Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2019

Thoughts on the Venezuelan Crisis

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Today a very old friend, who is a retired CUNY professor and very knowledgeable about the left, asked me for an analysis of what’s happening in Venezuela. In many ways there are people much more familiar with what’s happening on the ground like Greg Wilpert or Claudio Katz but the purpose of this post is not to duplicate that effort but to put Venezuela and other “pink tide” states into a theoretical framework.

But there’s some business I need to attend to first. On January 24th, a group of 70 “experts” called for the USA to stop interfering in Venezuela. Among them are some of the most distinguished anti-imperialists, including Noam Chomsky, Greg Grandin, and William I. Robinson. However, there are a couple of others who have been guilty of repeating Assadist propaganda for the past 7 years like John Pilger and Tim Anderson. If you are a principled opponent of military intervention, this means opposing the US-backed Saudi blitzkrieg in Yemen as well as that of Russia’s in Syria. When hospitals are bombed in Yemen, people like Pilger and Anderson are the first to cite Doctors without Borders but when hospitals were bombed in Aleppo or East Ghouta, the Doctors without Borders were smeared as “regime change” operatives just like the White Helmets. This kind of cheap lawyering on behalf of mafia states does immense harm to the left and the people who organized this open letter must have been out of their minds to recruit Tim Anderson whose fealty to the Kremlin and to Bashar al-Assad allowed him to march side-by-side with neo-Nazis.

That’s Anderson in the blue shirt holding a flag on the left. The white-haired guy in a blue shirt to his right is Jim Saleam, the head of the Australia First Party that supports a “predominantly white nation resistant to… watering-down of its culture”.

Leftist opinion on the crisis in Venezuela tends correctly to blame American meddling and the local bourgeoisie for trying to make the people “cry uncle” as Reagan infamously described his intervention in Nicaragua. Falling oil prices helped make the Venezuela government more vulnerable to reactionary forces. Some leftists wrote about how “rentier states” like Venezuela will never break out of the cycles of underdevelopment as if a country relying on commodity exports such as oil, bananas, and meat could ever compete with industrialized countries. Cuba certainly is a rentier state as well but it has not suffered the same kind of crisis as Venezuela except for the “special period” that ensued when the USSR went capitalist.

There are any number of socialist critiques making the rounds that are hard to argue with. For example, the ISO published an article in September 2017 making the case for self-emancipation in Venezuela:

The country is currently run by two ruling classes. First, there’s the “bolibourgeoisie” made up of state bureaucrats drawn from the Bolivarian movement that has developed since the consolidation of the Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in power. Then there are the good old capitalists who have always controlled the production and distribution of goods in Venezuela’s economy.

With the exception of some degree of localized communal production, these two ruling classes dominate every aspect of Venezuelan society. There is no real self-emancipation happening, which is the cornerstone of socialism.

You get the same thing in Left Voice, an online newspaper put out by a group that emerged out of Nahuel Moreno’s Trotskyist movement, except that it is much tougher on Maduro:

Under the illusion of defending the Bolivarian revolution, which was never a revolution, Maduro has consolidated power and taken away the democratic rights of the Venezuelan people, such as the violent repression of protests, the persecution of activists and the subordination of unions to the government. “Socialist” Venezuela is nothing but a mirage embellished by official demagoguery. Venezuela is not and never was socialist, so we can and must criticize Maduro and Chávez from the left. In response to the economic and political crisis, the Maduro government has further squeezed the working class and implemented austerity.

Stop and think about this for a minute. If the communes promoted by Hugo Chavez had anything in common with the Paris Commune, would this have turned the tide? Don’t forget that the Paris Commune was defeated because it faced overwhelming military odds. Sometimes, no amount of democracy can compensate for unfavorable relationship of forces. Furthermore, let’s say that the Venezuelan communes were not only the most democratic and “self-emancipated” institutions since 1917 but also managed to manufacture atomic weapons just like North Korea, thus guaranteeing the country’s ability to ward off attacks.

How would this have made a difference when the price of oil was plummeting? Any country that hopes to break from capitalism will have to survive in a world where market relations prevail. In Cuba, this means putting up with tourist hotels, self-aggrandizing petty proprietors, prostitution, and other ills that capitalism breeds, even if they are outweighed by the benefits of planning, a monopoly on foreign trade, and public ownership of the means of production.

Unlike Cuba, Venezuela never had the benefit of being able to liquidate the bourgeoisie. When the USSR collapsed in 1990, it meant that countries would have to go it alone. The first country sacrificed on the altar of perestroika was Nicaragua. Hugo Chavez clearly understood that his options were limited and tried to navigate between the desire of ordinary people for a better life and the demands put on him by a powerful ruling class that adopted a two-prong approach. One wing of the ruling class sought to gain from its partnership with the Chavistas while the other hoped to rule in its own name. That is what is going on right now with the budding coup.

In a perfect world, the Latin American revolutionary movement would have emerged after the collapse of the Guevarist guerrilla movements of the 60s and 70s. It would have worked collectively to turn the “pink tide” of the past ten years into a “red tide”. The Venezuelan communes would have been replicated in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Instead of each country seeking its own particular national development based on agro-exports and oil, a true Bolivarian revolution would have integrated the industry of Brazil and Argentina with the less developed nations whose commodities would have provided badly needed foreign revenue.

This is not that far removed from the ambitions of the Second International during Lenin’s time. However, WWI made it far more difficult for the left to triumph, especially since the entire left, except for the Zimmerwaldists, chose militarism rather than class struggle.

What prevents the Latin American left from moving in this direction? To some extent, it is a function of the revolutionary left remaining trapped in the nationalist framework of the “pink tide”. Coordination is lacking and sectarian fetishes keep groups divided ideologically, as if how to characterize the USSR in the 1930s was a litmus test.

Up until Lenin took that train ride back to Russia in 1917, he never considered Russia to be capable of building socialism. He was for a revolution against feudalism that could motivate workers in the West to overthrow capitalism. In other words, he was for a world revolution. In 1920, Lenin gave a speech on the 3rd anniversary of the revolution that categorically denied the possibility of building socialism without the USSR being linked to more advanced and liberated nations to the West:

Three years ago, when we were at Smolny, the Petrograd workers’ uprising showed us that it was more unanimous than we could have expected, but had we been told that night that, three years later, we would have what now exists, that we would have this victory of ours, nobody, not even the most incurable optimist, would have believed it. We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution.

Just three years later, he adopted the same cautious tone in an article titled “On Cooperation” that defined socialism in the USSR as a network of peasant cooperatives similar to those that the Chavistas promoted. The big difference between the USSR and Venezuela is that the Bolsheviks “expropriated the expropriators”, a bold act that prompted a counter-revolutionary invasion that cost up to 12 million lives, most of them civilian, and $35 billion. If Chavez had followed “20th century socialism”, he would have expropriated the expropriators as well. That would have eliminated the internal threat but accelerated the external one. The USA would have wasted no time imposing crippling sanctions to make the country “cry uncle”.

What did Karl Marx think about a revolution in Russia? Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly convinced that the country was ripe for revolution. So persuaded was he of this eventuality that he began to study Russian to keep up with the developments in the country. Just two years before his death, he began corresponding with Vera Zasulich, a one-time Narodnik who had become a Marxist. However, she had qualms about whether Russia had to go through a capitalist phase before socialism was possible, a view held by Georgi Plekhanov who was regarded as the most advanced Marxist thinker in the country.

Marx said it was not necessary and even anticipated what Lenin would state in 1923 about socialism resting on communal peasant farming: “My answer is that, thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale.”

A year after Marx wrote this letter to Zasulich, he and Engels co-wrote a preface to a new edition to Capital that fleshed out the relationship between Russia and advanced nations in the West:

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina [commune], though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

In other words, in 1920 Lenin was simply repeating what Marx and Engels had written in 1882. If the Russian Revolution detonated revolutions in Germany, England, France et al, then a “communist development” would be possible. Marx never wrote much about what a socialist revolution would look like until 1871, when the Paris Commune became the first state ever governed by the workers themselves. Marx’s focus in his book on the Commune was not on “socialism” as much as it was about the proletariat in power. Clearly, the failure of the Commune to be replicated anywhere else in France, let alone the rest of Europe, sealed its fate. Its importance was an example of working people acting in their own interests without a ruling class. As such, it had to be destroyed. Marx ends “Civil War in France” with a judgement on its historical significance: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”

The key word is harbinger.


  1. > as if how to characterize the USSR in the 1930s was a litmus test.

    A strange thing to say as the rest of the article, which I agree with, is arguing on the same ‘test’: is socialism possible in one country?

    Comment by foobar — January 29, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

  2. Interesting reflections Louis. You be interested in this article I wrote following a brief experience of working in Venezuela in 2013: https://www.academia.edu/11513951/Venezuela_Building_a_Socialist_Communal_Economy?email_work_card=title&fbclid=IwAR2FiXYnZ1LYgRMr_RP3tSZVSTlN7MtWaQGYCfoh8xQw1DomFU07rKyphag

    Comment by Helen Yaffe — January 29, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

  3. […] A version of this was previously published on Louis Proyect’s blog. […]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect on Venezuela | Washington Babylon — January 29, 2019 @ 2:12 pm

  4. […] A Marxist defense of Venezuela Louis Proyect, Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Nightcap | Notes On Liberty — January 30, 2019 @ 4:17 am

  5. People won’t work for nothing in return. If I could get by not doing any work I would and there are a few billion more like me. That’s why your deluded idea is impossible. Capitalism is the natural result of people trying to survive and thrive. We’re animals not robots.

    Comment by CapitalistShill — January 30, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

  6. Human nature–always smugly invoked by those whose claim to be human is most dubious.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 31, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

  7. Thoughtful, Louis, thank you.

    Comment by peggydobbins — February 2, 2019 @ 1:28 pm

  8. This is not a comment. A comment with a link could have gone here. I will send it to Louis and he can decide if it is important enough to post.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 10, 2019 @ 9:36 pm

  9. I cannot help observing that this article by an unrepentant Marxist is purely an academic expression on the obsolescence of citations; with whose authority Mr. Louis Proyect inveighs over nothing beyond the incoherence of past promises and ideals for an egalitarian world order through the hegemony of totalitarian States, communal leaders and reformist provocateurs. It all amounts to irrationality constructs in an attempt to incite and further provoke the world to implode on the false premises of contrasts between the veil of criminal predation—the psychopathy of expropriation—and the constitutional order of the USA (including its enlightened Monroe doctrine): Such seems to be the case to justify the encrypted ‘Marxist’ struggles of Russia, Siria, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, whose most distinguished characteristic is the genocide of its people.

    Comment by Ricardo F Morin — May 21, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

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