitalism is suffering significantly there would only support the elements I oppose [both in the opposition and within the Chavist camp]. It seems to me, though, that for an academic article with that title [and, indeed, that theme], you need rather more than this thread from Eric’s piece which itself was rather light.
    I was also rather struck by how limited your research on Venezuela social movements was. Why draw so on a slight Reuters piece on 23 Enero by E. Israel when it cites George Ciccariello Maher who goes far deeper into the question [and knows that 23 Enero is only one part of Caracas, much less Venezuela, and is itself hardly uniform], whose work is readily available online [and whose book on Venezuelan movements will be an important contribution]. Frankly, there is so much you don’t understand about Venezuela, and you would benefit from a bit of time taken to read a bit more of what is on line. I don’t have the time to go through some of the things you should know before making your statements about the movements and their relation to Chavez.
    Finally, I certainly don’t recognise myself at all in your description of my position and rather doubt that anyone who is familiar with my work [both my writings and what I was doing in Venezuela] will. My first thought was that you simply haven’t read my The Socialist Alternative [published in 2010] and, indeed, anything past my Build it Now from 2006 or the 2007 talk I gave in Barcelona [where time and place were critical]. How else could you speak so authoritatively about my failure to conceive going beyond the bourgeois state or that I tend to view protagonistic democracy as a holding tank for supporters of Chavismo, that I have ‘a territorial notion of protagonistic democracy’ [um, is that like ‘red bases’?] and that I am unable to foreground political subjectivity– not to mention my abandonment of ‘(revolutionary) Marxism, etc. So much nonsense! You can find much that falsifies your hypothesis online and could check out the socialist project [www.socialistproject.ca] or Links in Australia, which have assembled some things I’ve done. For your interest, I attach a few things that came immediately to mind that are online. Unfortunately, though, the problem goes much deeper than than inadequate research. Simply, it is a failure to understand. Now, much of what you do draw upon in BIN and the MR piece you cite comes from talks in Venezuela where I had a specific political purpose [eg., to talk about the absolute necessity for worker management in a place where PDVSA actively combats worker management has a political purpose, no?]. Consider the one piece you have before you which is intended to be analytical– the last chapter of BIN. Given your conclusions about me, how is it that you didn’t mention my critique of spontaneity and ‘sporadic campaigns that evoke the power of the masses yet again to make the revolution within the revolution’. Or my stress upon the need for a party as necessary to ‘prevent contradictions between the people from becoming contradictions between the people and the enemy’ [115-6]! There’s so many things to point out but let me suggest that on the question of the state, you look at Chapters 6 and 7 of The Socialist Alternative [which clearly applies to the Venezuelan case]; I expanded upon the question of two states in the 2010 Poulantzas Lecture [published by the Poulantzas Institute and due to come out in a revised version in the Socialist Register 2013].
    Let me say, though, you did get one thing right— I am not fond of ‘the Leninist idea of the Vanguard’ [which should be distinguished from Lenin’s view– cf Lih]. But since your article uses this concept simply as an incantation without arguing its relevance to the specifics of Venezuela [including to the specifics of the Venezuelan working class– hardly noted], I am inclined to view the piece simply as unquestioned ideology buttressed by a few footnotes. I am sorry to be so harsh but if you are a revolutionary, you understand the necessity to do so.
    Best wishes,

    On 1/27/2012 10:24 AM, saroj giri wrote:
    > dear prof. lebowitz, thank you very much for your mail. i hope we can have a productive exchange and i look forward to it.
    > it is my pleasure to be able to forward you my article. please find it attached here.
    > regards,
    > saroj.

    Comment by michael lebowitz — February 29, 2012 @ 3:36 am

  2. Just read complete article and has some grains of truth but certainly missses what reall y going o with the grassroots.


    Venezuela: worker-president of ALCASA

    Written by In Defence of Marxism Tuesday, 28 February 2012*On Saturday, February 25, Venezuelan vice-president announced the
    dismissal of Elio Sayago, worker-president of the state-owned aluminum
    smelter ALCASA, and his replacement by Angel Marcano. This decision
    represents an assault of the bureaucracy within the Bolivarian revolution
    against workers’ control and has caused outrage amongst revolutionary
    activists in Guayana and throughout Venezuela.*

    Elio Sayago, a long standing revolutionary activist, had been appointed as
    worker-president of ALCASA in May 2010, as part of a plan to introduce
    elements of workers’ control and management in all the companies of the
    state-owned CVG complex of basic industries in the state of Guayana.

    This was the second attempt to introduce workers’ control in ALCASA. An earlier
    attempt led
    by Carlos Lanz, who had been appointed by president Chavez, was
    defeated due to a combination of bureaucratic pressures and sabotage and
    also mistakes made in the way the experience was run.

    The different companies which make up CVG Guayana (Venalum, Sidor, ALCASA,
    etc) had become a battle field between revolution and bureaucracy. Those
    groups of revolutionary activists advocating workers’ control and
    management were facing a powerful network of interests linking up the right
    wing of the Bolivarian movement, bureaucratic “Bolivarian” trade union
    leaders, opposition-aligned adeco trade unionists, private businesses and
    multinationals as we described in detail in July last year (see Workers’
    control vs bureaucrats, Mafia and multinationals in

    In an interview with the Marxist paper Lucha de Clases, Elio Sayago
    explained the conspiracy against workers’ control at ALCASA, and warned how
    this had the support of elements right at the top of the state bureaucracy
    and the national government (see: Workers’ Control, Challenges and the
    Revolutionary Government: An Interview with Elio Sayago, President of CVG

    An article in Venezuelanalysis
    describes how “on
    hearing the news, workers quickly organised in defence of their president,
    calling an assembly at the factory and issuing a statement strongly
    rejecting the government’s “disastrous” decision.”

    *The Coordination of groups and nucleous of peoples’
    in Guayana, representing a wide range of left wing, rank and file,
    Bolivarian revolutionary organisations has issued a call “to struggle to
    defeat this strategy which goes against the interests of workers and of the
    Bolivarian revolution led by president Chavez”. *

    *Elio Sayago rejected the dismissal, as he explained that he had not been
    officially notified, and had only found out about it on the TV news. “It is
    my responsibility to alert you all that this is not a person taking control
    in Alcasa, but rather a political and economic group… a group that for
    practically two years has tried to obstruct efforts to consolidate workers’
    control, they used violence and sowed terror in the industry,” explained

    *It is not by chance that this decision has been taken just as president
    Chavez, who appointed Elio Sayago as worker-president of ALCASA, had left
    the country for Cuba for medical reasons. *

    *Once again, the only way to defend the revolution is for the workers to
    take power and defeat the “Bolivarian” bureaucracy which is nothing more
    than the fifth column of the capitalists and imperialists within the
    revolutionary movement. *

    Comment by Cort Greene — February 29, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

  3. It’s OK to admit that one’s eyes start glazing over with this professorial style of writing. It’s laden with qualifiers and unnecessary words to obscure a position. Like Harvey’s class on Capital – take something interesting and make it dull.

    That said, Chavez’s international standing was hurt immensely by his outspoken support of Gaddafi.

    Comment by purple — March 1, 2012 @ 4:49 am

  4. Dear Prof Lebowitz,
    I have no qualms in accepting that I am no Venezuela ‘expert’ like perhaps you are but I believe one can always relate to the radical movements in another country. I am here involved in movements in India and it is from our experience here and the need to relate that I was writing. I hold your work in very high esteem, the primary reason why I engaged with it. But looks like you have missed the major thrust of my article. Let me briefly restate it here.

    You say that you are baffled by the expression ‘capitalism expands but the discourse is radicalised’. As you can see in the article, this is a quote from Javier Biardeau from a seminar in June 2009 in Caracas where perhaps you also participated. It seems to reflect a sentiment among certain radical sections in Venezuela itself. Well actually not certain sections but the most active and radical sections. Thus I all along try to keep my focus on the radical push that neighbourhoods like 23 de Enero provide in defending the Bolivarian Revolution since a long time. This already allowed me to approach protagonistic democracy not as something homogeneous but as internally differentiated.

    My reading was that you do not emphasise this internal differentiation enough. This leads you away from being able to emphasise on the importance of the Leninist party (even with Lars Lih inflection), which presupposes a differentiated consciousness among the working classes. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin had already made this point about you – I developed it further.

    It is precisely in being ‘dissatisfied’ with the process so far, in refusing to be complacent and instead arguing or rather feeling that ‘capitalism expands but the discourse is radicalised’ that the radical sections are able to push the socialist process in Venezuela forward. It is from such a perspective, the perspective of the radical political subject, that I have tried to approach the Venezuelan socialist process. Far from undermining the achievements of the socialist process, this approach is precisely that which defends and carries forward this process – or else we can end up being complacent and wallowing in the present, thereby undoing the gains so far. It is however true that I am not into this general celebration of ‘popular power’ and grass roots democracy and so on.

    My approach is to precisely break out of it and emphasise on internal contradiction and differentiation within popular power. For it is only this way that one can take the standpoint of the active, radical sections – for again it is on the strategy and defence mounted by these sections that the fate of the entire phalanx of popular power and grass roots democracy depends. Needless to say, Lenin is indispensable here. So we cannot avoid talking about the strategy of the movement with an emphasis on its overall ‘line of march’. This cannot be immediately presented as imposing an abstract ‘Leninist model’ onto the movement. It is only as ‘abstract’ as the comrades in 23 de Enero who are spearheading the struggle to defend the socialist process. But this charge of being ‘abstract’ is more quintessentially part of the postmodern onslaught against the Marxist conception of the radical political subject. That is why I have referred to Judith Butler – rebutting her claim that such a subject invariably suffers from ‘Kantian formalism’.

    The other important point is with regards to the Marxist emphasis on the importance of state power. This must be rightly emphasized but what, one may ask, will ensure that this does not end up fetishising state power (in the name of making revolutionary use of the state and so on), for this is the claim of those like John Holloway. (Closer home for me, in neighbouring Nepal, we saw how the rebels after coming to power ended up fetishising state power.) And here it is clear that this emphasis on state power must be integrally part of a process of counter-power, not just as a territorial communal democracy and so on, but where popular power itself slowly forms into a new kind of proletarian state power, or at least some kind of a positive consolidation – thereby headed towards replacing and doing away with the existing state power.

    All this might sound very 1917-kinds and hence not really relevant today – but Venezuela today proves otherwise. It is a possibility there – and from my part of the world, it was a possibility in Nepal too a few years back. George Ciccariello-Maher’s work on Leninist dual power vis-à-vis Venezuela so sharply captures the ground reality from this perspective. I could not engage with his work though since I was not aware of it. I am now happy to find that he has foregrounded the radical sections in 23 de Enero (and elsewhere with his wider knowledge about Venezuela). Way to go… Let me only suggest that here we want to clarify whether Lenin’s dual power envisaged only a different kind of power, or, more strongly, a different kind of state.

    I cannot go over all my arguments here. The relationship between revolutionary populism and a particular rendering of ‘class struggle’ is another axis of my analysis – intricately related to treating popular power as a homogeneous bloc, self-limiting and hence not pushing towards dislodging the existing state power.

    But another point of concern: the tension between solidarity and accumulation. Is there a possibility that an emphasis on solidarity (as against the capitalist exchange relationship) among the masses can lead to a problematic outcome – that of surplus extraction in the name of solidarity and hence in that sense a different kind of exploitation – particularly so when the emphasis is not on internal contradiction, not on intensifying the struggle further, beyond Chavismo. Can we see this happening in Venezuelan socialism? We saw this happen in Soviet Union and China in the name of socialism. I have no definite answer here but perhaps it is not a bad idea to ask this of 21st Venezuelan socialism.

    As for the hard economic evidence about capitalism expanding, as you point out, you know all the details of the available data, including how they are collected and who are the people involved. I can see from your response that there are lot of technicalities involved in arriving at the data. You say that the data used by Eric Touissant is flawed – well it is good that you point that out and I will take your word for it. I think you must make this information public so that people are not misled.

    Prof Lebowitz, your contribution to our understanding of the socialist process is immense and it is thanks to this rich canvas that we can etch our agreements/disagreements.

    In solidarity (and against accumulation!),
    Saroj Giri

    Comment by Saroj Giri — March 1, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

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