The state and revolution in Venezuela

By Marce Cameron, Syndey branch

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

Comrade Stuart Munckton’s discussion contribution “Venezuela’s battle in the countryside and the ‘revolution within the revolution’” (The Activist Volume 16, No. 8) takes up the important question of the class nature of the Venezuelan state.

Venezuela’s unfolding socialist revolution appears to defy two of the cornerstones of the Marxist theory of the state.

First: that the working class cannot take hold of the bourgeois state and wield it for its own purposes. Second: that the bourgeois state cannot be transformed into a working people’s state through gradual, peaceful reform. It must be smashed by the working class in a violent revolution.

The revolutionary transformation of capitalism into socialism cannot be anything other than a process. It’s not an instantaneous event; there has to be a period of transition from the old society to the new.

But this transition from capitalism to socialism cannot even begin until the working class has become the ruling class, and Marx, Engels and Lenin insisted that this could only happen if the working class seized state power in a revolution.

Unlike the transition to socialism, which is stretched out over an entire historical period, the struggle for state power is necessarily short-lived.

In a revolutionary situation the question of which class is to impose its will on society cannot drag on indefinitely (other than in a protracted civil war). Either the working class seizes state power or it doesn’t, in which case it is inevitably thrown back for a time by the counter-revolution.

The revolutionary situation – the window of opportunity in which the class struggle has reached an acute crisis and the class balance of forces is about even – occupies only a fleeting historical moment, days or weeks at most, and it must be resolved decisively in favour of either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. If the proletariat seizes the opportunity, this is the revolution, the moment of insurrection.

Has there been a revolution?

It’s obvious that there’s a deep-going revolutionary transformation underway in Venezuela, and that this revolutionary process is heading away from capitalism and towards socialism.

What is perhaps less obvious is whether or not there has actually been a revolution yet in the sense that Marx, Engels and Lenin understood it. The dilemma for Marxists in trying to understand Venezuela’s revolutionary process is the following.

If the revolutionary seizure of state power has already happened, then what was this qualitative turning-point in the struggle? If there has been a revolution in Venezuela, how can this be reconciled with the fact that there is an unbroken continuity of bourgeois constitutional legality from the Fourth Republic ancien regime through to the present day?

How can we talk about the revolution having already happened when Chavez and thousands of other elected officials at every level must still submit to bourgeois elections? When the civil state bureaucracy is only gradually being reformed, dismantled or circumvented by the Bolivarian social “missions”, the popular councils etc?

How could we say that there has been a revolution in Venezuela when it’s the same armed forces, wearing the same uniforms and singing the same national anthem?

If, on the other hand, there hasn’t been a revolution, if – as one comrade said in a recent DSP branch meeting in Sydney – Venezuela is “still obviously a capitalist state”, then how on earth has it been possible for Chavez and his comrades to get this far?

If Chavez can take Venezuela down the socialist road without the working people seizing state power in a revolution, then surely others can too? Perhaps socialism in the 21st century will be won at the ballot box and consolidated without the kind of violent, decisive rupture with the bourgeois state as happened in Russia on October 25, 1917?

Perhaps the lesson we should draw from Venezuela is that it is possible, after all, for the bourgeois state to gradually give way to a new, working people’s state in a more protracted struggle for state power in which the insurrectionary moment blurs imperceptibly into what they call in Venezuela “el processo”?

Are the peculiarities of the Venezuelan revolutionary process only of relevance to other Latin American countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador? Or are there lessons generally applicable to the capitalistically underdeveloped countries of the Third World? What about the imperialist countries?

Does Venezuela fit into the mainstream of Marx, Engels and Lenin’s ideas on the state and revolution, albeit with its own peculiarities? Or is it an historical exception, a rare departure from the way that revolutionary Marxists have come to expect a socialist revolution to unfold in its broadest outlines?

Or is Venezuela not merely an historical exception, but proof positive that the Leninist strategy of socialist revolution is wrong, or at least too inflexible and in need of serious revision?

These are very far from being just questions of semantics, of how we label things, of interest only to armchair “Marxists”. How we answer these questions has obvious and important implications for revolutionary strategy outside Venezuela.

When Marx and Engels analysed minutely the events during the three months in which the working people of Paris seized power in the Paris Commune of 1871, they did so not for their own intellectual titillation but in order to draw valuable lessons from this hard-won experience for the working class movement as a whole.

Every new socialist revolution, as a concrete expression of the general historical process with its own peculiarities, can enrich and deepen our understanding of how the socialist transformation can be carried out in this country and in others.

But it can only enrich and deepen our understanding to the degree to which we actually understand it, and to understand it we have to go beyond mere quantitative description and superficial analysis.

A correct approach

First of all, we have to apply a correct methodology.

We have to avoid, for example, getting lost in the detail, no longer seeing the wood for the trees. James P. Cannon said that timing is essential in politics. Just as important is having a sense of scale, of historical proportion.

If we “zoom in” too close we can be overwhelmed by the detail, by the incidental, by the particular, and we’ll lose sight of the overall situation which despite its inherent contradictions, always allows us, so long as we have a minimum of facts at hand, to make some kind of qualitative judgement.

A human body buried in a grave is dead, even if its hair and fingernails continue to grow for a few more days. Just as “one swallow a summer doth not make” (Shakespeare), an isolated incident in which a few corrupt soldiers evict some peasants from their legal occupation of a recently nationalized latifundia probably would not call into question our judgment about the class nature of these armed forces as a national institution.

On the other hand, if the eviction of peasants by soldiers from land legally granted to them by a revolutionary government were to become widespread, then we might decide – taking into account what else the armed forces are or aren’t doing on a national scale – that this is sufficient to call into question our judgment that this is an armed force that defends the class interests of the workers and peasants’ in the class struggle.

What we’re grappling with here is the dialectical problem of the transformation of quantity into quality.

We also have to avoid the opposite error, which is to drift off into the realm of pure dialectical abstractions disconnected from the concrete reality. As Lenin said, the truth is always concrete.

An illustrative example of this error can be seen in the following passage from Comrade Munckton’s discussion of the Venezuelan state on p. 25:

“[W]e 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 a finished tool run by and for the working people abstracted from the whole.

“So, for instance, the [class] nature of the armed forces as a 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 a product of struggle.”

At this level of abstraction, Comrade Munckton’s observations about dialectics are not an argument in favour of his doubts that Venezuela is an embryonic workers and peasants’ state. In fact, as I will show later, his correct observation that “parts” cannot be analysed separately from the “whole” can be used precisely against his own argument that

“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” and “workers and peasant”. The situation is in flux, in a state of transition from one to the other”.

Secondly, we have to anchor our Marxist analysis of the class nature of the Venezuelan state in the framework of our understanding of the other socialist revolutions, in particular the Russian and Cuban revolutions.

The Russian revolution because it’s the “classic” socialist revolution, the forerunner of those that came later and which were inspired by it to one degree or another, in the same way that the French revolution of 1789 is the “template” for understanding the other bourgeois revolutions. The Cuban revolution because of its historical, political and cultural closeness to the Venezuelan process in the Latin American context.

During a recent DSP branch meeting in Sydney, one comrade urged us to not try to understand Venezuela through the prism (he may not have used this word, but words to this effect) of other revolutions, such as the Russian revolution.

Of course, if this is understood to mean that we shouldn’t mechanically try to “fit” everything that’s happened in Venezuela into its precise Russian analogy – ignoring what is peculiar and novel about the Venezuelan revolution – then this is sound advice.

But the comrade seemed to be saying that we shouldn’t draw on the Russian example at all. If so, I think this is dead wrong. That’s like saying to a zoologist that she should try to describe a new species of butterfly without reference to the characteristics of other, related butterflies or insects in general; that she should view this new species as an entirely novel life form, as if the “book of nature” humanity is writing were no more than a blank slate.

Just like a zoologist describing a new species of butterfly, we have to relate what is happening in Venezuela to the experiences of other socialist revolutions, and to our general conception. What elements of the process are historical novelties, peculiarities of the Venezuelan process, and what aspects of this new revolutionary process are closely analogous to events in Russia and Cuba?

This brings us to a third requirement of a correct approach to the question of the class nature of the Venezuelan state.

Protons, elections, atoms and molecules are among the most important conceptual building blocks of chemistry. To a chemist, each of them has a rather precise and well-defined scientific meaning. Without such rigorously defined conceptual categories, universally understood and accepted, a true science of chemistry would be unthinkable.

The same is true of historical materialism, the science of social development founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Historical materialism has its own special conceptual categories, among them the mode of production, productive forces, relations of production, social classes, social revolution and, of course, the state.

We cannot have a clarifying discussion about the class nature of the Venezuelan state unless we can agree, first of all, on what we mean by the terms “the state”, “class nature” and “revolution”.

Otherwise we might think that when a comrade is talking about apples they’re really talking about oranges, and we won’t be able to separate substantive political differences from merely semantic ones.

The state and social revolution

Marx and Engels clearly distinguished between the revolutionary seizure of state power by the working class – the smashing of the bourgeois state and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat – and the socialist revolution which abolishes the capitalist mode of production. In the Communist Manifesto they explain:

“[T]he first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy.

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments in the hands of the state, ie, of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

“Of course, in the beginning this can only be effected by despotic inroads on to the rights of [bourgeois] property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production…which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and which are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production”.

The role of the state in the social revolution is further explained in Thesis 2 of our Theses on the Class Nature of the People’s Republic of China, adopted by the 18th Congress of the DSP in January 1999 and reprinted in Links No. 12:

“An epoch of (potential) social revolution begins when the development of society’s productive forces comes into conflict with the existing relations of production or—what is but a legal expression of the same thing—with the property relations with which they had been at work up to then. In a class society, the existing property relations are simply the socially recognised and state-sanctioned expression of the relations of production through which the economically dominant class extracts the social surplus product from the direct producers.

“A social revolution is actually carried out when the political representatives of the leading class that has emerged on the basis of the advanced productive forces create a new state power that organises this class and its allies to break up the state institutions of the existing economically dominant class.”

Note that “political representatives” in this context (and throughout this discussion contribution) should not be understood in the narrow sense of elected public officials, but in the broader sense of people who act in the class interests of a social class and who have the support of this class.

The Theses continue:

“The new state power suppresses the resistance of the economically dominant class to the implementation of measures that enable the new relations of production, corresponding to the advanced productive forces, to become socially recognised and socially dominant, in particular by replacing the old property relations with new ones.

“This means, however, that for a certain period of time in a social revolution, the revolutionary state power operates on an economic basis in which the old property relations still exist. Thus, for example, during the first few years of the great French Revolution of 1789-93 the revolutionary state power created by the ideological representatives of the French bourgeoisie ruled over a society in which the feudal landowning nobility retained legal title to its landed estates; similarly, during the first eight months of the rule of the proletarian state power in Russia (November 1917 to June 1918) the capitalists still had legal ownership of most industrial and commercial enterprises.”

Bodies of armed people

In Chapter 9 of The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels says that the state “is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise.

“But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.”

Engels says that the state has two “distinguishing characteristics”. The first is that this public power imposes itself on the population of a definite geographical territory.

The second distinguishing characteristic of the state is the existence of “a public force which is no longer immediately identical with the people’s own organization of themselves as an armed power. This special public force is needed because a self-acting armed organization of the people has become impossible since their cleavage into classes”.

This public organisation of coercion (the use of force or intimidation to gain compliance) “exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men, but also of material appendages, prisons and coercive institutions of all kinds, of which gentile [pre-class, ie. tribal] society knew nothing.”

Engel’s definition of the state is profound and elegant. It singles out for their supreme importance the “bodies of armed men” (the phrase has been attributed to Engels), whose significance is twofold.

Firstly, the organisation of force is the only indispensable institution of class rule.

On the one hand, no ruling class can establish and preserve its domination without it; on the other hand, in exceptional historical circumstances the ruling class may impose its class dictatorship solely through its public force of coercion. The same cannot be said of any other institution of class rule, be it the government, the judiciary or the civil bureaucracy.

In a revolutionary crisis, when confronted with the threat of a proletarian revolution, the bourgeoisie has been known to dispense with the government, the judiciary and the civil bureaucracy and impose its rule directly through its bodies of armed people (typically in a modern bourgeois state the army, navy, air force, special forces, police forces, prison guards etc).

An occupying army may rule over a subjugated nation, assuming for a time all of the functions usually exercised by such institutions as the national government, the judiciary and the civil bureaucracy.

Secondly, the organisation of armed force is ultimately decisive in determining which class (or alliance of classes) is to prevail – not only in the revolutionary crisis, but also in the more or less prolonged period of acute class struggle that accompanies the rise of a powerful proletarian revolutionary movement, both before and after the insurrectionary moment.

We should note in passing that a politically dominant social class is never absolutely dominant, only relatively dominant. No ruling class ever gets its way all of the time; its domination is always subject to the prevailing balance of class forces. Concession, compromise and retreat are all part of the tactical armoury of statecraft.

Engels doesn’t tell us in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State who he thinks should be considered part of the state and who shouldn’t be, because he’s talking about the state in the most general historical sense.

Obviously we have to draw the line somewhere when we’re analyzing a particular state, but exactly where we choose to draw this line is not so important.

Let’s just say that the typical bourgeois state is made up of the armed forces and other bodies of armed people, such as the police and prison guards; the national government, the central executive authority within the state machine; the higher levels of the judiciary; and the apparatus of privileged public officials selected for their loyalty to the bourgeoisie: the civil bureaucracy.

We should note that the civil bureaucracy that is part of the bourgeoisie’s apparatus of class rule, part of its state, is not the whole of the public service. For example, Comrades Vivian Me, Bronwyn J and Owen R are all school teachers in the state school system but it would be absurd to consider these comrades part of the bourgeois state. Rather, they are salaried employees of the state.

For Marxists, a bureaucrat is not just someone who sits behind a desk and administers things; bureaucracy involves substantial, institutionalized material privileges. The bourgeois civil bureaucracy is a relatively narrow layer of privileged officials who administer the public service on behalf of the bourgeoisie.

Again, exactly where we draw the line is not so important. What is important is that we grasp the following. If, as Engels says, a “distinguishing characteristic” of the state is the existence of a public force of coercion, then it follows that for Marxists there is no such thing as a state without bodies of armed people.

Bodies of armed people may not constitute the whole of the state but they are always the decisive, indispensable core of the state, so much so that a “state” without bodies of armed people is really no state at all.

This leads to an inescapable conclusion: if the bourgeoisie loses its bodies of armed people, it loses state power.

When it comes to Venezuela, we can make a further judgment. Of the state’s various bodies of armed people, the armed forces are the indispensable core of the Venezuelan state. This conclusion flows not from the manipulation of abstract dialectical logic, but from the pivotal role of the armed forces in the real-life struggle between revolution and counter-revolution.

That the core of the state is its bodies of armed people holds true for the very special kind of state needed by the working class during the transition from capitalism to communism. In this special case the body of armed people constitutes, in its most developed form, the entire working people, as Lenin explains in this vivid passage from his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution:

“[U]nder capitalism we have the state in the proper sense of the word, that is, a special machine for the suppression of one class by another, and, what is more, of the majority by the minority. Naturally, to be successful, such an undertaking as the systematic suppression of the exploited majority by the exploiting minority calls for the utmost ferocity and savagery in the matter of suppressing, it calls for seas of blood, through which mankind is actually wading its way in slavery, serfdom and wage labor.

“Furthermore, during the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the “state”, is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage-laborers, and it will cost mankind far less.

“And it is compatible with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple “machine”, almost without a “machine”, without a special apparatus, by the simple organization of the armed people (such as the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, we would remark, running ahead).”

Class nature of the state

For Marxists, the state is not an organisation that stands above class interests or the class struggle; it is not an institution for the reconciliation of conflicting class interests. This is a liberal fantasy. Every state is a weapon in the hands of the politically dominant social class. Through the state, this class (or an alliance of classes) imposes its rule, its class dictatorship, over the whole of society.

In Australia, the state acts in the class interests of the Australian capitalist class. This is what makes it a bourgeois state; this is its class nature.

I emphasize class interests because as Marx and Engels pointed out, the bourgeois state is “a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie”, and what’s in the collective interests of the capitalist class does not always coincide with the interests of any particular capitalist or corporation.

The same is true of a workers state: it acts in the class interests of the working class, which may or may not coincide with the perceived interests and actions of any particular group of workers. The fact that a workers state does not intervene in support of each and every action or demand of any particular group of workers does not mean that this state is not a workers state.

The bourgeois state is a bourgeois state because it acts in the class interests of the capitalist class. By what criteria do we determine whether a state acts in the class interests of a given social class?

In a period of intensified class struggle, the role of the state in this struggle is thrown into sharp relief.

For the politically dominant social class, the class that has the upper hand (and a class is politically dominant precisely when it has the state to back it up), the state is its principle weapon in the class struggle. When the vital interests of the politically dominant social class are threatened, this class will try to use its state to intervene in the class struggle to tip the balance of class forces in its favour.

The class nature of the state is revealed in which side of the class struggle the state comes down on in the decisive class battles.

More generally, the class nature of the state is revealed by which class or classes the state seeks to organise, and which class or classes is seeks to suppress.

This method for determining the class nature of a state can be equally applied to any of the various institutions that make up the state.

For example, if the armed forces of a given state cannot be used by the bourgeoisie to suppress the organisation and mobilisation of the working people in advancing their proletarian revolution, and if on the contrary the armed forces come down on the side of the working people against the bourgeoisie in the decisive class battles, then we are completely justified as Marxists in describing these armed forces as a working people’s armed forces.

This approach to determining the class nature of the state is superior to what we might call the “normative” approach. The normative approach is to draw up a checklist of specific features that a workers state must conform to if we’re going to call it a workers state.

In The State and Revolution, Lenin quotes Marx and Engel’s writings on the experience of the Paris Commune regarding the specific form to be taken by the proletarian dictatorship. “Marx”, Lenin noted, “stated that the ‘smashing’ of the state machine [by the Parisian working people in 1871] was required by the interests of both the workers and the peasants, that it united them, that it placed before them the common task of removing the “parasite” [ie. the bourgeois state] and of replacing it by something new.

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

“What was this specific form of the proletarian, socialist republic? What was the state it began to create? ‘The first decree of the Commune [here Lenin is quoting Marx]…was the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people’. This demand now figures in the program of every party now calling itself socialist.”

If we were to take a normative approach based on this criteria alone, then we’d have to say that the state led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was not a workers state – contradicting Lenin’s own view that the state he led was indeed a working people’s state. The Soviet republic needed something more than a popular militia. A professional standing army, the Red Army, proved indispensable in the civil war against the counterrevolutionary “white” armies.

If we used this same normative approach we’d also have to say the Cuban state is not a socialist state (a proletarian state defending a post-capitalist, planned economy) because while Cuba’s military strategy is based on the arming of the entire adult population to repel an imperialist invasion, Cuba also maintains a 50,00-strong professional standing army.

Cuba also has a small professional airforce armed with Soviet MIG 29s and other sophisticated fighter jets. The technical requirements of modern warfare have advanced somewhat since the days of the Paris Commune and it would be impractical, to say the least, for a popular militia to run a fighter squadron.

The normative approach is taken to the extreme by the Trotskyist sects, who don’t recognise Cuba as a socialist state because Cuba’s institutions of proletarian democracy are not an exact replica of the supposed holy grail, the Russian soviets. In fetishising the form, they miss the underlying class content.


We now come to the meaning of the qualifier “embryonic”, which simply means, as Comrade Stuart says, “in an early stage of development”.

The online dictionary gives two meanings of the word embryonic: “1. pertaining to or in the state of an embryo; 2. rudimentary; undeveloped.” It’s this second, more general meaning of the word that we’re using.

During the DSP educational conference, a comrade said that she’d like to share “a feminist perspective” on the Venezuelan state. Just as a human embryo or a foetus is not a child, she said, Venezuela’s embryonic workers and peasants’ state is not really a state.

Let’s remember that the Venezuelan state is not an embryo, a foetus, an egg or a bird, it’s a state. States don’t have feathers or fetuses. If we try to apply an analogy too literally, we end up with nonsense.

The report adopted by our 22nd DSP Congress in January 2006 clarified what is meant by “embryonic” as follows:

“[T]he Venezuelan state is an embryonic workers and peasants’’ state, where the key institutions [of state power], including the government and armed forces are under revolutionary control, but others including the judiciary, the police force and a large section of the state bureaucracy remain a battle ground with pro-capitalist forces.’’

“Embryonic” acknowledges that remnants of the old bourgeois state, which by themselves or taken together do not constitute a state, are still dominated by the political representatives of the bourgeoisie.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels say that the dictatorship of the proletariat is none other than “the proletariat organised as the ruling class”.

The formulation “workers and peasants’ state” tells us which social classes have the state on their side in the class struggle. But this formulation does not tell us to what degree the working people actually exercise their class dictatorship, and to what degree their class dictatorship is exercised on their behalf by their political representatives in the leadership of the state.

The qualifier “embryonic” suggests that while the state is in the hands of the political representatives of the working people in the leadership of the state, and that consequently state power can no longer be used by the bourgeoisie to defend its class interests, the degree to which millions of working people exercise popular self-rule through participation in the state (both directly and indirectly through the election of accountable, recallable representatives to state bodies) is still embryonic, ie. at an early stage of development.

One way that the working people as a whole can effectively merge with the state, become part of the state, is for the masses to be organised into a gigantic reserve army with access to weapons in the event of an imperialist invasion or domestic counter-revolution. In Cuba everyone knows exactly what to do if the Yanquis invade. In Venezuela “the people in arms” is still coming into being.

A new state is born

We are now ready to answer the question posed at the beginning of this discussion contribution. Has a revolutionary transfer of state power from the bourgeoisie to the working people taken place in Venezuela? Has there been a revolution?

Let’s zoom in on three decisive class battles and the role of the state in each of these, beginning with the Caracazo uprising in 1989. I will not attempt to describe these events in detail, since detailed accounts are readily available elsewhere. My purpose here is not description but analysis.

If comrades think that I’ve got the facts wrong, or that there are facts which support a different conclusion, let’s put them on the table and we can continue the discussion.

(a) Caracazo uprising, February 1989

The neoliberal government of Carlos Andres Perez sharply increased the price of petrol and bus fares. The working people of Caracas and nearby cities and towns took to the streets in a wave of protest, rioting and looting.

A state of emergency was declared and Caracas put under martial law. The social explosion was brutally suppressed by the Venezuelan armed forces. The government claims that only 276 people have been killed but it is subsequently revealed that the state buried an unknown number of civilians in mass graves. Up to 3,000 people are killed by the armed forces.

While the majority of the armed forces carried out the orders of the government to suppress the uprising, some officers and the soldiers under their command defied their superior officers, assisting the poor to loot supermarkets and stores.

What conclusions can we draw about the class nature of the Venezuelan state in 1989?

The Venezuelan armed forces resolved the confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the working people in favour of the bourgeoisie. The state came down on the side of the capitalist class: it was a capitalist state. However, the Caracazo also brought to the surface an incipient split in the armed forces, a split objectively along class lines.

(b) The April revolution, April 2002

The Caracazo revealed an incipient split in the armed forces along class lines. During the events of April 2002 this cleavage matured into an open split.

On April 11, the pro-imperialist bourgeoisie carried out a military coup against the progressive bourgeois government led by president Hugo Chavez. The coup leaders detained Chavez and other members of the government, dissolved the national assembly and the supreme court, abolished the Bolivarian constitution and installed coup leader Pedro Carmona as the new president of Venezuela.

The working class and the urban poor took to the streets to demand the return of Chavez, with up to a million people surrounding Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.

The mass mobilisations of the working class and the urban poor shifted the balance of class forces within the Venezuelan armed forces, radicalising the majority of officers and soldiers, who were not part of the coup conspiracy. The armed forces split, the majority of the officers and the soldiers under their command going over to the side of the working people.

Having lost control of the armed forces and unable to disperse the massive presence of the people on the streets, the coup regime was effectively paralysed and collapsed within 48 hours.

The worker-soldier insurrection of April 12-13 was a political revolution in the classic Marxist sense. Let me quote a passage from the preface to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution:

“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime…The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

In the April revolution it was the direct action of the masses together with the armed forces that overthrew the coup regime.

The worker-soldier insurrection smashed the decisive, indispensable core of the bourgeois state, the armed forces under the command of the bourgeois generals.

In losing the indispensable core of its state, the bourgeoisie lost state power. The insurrection of armed forces was the first act of an embryonic workers and peasants’ state, a new state born in the crucible of the revolution.

In the insurrection, the bourgeois generals were swept aside and the political representatives of Venezuela’s working people in the leadership of the armed forces – the rebel officers who led the soldiers under their command to go over to the side of the people – became the leading personnel in the armed forces. When Chavez returned to Miraflores he proceeded to purge the armed forces of the leading personnel who had participated in the coup.

The embryonic workers and peasants’ state forged in the April revolution comprised two state institutions, the armed forces and the national government.

The Chavez government overthrown by the coup was a progressive bourgeois government resting on a bourgeois state. The national government that emerged out of the April revolution was a revolutionary workers and peasants’ government, a government that had come to power in a revolution, a government resting on a workers and peasants’ armed forces.

(c) Lock-out of PDVSA, December 2002

In a desperate attempt to bring down the revolutionary workers and peasants’ government, the bourgeois managers of the nominally state-owned oil company PDVSA staged a lock-out of the oil industry and sabotaged oil refineries.

The lock-out was broken after a fierce and protracted struggle by the oil industry workers together with the armed forces, and with the active solidarity of the working people. Soldiers secured access to refineries at gun-point, commandeered tanker trucks etc. The role of the armed forces in smashing the capitalist’s economic sabotage was not merely incidental, it was a decisive factor.

In the smashing of the oil industry lock-out, the state, ie. the national government and the armed forces, came down on the side of the working people, confirming that the embryonic workers and peasants’ state born in the April revolution had been consolidated in the months since April.

Doubts and objections

There’s an inconsistency in your argument. While you acknowledge that the capitalist class still controls some state institutions, you insist that the capitalist class has lost state power.

As Comrade Stuart points out, we cannot “artificially separate the parts from the whole and consider them in isolation.” We cannot consider the “parts” of the state separately from the “whole”.

The state institutions in Venezuela that are still under the control of pro-bourgeois forces are no longer connected to, are no longer resting on, the indispensable core of the state, the armed forces. Consequently, these state institutions no longer function as part of a bourgeois state. They have become remnants of the former bourgeois state.

Having wrested state power from the capitalist class, the working people are using their state power to reform, dismantle or create parallel institutions to these remnants of the bourgeois state.

The smashing of the oil industry lock-out was the critical turning-point in the struggle for state power, not the events of April 2002.

If this were true, then we’d have to conclude that it was a bourgeois government and a bourgeois armed force that entered this ferocious class battle…on the side of the workers! This is a logical absurdity. A state that comes down on the side of the working class is not a bourgeois state.

The struggle to break the oil industry lock-out involved no governmental crisis, no split in the armed forces, no insurrection and no revolution.

In the Russian revolution of October 1917 the majority of the workers and peasants took part in the insurrection. By contrast, in April 2002 only a small minority of Venezuela’s working people participated in the overthrow of the coup regime. Can we really call this a revolution?

There’s a misconception here. The Bolshevik-led insurrection involved only around 25,000 sailors, soldiers and armed workers.

It’s true that in April 2002 the armed forces split, and that the bulk of the armed forces came down on the side of the working people. But what were these rebel soldiers actually defending? The Venezuelan constitution. And whose class interests does this constitution serve? It’s not a socialist constitution, it’s a bourgeois-democratic constitution, it upholds bourgeois property rights. For or against the constitution: this was the dividing line in April 2002, not the question of class.

This argument is misleading for two reasons. Firstly, as Marxists we’re materialists, and for materialists being determines consciousness, not the other way around.

The working class exists as an objective entity regardless of whether or not, or to what degree, the workers are class-conscious. They are part of the working class not because of what’s inside their heads, but because they have no other means of livelihood other than to sell their labour power to some capitalist or other, or to be dependent on someone else that does.

The same is true of the state. A state is a workers state by virtue of the fact that it comes down on the side of the working class in the decisive class battles, and not because of anything inside people’s heads.

This is not to say that consciousness is unimportant – far from it, since what people think influences what they do – but only that it isn’t diagnostic. The class character of a state is not determined by what the people who make up the state think – ie. their level of class consciousness, the degree to which their subjective aims coincide with objective historical reality – but by what these people, this state, actually does.

Having said this, let’s look at this question of consciousness, of the feelings and motivations of the officers and soldiers who went over to the side of the people in April 2002.

It’s undeniable that the Venezuelan constitution is “only” a bourgeois-democratic constitution and not a socialist constitution. But we cannot view the Bolivarian constitution as just an abstract legal document, a scrap of paper. To understand the significance of this particular constitution and the passions it aroused we have to view it historically and dialectically, ie. in its connection with the class struggle from which it emerged.

OK, so the bulk of the armed forces split from the bourgeois generals and went over to the people in defense of the constitution. How much this is really true is open to question, but let’s accept this for the sake of argument. But this just poses the obvious question: why did some members of the armed forces feel that this Bolivarian constitution was wonderful, worth defending with arms in hand, while others considered it to be the spawn of the devil, the constitution of “that monkey” Chavez and his filthy, ungrateful masses?

Even to pose the question like this is to answer it. The poor saw this constitution as their constitution, the little blue book that everybody had a copy of and which explained to people what their rights were in the new republic. This constitution was not handed down from on high, it was something the people had struggled for and won.

This Bolivarian constitution was “only” a bourgeois constitution, true, but for Venezuela’s working people it was a huge advance over the old one, and along with the significant economic, political and social rights it proclaimed it was to become a potent symbol of the revolutionary process.

If we don’t get stuck on the form, if we peer through to the underlying content, it’s obvious that the cleavage in the Venezuelan armed forces followed closely the line of class identification, class loyalty and class solidarity. Remember, this was a society wrenched by acute class contradictions and class struggle, through which the masses were undergoing a profound political awakening.

To imagine otherwise would be to think that the members of the Venezuelan armed forces who went over to the side of the people all happened to be, for some inexplicable reason, constitutional fetishists, going out into the streets guns in hand to defend a little scrap of paper! Why then were the bourgeois generals, the masterminds of the coup, not also constitutional fetishists? Why didn’t they say to the people at the US embassy, “Oh no, we can’t do that, that would violate the constitution”?

Venezuela is deceptive because this proletarian revolution has unfolded under the fig-leaf of bourgeois-democratic constitutional legality, and it’s not all window-dressing either. Nearly five years on from the April revolution, Venezuela still has much of the form, and some of the content, of bourgeois democracy.

This bourgeois-democratic fig-leaf has been the revolution’s shield against attacks on its democratic legitimacy, well-intentioned or malicious. So effective is this fig-leaf that even many of Venezuela’s friends seem incapable of peering through the veil to see this revolution for what it is.

Liberal admirers of Chavez applaud him for not violating “democracy”, while his ultraleft critics take him to task for failing to smash the bourgeois state like the Bolsheviks did in Russia. Both fail to understand the meaning and significance of the April revolution.

Chavez heads a revolutionary government and an embryonic revolutionary state forged in a classical proletarian revolution. But the qualitative breakthrough embodied in the April revolution is hidden behind the defensive character of the insurrection: it was the bourgeoisie who broke with bourgeois constitutional legality when they overthrew the elected Chavez government on April 11, 2002.

On the surface, it appears that the April insurrection achieved nothing more than the restoration of bourgeois constitutional legality and the return of the democratically elected Chavez government after a very brief hiatus, less than 48 hours. Formally, this is all that did happen. Hardly revolutionary, is it? Yet in content it was profoundly revolutionary.

The struggle for popular power is still very much unfinished in Venezuela. There is still a huge battle going on to reform, dismantle or circumvent the ministries etc. that are remnants of the old Fourth Republic, and to create new institutions in their place, to give popular power more real content. By saying that Venezuela is an embryonic workers and peasant’ state, aren’t we ignoring or downplaying this ongoing struggle to make popular power a reality? Isn’t the struggle for state power in Venezuela very much unfinished, and it’s too early to say anything definitive about the class nature of the state?

We have to distinguish between two things. The struggle for state power is one thing; the consolidation, development and refinement of the proletarian state is another. The two are obviously connected (you can’t begin to do the latter until you have achieved the former), but they are not identical.

In Cuba, the revolution triumphed 48 years ago, yet Cuba’s proletarian democracy continues to evolve. Like everything else in Cuba, it’s a work in progress. There’s an ongoing struggle against bureaucracy and corruption in the state and an ongoing effort to improve the institutions and culture of Cuba’s proletarian democracy.

Obviously this is happening at a qualitatively higher level in Cuba than in Venezuela – Cuba is a mature socialist democracy – but if we’re going to say that there’s an ongoing struggle for state power in Venezuela, then to be consistent we should say the same about Cuba. Yet it would be absurd to say that in Cuba there’s an unfinished struggle for state power. There isn’t, that struggle ended on July 26, 1959 (see our 1984 resolution The Cuban Revolution and its Extension).

In Venezuela the struggle for state power has come and gone. The revolutionary crisis which opened up in April 2002 was resolved, for the time being at least, in favour of the working people.

If this were not the case then the revolutionary process could not possibly have continued to advance as it has without coming up against another counter-revolutionary coup attempt or a bloody civil war. Nothing remotely like this has happened since April 2002. Why? Because the bourgeoisie has lost its state, its apparatus of coercion.

In Venezuela the same bourgeois public officials who dominated the old government ministries under the Fourth Republic continue to dominate many of them today. It’s a huge problem. Then you have all these opportunists running around in red berets and calling themselves “Chavistas”. Bureaucracy and corruption thrives everywhere, not just in the old institutions but in the new ones created by the revolution as well. This is the reality, and yet you still want to call this “a workers and peasants’ state”?

The task of dismantling the bourgeois civil service belongs not so much to the struggle for state power, but to the development of the proletarian-peasant state after this state has come into being.

In Venezuela today the struggle is no longer for state power, but to consolidate and further develop the new state that already exists. That’s what the word “embryonic” indicates: that this new state, which has come into being, is still at an early stage of development, and must be further consolidated, developed and refined.

You can smash the bourgeois state literally overnight, but you cannot do the same with the bourgeois civil service, with its tens of thousands of professionals and administrators. Some of them can be persuaded to serve the revolution; the rest of them have to be replaced by young people educated and trained by the revolution. Some of the old institutions can be reformed; others have to be dismantled and replaced by other, very different kinds of institutions.

All this takes time, and it cannot be anything other than a gradual process, a process by which the working people themselves gradually assume more and more of the administrative functions that used to be the preserve of the old bureaucratic apparatus.

And it’s not just a question of developing new state institutions, but also a whole galaxy of complementary non-state institutions such as the revolutionary trade unions, peasant cooperatives, mass organisations for women, youth and students, neighbourhood and factory committees etc. and, of course, the revolutionary party. All these institutions form part of the machinery of “popular power”, of which the proletarian state is only the core element.

The problems of bureaucracy, corruption and opportunism cannot be dispersed with the barrel of a gun. Yes, the Bolsheviks appointed political commissars to watch over the officials who had served in the bourgeois civil service and who could not be immediately replaced by administrative and professional cadres trained by the revolution, but this was a desperate measure and of limited effectiveness. The commissars themselves tended to succumb to the very corruption they were supposed to be fighting.

They had the same problems of corruption, bureaucracy and opportunism in the Soviet Union under Lenin, only it was much worse.

To give a sense of historical proportion, here is a passage from Chapter 1 of The Prophet Unarmed, the second book in Isaac Deutscher’s wonderful trilogy about the life of Leon Trotsky. The year is 1921, and peace is returning to the country after the civil war has ended.

“The nation ruled by Lenin’s party was in a state of near disintegration. The material foundations of its existence were shattered. It will be enough to recall that by the end of the civil war Russia’s national income amounted to only one-third of her income in 1913, that industry produced less than one-fifth of the good produced before the war, that the coal mines turned out less than one-tenth and the iron foundries only one fortieth of their normal output, that the railways were destroyed, that all stocks and reserves on which any economy depends for its work were utterly exhausted…that Russia’s cities and towns had become so depopulated that in 1921 Moscow had only one-half and Petrograd one-third of its former inhabitants, and that the people of the two capitals…had for many months lived on a food ration of two ounces of bread and a few frozen potatoes and had heated their dwellings with the wood of their furniture…

“One of the worst famines in history visited the populous farming land on the Volga…The government swallowed its pride and appealed for help to bourgeois charitable organisations abroad. In July it was feared that 10 million peasants would be hit by the famine. By the end of the year the number of sufferers had risen to 36 million. Uncounted multitudes fled before the sand blizzards and the locusts and wandered in aimless despair over the vast plains. Cannibalism reappeared, a ghastly mockery of the high socialist ideas and aspirations emanating from the capital cities.”

All the difficulties faced by the Bolivarian revolution in the countryside that Comrade Stuart discusses in his Activist contribution – skirmishes with armed gangs on the Colombian border, the corruption of soldiers and police, impunity for hired killers – seem almost trivial by comparison. Deutscher continues:

“Seven years of world war, revolution, civil war, intervention, and war communism had wrought such changes in society that customary political notions, ideas and slogans became almost meaningless. Russia’s social structure had not been merely overturned; it was smashed and destroyed. The social classes which had so implacably and furiously wrestled with one another in the civil war were all, with the partial exception of the peasantry, either exhausted and prostrate or pulverized….

“It was a grim and paradoxical outcome of the struggle that the industrial working class, which was supposed now to exercise its dictatorship, was also pulverized. The most courageous and politically minded workers had either laid down their lives in the civil war or occupied responsible posts in the new administration, the army, the police, industrial managements, and a host of newly created public bodies. Proudly conscious of their origin, these proletarians turned Commissars did not in fact belong to the working class any longer. With the passage of time many of them became estranged from the workers and assimilated with the bureaucratic environment. The bulk of the proletariat too became déclassé.

“Masses of workers fled from the town to the country during the hungry years; and being mostly town dwellers in the first generation and not having lost roots in the country, they were easily re-absorbed by the peasantry.”

It’s pretty chilling stuff, not for the faint-hearted. Now, what did Lenin say about the state he led? He described it as a workers and peasants’ state “with bureaucratic deformations”.

Venezuela today is at an incomparably higher level of economic and social development than the young Soviet republic ravaged by war and destitution. Venezuela also has something else the Bolsheviks didn’t have: Cuba, another revolution, a healthy socialist revolution that can send over tens of thousands of highly qualified revolutionary professionals to staff the social missions in health care, education, sports etc.

These social missions can be seen as embryonic institutions of popular self-rule, of the proletarian state. Through participation in the social missions, Venezuela’s working people are gaining experience in the administration of social services in their communities.

By saying that Venezuela is already an embryonic workers and peasants’ state aren’t we saying that it can’t go backwards?

Of course not, no more than saying that because someone is alive today they will live for ever. Nothing lasts forever and, as the old song goes, “the future’s not ours to see”. But this doesn’t mean that we have to suspend judgment about what exists now, and the basic trajectory is clear. This workers and peasants’ state is becoming less and less embryonic as the revolutionary process continues to advance.

What if Chavez had lost the presidential election or the recall referendum? This would have thrown a big spanner in the works.

Who knows what might have happened? It’s useless to speculate. We base our judgment of the class nature of the state on what has happened, not on hypothetical scenarios. Part of the embryonic character of this new state is that it still retains much of the form, and some of the content, of bourgeois democracy. We’re not ignoring this, it’s there in our formulation.

Comrade Stuart’s confusion

In closing, I’d like to take up some of the points made by Comrade Stuart in his discussion of the class nature of the state, beginning on p. 25 of The Activist under the heading “The state”.

Having read though this carefully several times, I am still unclear as to what Comrade Stuart’s position actually is, and I think he needs to clarify.

First he tells us that “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” and “workers and peasant”. The situation is in flux, in a state of transition from one to the other”.

It’s not “necessarily” possible, he says, to say anything definite about the class nature of the Venezuelan state because the struggle for state power is still raging, it’s still “in flux, in a state of transition from one [a capitalist state] to the other [a workers and peasants’ state].”

What is meant by the mysterious qualifier “necessarily” here? This is the way people argue when they don’t want to take a position either way, when they want to sit on the fence under the guise of “flexibility”.

Either we can take a position on the class nature of the Venezuelan state, or we can’t. There’s no room for equivocation, and you can’t hide under the rock of “dialectics”. There are objective contradictions in the material universe, sure, but there’s also just plain muddled thinking.

Perhaps Comrade Munckton believes that we can’t take a position. But this would seem to contradict his affirmation, in the very next paragraph, that if he had to choose a formulation he’d go with “embryonic workers and peasants’ state”. So it seems that we can take a position after all.

Further on he writes: “Beyond labels, the essence of the continuing struggle for power in Venezuela today is that the dictatorship of capital has been badly eroded, but not decisively overthrown”.

Well, the DSP’s formulation suggests otherwise.

The bourgeoisie exercises its class dictatorship through the state. If the capitalist state has been weakened, eroded “but not decisively overthrown”, then the Venezuelan state must still be a capitalist state – not an embryonic workers and peasants’ state.

“A new [state] power is being constructed”, he says, “but it is a long way from decisively consolidated”. What is meant by “decisively consolidated”? That the struggle for state power is still raging? Or that the new state power that already exists is still only at an embryonic stage of development?

It seems to me that Comrade Stuart conflates, i.e. does not distinguish between, the struggle for state power (revolutionary situation, insurrection.) and the consolidation and further development of the new state that has already come into being.

Stuart says that “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”.

Does Stuart disagree with the assessment that the Venezuelan armed forces acted, and thereby revealed themselves to be, “a qualitatively new armed forces serving the working people” in the big, decisive class battles of the April revolution and the smashing of the oil industry lock-out?

He continues: “You cannot separate this question from the actual level of consciousness of the officers and soldiers who make up the armed forces”. Yes, you can. Thought and action are dialectically interrelated but they are not identical. I am a criminal because I break the law, not because I have criminal thoughts.

It is not only possible to distinguish between the consciousness of the soldiers and their actions, it’s obligatory for Marxists to do so. Otherwise we find ourselves on the slippery slope towards subjective idealism, the idea that consciousness determines social being.

Comrade Munckton says that “if corruption dominates in broader society it is utopian to expect that it won’t infiltrate into the military”. That there is some level of corruption in the armed forces is certainly inevitable, but how bad is it? Is the Venezuelan armed forces so corrupt that this institution acts in the class interests of the bourgeoisie? Earlier, Stuart himself says no, “the armed forces have been broken, for now at least, as a weapon in the hands of capital.”

Finally, let’s clear up this misunderstanding.

According to Comrade Stuart, “ultimately the job of the military is to defend the nation”. This is pure liberalism! The job of the armed forces is not to defend “the nation” but to defend the class interests of the politically dominant social class (or alliance of classes) in the nation.

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