Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 26, 2017

Venezuela reconsidered

Filed under: Counterpunch,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:48 pm

Chris Gilbert

Last Friday Chris Gilbert wrote an article for CounterPunch titled The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project  that like many I have read since 1999 try to put the late President into a Marxist context, in this instance claiming that “Hugo Chávez was an heir to Lenin’s political legacy.” Before replying to Gilbert, it might be useful to mention other attempts to ground the Bolivarian revolution in one strand of Marxism or another.

In the September 2011 issue of Dialectical Anthropology, Steve Ellner posed the question of whether the process of change in Venezuela resembled a “Permanent Revolution”. After reviewing five distinct stages of the process, Ellner asserts that “the sequence of events and the strategy that influenced them recall the concept of permanent revolution espoused by Leon Trotsky”. Like many other Marxists who have weighed in on post-Chávez Venezuela, there is little evidence that Ellner still expects Venezuela to have its own version of October 1917 any time soon, especially since the native versions of Kerensky and Kornilov have the upper hand.

Michael Lebowitz has written a number of books making connections between the process in Venezuela and what some might consider a Marxism influenced by István Mészáros, including one I reviewed for CounterPunch in August 2015 . In that article, I made a point that I will repeat later on in this article, namely that Venezuela’s woes today have much to do with its entanglement in global capitalist property relations. Even with the best of intentions and inspired by the best Marxism has to offer from either Lebowitz or Mészáros, there were objective constraints that made a socialist Venezuela very difficult if not impossible to attain.

Many on the left, including Jeffery Webber whose new book The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left I reviewed for CounterPunch last month, dismiss Venezuela as a failed populist but neo-liberal experiment. They too hearken back to Marxist theory but mainly as a yardstick with which to measure (or spank) the “pink tide” governments for abandoning Marxist principles. Perhaps if Hugo Chávez had been reading Jeffery Webber rather than István Mészáros, the situation would not be so bleak. (Needless to say, when you are dealing with tenured professors, the emphasis is on reading.)

Last but not least we have George Cicariello-Maher, who like Gilbert invokes Lenin to help us understand the process in Venezuela. Cicariello-Maher is passionately devoted to the communes in Venezuela that pose a “dual power” threat to the capitalist state just as the soviets did in 1917. It is a bit complicated when you consider that the millions of dollars that have helped to get the communes off the ground in Venezuela came from that very capitalist state.

Turning now to Chris Gilbert’s essay, it is an homage to Chávez at a moment when ultraleft sectarians are blaming his policies for the current crisis. Gilbert’s focus is not on the economic woes of the country that some leftists attribute to the Bolivarian revolution’s failure to transcend its status as an oil rentier state or its adoption of a two-tiered currency model that led to runaway inflation but on Chávez’s political acumen in pursuing a single-minded strategic orientation as a latter-day Lenin.

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  1. By and large, I agree with this perspective. But the ease by which people like Tsipras transform themselves from leftists into neoliberal European social democrats is alarming. Or, perhaps he was one all the time.

    In any event, I don’t believe that it is necessary for the participants of leftist social movements to move on up like the Jeffersons in order to achieve long term leftist objectives within a global capitalist economy. By doing so, they signal to everyone else that they are being used for the purpose of personal self-aggrandizement.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 26, 2017 @ 6:14 pm

  2. “The ease by which people like Tsipras transform themselves from leftists into neoliberal European social democrats is alarming.”

    I agree with Richard. Of course I’d be talking with the hindsight advantage, but still …

    What was, for example, the point of the referendum that Syriza put people through, just so that two days after the overwhelming vote of the people was in, Syriza went 180 degrees in the opposite direction to people’s vote? Why not just resign, and say to the people that the EU, the IMF and the German banks want Greek people’s blood, and no matter who’s in government, they’re going to get it unless there is a Europe-wide movement that pushes back on the austerity agenda. We will resign and help build that oppositional movement, so that we can create better conditions for our side in a future round of vying for state power. Syriza could have said, “We cannot hand over our people’s blood, so we resign and leave it to the right wing to do the job.”
    If there is absolutely no difference between Syriza being in power and the right wing in power, then what’s the point of running for office?

    The other thing is, again in retrospect, EU officials, the IMF and the German banks wanted to make an example of Syriza exactly to prove that resistance is futile, in a sign to others, e.g., the Spanish left, the Irish left, the Italian left, etc. And, Syriza by helping to make an example of themselves, I believe, may have contributed to some of the wind being taken out of the left’s sails in those countries and across Europe.

    I am not suggesting that Syriza could have carried out a socialist revolution by any measure; that was never their intention, nor did they ever make any such claims. I am just saying how they folded so fast did harm the European left, and helped to demoralize a lot of Greek working class members just when their prior militant actions were starting to yield some results.

    Comment by Reza — May 26, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

  3. It would have been best for Syriza to resign but these Eurocommunists couldn’t resist the high offices and the money/perks that went with it. On the other hand, they did attempt to wrest concessions out of the Germans but had no social power to back it up. Furthermore, if it had resigned and returned to raising hell through protests, it would have made little difference in the living standards of the working class. Greece was a basket case. So is Venezuela. Furthermore, if the USSR did not exist in 1960, Castro would have been toppled within two years. Those are troubling but hard facts.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 26, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

  4. Louis,
    Yeah, all true. Still … The worst part, for me, is the damage Syriza did to the ‘subjective factor’. The objective factor is well known. But, there is something to be said about the subjective factors too.

    The left moves in fits. Recently, at times, when it seems least likely, we make the most optimistic moves, even when material reality tells us we’re just going to land on our faces. In the process, we build up people’s hopes, which then get dashed. Whereas, we should be moving in calculated steps, and we should be more honest with ourselves (and with the people who may believe in our platforms) about the real odds at each stage of the struggle.

    We can learn from the right, in terms of step-by-step patient carrying out of a longer term strategy. They have worked patiently and systematically since the early 1970s, working methodically to gain back, first the ideological lost ground, and then gained political dominance pretty much since Reagan. Of course it helps to have all the resources they need (and then some).

    That whole project, besides giving the right political ideological dominance, has also de-spirited the left and has done some serious damage to the ‘subjective’ side of the left. That’s why we move in fits. And Syriza-type 180 degree turn-arounds don’t help; in fact they contribute to further deterioration of our side’s will and self-confidence.

    Comment by Reza — May 26, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

  5. I agree totally with your conclusions.
    The ongoing problem is that so much of the labour movement that is organised operates in a national framework and so is only able to see issues in that framework.
    While I can understand this in regards to the history of the movement, ie. It was built from local struggles, what I can’t understand is why there have been so few attempts over the last twenty years, especially with the rise of the Internet, to organise together internationally.
    As someone who is involved in such global projects, happy to share experiences and cooperation….
    In solidarity

    Comment by Piergiorgio Moro — May 27, 2017 @ 4:58 am

  6. Capital is global; labor is national. This provides a magic trap door through which the mythical one percent can always escape through financial manipulation (Piketty) into ever-greater realms of unimaginable power and wealth. At present, there seems be nothing labor can do politically to stop them. Syriza may have folded too soon, but they would have been defeated sooner or later anyway.

    (In the long run, the so-called “axis of resistance” will also fall into line along the well-known capitalist faultlines–indeed, has already done so. Despite the endless cries of “war hawk” (stupid phrase) among the parrots of the faux anti-imperialist “left,” there is no evidence except of the “super thermite” variety that there is World War I style fight within the ruling class on today’s horizon.)

    The recent photograph of Ronald Rump and a handful of Saudi bigwigs caressing a lighted globe with ugly grimaces of forced jollity can be take as emblematic of the situation. They may loathe each other, but they are all on the same side when the chips are down. Be assured that the American businesses now colonizing Iran see no contradiction there either.

    Whatever the quarrels within the billionaire class, their solidarity vis a vis the rest of us is unbreakable.

    One question that bears on this is the rapid advance of automation exploiting artificial intelligence, not only in manufacturing, but in service sector occupations such as driving and delivery and perhaps even in such traditionally invulnerable domains of petty-bourgeois prosperity as medicine, information technology, and even the legal profession.

    Is labor as we know it on its way out? It seems clear that if that happened, as Michael Roberts has recently pointed out (https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/robots-and-ai-utopia-or-dystopia-part-two/) capitalism would also fail ultimately–but what would succeed it? Might we see a Star-Trek-like utopia of whimsical folk in ill-fitting body suits tossing kickballs on manicured lawns? Would we see the dystopian mirror-image of this? Will we reach a condition of “singularity” by virtue of which global capitalism will simply break down, destroyed by its own success?

    Roberts thinks not. In Part Three of the essay cited above, he concludes among other things that

    Robot technology will reduce many existing jobs (and create some new jobs) and is doing so already. But singularity and a robot world is still a long way away. That is because the AI technology is not being directed by capital into the most productive areas but into the most profitable (not the same thing). And the costs of ‘controlling’ AI robots will increase.

    A super-abundant society where human toil is reduced to a minimum and poverty is eliminated won’t happen unless the ownership of the means of production changes from private control (capitalist oligarchy) to ownership in common (democratic socialism). That’s the choice between utopia and dystopia.

    Might the wave of computerized technology that is spawning the current quantum growth of robotics and AI itself, somehow, even offer part of the solution to breaking the solidarity of the Trumps and Sauds of the world–some lever for worker organization that can move the hitherto immovable object of global capital? If so, in what way might that come about? Rather, to put the question in perhaps a more Marxist fashion: where might we see the (dialectical) beginnings of that actually coming about now?

    As usual, I’m asking a question to which I don’t really have the gleaming of an answer.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 27, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

  7. Any serious discussion of leftism in the world today has to start with rage against the ceaseless march of electoral betrayals. Syriza is perhaps the most blatant and outrageous betrayal so far, but even so it’s only the latest and greatest. Long before Syriza betrayed the left, and the people, Socialism had become a perverse joke throughout Europe, including Greece. Every time the people vote for change and for left-leaning ideas, almost anywhere in the world, the parties they vote into power show themselves to be even worse than the predatory capitalists and imperialists who preceded them. For Project to snark out those who are outraged shows him to be, as it would appear, yet one more betrayer. Now the victims of Lefty betrayals are denied, by sneering types like Project, even the right to FEEL betrayed. He becomes an ally to the Orwellian global state, crushing even our right to have an authentic response, the last refuge of our authentic humanity.

    Of course the fundamental problem for the Left is that the power of the predatory capitalists and imperialists has become both pervasive and global. It is also augmented by increasingly powerful technology that increasingly seems capable of offsetting the numerical power of the people, however overwhelming that might be. So, of course, Syriza faced a tough situation, though Syriza seemed more than willing to wallow ineffectually in the humiliation heaped on them by Germany, etc..No attempt whatsoever was made by Syriza to build an alternative vision and to promote it to the people in such a way as to at the very least build up some leverage.

    We should be angry. We need to be angry. Now lets channel that anger into constructive dialogue. Blaming Tsipras, however he may deserve it, is not getting us very far. But being angry at him and at Syriza is a good place to start.

    Comment by Paul — May 28, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

  8. Go ahead and be angry. I’ve reached the point where anger seems futile when you keep in mind that I have been involved with efforts that have been far more disappointing than Syriza. Just look at capitalist Vietnam. Was that what I organized demonstrations for? Or Daniel Ortega’s presidency today. Or the FMLN presidency in El Salvador for the past 8 years. Was that why I served as president of the board of Tecnica or was an activist in CISPES? Go ahead and be angry if that helps. My emphasis is on analyzing revolutionary strategy.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 28, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

  9. I think there are a lot of great ideas in this article. However, my question is if a forceful rupture would make Venezuela even more isolated and if facing off against the blind god of global capitalism the leftist government becomes consumed by it, then what is to be done? That sounds like a big catch 22.

    Comment by Mo — June 4, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

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