DSP NE report: The Bolivarian revolution and the struggle for ‘socialism of the 21st century’

By Stuart Munckton

[The following article on developments in the Bolivarian revolution is based on a report given by Stuart Munckton to the September 8 2008 National Executive. The general line was adopted unanimously.]

Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz, in his June 5 presentation to a Canadian audience, titled “A spectre is haunting capitalism: It is the spectre of Socialism of the 21st century” (posted at <<www.links.org.au>>), commented that, “Increasingly, the characteristics of this spectre are becoming clear, and we are able to see enough to understand what it is not. The only thing that is not clear at this point is whether the spectre is real – i.e., whether it is actually an earthly presence.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made similar comments on October 17, 2008, during the eighth World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity in Caracas. He said: “The spectre of socialism haunts Latin America ... But this ethereal phenomenon urgently demands incarnation.”

Chavez added: “We are called upon to create those conditions within a process of the comprehensive integration of ideology, culture, society, politics and economy. In that way, socialism will not only become incarnated and grow roots, but also will be able to consolidate and endure.” Chavez added that he was confident that, “We can impel that incarnation, that revolutionary wave that is arising in the region”.

Last becomes first

It is in Venezuela where the concept “socialism of the 21st century” originates. It hasn’t come from an academic treatise, but rather from the truly mass-based and deep-going revolutionary process that has been unleashed in the oil-rich nation of Venezuela on the Caribbean coast in the north-west of South America.

From a country with one of the weakest left organisations and traditions in Latin America, Venezuela has leaped ahead to be in the vanguard. It is Venezuela which, in the 1990s, had one of the weakest socialist movements, that has revived the concept of socialism. It helps prove the Marxist concept of “uneven and combined development”, where the most backward country can become the most advanced through dramatic revolutionary advances.

Equally important is that this revolution is at the centre of a continent-wide process. It is challenging political and economic domination by US imperialism, which has regarded the region as its economic and political “backyard”. In country after country across Latin America, the US embassy and corporate boardrooms of major corporations were the real sources of power.

One decade ago almost every country in the region, with the exception of Cuba, was under the political thumb of the US. It would be unthinkable for regional bodies, like the Organisation of American States (OAS), to show a backbone and vote against US interests.

Yet, in 2008, this is what has happened. In March, every Latin American country in the OAS voted to reject Colombia’s unlawful military attack on Ecuador, a US-backed provocation, including Colombia! In September, the newly-formed Union of South American Nations (another regional integration initiative aimed at weakening US domination) voted to support the constitutional government of President Evo Morales in Bolivia and reject the US-backed right-wing coup attempt. This included Colombia, the “Israel of South America”, and Peru, the other regional pro-US government, which, although not present at the vote also publicly backed Morales.

These events indicate a new relationship of forces. It reflects a weakened US, bogged down militarily in unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the disaster of neoliberalism has created a backlash across Latin America severely weakening pro-US local elites. These developments objectively create more space for Latin American countries to exercise their independence. The region that, for so long, has been under the thumb of US imperialism has emerged as the most willing to challenge it.

The weakening of US imperialism is also bound up with the rise of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. This has helped create the necessary political space, backed by control over the largest oil industry in Latin America.

The leadership of Venezuela’s movement, which has shaken Latin America and the world, has fallen to a former officer in the parachutist division, Hugo Chavez. It was Chavez who first popularised the term “socialism of the 21st century” at the January 2005 World Social Forum.

The power of this statement came not only from Chavez’s position as president – though the fact that a head of state would make such a statement was astonishing enough – but from his position as head of a powerful movement of the oppressed that had begun to break with the “Washington Consensus”.

A semi-spontaneous rising of the poor and loyal sections of the military defeated an imperialist-orchestrated coup in 2002. Heroic mass mobilisations of the oppressed, including  greater sections of the formal working class, also defeated a campaign of economic sabotage via a bosses’ lock-out that included the deliberate shut-down of the oil industry, cutting off the nation’s bloodline.

Imperialism and its forces within Venezuela – the elite centred on the oil industry, the comprador bourgeoisie bound to imperialism and its hangers-on – proved incapable of defeating this mass movement, which, spurred by the right-wing assault, was radicalised and strengthened.

As Chavez has occasionally noted, quoting Leon Trotsky: “The revolution advances under the whip of the counter-revolution”.

Ambitious social missions were introduced that sought to solve the most pressing needs of the poor majority, and began to make important headway. Economic growth was fuelled by the combination of high oil prices and a conscious policy of public spending. This has been combined by experiments in popular power and alternative economic models aimed at creating a “social economy”, such as the explosion of cooperatives, and the mobilisation of the poor to defeat attacks on the government and revolution.

While the missions and other government policies did not fundamentally alter the main political or economic structures in Venezuela, this process had an electrifying effect in a continent destroyed by neoliberalism. This example helped to inspire a revival of mass struggle and a series of uprising in various countries.

This is the background for Chavez’s declaration that Venezuela and the world needed socialism — a position he is continuing to push. The struggle for a “socialism of the 21st century”, still an open-ended and undefined concept, has become a key framework for the Bolivarian revolution.

It makes the lessons of Venezuela, a proper study of the revolution in all its depth, crucial for all who wish to see social change — and that must mean all who want to see humanity have a future, as Chavez has argued. The revolution, with all of the severe limitations and distortions it is yet to overcome, is despised by imperialism and the bourgeoisies across Latin America, for the same reason it is seen as a beacon for hope by millions.

It is a very unfinished and open-ended process, where every gain is partial and threatened by the process’s contradictions, that, through the struggle for change, begins to show the main lines of revolutionary struggle. Precisely because Venezuela has taken revolution out of the textbooks, it must be studied by revolutionaries – and not as some kind of unique specimen to be “wowed” over, but because we want to learn better how to make a revolution.

This fact means we must understand the process in its totality: what has been achieved; what hasn’t and why. However, we are not passive observers. As revolutionaries, we are active participants in the same global struggle. What we see in Latin America, and especially Venezuela, are chinks in the global chains of imperialism. Both this example, and the need to prevent the empire from reforging the chain, make solidarity with the Bolivarian and Latin American revolution essential.

Latin America

Before looking into Venezuela, the first thing to highlight is the international context. For reasons of space, this hasn’t been touched on in much detail in previous reports on the Venezuelan revolution, although it was addressed in the international report at the DSP’s 23rd Congress in January 2008, as it was in the 22nd DSP Congress in January 2006.

The Venezuelan process can only be understood as part of a Latin American process. This is inherent in it, even in its name: Bolivarian. Venezuelan-born South American independence fighter Simon Bolivar’s project was to unite a large swathe of South America into one independent nation, Gran Colombia.

The Venezuelan revolution is, in the first place, a struggle for liberation from the neoliberal agenda enforced by Washington and also Europe.

It exists within a framework of a continental struggle to drive back imperialism, which has condemned the people of the region to misery. Neoliberialism is a phase of offensive by imperialism, aiming to shift the greatest amount of wealth out of these countries into the owners of capital based in the North.

Imperialism is the current phase of capitalism, the rise of monopoly capital and the division of the world between competing imperialist powers. The dominant imperialist power is the US, for which Latin America is its historic “backyard”.

For Latin America, imperialism is the dominant form capitalism takes. Imperialism means the domination of Latin America by capital from the advanced capitalist countries, resulting in the massive shift of wealth from the oppressed nations into the imperialist nations.

The economies of Latin American countries, including industries, crops and oil, are twisted around the needs of imperialism.

The significance of the struggle for regional integration is that it represents a push to alter, to a greater or lesser degree, this relationship. An example is Venezuela’s state oil industry’s (PDVSA) many joint ventures to build oil refineries in various Latin American countries.

As part of seeking to develop the regional economies a number of Latin American nations are looking for trade agreements and investment from sources other than the US and Europe, such as China, Russia and Iran. While this process is still in its early stages (or yet to get off the ground, such as the idea of a regional bank – Bancosur) and the exploitative relationship with the US and Europe has yet to be broken, the consequences of the initial moves to end Latin America’s dependence on, and economic domination by, US imperialism, are important.

Without these gains and the promise they hold for more social gains, Latin America would be in a worse situation politically and economically.

Politics is tied to economics, and the push to exercise political independence is a worry for imperialism. The smooth functioning of imperialism requires political control by pro-imperialist forces: local elites enrich themselves by remaining tied to imperialist capital.

Anti-capitalist revolution

The strength of the national capitalist class varies from place to place, and is strongest in the region’s largest economy of Brazil. For this reason, the struggle against imperialism is the key framework in which the oppressed in Latin America fight to advance their interests. The US understands the significance of the struggle.

The development of an anti-capitalist movement and the struggle for socialism tend to develop through the anti-imperialist struggle. The two things are not the same, but are linked. To challenge imperialism is to challenge capitalism as it exists, which is why anti-imperialist struggles are also potentially anti-capitalist.

However, the only way to consistently fight against imperialism, and defeat it, is through an anti-capitalist revolution. Taken to its logical conclusion, the attempt to defeat imperialism leads towards socialist revolution. As the Cuban Revolution showed, to win genuine independence from US imperialism it had to take greater moves against the dominant US capital. This meant attacking and dismantling the structures of capitalism.

Working people were increasingly mobilised and empowered to carry out these revolutionary measures, and by doing so, drove the more pro-capitalist supporters of the revolution into imperialism’s arms. By the end of 1960, a socialist revolution had been carried out in the framework of the struggle against imperialism.

The national capitalist classes of Latin America, which vary in strength and independence from imperialism, have proven too weak and unwilling to consistently challenge imperialism’s domination. This is because the social forces that are willing and capable of a sustained challenge to imperialist domination — the great mass of the working people — are also a threat to the national capitalist class, which makes awakening and mobilising them dangerous.

As Che Guevara commented in his 1961 speech “Cuba: exceptional case or vanguard in the anti-colonial struggle?”, the national capitalist class is not capable of maintaining a consistent struggle against imperialism. The former are unwilling to push too far, lest they bring into motion the social forces that will destroy them. In this sense, moves against imperialism tend to have, even in their early stages, a class dynamic based on the mobilisation of the poorer sections of society, and tend to be bound up with policies aimed at alleviating poverty.

However, local capitalist classes, under different circumstances, are willing to exercise varying degrees of independence and support or push for policies that weaken imperialism in an attempt to create more space for their own development.

This is obvious in recent times. How else can you explain the apparent growth of a backbone by governments across the region challenging US hegemony to varying degrees? This is a result of the severe crisis caused by imperialism’s enforcement from the mid 1970s through to the 1990s of neoliberalism, which caused a social crisis and dangerously weakened political and state institutions.

This is the political and economic backdrop to the rise of the Bolivarian revolution and the call for a “socialism of the 21st century”.

Today, the period is marked by the conflicts arising from the deepening of the struggle against imperialism, of which Venezuela is only one component, although a central one.

Today in South America, only the regimes of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and Alan Garcia in Peru remain unabashed allies of Washington and firmly within the sphere of US domination.

But Garcia is in serious trouble. His government’s anti-poor, pro-corporate polices have led to significant revolts from wide sections. In October 2008, his entire cabinet was forced to resign en masse when evidence was exposed of kickbacks from corporations in return for mining licenses.

Paraguay is the most recent South American country where the dominant right-wing forces have lost elections, in this case to former bishop who campaigned on a pro-poor basis.

In Central America, El Salvador’s government is still very pro-US imperialism. But polls there give a big lead to the left-wing FMLN in the early 2009 general elections. In Mexico, there are strong social movements making some gains.

The formation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the extension of Mercosur, the 2005 defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas — via the combined opposition of the governments of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Urugauy and Paraguay – are important regional political and economic initiatives. The defeat of the FTAA was very important given that it was US imperialism’s plan to further deepen its domination.

The Bank of the South (Bancosur), which aims to service the region with loans and credit but under the control of the regions’ governments, stands in direct contrast to the imperialist IMF and World Bank, institutions that combine loans with measures to deepen imperialism’s hold of the Third World. Brazil’s decision to back Bancosur gives it potential weight, although the project is yet to become a reality and there are divisions about how it should function.

Within this push for integration, the different tendencies reflect the forces involved and their differing ends. The most advanced countries – Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia – are where the movement of the oppressed have conquered government, liberating it from the local elites in hock to Washington. But while the movement of the oppressed has won government in Venezuela and Bolivia, and made a series of gains, it has not decisively defeated capital.

This is the “axis of hope”: its leaders raise proposals, push for pro-poor policies and use international forums to hammer home anti-imperialist politics. Hugo Chavez, in particular, is taking on the role played for so long by Fidel Castro as the “voice for the voiceless”.

This wing promotes the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, the trading bloc based on principles of solidarity and development and cooperation not competition. ALBA’s initiatives are important examples of how to organise international relations differently.

Bolivian revolution

The Bolivian revolution has become one of imperialism’s key battles in Latin America. The US, together with the Bolivian local elite, is trying to destroy the processes of change as part of the campaign to drive back the anti-imperialist movements in the region.

One of the most significant aspects of the Bolivian process is the centrality of the struggle for justice for the indigenous peoples who make up two thirds of the population. A government based explicitly on a movement for indigenous liberation is unique for Bolivia and the region and as a consequence is inspiring indigenous peoples across Latin America.

Bolivia also reveals something of the dynamics of revolutions in oppressed nations. The struggle in Bolivia is not yet won for socialism. The measures being proposed, or implemented, by the government are not socialist, even if the corporate media often describes them as such. The Bolivian process is based on a movement of the oppressed to reverse neoliberalism that has now succeeded in winning government. It is developing the very poor economy, as well as embarking on a process of decolonisation and justice for indigenous peoples which is bound up with the struggle for land reform. The Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera has described these goals as “Andean capitalism”.

While, in more recent times, Morales has increasingly raised the concept of socialism, it is not a wide-spread discussion. However, there is no road to socialism conceivable in Bolivia except through the struggle to achieve the oppressed movements’ aims.

Through this struggle, and despite its limitations and contradictions, the oppressed are organising and mobilising to confront the pro-imperialist elite. While ultimately, the aims of this movement of the oppressed require a socialist revolution to be realised, it is also clear that the oppressed will have to go through their struggles first for this question to even be posed.

The regional anti-imperialist bloc also extends, in an open-ended way, to Nicaragua and Ecuador. Both the governments of President Daniel Ortega and President Rafael Correa have taken strong anti-imperialist stances in the region and implemented polices that challenge imperialist interests (more clearly in the case of Ecuador) as well as benefiting the impoverished majority.

Nicaragua is a member of ALBA, while Ecuador has declined to join for the time being. In October 2008, Ecuador adopted, with 65% of the vote, a progressive constitution that strengthened the state at the expense of imperialist capital and included many social justice provisions. However, there are also a lot of tensions between the government and various social movements especially the main indigenous group, CONAIE, which has now declared itself in opposition to Correa (although it gave critical support to, and mobilised for, the constitution).

Resistance to imperialism

While this report cannot go into more detail on these countries, it’s worth underscoring the 2008 Congress international report which stated:

“History shows that when dealing with struggles against colonialism and neocolonialism, there are more than two options. There are more options than a government being either directly a colony or else a defacto colonial government (as is the case with much of the Third World), or else a workers and farmers government that is in the process of, or has succeeded in, overthrowing capitalism.

“We can say that ultimately these are the only two choices. But, in reality, there are many variants that play out. In the 20th century especially, but not only, in Latin America, a whole gamut of nationalist regimes emerged that, to varying degrees, challenged the interests of imperialism without going further and having the oppressed working people impose their rule on society to overturn capitalism.”

The report noted that the rise of nationalist, or populist, regimes are often based on moves that attack imperialists’ interests while, at the same time, seeking to prevent working people and the oppressed from taking independent mass action. It noted that a key determinant on the nature of such governments lies within the relationship of a government to masses in motion. It also noted that we support any, and very, measure that improves the position of the oppressed nation in relation to imperialism.

Since our last Congress, a new Paraguayan government has been elected ending more than six decades of right-wing rule. It is headed by Fernando Lugo, a former bishop, who ran on a pro-poor platform.

Honduras and Dominica, neither of which have radical governments nor powerful anti-imperialist movements pressuring their governments to take radical positions, are the two other members of ALBA.

The governments of these small, impoverished countries have taken advantage of the relative weakening of US imperialism and the strengthening of an anti-imperialist pole represented by ALBA to benefit from fairer trading agreements. Honduras suspended a planned reception for the new US ambassador in September 2008 in solidarity with the Bolivian government. These are signs that even weak and squeezed capitalist governments in oppressed nations can be willing to exercise some independence from imperialism when they feel able to.

Brazil, the region’s largest economy, is the other important wing of the movement for regional integration. The Brazilian bourgeoisie is manoeuvring against imperialism for greater independence and weight in the region. It is, for instance, giving support to Unasur and Bancosur, but seeking to ensure that they operate under its hegemony. Brazil’s capitalist class is seeking to negotiate with imperialism from a position of relative strength. On biofuels, for instance, Brazil has been willing to make agreements with the US that serve the interests of Brazilian agribusiness but not the region. In a similar way, the governments of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, exercising of varying degrees of political independence, are giving the integration measures various degrees of support.

The resistance to imperialism is highly contradictory and, most of all, still at an early stage. This doesn’t make the struggles and the gains any less relevant. But it highlights a key factor: gains can be partial.

The US is certainly concerned about this resistance and has been pushing to undermine and destroy it. In 2008, there have been a series of such efforts including: Colombia’s March 1 bombing of Ecuadorian territory that provoked a regional conflict that threatened war; the September “civil coup” against the Morales government in Bolivia; and the US Navy’s revival of its Fourth Fleet to patrol Latin American waters. This is aimed at Latin America in general, not just the Venezuelan revolution. Even the right-wing Brazilian senate, which is no friend of the Boliviarian revolution and has been holding up Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur in an attempt to ensure it enters on Brazil’s terms, expressed strong concern about the Fourth Fleet.

The movement for integration is objectively in the interests of the oppressed. As Fred Fuentes pointed out in a July 26, 2008 article in GLW #760:

“One of US imperialism’s key objectives is to divide the pro-integration currents ... To impede this division is a crucial task for Latin American socialists.

“This is something understood by Chavez, who seeks to utilise all openings towards integration, whatever the limitations, while simultaneously advocating and seeking ways to implement the Bolivarian revolution’s anti-imperialist program ... For the regional capitalists [on the other hand], this convergence is necessary to put a brake on the uncontrolled voracity of imperialism, in a context of growing demands from ordinary people.

“For socialists, opposition to US plans to divide the region is for completely different reasons. While institutions, like Mercosur, can be supported it is not because they represent real alternatives to the FTAA but because they can act as transitional forms towards a real confederation of Latin American states — which would alter the relationship of forces away from imperialism, creating a stronger basis for social change.”

Venezuela represents the most advanced form of this new wave of struggle by the oppressed. Venezuela has done this in an explicit alliance with the one country in the region where the oppressed have conquered political power and used this power to carry out a social revolution – Cuba.

This helps prove that class, and the struggle for liberation from national oppression, are closely bound up.

The class struggle within Venezuela, which is increasingly taking place within the broad Bolivarian-Chavista movement, is very much bound up with the continental anti-imperialist struggle. The ongoing struggle for power within Venezuela will determine its ability to play a leading role in the region. The stronger the power of the oppressed, the stronger Venezuela’s ability to advance the continental anti-imperialist struggle, and vice versa.

Any attempt to counter-pose the internal class struggle and the struggle against imperialism is false: they are part of the same battle and affect each other because working people, in alliance with all the oppressed, are the only social force capable of decisively defeating imperialism.

Socialism is the oppressed people’s means of liberation. Ultimately, the anti-imperialist struggle can only achieve its aims through completing a social revolution — firstly on a national scale but ultimately internationally.

Recent events in Argentina provide a counter-example. The government of Nestor Kirchner, and now Christina Fernandez, has broken with key elements of neoliberalism (most notably its dramatic break with the IMF) and supported a number of integration moves, as well as publicly supporting the Venezuelan and Bolivian governments against US attacks. This took place in the aftermath of the 2001 economic collapse, caused by neoliberalism and IMF policies. Such an about-turn was necessary for the Argentinean capitalist class to save itself and begin to rebuild.

However, the bourgeois Fernandez government’s limited independence from imperialism has been threatened this year by a sustained offensive against it by the right wing, based on the powerful agribusiness oligarchy. The government has proven incapable of even implementing a tax on agricultural exports in the context of soaring food prices and, therefore, profits. The offensive by agribusiness, which included blockades and strikes that emptied supermarkets of food, defeated this democratic measure.

Initially, the government’s tax plan failed to differentiate between small and large agribusiness producers, allowing the powerful large interests to unite the countryside against the government. In the face of this, the government was unable to win support from, or mobilise significant numbers of the urban poor and working class, because the Kirchner and Fernandez governments have failed meet popular demands and worked to demobilise the popular movements.

The government gave no indication that funds from the agricultural tax would be redistributed to benefit the poor and working class, as Venezuela is doing with its oil revenue. This gave the masses no reason to defend the government, or its proposal.

The relative weakening of the Argentinean government could also endanger the Latin American unity project. It would be a blow to the process of integration if Argentina, for all its limitations, was to fall back into the hands of a pro-imperialist oligarchy.

The case of Argentina holds some lessons for Venezuela and the struggle within Chavismo. It shows clearly that moves that demobilise and cause confusion among the mass base risk ceding political space to the right wing.

Venezuela’s unfinished power struggle

As much as Latin America provides the context for understanding the revolutionary process in Venezuela, there is no doubt that the events in Venezuela have been a crucial catalyst for the changes sweeping the region.

Also clear is the unfinished and highly uneven nature of the process of change, as explained in the introduction of Jim McIllroy and Coral Wynter’s Voices in Venezuela. This is evident in the interviews in the book and the coverage from the range of comrades from the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau.

All revolutions have contradictions, problems, unevenness and huge amounts of messiness. However, to simply recognise this doesn’t get to the heart of the situation that Venezuela finds itself in.

The Cuban Revolution, for instance, has all of these things in varying degrees. Cuba faces distinct problems, one of the sharpest is how to win the young generation to the socialist project, which it must to survive. However, these problems occur in a different context, one where Cuban is today defined by the fact that it rests on a social revolution that overturned the dictatorship of capital. Of course, that isn’t total. The revolution has had to make concessions to capital in the form joint ventures. It is forced to engage with a capitalist world around it.

Venezuela, currently, is defined by deep contradictions. Understanding these, their causes and the lines of struggle to resolve them in favour of the great mass of people, is important.

To summarise: In Venezuela, the dictatorship of capital has been badly weakened by the revolutionary movement, but it has not been overthrown. The November 2004 National Committee report on the Venezuelan revolution stated that the “battle of democracy” between the competing class forces — which class will govern —  had not been yet won by working people.

The struggle for power is unfinished. While the revolutionary movement has won the government, and the forces of capital (which, in Venezuela, is first and foremost imperialist capital) have been unable to overthrow it and place government back into the hands of pro-imperialist forces — the pitiyankees (small Yankees) as the US-backed counterrevolutionary opposition are derisively referred to as.

Despite the changes brought by the revolution, capital continues to dominate the economy and society. The nationalisations carried out, while in 2008 growing in size and weight, leave major components of the economy in private hands.

The financial sector remains in private hands, although the government carried out an important nationalisation of one of the largest private banks, the Bank of Venezuela, that was owned by Spanish capital. This doubled the state share of the financial sector, although it remains a minority. Even the Central Bank is still run “autonomously” – i.e. it out of the control of the elected government and run as a “neoliberal” institution. Ending that situation was one of the measures in the constitutional reforms defeated at the end of 2007.

The financial sector has been booming.

It is important to note is that breaking the power of capital is not simply a question of nationalisations and strengthening of the state sector. It also relates to transforming the state sector, of revolutionising it. The existing state structures, as comrade Nelson Davila explained at the January 2007 DSP summer school, are “counterrevolutionary”: they are dominated by a powerful corrupt bureaucracy that frustrates the ability for the revolution’s program to be implemented.

These structures serve the interests of capital and capital, having failed to overthrow the government (though it is still trying), is continuing to look for ways to infiltrate the government, finding opportunities in sectors of the Chavista camp that are corrupt and/or the least ideologically opposed to serving capital.

But the state bureaucracy in Venezuela is not the same as, for example, the bureaucracy that was entrenched in the Soviet Union. There, the bureaucracy rested on the social revolution carried out by the Bolsheviks. In Venezuela, the state bureaucracy, which is extensive due to the central role of the Venezuelan state in the economy – in particular the oil industry – is tied to capitalism.

As is widely recognised by many Venezuelan revolutionaries, the struggle is not simply to nationalise, but to socialise, production. The struggle is to create an economy genuinely run in the interests of the people. There is a big discussion in Venezuela on this alongside a series of experiments in “socialist units of production” – including cooperatives and attempts to find ways of involving the communal councils in production and distribution. However, that is all they are at this stage: experiments with varying degrees of success. Advancing from this situation to one where the main elements of the economy really are socialised will require major political battles that result in the revolutionary movement defeating capital.

The struggle for a revolutionary state, based on institutions of popular power, is crucial for the revolution to advance. The fundamental lessons from Lenin’s State and Revolution, about what sort of state is required for the working people to carry out a socialist revolution, very much apply in Venezuela.

This is being proven in both the positive and the negative, the former being the gains won through the strength of the oppressed themselves, rather than relying on the old institutions, such as the social missions. The negative aspects are revolutionary government’s inability to use the existing institutions to implement its program, causing widespread frustration.

A key problem is the enormous privileges associated with the existing structures. The Venezuelan state is central to generating wealth – largely due to PDVSA. By contrast the rest of the economy is underdeveloped, something the revolution is struggling to overcome.

No sector will give up its privileges without a fight, and these forces will hold on to power until they can be defeated and replaced with new institutions run by the oppressed. This will require an increase in the organisation and consciousness of the oppressed in a context where the traditional clientalist culture – where the wealth distribution from those within state structures builds up a powerbase among the poor – is still strong. This clientalism is strong within the Chavista camp, and is used by various (although by no means all) Chavista mayors and governors.

In this way, the poor are often coopted into the very structures that need to be replaced. It isn’t hard to see how this happens in conditions of poverty, whereby access to resources is often tied to support for particular power blocs within the state and the Chavista movement.

Military

Added to this is the complicated situation in the military, which is subject to the same pressures as the rest of society. Corruption is a significant factor, but there are also political pressures. While the openly counter-revolutionary sectors tied to the opposition have been removed (although there are still such forces within it as the recently exposed coup plot revealed), a lot of the more right-wing sectors of Chavismo have emerged from, or are based on, the military.

The National Guard, in particular, is increasingly being used as a tool to repress workers’ and other popular struggles. While he didn’t take any section of the military with him, the former defence minister and retired general Raul Baduel’s break with Chavez in 2007 signals some of the problems. There are privileges associated with the officer caste, not just corruption or specific ties to business, but in the distribution of political positions. Under Chavez, many military officers have been offered positions as a result of the lack of capable civilian cadre.

This has meant that access to potentially lucrative and powerful positions within the state and government has become associated with the officer caste. It is of note that the one aspect of the proposed 2007 constitutional reform that Chavez watered down, after intense negotiations, was military reform. Originally it gave greater weight to the development of popular militias at the expense of the standing army (essentially abolishing the National Guard as a separate body).

Retired officer and current first vice-president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) Alberto Muller Rojas resigned from the provisional PSUV leadership in mid-2007 after publicly criticising Chavez for backing away from support for the popular militias. Muller Rojas warned that Chavez was surrounded by a “nest of scorpions”, and that the left had never had a majority inside the officer caste.

The question of the military can only be resolved through the revolutionary struggle. Lessons from other revolutions shows that the armed forces have to be based on the social classes in whose interests the revolution serves.

Important ground has been made in the struggle to integrate the existing military into the revolution’s programs and in strengthening the reserves as a means of organising the “people in arms”. However, the gains are partial and need to advance.

This unstable situation, whereby a revolutionary movement controls the government but not the economy or much of the state, creates a society ridden with contradictions. These contradictions are clearly shown in the fact that in Venezuela there is a government which seeks to side with the working class yet, for the last six years, the wages-profits ratio has increased in favour of the bosses.

There is no doubt the poorest have experienced significant benefits. With the economic boom created by high oil prices and the government’s social spending policies, the income of the poorest income sector (some 58% of the population) grew a remarkable three fold between 2004 and 2006. But the richest have also become wealthier.

Despite the crackdown on corporate tax evasion by McDonalds, Coca Cola, Subway and Microsoft, for which they have been forcibly closed them down for up to 48 hours, as well as the increase in royalties from oil, the majority of tax revenue still comes from regressive taxes that target the working class – consumption taxes.

This often results in marked differences between what the government says it is doing, and what happens in reality. This includes: the housing crisis, which is yet to be resolved; the fact that the police force remains corrupt and brutal including violently repressing striking workers and jailing unionists; and the prisons remain hell holes despite repeated announcements of plans to “humanise” them according to “socialist principles”.

Social gains

The social gains of the revolution are profound, and serve as an example to the rest of the world of what can be achieved. Poverty has been halved, and extreme poverty reduced by an even greater degree. Education has dramatically expanded at all levels. Illiteracy has been eradicated.

Health care has been massively expanded. Indigenous rights, including land rights, despite limitations and ongoing problems, have been significantly expanded. Unemployment is at record low levels. The percentage of workers in the formal economy has increased to a small majority, and the massive expansion of cooperatives (estimated at 30,000, nowhere near the target figure of 180,000) are improving the position of the urban poor.

These gains are also being registered by the massive consumption boom, a major factor in the food shortages during 2007 and early 2008.

The big factor is the weakness of the organised workers’ movement. While this could be a report on its own, it is worth noting the significance and the consequences of this contradiction. Industrial disputes are rising within both the private and state sectors. The government is not immune from this contradiction, as was shown by its sacking of an anti-worker labour minister following the nationalisation of the steel works, Sidor.

Pro-worker laws require a working class movement strong enough to force the private bosses and the state bureaucrats to implement them. But union density remains low, at around 14% of the formal workforce. The movement received a boost following the mobilisation of industrial workers in December 2002 to break the bosses lock-out. This led to the formation of the National Union of Workers in April 2003. But severe internal divisions led to a cold split in 2006, and reduced the UNT to a united federation in name only. The revolution has struggled to harness the enthusiasm of sizeable sections of the formal working class.  

However, attempts by capital and the state bureaucracy to impose its interests on the workforce are creating struggles which give the workers’ movement the potential to overcome its weaknesses and build. The most important example of this process was long struggle by the Sidor steel workers for a just contract. This struggle electrified the workers’ movement, and ended with the nationalisation of one of Latin America’s largest steelworks. It also helped create the impetus for the various union currents to try and overcome their divisions.

The social gains won so far are extremely important, although limited. The revolutionary process is now coming up against the limitations of the relationship of forces and requires further victories against capital to advance as well as prevent social gains from being eroded.

We can see how the problems, and the measures needed to overcome them, are closely bound up. When, earlier this year, the government moved to nationalise the cement industry, it stated that the private cement companies were exporting their produce rather than providing enough for Venezuela’s housing construction program. The nationalisation of a series of food production and distribution centres designed to break the food shortages is another illustration of this.

The lack of workers’ participation in state industry is related to the hostility of the bureaucracy, the weakness of the workers’ movement and the uneven levels of consciousness of much of the workforce, which is often still concerned primarily with wages and conditions.

The struggle to bring the police into the process is an ongoing one. There are moves to attempt to organise poor communities directly into policing via the communal councils.

While these struggles must resolve themselves decisively in one way or another, an exact time frame cannot be given for such battles nor can we know beforehand how they will be resolved.

Following Chavez’s re-election in 2006, with a record number of votes, he launched a push to significantly radicalise the process and resolve this contradiction. He insisted that they should move as fast as possible towards socialism and called for a “Great Leap Forward”. He called for an “explosion of communal power” in order to construct a revolutionary state that could replace the existing “bourgeois” one.

In this context, the PSUV was launched, and signed up 5.7 million people in July 2007. Important nationalisations in oil, telecommunications and electricity were carried out, and Chavez was granted the enabling law to pass decrees to facilitate the radical changes (which he used to carry out the nationalisations).

A centrepiece of this was the wide-ranging and radical constitutional reform package that would create a legal framework for deeper “transitional” measures towards socialism. These were to be carried out by combining greater social advances with increasing and institutionalising popular power. Changing the constitution on its own would never have made any of these things a reality, but would have created a framework for struggle.

Slowing down

The reports on Venezuela adopted by the DSP NE in February 2008 and the DSP NC in April 2007 were framed in the context of this push forward. We welcomed this push, while also noting that the relationship of forces meant significant challenges would still have to be overcome.

This report marks that the Chavez government’s post-2006 election push to dramatically deepen the radical measures largely failed. A mark of this was the December 2007 defeat of the constitutional reform package in a referendum. While there have not been decisive steps backwards, we should understand, as Chavez explained, that the process had been blocked.

For instance, some of the missions, such as Barrio Adentro, began to hit major problems. In general, the bureaucracy was stifling the process and the popular movements were in retreat. Yet, the government did not acknowledge this, creating a jarring disconnect between what the government and pro-government media said and what people were actually experiencing.

The irony is that the constitutional reforms were aimed at overcoming these problems. However, the revolutionary movement failed to win the battle of ideas over these reforms. The problems created the material conditions for the capitalist media (which remains dominant) to win a hearing among sectors of the poor for its often absurd anti-socialist propaganda.

The reforms were presented in a short space of time and in a top-down fashion (made worse by the significant number of extra reforms added by the National Assembly) and in a way that was difficult for people to understand. In addition, the organisation of the revolutionary movement was too low and ad hoc, with the PSUV — which aims to unite the disparate forces from the grass roots up – still not yet properly formed.

To make matters worse, the reforms did not have the support of the whole Chavista camp — the sectors of the “endogenous” (internal) right within Chavismo that control a lot of the official positions within the state and Chavista movement, correctly saw the reforms as a threat to their privileges and either failed to mobilise in any significant way or else consciously worked to undermine the “yes” campaign. (In some cases, Chavista governors and mayors provided behind-the-scenes material support to the “no” campaign.)

In this confusion, a poor “yes” campaign, major problems in the missions and economy and a barrage of capitalist propaganda, close to 3 million people who had voted for Chavez in 2006 abstained on the referendum. The opposition vote remained about the same. But the pro-revolution vote dropped to such a degree as to give the opposition a narrow win — its first significant electoral victory since Chavez was first elected president in 1998.

The revolutionary forces lost this referendum: they were unable to win the masses to support the radical transformation proposed. But the counter revolution has remained weak.

Following the defeat, Chavez stated that his government had jumped ahead of the movement of the oppressed — the formal workers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, campesinos and middle class sectors. He said they needed to slow down the pace, and work at solving the immediate problems facing the people. Socialism was still the goal, he said, but a lot more work was needed on the ground to advance towards it.

Pushing forward

This is the path that 2008 has taken: this year there has been a much steadier attempt to advance without going faster than the relationship of forces has allowed. This has meant more effort has gone into building up the PSUV as a real institution (which has made modest gains).

The government was able to alleviate the food shortages through a combination of imports, a partial removal of price controls, plus nationalisations and pressure on capitalist production and distribution firms.

There has been a series of nationalisations in cement production, gas distribution, the Bank of Venezuela and Sidor. In the case of Sidor, the government granted most of the workers’ demands the former transnational owner had refused. Chavez insisted that his government would always side with workers over transnationals and that the working class must be in the vanguard of the revolution. This gave a massive impetus to the revolution, and showed that when Chavez said the slowing of the pace was about preparing the ground better and not giving up on the revolution’s radical goals he meant it.

Chavez’s “26 decrees”, passed in July, just as he lost the power to pass laws by decree, represent a further push forward. They incorporate some aspects of the constitutional reform package that were not in contradiction with the existing constitution, and push in the direction of greater state control over key sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, while also expanding popular power institutions. The changes include provisions for the communal councils to play a role in helping administer and oversee them. They also include a measure to expand the army reserves along the lines of a popular militia.

This was a further step forward that, combined with the nationalisation of the Bank of Venezuela at the same time, showed the revolutionary movement is still pushing forward.

However, none of these important steps forward fundamentally alter the unresolved power struggle in which both sides remain too weak to deal a decisive blow to the other. While the revolutionary movement remains strong, and has the upper hand, it is not in a position to decisively win.

This situation has been able to survive for such a prolonged period due, in part, to the economic breathing space provided by high oil prices. The rich have gotten richer, and so have the poorest. But the poorest have been raised up without having taken part in decisive battles against the wealthy, including seizing their wealth and property.

But this situation cannot last forever. Already, the contradictions of the capitalist economy are giving rise to industrial struggles which are beginning to crack the situation open.

The global economic crisis will increase the pressures on the Venezuelan economy. The economy is relatively well placed, with massive international reserves of US$40 billion and budgets that have been based in oil prices of US$60 a barrel, much lower than the reality, although dropping prices are heading into that territory. Still, the government has been able to budget for an increase in social spending for 2009.

However, the pressures will grow and force the government to make choices if the wealth is no longer sufficient to serve both the poor and the rich. The government has already mentioned “austerity” measures in the state bureaucracy and suggesting legislation to limit management salaries,.

Economic pressure could sharpen the contradictions and hasten the decisive political battles.

While US imperialism has been weakened, its local representatives in the pitiyankees remain woefully weak. The right-wing opposition has been unable to take advantage of the referendum victory to build momentum and is internally divided. It remains mostly irrelevant to most of the big events and struggles, although that doesn’t mean they are not still dangerous and that this situation cannot change rapidly.

The dangers were shown by the recently-exposed coup plot and assassination attempts against Chavez. The opposition’s ability to regenerate will be tested by the November 23 regional elections, although this will be mostly tied to the success, or otherwise, of the pro-revolution campaign. The real struggle is between the PSUV and the those in the pro-Chavista camp who abstained in the constitution reform vote. These elections will be an important indicator of how much ground the revolution has been able to make this year.

Internal struggles

The revolutionary movement, despite its advances this year (of which the PSUV is especially important), is still too weak and its unevenness and contradictions too great to impose the will of the oppressed decisively on the country and break the back of capital’s power.

Three struggles are needed for this to be overcome:

1) the struggle to build the workers’ movement;

2) the struggle to construct the PSUV as a vehicle to raise consciousness and unite the revolutionary militants around a common program and;

3) the broader struggle for popular power to draw the masses in to participate in the revolution and, in doing so, further radicalise the masses and create institutions that can replace the old counterrevolutionary state.

None of these battles will be able to be resolved without an internal struggle within Chavismo – a broad and heterogeneous movement with many currents and often competing goals and interests.

This is due to the nature of movements in oppressed nations. The Chavista right are not simply opportunists who have jumped into the Bolivarian camp for their own interests (although there are plenty who have). The position of the Chavista right is inherent in the open-ended nature of the Bolivarian movement.

The movement did not start out fighting for socialism but as a nationalist movement that sought to develop the Venezuelan economy ravaged by imperialist-enforced neoliberialism. Its original program saw this as occurring fundamentally through capitalism.

While this program has been radicalised, driven by Chavez, that does not mean all forces within the Chavista movement have radicalised along with it. Many that hold significant power haven’t because they have interests associated with maintaining the status quo.

The changes implemented by the revolution have been open-ended. For instance, lifting up the poor has created a consumption boom that has fuelled economic growth that has helped raise profits and create a “new rich”. Are these pro-poor measures which, as positive as they are, do not alter the existing social relations but still exist within a capitalist framework, ends in themselves or a launching  pad for a more far reaching social transformation?

Chavez says the latter, and the potential is inherent in these changes. But other potentials also exist, such as that the missions become limited to welfare-style policies that help create the basis for capitalist expansion.

This gets to the heart of the differences within Chavismo, differences that are increasingly becoming sharper under the pressure of the class struggle. This struggle is at the heart of the battle for democracy within the PSUV and for popular power in general. It is also at the heart of the struggle to advance the workers’ movement and the promotion of workers’ participation in managing state industry.

The Chavista right, currently with a lot of power in existing institutions, is hostile to these changes because they seek to empower those whose interests are counter-posed to theirs.

There are many horror stories that can be told about crimes of the Chavista right. The point is not so much whether these actions are right or wrong (history is yet to create a social revolution that is free from such things), but instead to recognise that they are a reflection of the class struggle within the Chavista camp.

With the weakness of the pro-imperialist opposition, the class struggle within Chavismo takes on central importance. Lebowitz, commenting on this, stated in his talk (referred to at the beginning of this article):

“Who will win? I have to tell you honestly that I don’t know.

“My daily mantra in Venezuela is ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

“I can tell you that Venezuela is no place for a revolutionary who suffers from bipolar disorder. There are the days of depression and despair; there are the days of manic exultation.

“In the end, it will all depend upon struggle, class struggle, and when it comes to class struggle, there are no guarantees.”

This does not do away with the struggle against imperialism (and therefore the counterrevolutionary opposition), but exists in relation to it. The opposition scored its first electoral victory thanks in no small part to problems that the Chavista right bear a lot of responsibility for.

DSP's understanding

Given that the only way the revolution can advance is through a strengthening of the revolutionary movement based on the alliance of the oppressed, the actions of the Chavista right in frustrating those advances, consciously or otherwise, undermine the revolution and potentially open space for imperialism.

One weakness of the position we had adopted on Venezuela is that, while it understood the role of anti-imperialism in the revolution’s development and grasped the unfinished nature of the struggle and problems within Chavismo, it did not give enough weight to the open-ended nature of the movement.

Advances against imperialism cannot be reduced to a struggle between workers and capitalists. Ultimately, only the working people can carry the anti-imperialist revolution out to its conclusion, but that is the product of a drawn-out struggle. Every move against imperialism does not automatically equal a pro-worker, much less a pro-socialist position.

The Bolivarian movement rose in the first place as a “national” movement – against the destruction of the Venezuelan nation by imperialism and the local elite.

Of course, the Bolivarian movement from the beginning had a strong class component with the main social base being the mass of urban poor. In the early stages, the urban poor was the base of a movement headed by petty bourgeois officers. This is not a criticism of the revolutionary movement: it describes what it was as it rose in the 1990s – a movement with weaknesses.

V.I. Lenin, commenting in support of the Irish 1916 Easter rebellion, stated that “whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it”. This was a failed armed republican rising led by petty bourgeois nationalists in alliance with a section of the working class vanguard led by socialist James Connolly. Lenin argued that the struggle against imperialism will throw up all kinds of revolts based on a range of forces, and all should be supported.

The class basis of the Bolivarian movement has advanced through struggle. Yet, it is unfinished. The urban poor, by themselves, do not have the social weight to drive such a process forward towards socialism. This requires the revolutionary movement to include formal workers in its active ranks. This is still a key weakness facing the revolution.

Politics, like nature, hates a vacuum, and other forces will take the space provided by the weakness of the workers’ movement.

Workers and farmers government

The Revolutionary Socialist Party (formerly the Leninist Party Faction) take the “Chavista equals worker”, “opposition equals capitalist” crudity to its extreme, and argue that a workers’ state, albeit if in an embryonic form, was created by the April 2002 uprising that defeated the opposition coup. This is because those soldiers and officers who sided with the poor supposedly made a decisive break with capital in doing so.

However, what was rejected in 2002 was not capitalism, but a particular offensive by imperialism through its local allies to take back the government from forces that had shown a willingness to be independent and had threatened imperialist interests.

The program of the revolution was not anti-capitalist at the time, even if it contained a dynamic that was potentially, and has since become, anti-capitalist. This is why a figure like Raul Baduel could be the hero of 2002, leading the counter-coup, and then jump ship in 2007. The process has changed and radicalised, and it means something different to back the constitutional government in 2002 than it did to back the constitutional reforms that open the road to socialism in 2007.

More breaks are still to take place as the class struggle heats up even further.

For this reason, we should drop the formulation we advanced in the November 2004 NC report of Venezuela being an “embryonic workers’ and peasants state”. At best it is a confusing formulation. At worst it fudges, or gets fundamentally wrong, the reality of Venezuela.

You could point to institutions that potentially form the embryo of a revolutionary state based on the oppressed, such as communal councils, but this remains a potential and is not yet the reality. The actually existing state remains capitalist.

Also, while the military is in a process of transformation, it is dangerous to say it has decisively become an institution that is proletarian in its nature, that will defend the working class against capital (when in fact growing evidence shows it, or significant part of it at least, doing the opposite). The military transformation is bound up with broader struggle to advance the revolution and can't be separated out from it.

The best formulation is the one we used in last year’s reports – that of a workers and farmers government. This indicates that capital has lost control of government, but the working people are yet to conquer state power and break capital’s power. It is an inherently unstable situation that must go forwards or backwards. Those two reports contain a longer discussion about the formulation and what it means.

One other aspect is that while we have avoided the extremity of the RSP’s silliness, we have perhaps not given enough attention to the open-ended nature of the changes associated with the Bolivarian revolution, the way in which they can be contested and serve competing ends.

In the February 2007 NE report, we described the measures pushed for after Chavez’s 2006 re-election as “transitional measures”, referring to Trotsky’s Transitional Program. It noted that, “They do not amount to socialism in and of themselves but they act as bridge in that direction by increasingly undermining capitalism while shifting the economy further towards one that solves the needs of working people”. That report  also pointed out that such transitional measures “are not starting this process from scratch, but building on gains already made in this direction, most significantly the government gaining control over the state-run oil industry PDVSA in early 2003”.

The report was not wrong to make this point. However, it was one-sided.

Measures such as the wresting of the oil industry out of the hands of the pro-imperialist elite that ran it, as well as the other nationalisations and other measures that weaken the hold of imperialist capital over the economy are more open-ended.

They are potentially transitional measures that can act as a bridge towards socialism. But they can also serve different ends. This will be the product of a political struggle that is far from resolved. This is the struggle largely within the Chavista camp.

The weakening of imperialism and the local elite, with the loss of PDVSA, potentially opens space for a new elite to and enrich itself by strengthening its hold on power. Such forces are often known as the bolibourgeoisie, the new rich, who have accumulated wealth since Chavez’s ascendancy.

This process is tied to the state apparatus because with Venezuela’s over-reliance on oil rent from a state-run company and the rest of the economy being underdeveloped, positions in the state become crucial for wealth accumulation.

Given the massive amounts of oil wealth with record prices and government measures that have greatly increased the amount of oil wealth in the Venezuelan government’s coffers, the oil rent from PDVSA has been able to fund the social missions and other public programs that have assisted the poor, boosted the economy and been a source for corruption for the bureaucracy.

Huge amounts of money have been sloshing around Venezuela without a huge amount of accountability, often because of the ad hoc nature of the process.

Within state-run industry, whether newly nationalised or not, the question is in whose interests are these industries run? This is what gives the question of popular power and its intersection with the economy its real weight. This is what makes genuine workers’ participation in state industries such a threat for the bureaucracy.

Part of the battle is whether or not state-run industry will be put to the service of state capitalism, or will be genuine steps towards socialism — a democratically-planned socialised economy. Even without solving fundamental questions, the nationalisations are still important advances that weaken imperialism.

Only further struggle will resolve this. But this tension and contradiction is important to understand the internal class struggle within Chavismo.

Such struggles, in different ways, take place in all revolutions because revolutions are always marked by competing factions and tendencies that reflect the interests  of, or pressures from, competing classes or sections of classes.

As Chris Slee’s Cuba pamphlet outlined, this sort of struggle took place in the Cuban Revolution. However, it is also true that, compared to most other modern revolutionary experiences, as real and decisive as this struggle was, it was resolved relatively quickly and easily in favour of the workers and peasants led by Castro. In Venezuela, this struggle is still playing out under very different and more difficult conditions.

The right

There is a material basis for the endogeneous right in Venezuela. However, because the internal struggle is still in its early stages, much remains unclear. There is not one homogenous right-wing bloc of “endogenous right”, rather a competing series of power blocs with various interests.

Given the dynamics of the revolution, and Chavez’s cental role in driving the radicalisation, a lot of the debate is not explicit. Everyone is a “socialist”, because to not be one means cutting your association with Chavez, which is the source of access to positions. So, for instance, key Chavista powerbroker and Miranda governor Diosdado Cabello, is a “socialist”. He is also a major capitalist and one of Venezuela’s richest men – before the ascent of Chavez, and much more now.

This has a long tradition in history. Mugabe, for one, declared himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist in the late 1970s at the same time as he had the left wing of the Zimbabwean liberation movement physically exterminated.

These are part of the contradictions of imperialism and its impoverishment of oppressed nations, including the holding back of the development of the local capitalist class. The type of populist policies and demagoguery that Chavez is often accused of by the right, and often by left sectarians as well, is a real phenomenon within the revolution. It can also be found within the bureaucracy and various mayors, governors, political chiefs etc. This tendency aims to take advantage of imperialism’s weakening to position itself within the state to accumulate wealth.

The fact that the revolutionary process has been able to benefit this tendency and the urban poor materially helps explain why the Chavista movement has held together against the common enemy for as long as it has and to the degree it has. It is in the interests of both to keep imperialism from reconquering what it has lost economically.

The endogenous right are in conflict with imperialism; they owe their positions to the displacement of the old elite during the revolutionary process. Leaving aside potential to jump ship, a counter-revolution would take these privileges away from them.

On the one hand, the Chavista right needs the masses – the force to defeat the counter-revolutionary attempts to overthrow the government and destroy the process. They depend on the mobilisation of the mass of the oppressed to keep the counter-revolution at bay. On the other hand, the independent mobilisation of the oppressed is a threat to their positions and interests, which are not the same and often in conflict with those of the oppressed. The increased radicalisation and self-organisation of the working people creates the potential for the working people to destroy their power. 

The endogenous right is caught in the contradiction of needing the mobilisation of the oppressed but, at the same time, needing it to remain under their control. Every time the Chavista right acts in a way that undermines the organisation of the oppressed, that causes demoralisation and disorganisation, the Chavista right undermines its own base as well. Yet, it also has to do this to protect itself from the oppressed.

Of course, there is a lot more to the process than the Chavista right, who are organisationally strong but politically weak and forced to tail the radicalisation Chavez is leading. Nonetheless, the struggle within Chavismo is crucial for the revolution to be able to advance.

Workers

The partial nature of the revolution, its significance and potentially life-threatening problems are a reflection of the partial and limited state of the movement which is reflected by the weight of the Chavista right as well as the weakness of the organisation of formal workers.

On one hand, the formal workers have not benefited from the social changes that have transformed the lives of the urban poor. On the other, they can find themselves attacked by capital as well as the state bureaucracy and Chavista right. This can create a contradictory consciousness among the workers, something that could be played out in the November regional elections where it looks like the Chavista movement is at risk of losing the two states with the strongest industrial working class.

Another example is in Sidor. After the heroic struggle which led to the nationalisation, the more right-wing ticket, including forces with links to the opposition, won the union elections.

This mixed consciousness, based on the relatively privileged position of many formal workers, can take on a sectarian and ultra-radical posture. Orlando Chirinos, an oil union leader who is often looked to by the more sectarian and ultra-left among the international left, is posturing that the revolution has not been radical or revolutionary enough. Chirinos claims the government is not a real workers’ government and is not for socialism and he had rejected joining the PSUV in favour of setting up his own, tiny “workers party”. He even called for workers to spoil the ballots during the constitutional reform vote because it was not pro-worker enough.

This deeply sectarian position places the narrow interests of a section of the working class, the privileged oil workers who have had battles with the bureaucracy, over the needs of the workers’ movement as a whole.

Chirinos also downplays the gains won by the urban poor, making any potential for an alliance between the urban poor and the industrial workers he represents impossible. However, the revolution badly needs such an alliance to advance. Chirinos’ position helps drive the urban poor into the arms of the bureaucracy, which has labelled him and others like him “counter-revolutionaries” to justify action against industrial workers. At one point last year, when workers were in conflict with PDVSA management, some threatened to shut down oil production. This allowed management to paint them as the equivalent of the opposition who shut the industry down to try and get rid of Chavez. In response to this a section of the urban poor mobilised against the oil workers.

There are also examples where workers have sought to make alliances with the urban poor. For instance, there have been attempts to combine workers’ management with the needs of the local community. This builds on the alliance between the urban poor and industrial workers that was crucial to defeating counterrevolution attempts like the December 2002 bosses’ lock-out. The PSUV is also very much bound up with the struggle to build the workers’ movement.

The question of power

The problems facing the workers’ movement are bound up with politics. They are not purely industrial or economistic concerns. The situation in Venezuela, the existence of the revolution, makes the questions facing the union movement intensely political — because it relates to the question of power.

Even though the union movement is starting from a weak starting point (14% density among the small majority of the working class who are formal workers), it is confronted with a more fundamental question that, seemingly, is way in advance of its strength. This is the need for the formal workers movement to take a leading role in the revolution, alongside the mass of urban poor, for the revolution to advance in the direction of socialism.

For this reason the struggle to overcome the weakness of the workers’ movement is bound up with the PSUV. A key part of recent positive steps forward is the discussion in the PSUV between the PSUV leadership and unionists from different currents within the PSUV, on the party’s program for the working class and the way forward for the workers’ movement in the revolution.

The interrelated questions of class, ideology, program and power can only be clarified and the movement advanced to the higher level of organisation and consciousness demanded by the tasks facing the revolution through the struggles around those tasks.

It will be around the questions confronting the oppressed, in the seemingly endless series of running battles over competing interests as well as the big issues confronting the nation that this will happen.

Of course, this development cannot occur spontaneously. It has to be a conscious battle, which is part of the crucial significance of the establishment of the PSUV. It aims to be, as Luis Bilbao explained in his “A party in transition for the transition to socialism” article published in Green Left Weekly #746 “a giant cadre school”.

This aim will be, and is being, contested. The last thing the power groups of the endogenous right wish to see is a genuine mass revolutionary socialist party that creates revolutionary cadre.

The potential indication of this is the PSUV’s newspaper. The paper is apparently extremely rare, with a print run in the low tens of thousands. For a party with a paper membership of 5.7 million and with hundreds of thousands of active militants, this means that the new party is so far not using a potentially valuable tool to educate and organise its ranks.

Ideology and the PSUV

The question of ideology for the revolution and the PSUV cannot be resolved outside the struggle for power. It is only in this way that questions can be posed and answered on a mass scale. We can see this in a partial manner already: Chavez’s arguments in favour of socialism and his repudiation of capitalism were forged through the struggles sparked by capital’s revolt against his government.

We can expect everything to be contested. The point of the mass revolutionary party is in the struggle for power. Power will not fall into the hands of the oppressed, it has to be conquered. Therefore those threatened by the struggle for genuine popular power also have no wish to see the PSUV become a tool to assist this.

Will the PSUV operate as a revolutionary organisation along the lines that Chavez has called for, or will it be essentially a larger MVR — a vehicle for the clientalist practices and power groups that exist in the Chavista camp? The latter tendency could be seen in the primary elections for candidates for the November elections, with rules that allowed for candidates to bus in supporters to vote and with instances of vote-buying, intimidation and violence against opponents and other examples of  influence and pressure coming to bear by those seeking to hold onto or win positions of power.

Because the mass-based Chavista movement is open-ended in its direction and contains not simply a wide range of currents and perspectives but actually counter-posed class interests, these struggles exist in the PSUV. The PSUV will not be able to become the sort of cadre school Bilbao talks about without politically defeating the Chavista right.

The new PSUV youth organisation – JPSUV – is a step forward and has the potential to unite, organise and educate militant youth with the potential to be a real driving force for the revolution, by harnessing the energy and radicalism of the youth, but this will not be uncontested. If it appears this is the role the JPSUV is playing, then those forces that are threatened by such a development will seek to prevent it.

These struggles cannot be avoided. The way they play out, and the end result, will be determined by struggle.

The struggle for the PSUV, understood in tandem with the struggle to deepen popular power and to build the badly weakened workers’ movement, is a crucial component of the class struggle. And this class struggle is waged within and without the PSUV.

In fact, the PSUV cannot be constructed outside other struggles, but must be built through them.

The formation of the PSUV, with all of its limitations and its unfinished character — the struggle for what type of party it will be and whose interests it will serve — represents a significant step forward. With the successful conclusion of the PSUV founding congress in March, Bilbao noted that the Venezuelan revolution “now counts on a fledgling but powerful force organised as a revolutionary party”. He argued: “The battle (of ideas, of methods, of lines of action) will not end with the closing of the founding congress. In fact it is only beginning.”

It is a big advance on what existed before – the dispersal of the mass base, the poor quality of the MVR as largely an electoral vehicle and the series of smaller parties of varying quality.

Bilbao wrote: “Venezuela will not be the same after the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — whose founding congress concluded in March. Nor will Latin America. Since the call for its foundation by President Hugo Chavez over one year ago, it has been the cause of controversies, diatribes and doubts. Above all it was the object of violent attacks.

“This was not without reason: to construct a party for the socialist revolution, in this historic moment, goes against conventional wisdom.

“Due to ignorance or vested interests, the philosophical trend known as postmodernism extrapolated from the experience of the Soviet Union in order to come up with some categorical conclusions: socialism is impossible, revolution is unthinkable and a party is an inadmissible anachronism.”

Bilbao, paraphrasing Che Guevera, provided the context: “The project underway had reached the point of no return: either socialist revolution or caricature of a revolution.”

This is what determined the call for the party and the struggle to develop it. A socialist revolution, especially in a country economically devastated by neoliberalism, twisted around oil and the distribution of oil rent, with a weak working class and low ideological level, is a massive undertaking. One part of advancing the creation of an instrument to unite, organise and educate the oppressed — in a context of an open-ended, heterogenous movement.

It is not that instrument yet, and can’t be except through further struggle that defeats forces who don’t wish it to become such an instrument, but the very fact of its formation is a step in that direction.

In the report adopted at the February 12, 2007 DSP NE, we quoted John Riddell in a January 11, 2007 Socialist Voice article (reprinted in Green Left Weekly, January 18, 2007) commenting on the call to build the PSUV:

“The prospect of a united, fighting party of the Venezuelan masses is indeed unsettling to the conservative careerists who occupy many high posts in the pro-Chavez political parties. But for working people, it could be the instrument they need to break the present deadlock in Venezuela’s class struggle and move decisively against capitalist rule.”

This still holds today, despite the many twists and turns the establishment of the PSUV has taken and its very real contradictions.

The class instincts of the various forces within the Chavista movement appeared to have grasped this dynamic immediately, with Riddell quoting Lebowitz on Chavez’s December 20, 2006 call for the PSUV at a mass meeting: “There were cheers in the back half of the theatre, but few in the high-priced seats”. 

Bilbao explained that with the push for the PSUV “multiple fractures occurred”. He went on: “... some smaller segments, that until then had been part of the government, returned to the fold of the pro-imperialist opposition. (The most notorious examples of this were the Podemos party and retired general Raul Baduel.)

“Thirdly, there were the splits produced within those forces committed to the revolution, but who, for different reasons, refused to carry out the colossal task of organising a mass socialist party.

“The fourth bloc, in no way homogenous or organised but perhaps the most significant in numerical terms, were those individuals, generally from the middle classes, who had supported the government but who stepped to the side in the face of an impending transcendental decision: destroying the capitalist state.”

Bilbao, who expressed optimism by arguing that the “ideas of the revolution, driven by political will, will produce miracles”, also makes this sober point: “The documents voted by the congress will remain subordinated to a reality dominated by the immediate relationship of forces and the existing political culture.”

This is very important. We cannot mistake the program adopted at the congress for the reality. Not simply the reality in Venezuela, which any casual observer can obviously see bears little in common with the sort of society the program aspires to, but the reality of the movement as it currently exists, the “existing political culture” — a culture created by decades of oil rent-driven clientalism, passivity, low levels of consciousness and a tendency to look to above to solve all problems. Of course, the revolution has worked to undermine this, but it is uneven and will take much greater struggles and experiences.

“It will take years of ideological, political and organisational struggle to forge an adequate instrument capable of constructing a new society”, Bilbao said. He then makes the crucial point that “These multiple battles will occur simultaneously and inseparably from the confrontation with imperialism and the internal enemies of the revolution.”

The struggle for the PSUV is one element of the struggle required to advance the mass movement.

The struggle for popular power

An equally crucial element of the struggle is for popular power, to make it real. This is not simply a nice addition to the revolution, but is essential for two reasons.

First, the dominant existing structures are not set up to carry out a social transformation. They are products of the capitalist state, and they serve bureaucratism and bureaucratic privilege.

The mass of the oppressed are the social force that have a vested interest in, and are capable of carrying out, far-reaching social change. That is, institutions that are directly based on the oppressed.

The most important of these is the communal councils, based directly on the grassroots, with communities of 200-400 families, or 20 in rural areas, taking direct control of their affairs and managing projects and funds through general assemblies and elected committees accountable to the whole.

Following his 2006 re-election, Chavez described these bodies as potential building blocks of a new revolutionary state, and has since raised proposals for the formation of “socialist communes”, that would be based on elected representatives from these councils.

The second reason is that the experience of popular power is essential not just to give organisational expression to the mass of the people, but also to provide the means by which the mass of working people can go through the experience of participating in governing, and be transformed through “revolutionary practice”.

It is a way the mass movement can advance. The power, experience and consciousness of the mass can be qualitatively transformed, so as to create a force to dramatically deepen the revolution and resolve the deadlock of class forces.

A revolutionary mass movement cannot be created simply through ideological discussion, much less through exhortations by Chavez, but through practice and participation.

This is precisely the key threat to the strength of the bureaucracy and the Chavista right. Their power exists in direct relation to the weakness of the revolutionary movement to take their power. This is why the question of genuine popular participation is such a key element of the battle.

The communal councils are only one element of this, although they are the most advanced example. To a degree, the cooperatives involve another aspect of this, as do other limited examples of workers participation in running their workplaces.

The councils deal with one aspect of this, the issues affecting the areas where people live.  One of the aspects of the constitutional reform that was defeated was to create a legal framework for workers’ councils.

Of course, the winning of the constitutional reforms would not have made the workers councils in workplaces across the country a reality. This would have required the workers’ movement strong enough to impose them.

The defeat of workers’ co-management is a product of the interrelated hostility of the bureaucracy, the weak state of the workers’ movement and the uneven consciousness of the working people. These three factors can reinforce each other. The only way the problems of workers’ consciousness can be overcome is through practice.

Discussing this question, Lebowitz looks at the way sections of the revolutionary movement in the government, who are not counter-revolutionary at all, use the low level of consciousness of the industrial working class, the tendency to be concerned with their own relatively privileged conditions first and foremost, as reasons against workers’ participation in state sectors.

He argues that this can never be overcome unless industrial workers are given a stake in the state and have the ability to participate. Doing this will develop their consciousness and capabilities. If you simply leave the workers and the unions that represent them to be concerned with nothing apart from wages and conditions, then this backward tendency becomes reinforced.

However, for the revolution to be able to advance, the formal working class needs to increase its organisation and radicalisation in order to play the role that the revolution demands of it — and that Chavez has called for.

Like other aspects of the revolution, the struggle around popular power has made some steps forward this year, at least on paper. The July decrees, passed by Chavez, place a big emphasis on promoting communal councils’ involvement  in all spheres.

The government states that there are 36,000 communal councils. However, whether or not there are that many formally existing — itself questionable — it is clear the number that function in a serious way is much lower.

Like all other aspects, these councils are a reflection of the relationship of forces and the same forces and types of practices that the councils exist to overcome also exist within them. Various mayoral offices or other power sources seek to turn the councils into their adjuncts. Consciousness of those participating is very mixed. Often, generally good activists involved in the councils can get sucked into the clientalism that is still powerful in Venezuela, whereby money for projects the community needs may be tied to voting the right way in the PSUV etc.

The cultural problems affect everything.

There are particular experiments, isolated examples, which show a profound example of what is possible and what is intended. One such example is Julio Chavez, mayor of Caracas, where 100% of the mayorality budget has been handed over to the popular power program. Here, the speeches of Chavez, the program of the PSUV, are not just nice words, but are being implemented.

Of course, you cannot create these things in isolation, and no doubt such examples are marked by many of the same problems seen generally. Nonetheless, such examples within the revolution are important.

Nonetheless, like many other aspects of the revolution, there is also no other path to advance except this one. The struggle for popular power will advance along the lines of the various experiments underway, the form of which may come and go according to the practical experience a revolution that is seeking to find its own way forward not copy other models, and therefore whose guiding motto (from Simon Rodriguez, Bolivar’s teacher) is “we invent or we err”.

There is simply no other way forward. The great mass of people have been awakened, they have already achieved miracles. Only this movement can find a way forward.

The problems could take up an entire collected works, because the obstacles are massive. The limitations and contradictions threaten to cripple the process. However, it is only through the living process of the Bolivarian revolution — at the head of the Latin American challenge to imperialism  —  that these problems can be overcome.

It is through such movements of ordinary people that the apparition of 21st century socialism can “become incarnated and grow roots”, as Chavez puts it. This struggle is tied up very closely with the struggle of the oppressed across the region. Beyond that, it is part of the global struggle, and must be understood not in an isolated way, but as an advanced guard of the world movement to destroy this insane system that threatens all life on earth.
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