Venezuela's battle in the countryside and the 'revolution within the revolution'

By Stuart Munckton, Sydney branch

[The following is a constribution to the DSP's internal discussion on Venezuela's revolution.]

In mid-September, the Ezquiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ), one of the two major peasant organisations in Venezuela, released a statement entitled “Let us fight the neoliberals who have infiltrated the revolution”, in response to the arrest of a number of peasants by police for their role in a FNCEZ-organised occupation of the Corporation of the Andes central offices. CorpoAndes is a state institution whose role is to oversee economic development in the region.

The FNCEZ organised the occupation because the institution had broken a series of promises. As part of the general line of march set out by the Bolivarian revolution to develop the nation along pro-people lines, the body was supposed to shift its priorities towards helping develop the cooperatives and “units of social production” for endogenous (national) development. The line is set, agreements are made, and the state bureaucracy manages to prevent its implementation.

Then, when peasants occupy the central offices in protest, taking on Chavez’s call that if the institutions are not working properly, the people must act to force them to work, the police are sent in to arrest the peasants. This is particularly galling given one of the major grievances of the campesino movement in Venezuela is the impunity by and large still enjoyed by the hired killers that target peasant activists.

In this statement, the FNCEZ announced national mobilisations to blockade major roads in response. I am not sure about their ability to pull something like that off, but it gives an indication of the mood of at least a section of the peasants.

There is a line running through the statement that is one that the FNCEZ constantly repeat, which is support for Chavez, but for not the middle layer who dominate the state institutions, and often the pro-Chavez camp, who they accuse of sabotaging the revolution. As the headline suggests, they accuse neoliberals and counterrevolutionary elements of infiltrating the Chavista camp and blocking revolutionary advances.

Venezuelanalysis.com ran an article on the statement by the FNCEZ a few days earlier, on August 29, to support and mobilise for the campaign for 10 million votes for Chavez in the December elections. In their statement, the FNCEZ raised the same basic line. One of their key demands, which they constantly raise, is for a way to directly communicate with Chavez and the national government, over the heads of the bureaucratic elements in between.

The article reported that the FNCEZ was “gearing up” to support Chavez’s re-election, particularly through a census campaign for the registration of campesinos, many of whom are not registered to vote. Ali Ramos, representative of the FNCEZ leadership council, said “the people are with President Chavez”, although, he stated, that there is discontent over certain situations such as the slowness of the land-reform, difficulties in accessing credit promised by the government, and the assassination of campesino leaders at the hands of hired gun-men. “The President has all of the will to [carry out the land reform], but impunity is one of the threats to this process, along with corruption.”

One interesting thing about the article is that it stated that the FNCEZ is “Venezuela’s leading campesino movement”. Last year, that title was given in Venezuelanalysis.com articles to the other main campesino group, the National Agricultural Coordinator Ezequiel Zamora (CANEZ). This is the organisation that Chavista parliamentarian Braulio Alvarez, who in July survived his second assassination attempt in a year, is a leader of.

It is often hard to figure these things out, and the many different shades of Chavista politics can seem impenetrable to outsiders. But it seems fair to say that, essentially, CANEZ is a lot closer to the government (which is why a CANEZ leader is also a government deputy), while FNCEZ takes more of a “critical support” position. In short, they are with Chavez, but they don’t trust the rest of them.

I asked comrade Fred Fuentes about the two organisations, as during his time in Venezuela he met with a wide-range of different groups from various sectors, and he said that it was hard to tell, but his impression was that CANEZ possibly had a larger paper membership, but that the FNCEZ could probably mobilise more people. Regardless of the particular strength of either of these two main campesino groups, the level of organisation of the campesinos in general is pretty low. The government not possessing a magic wand, this contributes to a lot of the problems in carrying the revolution forward in the countryside.

Fred also said the FNCEZ tended to have links with forces from the Party of Revolution and Socialism, which has a Trotskyist background and is based in the union movement. Two of the five UNT national coordinators are from the PRS, and they are leaders of the majority pro-elections camp within the UNT.

There can be no doubt, as comrades may have gathered from pieces reprinted in The Activist last year, that the PRS have an ultra-left, as well as sectarian, take on a range of issues. (Which doesn’t mean they are not part of the broad camp of the Bolivarian revolution —they are. Whatever their flaws and errors, they are still partisans of the revolution, and are part, for instance, of the campaign for 10 million votes. PRS leaders such as UNT national coordinator Orlando Chinero have travelled internationally to both gather support for the UNT and the Bolivarian revolution, explaining the revolution’s significance and calling for solidarity to defend it. The Chavista camp is very broad and heterogenous and ranges from explicit, self-described social democrats —like the party Podemos that holds a number of elected positions —through to those with more ultraleft and sectarian orientations, such as the PRS.)

When considering the question of ultraleftism in relation to Venezuela, it is worth keeping in mind the comment made once by Lenin where he said that ultraleftism (he was referring specifically to anarchism) is often the price the workers movement has to pay for the crime of opportunism. Ultraleftism is often a symptom of the problems caused by opportunism, as radicals, determined not to repeat the crimes of opportunism, jump too far in the other direction.

In the case of Venezuela, the problem of a strongly opportunistic and clientalist political culture, and the problems of bureaucracy and corruption that frustrate the process of change, create the conditions for a certain ultraleftism amongst some sections of the broad vanguard. Anti-party sentiments, in response to serious problems with the main pro-Chavez parties, being one of the most notable. (The PRS have the opposite problem , insisting that the PRS, with maybe a few hundred activists, is the party that can guarantee the construction of socialism because, unlike all the other parties, it has the “correct program”.)

The questions of opportunism, bureaucracy, corruption and the difficult struggle for popular power in Venezuela, especially in relation to the countryside, is the point of this piece.

Agrarian revolution

The Venezuelan countryside is the sharpest front in the Bolivarian revolution, with the threat of civil war via a campaign of terror by Colombian paramilitaries and large-landowner death squads targeting peasant activists. It is clearly a very serious and dangerous situation that is putting the revolution to the test.

The agrarian revolution pushed by the Chavez government is hitting at powerful interests, and is crucial to breaking power of the oligarchy. As Chavez has pointed out, the agrarian revolution is a serious attempt to remake the countryside because, as opposed to previous land reform attempts, the government is not seeking merely to hand over some land titles and then leave the small farmers to fend for themselves, but is attempting to provide cheap credit and a range of forms of assistance to peasant cooperatives —making the agrarian revolution an important part of the attempt to build a “social economy” outside the capitalist market, promoting new productive model aimed at social need, not private profit.

Also, as in the land reform carried out in the Cuban Revolution, the peasants are granted the land to work as cooperatives, but ultimately ownership remains with the state, so the land cannot be sold on. In the limited land reform in Venezuela in the 1960s, without offering forms of assistance to peasants, many could not compete with large scale plantations and were forced to sell their land to large landowners, meaning land ownership remained more or less the same.

Carrying out the land reform is also requiring the development of state-owned industry to control transport and equipment, and also provide new markets so the peasants are not at the mercy of capitalist markets to sell their products, such as the government Mercal supermarket chain that provides cheap food. So carrying out a thorough land reform can’t be done without affecting other key areas of the economy, meaning it has to be integrated into a broader social revolution.

However, there is a difference between setting out to achieve these goals, and then making them a reality in the face of heavy opposition. The problems go deeper than the violent resistance of the large landowners —which is inevitable —to the ability of the revolution to counter this and carry the agrarian revolution out to its completion. This cuts right to the heart of the challenge facing the revolution —the struggle for a “revolution within the revolution”, that was announced by Chavez after the August 2004 recall referendum, that breaks the hold of a corrupt bureaucracy holding the revolution back. The seriousness of the problems caused by this layer —whether they are openly hostile or “counterrevolutionaries in red berets” —are revealed most starkly in the countryside.

Impunity for hired killers is a major problem — despite repeated protests by peasants and repeated exhortations by Chavez to resolve it (telling judges they should resign if they were unable to prosecute the killers). For a long time there was not a single prosecution since the campaign of violence started in 2001, leaving over 150 activists dead. An October 12 Vheadline.com article reported that the attorney-general presented a statement on the state of the campaign to bring the assassins to justice that stated that there are now 11 people serving sentences for attacks on peasant activists. The fact that some prosecutions have now happened is a step forward, but there is a long way to go to break the impunity with which latifundo-hired killers largely operate.

And this is just the assassination of peasant activists. The numbers allegedly killed by Colombian paramilitaries in two years, according to a pro-Chavez parliamentarian, in the state of Tachira on the border is 1700. The level of frustration and potential demoralisation this breeds is a serious threat to the morale of a key sector of the revolution’s social base.

Chavez places pressure on the courts, but it clearly isn’t working. The police remain thugs in uniform, often corrupt and violent and in collusion with large landowners, despite attempts to reform them, including the current attempt to re-found the police force by creating a new national force under direct control of national government.

A series of other measures are being used, including the deployment of the most trusted sections of the army to the biggest danger areas, dissolving military units where corruption is found, and attempting to use the army reserves (around which there is a push to dramatically expand) to form what are essentially self defence units amongst the peasants themselves. There are other measures the national government can directly control, such as the recent decision to award compensation to victims families. However, while this shows good will on the part of the government, it isn’t much good to just give people cash when a family member is murdered.

Another problem is the bureaucratic barriers in carrying the land reform out — as well as the slow rate of distribution of titles, many peasants simply do not get the credit and other forms of assistance they are entitled to, even when they do get land. Heads of the land reform institute in different areas have been replaced, offices have been occupied by peasants and Chavez has travelled to areas himself repeatedly to try and force action.

The intent of the government is perfectly clear — announcing the expropriation of the largest plantation (latifundo) in Venezuela in August, Chavez insisted Venezuela was on the road to “zero latifundists”.

Institutions often largely either continue along the lines they have always operated (as with CorpoAndes) or new institutions become infected with bad practices of bureaucratism and corruption, undermining the agrarian revolution. It is no surprise that this is worse in the opposition-controlled state of Zulia, where the national government points out distribution of land is the slowest and regional police have been identified as tied to large landowner-hired killers, with the National Institute of Land are often prevented from carrying out inspections by armed terror groups— but it isn’t limited to Zulia.

While SBS’s Dateline program on Venezuela screened in September presented a distorted picture of the revolution, implying that corruption was a specific product of the Chavez era as opposed to a hangover from the past, the show did put its finger on a major problem that the FNCEZ raise — the enormous problems peasants have in actually getting the assistance promised to them. The program pointed to massive corruption in the Development Fund for Agriculture, Fishing, Forestry, and Related Activities (FONDAFA), to the benefit of the large landowners at the expense of the cooperatives and small farmers the money was supposed to assist.

But it isn’t just the pro-corporate media that is reporting the severity of the problems with corruption, especially in regards to the growing number of cooperatives. The government itself is. According to an August 15 VHeadline.com article, the government agency to oversee cooperatives, Sunacoop, has expressed signficant concerns and said it simply doesn’t know, as it has only been able to audit less than 3000 of the over 100 000 cooperatives now in existence, but based on these figures, with irregularities in the overwhelming majority it investigated, it estimates it to potentially be as low as 1% of the cooperatives actually operating as genuine cooperatives. It seems unlikely that the real figure would be that extreme, and some of these problems are not at all surprising given the explosion of cooperatives and the ad hoc nature of such programs in their early stages. But they also reflect a deeper problem of who is actually wielding power in the state institutions.

All this is occurring in the context of progress being made. The land reform is tied to the struggle for food sovereignty. Venezuela imports over 70% of its food, a condemnation of an economy twisted around provided imperialism with one raw produce (oil) while the rest of the economy is left underdeveloped. It is also a condemnation of those controlling Venezuela’s land, who either leave the idle or under-utilised, or else produce mostly for export.

An October 2 Venezuelanalysis.com article reported that a pro-government rancher organisation reported that the government policy had resulted in a tripling of agricultural land being cultivated in Venezuela. The National Confederation of Ranchers and Farmers (Confagan), said in 1998 some 700,000 hectares were sown and today 2 million hectares are being sown. According to the Confagan president, “In the next five years Venezuelans will be complete masters over agro-alimentary security in the areas of milk, meat, and food oils, due to the economic support that is being provided to workers in the fields, the struggle against latifundios [plantations], and the investment and confidence of the private sector in the government.” The government claims to have increased food production by 9 million tonnes in the last six years.

Other gains include the development, announced in September, via a joint venture between the Venezuelan and Iranian governments, of a new venture to construct tractors especially to assist the agricultural cooperatives, but also to be exported across Latin America. The government has pointed out this is the first time Venezuela has produced its own machinery, a significant step for a semi-colonial country.

Government statistics show that the land reform land reform program, launched in 2001, has distributed around 2.5 million hectares of land to over 200,000 families. This is overwhelmingly state-owned land, with the land owned by latifundistas only beginning to be touched following the August recall referendum victory. FCNEZ have claimed that no private land has been redistributed, but this would seem to be not entirely true, or true only in the most legalistic sense. Land is redistributed if the owners cannot prove they own it legitimately — that is it is redistributed on the grounds that it is really owned by the state, although the affected landowners certainly feel they have had property expropriated.

Nonetheless, it seems there is still a long way to go in breaking up the latifundistas and in much of the country the agrarian revolution has barely begun. Bearing in mind also that the definition of a latifundo in Venezuela is generously put at over 5000 hectares, and only land over this size, that is idle or under-utilised, is open to be expropriated, with full compensation, whilst in the first agrarian reform decreed in May 1959 in the Cuban Revolution the legal limit on holdings was 402 hectares. This is not to pass a moral judgement — each revolution has different requirements — just to give a sense of perspective. More important is that the land reform was carried out rapidly after it was decreed in Cuba, whereas in Venezuela the land reform decreed in 2001 still has a long way to go. The partial completion of the land reform is a reflection of the partial nature of the power in the hands of working people.

Reform versus revolution

The campaign to continue the struggle to complete the land reform is crucial. Some people, such as the Grantites1 keep repeating like a broken record that the revolution has to carry out the wholesale expropriation of capitalist industry without any attempt to grapple with the actual degree of organisation and consciousness of working people, the relationship of forces, or what sort of transitional measures are in order to lay the groundwork for such actions.

And this includes the international relationship of forces. It is hard to expropriate all foreign investors when you still are dependent, as part of a global system, on foreign investment to develop the country, meaning the battle is how to subordinate such foreign investment to the needs of developing the Venezuelan nation rather than having foreign investment continue to pillage the country. The shifting of foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela onto joint ventures that guarantees the state oil PDVSA a majority share — concretely resulting in two thirds less control over oil production than these companies previously held — being a good example.

However, the battle in the countryside has clearly developed to a situation where half measures aren’t going to cut it. There is a need to carry out the agrarian revolution — or at least its initial stage — to completion by breaking up the latifundios. This is now a question of self defence, given that the latifundistas are the key instigators of violent counter-revolution. How that is carried out is a different question, with no doubt a whole lot of tactical complexities it isn’t possible to appreciate from afar. But it has become a strategic necessity.

This is important because the peasants are in the frontlines and while support for the revolution and its gains (and especially for Chavez) remains strong, frustration among this sector is clearly growing and people just don’t keep taking shit forever.

The struggle in the countryside draws out starkly that the age old question of “reform versus revolution” is being answered in Venezuela in favour of revolution in both and a positive and negative way. The degree by which the process is able to break with, or transform, the old structures and create news ones based directly on the power of working people, is the degree by which advances have been made. The degree by which the revolution hasn’t managed to do this, the process has little to show beyond nice sentiments and a lot of frustrations.

The institutions of the state inherited by the revolutionary government are not proving adequate tools. To say the court system is not proving up to the task is gross understatement. The paucity of prosecutions in the face of a wave of terror is a sick joke perpetrated on the peasants. It isn’t hard to understand why frustrations might threaten to boil over when, as occurred with the FNCEZ and the CorpoAndes, peasants protesting the role of a state institution in holding back social change face police repression, while killers hired by the old elite freely walk the streets.

The question of the role of the armed forces in the countryside is a lot more complicated and mixed. There is no question that, on a national level, the armed forces are no longer a tool in the hands of Venezuela’s pro-imperialist capitalist class. However, it is also true that the armed forces have not been able to be an effective tool in Venezuela’s countryside in defending the peasantry. That is a straightforward fact. However, they have proved, in part at least, more effective than the courts or police.

In many cases the armed forces, with a leadership at different committed to the revolutionary process and an ongoing process of transformation aiming to create a “civil-military” alliance, have played a positive role in defending peasants against land-owner violence. When my solidarity brigade was in the state of Bolivar we met an indigenous community who explained that the national guard protected the land they had formal control over from encroachment of the large land-owners, whereas in the past the land-owners were able to use violent to effectively disposes the indigenous people of their land.

But there are other accounts about the opposite occurring, and clearly it is very uneven. Just ask the small miners in the state of Bolivar, of whom at least four were murdered by soldiers in October, most likely to steal the gold they had mined. The mining was illegal, due to its environmentally-destructive nature. The government is attempting to provide resources for alternative ways to earn money for the mostly poor, small scale miners engaged in this illegal mining, but the community claims this has not really gone beyond words. It seems a case of corruption leading to violence.

Chavez, of course, strongly condemns the killings and the government promises there will be no cover-up. But that doesn’t stop the armed forces, especially in the dangerous border areas, being strongly affected by corruption. The transformation of the armed forces is an ongoing process, far from completed. It is a complicated task, because the question goes a lot deeper than some officers with a good will. Politics is still banned inside the armed forces, although they can now vote. This undermines the ability to combat the strong economic, social and cultural pressures that come to bear on the armed forces by the forces of the status quo. The question of consciousness and ideology are important — there is a difference between supporting the constitutionally legitimate government and understanding the need for, and being committed to carrying out, a social revolution that requires the construction of a new power based on the workers and peasants.

The government recognises the limitations, which is why the armed forces are being complemented by the massive expansion of the reserves, under the direct control of the president. Because the armed forces remain a relatively unchanged institution based n professional soldiers. There are sections of the armed forces that are not necessarily revolutionary, but that are constitutionalist. After the coup, the openly counterrevolutionary elements got purged. However, there were significant sections of the military that sat on their hands at first and only came out on the side of Chavez after the tide was clearly going his way, other sections that stayed neutral throughout, and others still that first came out for the coup plotters then switched sides.

The armed forces are a tool in the hands of the revolution, and the transformation via the civil-military alliance is crucial and ongoing, but the fact that actual composition of the armed forces is so heterogeneous and is organised according to tradition military structures rather than explicit support for the revolution reduces its effectiveness. The reserves, however, are being recruited on an much more explicit basis of support for the revolution and defending its gains from attack.

The limitations in the countryside of the armed forces as a tool to defeat the counterrevolution is recognised by, under pressure from the peasants, the move to integrate essentially peasant self defence units as part of the territorial guards. But again, there is a difference between announcing peasant self defence units (which are to be integrated into an existing structure) and then constructing them. Who will lead the process? Do all sections of the armed forces agree with what amounts to an encroachment on their traditional role? These questions are not answered by a neat formula about the class nature of an institution.

Will the peasants wait? Vheadline.com reported on September 14: “Peasant Federation of Venezuela (FCV) president, Ulises Moreno, has called on the authorities to act swiftly against the alleged presence of hired assassins in rural areas of Cojedes State. In fact, Moreno gives the Attorney General’s Office, Rural Courts and security forces fifteen days to get their act together. If there is no action, he threatens, the FCV will organize ‘spontaneous development & defense nuclei to defend themselves ... armed with their work tools.’ Armed groups, the FCV claims, have been attacking peasant settlements and setting fire to dwellings in Gabinero and El Baul, just to name two places.”

What will the National Guard do, if legally they are required to repress such moves by peasants, possibly ordered to do so by a nominally pro-Chavez governor — say the anti-union governor of the state of Bolivar, Franscisco Rangel Gomez, colourfully described to myself and comrade Lara Pullin in a meeting with the then-secretary of the union at ALCASA — the aluminium plant under workers co-management — as one “who wears a red shirt, but as soon as it rains it runs white” and who in September was forced by protests to release five steel workers from jail for their role in a union dispute, leading him to launch a diatribe about union militancy being out of control in the state?

(This not an abstract question. In response to the murders mentioned above, small miners in Bolivar took to the streets in very angry protests that included burning down the mayors office, in part to protest the fact that almost none of the promised government aid and support has eventuated — yet again the intentions of the national government almost completely frustrated by the state bureaucracy. Rangel Gomez threatened to use the armed forces to “ensure order”.)

Of course these are not new questions and the answers so far are mixed. But these questions seem increasingly likely to be posed and in more and more decisive ways. They are not questions that, in the process of a drawn out struggle whose increasingly radical direction is still being played out, only get asked answered once or twice. The role of the armed forces in April 2002 or during the bosses lockout in December 2002-January 2003 does not mean that new, increasingly difficult, questions are not being constantly thrown at them, or that their answers to previous questions guarantees the answers to new ones.

‘Revolution within the revolution’

Such sharp class questions are being increasingly posed across the process. The dynamics of the revolution have shifted since the repeated defeats suffered by the political opposition to Chavez have rendered those forces largely impotent. The sharp questions have shifted in many ways into the process itself, with the battle for a “revolution within the revolution”.

The content of this is the completion of a very much unfinished struggle for power. As Venezuelan revolutionaries, with Chavez hitting on this point repeatedly, keep pointing out, the revolution faces a hostile state bureaucracy that still hold a huge amount of weight. This isn’t surprising when you consider that Venezuela has a bloated parasitic state apparatus as a result of the role of the oil industry. There wasn’t much else going in the Venezuelan economy for a parasitic elite to latch on to.

With Chavez unlikely to go away anytime soon, an increasing phenomenon in recent years has been the streaming into the Chavista camp of all kinds of bureaucrats and opportunists, attracted by the fact that this is where the power is. Put on a red beret, assure every one you are really for socialism, and work you way into key positions. During the brigade, local elections were held with big parades by the MVR, Chavez’s party. Comrades report standing on the side lines with Venezuelan revolutionaries who would point out the former-oppositionists prominent in the rallies who had simply switched sides to take on leading positions in the Chavista camp.

Chavez himself repeatedly makes this point. In a recent interview, which was written up for Green Left Weekly, Chavez says: “The biggest threat is inside; there is a permanent, bureaucratic counterrevolution … around me is the enemy of an old and new bureaucracy that is resisting change, so much so, that one needs to be alert when instructions are given and follow them up so that they are not detained or derailed or minimised by this bureaucratic counterrevolution that is inside the state. That would be one of the elements of the new phase that is coming of the transformation of the state.”

As the process continues to radicalise and moves to deepen the revolution grow, pressure within the Chavista camp will grow too, sharpening the class struggle within the forces all nominally for the revolution. In this I think the Grantites are right: the moderate and reformist forces within the Chavez camp reflect at the end of the day the pressure of the bourgeoisie and imperialism within the revolution. (Perhaps the Grantites have a different idea of what constitutes a reformist and what a revolutionary, but that is a separate question).

Questions will be posed a lot sharper. Capitalism still dominates in Venezuela. As Chavez pointed out in his interview, while government’s policies have helped reduce poverty, not only is poverty still way too high, but with recent economic growth the gap between the rich and poor has continued to increase.

Bankers might not like having to set aside a section of their money to cooperatives as opposed to big business, as before, and they might chaff having to appoint government representatives to their boards (in an attempt by the government to reign them in). The central bank, nominally state-owned but operating autonomously, might go into conflict (and lose) with the Chavez government about whether or not to hand over a decent chunk of Venezuela’s sizeable foreign reserves to invest in promoting agricultural development. But, with the economy booming (having grown every quarter since early 2003 and the last quarter another remarkable growth rate of over 9%) business is good indeed and the champaign corks are popping in the boardrooms, according to an August 17 Financial Times article entitled “Venezuela’s bankers get rich from Chavez’s revolution”.

Confrontations still to come

This situation is not tenable forever. The dominant role of the oil industry in the context of record high oil prices, and the economic growth this has fuelled resulting from the government’s massive increase in spending, gives the Chavez government a fair amount of breathing space. In this way, they can put off a series of decisive confrontations — with the counterrevolutionary elements in the state bureaucracy, with the champaign-cork popping bankers and assorted other vested interests. The government is able to fund the construction of “parallel” structures in order to strengthen the organisation of the popular classes. They can do this with the missions, with experiments in popular power such as the communal councils, and the promotion of the “social economy” via cooperatives.

But if there was a sudden collapse in the economy, the government would be forced to choose. It would be unable to pay both for the missions and for the old government ministries that remain largely unreformed. They would no longer be able to pump money into social programs reducing poverty whilst the bankers get richer: it would be “either/or”. And the pressure on the broad forces grouped under the Chavista umbrella would be great as different sections would be forced to chose sides. The more moderate, who see the missions, social economy and elements of participatory democracy as essentially secondary, may well break.

It is unlikely there is an economic crisis around the corner, but there are other pressures acting increasingly relentlessly to put pressure on the revolution to advance — the housing crisis in the urban areas for instance. And in the countryside the land struggle, increasingly sharply. Also the more the revolution advances, the more fundamental questions about the nature of the economy and the need confront the power of vested interests who control key sections of the state, are posed.

The social missions are extremely significant, and there are those on the left who want to downplay them by pointing out that they don’t amount to a social revolution. This is true, they don’t. But by beginning to organise the mass of the poor to solve their needs, by raising them out of degradation, the basis for more thorough going measures is created. In other words, they are not a social revolution in and of themselves, but neither could you have a social revolution in Venezuela without them. They form a necessary component of the social revolution underway.

However, it still remains that while the missions, funded largely by redistributed oil wealth, do challenge the logic of capitalism, they don’t overthrow the rule of capital. It may be an important first step to transforming social relations, but they don’t do it in and of themselves. As much as 90% of Venezuela’s workers work in either the private sector or in the informal economy, although this is decreasing with the growth of the cooperatives and state sector. No doubt their lives are much better off through all the gains associated with the missions. But they still are caught up in the capitalist economic system. The gains of the mission on the lives of the poor are profound, and there are huge numbers who would no doubt die to defend these gains. But the missions still only open the way to fresh struggles, involving a more profound transformation of social relations.

And if the missions remain secondary adjuncts to the economy, capital can, however reluctantly, live with them. Which is why the opposition now support the missions. They have to, because they are so popular. In Zulia, run by opposition governor Manual Rosales, the state runs similar missions as a way of trying to undercut popular support for Chavez.

Of course, for the opposition the missions have a different dynamic. The Chavista-run missions are aimed at empowering the poor, while the opposition-run missions are aimed at tricking the masses and holding back their self-organisation. But it does show how much of the gains made by the revolution so far nonetheless don’t decide the question of the economy or political power.

At a certain point, the government will not be able to sidetrack decisive confrontations and will have to chose between continuing to expand the “social economy” operating outside the control of private capital, or else subordinating these to allowing capital to continue to dominate the economy. There is no doubt where Chavez stands on this question, but, as crucial as his role is, it takes more than Chavez to advance. Ultimately, it takes the construction of a mass-based political weapon that unites the vanguard and leads the broadest possible alliance of the different sections of the working people behind it.

The continuing struggle for power

The question of whether the bureaucratic elements are successful in holding onto their power bases, and taking up space inside the camp of the revolution, will be answered by political struggle.2

In this context the December presidential elections are particular significant as a mandate to continue and deepen the revolution. The campaign for 10 million votes for Chavez requires the dramatic deepening of popular organisation. It requires gathering together organisationally for a common project the best revolutionary militants across the country. Militants who are divided into dozens, if not hundreds, of separate, often localised, organisations.

The battle for 10 million votes aims to involve 700 000 people, which would be a phenomenal success. It would greatly deepen the level of popular organisation from the grass roots up. Succesful mobilisation of militants in this campaign would help strengthen the ability to tackle the bureaucracy. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, as Trotsky once said. If the revolutionary forces are not strong enough to take the positions of power, or build successfully a new counter-power of the working people, then the bureaucrats and opportunists will continue holding the power by default.

Going to Venezuela and seeing the process of social change gives a very real picture of what a real vanguard is. It isn’t those who know the most, or have read the most books and can spout Marx or Bolivar the best. It is those in the communities who, under extremely difficult conditions, are working the hardest. And these people work hard. Some of these people barely sleep. There is a real sense that this a unique moment in history, an opening to make gains through struggle. And the leaders at the grass roots are those who struggle the hardest. And it is a hard struggle.

Talking to revolutionary workers at ALCASA (the aluminium factory under workers co-management) during the solidarity brigade last year for instance, these people fought extraordinarily hard against a range of enemies. First right-wing governments that wanted to push privatisation, then the right-wing managers who continued to run the plant after Chavez’s election (which stopped their privatisation plans). They continued to run the plant down and operate corruptly, implementing anti-worker policies.

These workers had to combat a right-wing and bureaucratic union leadership. Not CTV-supporters. The union bureaucrats were Chavistas.

It was an extremely hard fight to save jobs and turn the factory into a tool for the people, not the right-wing managers. The revolutionaries were denounced by management and the union leadership as counterrevolutionaries. The struggle was hitting vested interests.

At one point, with the workers occupying the plant to stop the management from stripping, the National Guard were called in to take control. The colonel decided the problem was the revolutionary workers causing trouble, and recommended Chavez move to sack them. Chavez came and heard the various sides, decided the workers were right and sacked the officer instead. Then he moved to appoint the legendary revolutionary Carlos Lanz (a former guerrilla leader who spent 16 years in jail for kidnapping a US businessman) as president to start the now-famous experiment in workers co-management.

And then, having waged a hard fight to win control of the union, and then in elections for management positions, the revolutionaries had to combat the backward ideas and narrow interests of the workforce — many of whom thought Lanz was a lunatic for suggesting they should take over the running of the plant. Many workers were not only not very interested in the idea of co-management, they were happy just getting the work done and living their comparatively privileged lives as skilled workers. In a country where the majority struggle to survive, the ALCASA car park was full of imported 4 wheel drives.

The process clashed with the common nepotistic practice of contracting out projects at the firm to family and friends. The new elected management stopped that, on the basis that if there was work to do, the firm would hire more workers to do it. If they had to contract something out, it wouldn’t go to the best mate of one of the workers, but to a cooperative in a planned fashion according to social usefulness.

And they clashed with the governor of Bolivar, as I mentioned earlier. They really don’t like the guy. Apparently he used to be the head of CVG, the state corporation in the region that oversees industry. They clashed then, and thinking they had defeated him, were dismayed to see him become state governor as a “Chavista”. They accused him of corruption, and said he would distribute state contracts corruptly rather than to the cooperatives formed amongst the poor.

The feeling is mutual. One told me, with mischievous pride, that whenever he hears the name “Trino Silva”, then-general secretary of the union at ALCASA (since defeated in elections) the governor would curse “motherfucker!”

This is not to say Silva and those who back him are automatically always right. I have no doubt you could speak to people who would denounce them for one thing or another, just as quickly as Silva did to, for instance, the leadership of the UNT. Silva was very scathing of the UNT, which the ALCASA union have so far refused to join, complaining that it was run undemocratically. This was at least partly personal, the guy Silva beat as general secretary in a hard-fought fight, Jose Gil, was appointed by Chavez — most likely as part of “pleasing everyone” to maintain unity in the Chavista camp — as one of the UNT national coordinators. It certainly didn’t please Silva — my ears are still ringing from his impassioned denunciation of both Gil and the mode of operating that sees Gil lose a democratic vote in his union, and then end up as an unelected national coordinator of the new union federation!

The revolutionary workers at ALCASA made comments similar to those made by the FNCEZ — they considered Chavez and the national government to be on their side and genuinely revolutionary, but they said there were major problems with the middle layer of both elected officials and the state bureaucracy, who they considered to be largely hostile. Speaking to the unionists in the mostly state-run electricity industry, where management managed to kill the co-management process, they also made similar points. They said they had the support of Chavez — who they described as “a workers’ president” — and also the labour minister. But this support didn’t prove enough to overcome the resistance of the state bureaucracy to co-management.

Comrade Justine Kamprad, at the workshop of the union movement in Venezuela at the Latin American solidarity conference in September, commented that the revolutionary oil workers she spoke with while there also made the same points in regards to the oil industry. They used an analogy of a sandwich, the rank-and-file at the bottom, and Chavez at the top, attempting to push against the bureaucracy in the middle.

ALCASA, it shouldn’t be forgotten, is the exception, rather than the rule. In short, Carlos Lanz developed an idea that could provide a useful way forward to confront capitalism — the process of co-management to empower the workers — and the government gave him a factory to see if it works. Venezuela is a labouratory of different experiments going on to figure out the best way to change society.

Uniting the revolutionary forces

That is only one example of one struggle, and is some ways — based amongst a sector that is comparatively well off by Venezuelan terms — far from the hardest. Struggles even harder are replicated across Venezuela and they sort people out. The vanguard emerges through hard struggle by proving their self-sacrificing nature and ability to lead others. But this emergent vanguard intersects with, regularly clashes against, and sometimes is coopted by, the bureaucratic elements in a context where the political culture is heavily influenced by clientalism, bureaucratic paternalism and outright corruption.

It takes more than long speeches by Chavez and the good will of dedicated leaders in the government — as crucial as these things are — to solve this problem. It requires the unity of the vanguard that is arising across Venezuela out of a thousands different battles.

Another potentially positive step to do this is Chavez’s announcement of the need to construct a united revolutionary party and calling a congress for next year. A united revolutionary party is badly needed as the broad vanguard is very dispersed, and also because the existing parties that dominate the Chavista camp tend to operate along the lines of the old, discredited parties, and replicate many of their worst features. They are not in that sense revolutionary parties, although they support the revolution. They are vehicles to distribute positions, with the base of the revolution not being able to determine candidates for elections.

This is a practical question, not one of fetishising the need to have popular elections for candidates. The candidates thrown up by these parties are often not trusted, or even discredited (such as the governor of Bolivar). The parties throw up these candidates because they are controlled by cliques that have a vested interests in controlling the process. This is why you have a much higher abstention when the vote is for the National Assembly or other positions other than for Chavez himself.

In fact, the reason why the question of allowing popular elections — primaries — for Chavista candidates, is two-fold. (Leaving aside the fact that it is actually enshrined in the constitution, but not practised by the parties, which is a reason in itself.) It isn’t just to challenge the hold over official positions by opportunist cliques, it is also about the importance of giving real decision making power to the working people in order that they themselves can be transformed through the exercise of that power. The problem in Venezuela is not simply that culture of clientalism and paternalism enables a corrupt bureaucracy to hold onto power, it also breeds passivity amongst the population.

It remains a big problem that the poor still often look for others to solve their problems, complaining if things don’t work but not seeing any pro-active role for themselves. This need to empower the working people, and through the exercise of that power transform the working people into an organised, conscious force that can defeat the old bureaucracy, is the reason why building up the formal means of popular power is particularly important in Venezuela. Actually taking advantage of all potential space to allow the working people to control decisions, such as who they want to stand as a “Chavista” candidate, gives working people the chance to sort out what tendencies and platforms best reflect their interests.

Each revolution has its own particular feature. Particular battles thrown up that may not be decisive in one revolution may in another, because of the particular history and way the revolution has developed, may take on greater, sometimes decisive, importance. The fact that it is obvious to all but the most blinded sectarian formalist that other revolutions will not necessarily develop soviets like existed in Russia, and that the absence of soviets does not mean there isn’t a revolution, does not mean that, in the Russian Revolution, the question of soviets was not decisive. Because of the particular way that the Russian Revolution developed, in that revolution the question of soviets took on decisive significance as the formal expression of the power of working people.

Because of particularities about Venezuela, the question of overcoming the old state bureaucracy take on much more significance than this question took on in, for instance, the Cuban Revolution. This is due to the weight in Venezuelan society this parasitical bureaucracy. Winning government in an election rather than through armed struggle that opens the way for a decisive sweeping away of the old structures, has compounded this.

All this adds up to the particular importance now in Venezuela of finding the ways to develop concrete power in the hands of the working people themselves, which is why new structures like the communal councils and experiments in empowering workers like co-management are so important to the revolution being able to move forward. The communal councils are an important experiment in building up institutions that enable the government to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and distribute funds directly to the organised people themselves. Co-management has taken on importance as a way to both overcome passivity and give working people experience in running production, and also in potentially challenging the power of the bureaucracy within state industry.

The argument is not that any of these forms have taken on the significance that the soviets did in 1917. It is about recognising that each revolution will develop it’s own particular battles, that in their own particular context will hold particular significance and you cannot answer all the crucial questions facing one revolution by referring to what happened in others. Lenin didn’t respond to the particular development of soviets in the Russian Revolution by arguing they weren’t essential, as there were no soviets in the Paris Commune. For the reasons mentioned above, formalising institutions of popular power was not as important in the early stage of the Cuban Revolution as it is today in Venezuela.

Of course, it takes more than giving people formal power to solve the problem, as was seen when the MVR did hold primaries for candidates to the regional elections in 2005. The result was not any better than when the candidates were selected behind closed doors, with the primary elections still controlled by various cliques and the outcome of the elections heavily disputed and the ranks not any more satisfied with the outcome.

The question is one of being able to lead a political struggle to increase consciousness and organisation. A new party has the chance to break down the problems with existing parties — and the resulting anti-party sentiment amongst militants, and create a different sort of party, one based on the revolutionary vanguard not bureaucratic interests. Whether this can happen is again the product of struggle, because obviously, all those in the existing parties are going to come onboard any new project. They don’t have a choice, their positions are due to their association with Chavez.

The call for a new party contains dangers. If the result is that the bureaucratic layers end up dominating a new united party, it wont necessarily represent an advance. The a lot of the forces that dominate the main Chavista parties that hold official positions — the MVR, the Homeland for All Party and Podemos —are exactly the forces that are not trusted and are the forces that the grass roots vanguard needs to unite to confront. (I would emphases that a key difference with the MVR and the other two is that the MVR, for all of its many problems, is a genuinely mass formation. The other two are both splits from parties that support the old order, and lack the MVR’s mass base.)

However, neither can any new party simply side-step these forces. A political struggle is required, and the call for a new party to advance the revolution provides a potential framework for that struggle.

Another organisation worth mentioning in regards to this struggle is the Frente Fransisco de Miranda. As a predominantly youth organisation —that cuts across the various existing revolutionary organisations —it can play a useful role in generating cadre. It aims to be a cadre organisation whose membership is explicitly based on revolutionary activity, as well as ideological discussion. They have played an important role in the organisation of the social missions, and despite some problems have the potential to be an important part of the solution to solving the problem of creating the cadre required to challenge and replace the existing state bureaucracy.

The construction of a real organisational weapon for the revolution is crucial to overcoming the huge problems confronting the revolution in the countryside. The existing tools of the are not up to tasks set by the agrarian revolution and the appropriate tools are not created spontaneously. Peasants will protest spontaneously. Buildings will, and are, being occupied. Roads will, and are, being blockaded. People will, and are, arming themselves.

But it takes more than simply taking over land and mobilising. It involves completing the unfinished struggle for power. The question of whether power is in the hands of the landowners, or in the hands of rural working people, is still being played out. The CANEZ marches into Caracas in July last year to demand action. The government makes promises. In April, the peasants are in the streets again, organised by the FNCEZ. Why? Because nothing has happened.

This is not because the government does not have the will, but because it currently lacks the ability to deal effectively with the problems thrown up. The need to overcome this is urgent, lest frustration give way to demoralisation and the hand of the counterrevolution is strengthened as a result.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial to understanding the challenges Venezuela faces in the coming period. The problem is not, as sectarian ultra-lefts seem to think, with the general course for the revolution set by the Chavez leadership. This course, deepening the battle for popular power around projects hooked on deepening the social revolution to develop the national economy on an increasingly pro-people basis, is the only one that makes sense. No one has come up with a better course yet.

But the question is finding the way to advance along that course, which is obviously a much more difficult question. And this question can not be understood simply by understanding where the ultra-left sectarians go wrong. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that understanding what is wrong with the sectarian position on Venezuela is the end of the question to understanding the Venezuelan revolution. Limiting ourselves to understanding the stupidity of the ultraleftists would be like trying to understand the finer points of advanced physics by debating with people who believe the earth is flat. Ultimately, you will only be able to establish that, no, contrary to what Socialist Alternative insist, the earth isn’t actually flat. It is merely a starting point.

The state

Caught up in an ongoing process of revolutionary transformation, it is not necessarily possible to stick a hard and fast label in the middle of the battle on the nature of the state as either “capitalist” or “workers and peasant”. The situation is in flux, in a state of transition from one to the other. Once the dust settles and one side has clearly and decisively won the battle for power, it may be easier to look back at say some things with certainty that it isn’t possible to do in the heat of struggle. We should seek to make our analysis bearing this in mind.

The formulation that I think makes the most sense, providing it is not understood in too narrow a way, is the “embryonic workers and peasant state”. Embryonic meaning in an early stage of development. This seems a better way to understand the situation than the concept of “dual power”. In its classic Marxist sense, this describes a situation like Russia in 1917 where there were two competing governmental powers: the soviets, based on the workers and peasants, and the provisional government, representing the interests of the capitalists.

In Venezuela today, there may be some elements of dual power, but not there is not a situation of two clearly defined competing governmental powers. The situation is a lot more complicated, intertwined and fluid than that. True, there are parallel structures, such as new institutions like the social missions and the communal councils existing along side the old state structures, but the situation has not reached an “either/or” level of competition between them. In fact the government explicitly aims, for the moment at least, for them to complement each other. There is a struggle within both sets of institutions for control between those genuinely representative of the interests of working people and a corrupt and pro-capitalist bureaucracy. The increasing development of dual power is one possible way this struggle for power may play out, but it isn’t the only possibility.

Beyond labels, the essence of the continuing struggle for power is in Venezuela today is that the dictatorship of capital has been badly eroded, but not decisively overthrown. And a new power is being constructed, but is a long way from decisively consolidated.

There is a big difference between eroding the dictatorship of capital and being able to consolidate a new power to replace it. Capital has lost control of the government, but has strong support in a deeply entrenched state bureaucracy. The armed forces, with all of its problems, have been able to be used as a tool for the revolution, while, despite repeated attempts, the police remain unreformed. Looking at this embryonic new power, we have to include the new institutions created by the revolution to overcome the opposition of the state bureaucracy, such as the new structures created via the social missions and the new institutions of popular power like the communal councils.

Also, we can’t stop at putting neat labels on institutions as though we are dealing with finished products. You can’t artificially separate the parts from the whole and consider them in isolation. As long as the whole remains embryonic, the parts that we can identify as serving the interests of working people have to be considered embryonic in and of themselves as well. No part can be considered a finished tool run by and for the working people abstracted from the whole.

So, for instance, the nature of the armed forces as tool for the workers and peasants is itself embryonic. It is in the midst of an unfinished process of transformation. And its further advance will be the product of struggle. A lot of gains have been made, but there is a long way to go.

The armed forces have been broken, for now at least, as a weapon in the hands of capital. (And given that in Venezuela the dominant capital is imperialist capital, this meant that pre-Chavez the armed forces were a tool of imperialism.) But it is a different thing from breaking the armed forces as a component of the dictatorship of capital, and then building the institution into a qualitatively new armed forces serving the working people.

You can not separate this question out from the actual level of consciousness of the officers and soldiers who make up the armed forces. This is not isolated from broader society. If corruption dominates in broader society it is utopian to expect that it wont infiltrate into the military. If capitalist ideology dominates in broader society it will inevitably be reflected in the military.

Ultimately the job of the military is to defend the nation. The nation is a product of the dominant social relations within it. If those social relations remain capitalist, then, not in a crude automatic way but inevitably over time, this will help determine the class nature of the military. Capitalism has a tendency to reproduce itself in all fields, so it is difficult to imagine the armed forces being able to continue to develop in the direction of a workers and peasants armed forces without the revolution continuing to transform the society around it.

The question of consciousness is crucial. Carrying out a “cultural revolution” in Venezuela to break the hold of capitalist ideas and create a new, socialist consciousness is heavily emphasised by the government. In fact, Chavez put it number one in his seven-point strategic plan for the next period. Building up cooperatives and co-management, the revolution has come up against the need to not just transform economic relations, but people’s ideas. The “social economy”, as it is known, requires people committed to serving the social good.

The two points are intertwined. In order to transform capitalist relations, it requires transforming capitalist consciousness. But at the same time, significant transformation of capitalist consciousness requires transforming capitalist relations because ultimately capitalist relations tend to reproduce themselves in consciousness. If the broad mass of people are surrounded by capitalism, work in a capitalist environment and are subjected to its laws, then this will shape popular consciousness. So making gains in one is dependent on making gains in other, meaning they have to advance hand in hand.

The ongoing transformation of the armed forces is tied to the ability to continue making gains in those two fields. If the revolution stalls, then this will impact on the armed forces. If it continues advancing, the conditions will be there for the continued transformation of the armed forces. This wont happen automatically, it will have to be struggled for, but conditions for that struggle to succeed will exist.

The unfinished nature of the struggle for political power, combined with the discrepancy between a government seeking to advance the interests of working people while much of the economy remains controlled by capital, is an inherently unstable situation and one practical consequence is the bloodshed in the countryside. Resolving this situation in favour of the working people is the true meaning of the “revolution within the revolution”.

Footnotes

1 A Trotskyist group, known by the name of their now-deceased central leader Ted Grant, based in England that, in keeping with English Trotskyist tradition, has established its own “international” called the International Marxist Tendency that has a small group in Venezuela called the Revolutionary Marxist Current (CMR) of maybe a couple of hundred people. The CMR has activists playing leading roles in some sections of the workers’ movement, including having a UNT national coordinator and being involved in occupied, then expropriated factories Invepal and Inveval operating under worker-state comanagement. That is, they are nowhere near as important as they like to present themselves, but they neither are they simply off on the sidelines. Return to text.

2 One anecdote to indicate how dependent the revolution is on skilled professionals who are hostile to the revolution. According to Alejandro, a Venezuelan living in Sydney who supports the process and is part of the solidarity movement, the new coat of arms, which symbolises the "New Venezuela", was designed by a friend of his who is both a graphic designer and a viscous, hard line anti-Chavista. Another anecdote is provided by Chuck Kaufman in an October 25 Venezuelanalysis.com article, where he relates going to dinner with Eva Golinger, who wrote The Chavez Code exposing US intervention in Venezuela: "Some very drunk opposition supporters recognized Golinger... Some of them surrounded our table and began screaming at Golinger and the delegation, calling us 'assassins', 'Cubans'. and 'Argentines'. The verbal abuse went on for long minutes until waiters ejected the most out-of-control anti-Chavez woman. We were later told that she worked in the Ministry of Justice..." Return to text.

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