After the elections: Assessing Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution
By Stuart Munckton
[The general line of this report was adopted unanimously on February 12, 2006 by the DSP's National Executive.]
The victory in the December elections
The victory of President Hugo Chavez in the December 3 presidential elections, on an explicit platform of creating socialism, was a major victory in the class struggle in Venezuela, and it opens the way to a new phase in the struggle to decisively deepen the revolution, breaking the political power of the objectively pro-capitalist state bureaucracy, and the economic power of the capitalist class. This victory cannot be understood either in purely electoral terms, or in a purely “Chavista versus opposition” framework.
The 2.5 million strong pro-Chavez election rally on November 27 in Caracas, a city of just five million, and the mobilisation to vote and take over the streets with celebrations on the day were the key to victory. The November 27 demonstration was the largest revolutionary mobilisation yet, and came just two days after, and in direct response to, the opposition electoral rally that numbered in the hundreds of thousands — itself most likely the largest counterrevolutionary mobilisation yet. These mobilisations both broke the potential counterrevolutionary offensive and they showed that the revolutionary momentum remains on the up.
This growth in revolutionary momentum was registered in the raw voting figures themselves: 7.3 million votes for Chavez (63% of votes cast), the largest number of votes for a candidate in Venezuela’s history and Chavez’s highest percentage. It was over one million more than voted for Chavez in the August 2004 recall referendum and more than twice the number of votes cast for Chavez in the 2000 presidential elections. The base of support for the revolution is extending, as is the willingness to mobilise on the streets to defend it. This is in the context of the explicit radicalisation of the revolution, with Chavez making it clear the elections were a referendum on the project of building socialism.
In the face of a strong campaign by the opposition that gathered some momentum, succeeding in remobilising some of the counterrevolution’s base of support in the middle class for the first time since their defeat in the recall referendum — and a campaign deliberately targeting the revolution’s base of support amongst the poor by trying to play on its areas of weakness in solving the problems of the poor — the revolution came out decisively on top and stronger.
This victory also cuts into the pro-Chavez camp, which many revolutionaries insist has its fair share of “counterrevolutionaries in red berets”. John Riddell in a January 11 Socialist Voice article (reprinted in Green Left Weekly January 18, 2007) commenting on Chavez’s subsequent announcement of the need for a united party for the revolution, said: “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. “The victory of the Bolivarian movement in the December 3 presidential elections has created the most favourable conditions yet for such an advance.” This is describing a situation of an incomplete struggle for power, and singling out the victory in the elections, and Chavez’s announcements since, as opening the way to overcome the “deadlock in Venezuela’s class struggle and move decisively against capitalist rule”. The class struggle, as Marx said, is a political struggle, and politics is the struggle for power. The state is made up of the institutions by which the power of a class is enforced on society. Breaking the deadlock means resolving the question of state power decisively in favour of the workers and peasants.
Chavez wasted no time in making clear his intention to use this momentum to unleash a struggle to dramatically deepen the revolution.
First, on December 20, Chavez gave a speech calling for a new, united socialist party. A key factor was the call for the party to be constructed from the ground up, by the most conscious militants in neighbourhoods across the country, rather than an amalgam of the existing parties. The aim of the party was explicitly stated as uniting the militants into a political weapon to advance the revolution, and further the struggle against corruption and bureaucracy. While the nature of this new party, and the road to its formation, is not yet decided and will be the product of much debate and struggle, the aim set out by Chavez is clearly to unite the disparate vanguard currently divided into a large number of different organisations, into a common organisation to create a mass revolutionary party capable of carrying out the political and economic measures that have since been announced.
Then, on January 8, Chavez swore in his new cabinet, which contained significant changes. Jose Vincent Rangel has been replaced as vice president by Jorge Rodriguez, who is seen, if not necessarily further to the left than Rangel, then at least a figure more capable of pushing harder to force needed changes through. The generally popular Rangel, now in his 70s, is seen as a more conciliatory, fatherly figure.
The Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) was given an important ministry, the ministry for popular power and social development. This went to National Assembly deputy David Velasquez, a 28-year-old militant who was responsible for drafting the law on communal councils passed last April. This is the first time the PCV have had a position in the cabinet. They had previously held a position, according to PCV leader Carolus Wimmer, of not participating in the government in order to focus on grass roots work. Wimmer was quite critical of some of the ministers, especially those from the Homeland For All Party (PPT).
Also of note is that the new labour minister, Jose Ramon Rivera, is a self-described Trotskyist, and that after the reshuffle no ministerial positions were left in the hands of either the explicitly social democratic party Podemos, or the PPT. Ministers swore to struggle for socialism, and at this and his inauguration two days later, Chavez explicitly referred to Marxism, referring to himself as a Trotskyist, saying he and Rangel were communists and telling the heads of the Catholic Church they should read Marx and Lenin, not just the Bible.
But the specific announcements were the most significant. The plan to nationalise previously privatised industry sent shock waves through corporate elite. These are not minor nationalisations. They include the largest telecommunications company, CANTV, six electricity companies, projects owned by foreign oil corporations mining heavy crude in the Orinoco belt, plus plans to spread the nationalisation of oil to the entire hydrocarbon sector, including gas. CANTV is Venezuela’s largest publicly traded company, and together with Electricidad de Caracas (EDC) they make up 50% of daily trading on the Caracas stock exchange. US corporations are the largest shareholders in CANTV and EDC, and the multinationals affected in the oil sector are Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Statoil and Total.
The Venezuelan government has wasted no time, having already come to an agreement to take control of CANTV, EDC and a smaller electricity company, also owned by US interests. Chavez has also given the oil companies in the Orinoco belt until May 1 to negotiate joint ventures that give PDVSA at least 60% holdings. The companies involved have all been fully compensated at market value, as is required under Venezuelan law, and so far this process has occurred relatively easily without much resistance. However, the purchases have not been voluntary. While some on the left criticise the Chavez government for compensating the capitalists, it is a tactical question and if the government can afford to offer compensation and in that way avoid a potentially destabilising confrontation, it may well be the best course.
The imperialists seemed taken aback by the pace at which Chavez moved. One investment analyst was quoted as saying, while they had expected Chavez to make some radical announcements while swearing in his cabinet, they did not expect him to go so far as to name companies to be nationalised, and they were “completely shocked”.
The Caracas stock exchange dropped by about one fifth in response. A February 6 Business Week online article wrote: “Nelson Ortiz, head of Venezuela's Caracas Stock Exchange, was optimistic before the Christmas holidays that the bolsa, the national stock exchange, was poised for another year of heady gains in 2007.” The article points out that the exchange had more than doubled the previous year, fuelled by high oil prices and “heady” government spending. But the article claims, “the good times” won’t continue, “if Chavez has his way”.
The nationalisation of CANTV and ADC also tighten government moves to prevent capital flight. This began with tight currency controls by the government over the purchasing of US dollars (which causes brigadistas a few headaches). The controls began in 2003, in order to stop capitalists taking their money out of Venezuela in order to avoid the repercussions of the economic crisis caused by their sabotage of the economy in the December 2002- January 2003 bosses lock-out that tried to force Chavez out of power. This has fuelled a black market that sees the bolivar trade at up to 80% higher for the US dollar than the official rate (b4000 as opposed to b2150). One major way to get around the controls on accessing US dollars was to purchase shares in CANTV or EDC, which are traded in the US, swap them for their US depository receipts then sell those receipts overseas for US currency. The nationalisations close that avenue. Already, Business Week is telling “shocking” stories of business people taking US dollars bought on the black market out of the country in suitcases.
“There are a lot of locals in Venezuela trying to get dollars out of the country, fearing that Chavez is really going to step up his nationalization agenda,” says Christian Stracke, head of emerging markets research for CreditSights, a New York-based debt and equity research house.
Other important economic measures include taking control of the Central Bank of Venezuela to end its “autonomy”. The bank remains an institution controlled by the oligarchy and has resisted attempts to use its reserve to fund national development programs. Gaining government control over it would be a big blow to the economic power of the oligarchy. Chavez has also called for changes to taxation to make the rich pay a fuller share, and measures to enforce price controls of basic goods to combat inflation and speculation.
Facing the problems of inflation and shortages of some basic goods, blamed by the government on hoarding and speculation by the private sector trying to get around the strict government-enforced price controls (the government-run Mercal food distribution network has maintained a zero-inflation rate), the government has announced a combination of increased financial assistance to agricultural producers with measures to crack down on speculation and hoarding. In particular, Chavez has publicly threatened to nationalise capitalists caught violating the law on this issue.
Another indication of the government’s intentions to continue its trajectory of deepening the revolution was the presence of Rivera, as the new labour minister, on a 6000-strong march representing different sectors of workers and, in a positive sign, factions from different sides of the split in the pro-Chavez National Union of Workers (UNT), calling for the nationalisation under co-management of ceramics factory Sanitarios Maracay. The company is being occupied and run under workers control by the majority of its workforce. The march also supported calls for nationalisation of other companies, such as the steel company Sidor. Addressing the demonstration, Rivera expressed his support for these demands and said that Chavez was aware of his presence and supported the workers.
But equally important are the plans for what Chavez calls the “dismantling of the bourgeois state” via an explosion of popular power, with the communal councils the main institution. He has said these should be the building blocks for a new revolutionary state, even suggesting they could experiment with “socialist cities” where they were the only form of power. He called for the councils to both expand and also elect representatives on a regional level. There is a campaign to expand the number from 18,000 to 50,000. The communal councils are granted direct access to funds and control of social programs in their area. The general assembly of the community is the highest decision making body and elected members are subject to recall and are not paid. They are clearly being promoted as the main institutional form of popular power, as they unite under their umbrella all other existing committees, such as the elected urban land committees.
Exactly how this plays out in relation to existing institutions we will see.
Other plans to organise from the grass roots include promoting committees for social control committees to tackle corruption. Also, as part of the campaign against hoarding and speculation, the government has announced the formation of “supply committees” to organise the community to oversee production and distribution of basic goods. These committees would be operate as part of the communal councils.
Chavez has also said that the earnings of all public officials should not exceed US$1400 per month, which would significantly reduce the salaries of top bureaucrats.
In an example of how deep the despotic inroads into the rights of capital can go with this push for popular power, an El Universal article on January 12 indicated plans by the government to allow for the creation of workers councils in workplaces, both private and public, across the economy to enable workers control over production. As well as this, a section of a companies profits would have by law be siphoned off for a “social destination” to benefit the immediate community in the area the companies operate in (i.e. a section of the profits would go directly to the communal councils).
The corporate media is up in arms about the enabling law granted to Chavez by the National Assembly on January 30 that gives Chavez to ability pass laws by decree in 11 set areas for a period of 18 months. However it isn't concern for democracy that is troubling them. It is that on the back of the election victory — a massive mobilisation of working class power — the enabling law has been passed in order to as quickly as possible translate that victory into concrete steps forward that break the power of the pro-capitalist state bureaucracy and institutions such as the courts, prisons and police, as well as decisive areas of capitalist control over the economy,
A more detailed list of the 11 areas Chavez can pass legislation around can be found at http://www2.minci.gob.ve/noticiaingles.asp?num=911, however the main areas include:
The struggle to implement the economic measures creates the framework for the political struggle to extend the power of working people. The economic measures are transitional measures, in the sense spelled out in The Transitional Program, the document written by Leon Trotsky and adopted as the program of the Fourth International in 1938. 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.
The announced economic measures include: an attempt to implement workers control over production; a new tax system to place the burden more decisively on the rich; significant curbing of the right of capitalists to control the distribution of their profits; selective nationalisations over key strategic industries; deepening moves to stop capital flight and strengthening price controls.
These are measures that are part of carrying out the national democratic revolution by enabling Venezuela to increase its economic sovereignty and further the struggle to develop the nation to overcome the legacy of imperialist exploitation. However, it is undeniable that the road to socialism has been opened and these measures therefore go beyond the national democratic revolution and are steps towards a socialist state.
This occurs because, as an underdeveloped country dominated by imperialist capital, especially US, moves towards breaking the hold of imperialism and winning national sovereignty inevitably involve attacking key sectors of capitalism. This can be seen by the fact that, in order to ensure national sovereignty over strategic areas like telecommunications and electricity, and further strengthen Venezuelan sovereignty over oil reserves, the government has to take these interests out of the hands of multinationals based in the imperialist countries (mainly the US). The nationalisations therefore are both national democratic measures, and anti-capitalist measures that advance the struggle towards socialism.
Clearly these 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. This measure involved wresting control away from the pro-capitalist management who ran it in the interests of imperialism, going as far as preparing for its privatisation. This measure laid the basis for the range of pro-poor measures organised through the social missions and the many gains for working people made since. The new measures are aimed to extend state control over the “commanding heights” of the economy.
Ongoing struggle for power
The international bourgeoisie recognise the significance of the current phase, and just what is at stake. This explain the new propaganda offensive in the corporate media, that has begun to reach Australia.
There is an ongoing struggle for power in Venezuela, and control over a number of state institutions is still contested.
The task is to make further gains in constructing a new revolutionary state based directly on the workers and peasants and acting in their interests, and dismantling the old state structures that serve the capitalist class. As in the economic field, this is not starting from scratch. Especially crucial, without which the revolutionary government would have been overthrown, is the purging of the openly counterrevolutionary forces from the armed forces following the failed April 2002 coup, and the ongoing transformation of the armed forces into a weapon to defend the interests of the workers and peasants through the “civil-military alliance”.
While there are still problems with corruption inside the armed forces, and Chavez and sections of the armed forces have raised the alert about the existence of an underground counterrevolutionary section remaining, this armed power of the revolution is being complemented by the significant expansion of the army reserves and the territorial guards. As the measures of the revolution get increasingly radical, the loyalty of different sections of the armed forces will be increasingly tested, however the increasing integration of the military with the working people via the “civil-military alliance” and the moves to create a “people under arms” strengthen the revolutionary trajectory.
This however has not ended the question of state power. At the 22nd DSP congress in January 2006, the report delivered by comrade Kerryn Williams, “Imperialist crisis and the advancing Venezuelan revolution”(The Activist Vol 16 #1), adopted unanimously by congress delegates, identified the institutions not under control of the revolution as the “judiciary, the police force and a large section of the state bureaucracy” (The Activist Vol 16 #1, p7), pointing out there was still a battle for control over these institutions.
As well as the struggle within state institutions, there is also the creation of parallel structures to bypass the old state. Much of these have been organised around the social missions, and are increasingly organised through the communal councils. The plan is clearly to both wage a struggle against bureaucracy and corruption within the existing institutions and to significantly expand the parallel institutions with the aim of having them take on as much power as possible and potentially to replace the old institutions.
The inherited structures tasked with the actual administration of the state remain dominated by a corrupt, objectively counterrevolutionary bureaucracy that slow down or sabotage the implementation of revolutionary measures. Chavez explained in an interview that was published in the September 26, 2006 Green Left Weekly that there was a “bureaucratic counterrevolution that is inside the state”. He said: “I spend my time with a whip because all around me is the enemy of an old and new bureaucracy that is resisting change.”
This is the meaning of Chavez’s comments since on the need to “dismantle the bourgeois state”, and create a “new, revolutionary state”. Chavez doesn’t deny that the struggle for a new state power has already made important gains. For instance in the interview he argued: “Today the Armed Forces is firmly on the side of the revolution. The military structure of Venezuela has been transformed to a great extent.”
These comments on the state are echoed by a wide range of Venezuelan revolutionaries, as was reflected in opinion offered by comrade Nelson Davila’s comments to the January 2006 DSP Socialist Summer School that the state in Venezuela is “counterrevolutionary” and “bourgeois”. This is also the view put forward by others such as William Izarra, who coordinates the Centres for Ideological Formation, and also by Carolus Wimmer, a leader of the PCV. This is not exactly how we have formulated the question, however the basis for this view is the hold by objectively counterrevolutionary forces over various state institutions. This view is expressed in Venezuela as: “the Fourth Republic is yet to die and the Fifth Republic is still being born”.
Overcoming this is not simply a question of legislation by the government or intention of the revolutionary leadership. The aim of constructing parallel institutions (via the missions) and in the economy (with the cooperatives and the co-managed enterprises) is both to get around the blockage of the old state bureaucracy, but most importantly to take the broader population through an experience and organise them in order to create the conditions to break the power of the old bureaucracy.
There is a strong passive culture amongst the poor that looks to above to solve problems. Also, some of the moves announced, such as plans for workers councils to introduce workers control over production — a move Trotsky explained in The Transitional Program introduces a form of “dual power” within a workplace between the workers council on the one hand and the capitalist owner on the other — would require a significant step forward in organising the working class to actually implement. While there is plenty of evidence there is growing energy and enthusiasm among the working class, the majority of the workforce are still largely unorganised, and the organised workers are suffering a crisis of leadership with the split in the UNT.
It is not possible to grasp the significance of the revolutionary government’s announcements and actions post the elections unless you can see that it is about carrying out an ongoing struggle for state power. The partial degree by which power has been won by workers and peasants has conditioned the partial nature of the implementation of the government’s program so far.
What is our position? We have used the position, first adopted at the DSP National Committee meeting in November 2004, of an embryonic workers and peasants state. Key to this is the formation of a workers and peasants government through the struggles around the coup and the lock-out. Also, the armed forces, through the defeat of the coup, were broken from the capitalist class and are being used as a tool of the revolution.
However, we didn't argue that this finished the question. The report explicitly stated that the struggle for power, which is the struggle for dictatorship of one class, or alliance of classes, over another — exercised through state institutions — was ongoing. It sated “resolving [the struggle for power] is the decisive question facing the revolution”. The revolutionaries had “yet to decisively resolve what Marx referred to as the ‘battle of democracy’, they have yet to raise the working class to the position of the ruling class”. It argued that “Venezuela is neither a consolidated capitalist or workers’ state but is in a process of transition from one to the other” (TA Vol 14, #5, p7)
The report made the argument that “any assessment we make about where [the transition] is up to is a provisional assessment subject to confirmation by reality precisely because everything is in flux and we are trying to understand a complicated process from a great distance”.
In the Program of the Democratic Socialist Party in the section “Democracy and the transition to socialism”, (page 122), point three states: “The dismantling of the capitalist state, in the first place its repressive apparatus (military forces, police, judicial and penal system) is a necessary prerequisite for the conquest of political power by the working class.”
As we assessed at our last congress, this is still playing out in Venezuela. The police are extremely problematic, corrupt and violent and, most noticeably in the countryside, often in league with powerful interests attempting to stop the revolution. Attempts at reform have so far not made much ground, although there is a new attempt underway. There are sporadic examples where the working people have been able to drive police back, such as sections of Barrio January 23 that are policed by the community, but this is an exception.
The courts remain a big problem. They have failed to hold accountable those responsible for violence against peasant activists and corruption. The recent decision to drop the case against the murderers of state prosecutor Danilo Anderson in 2004, carried out by counterrevolutionary terrorists to stop his pursuing those behind the coup, and the dropping of the case against the opposition mayor who led the assault on the Cuban embassy during the coup are examples of the problems. Also, the decision by the Supreme Court last year to throw out legislation, against the opposition of the National Assembly and to the anger of the women’s movement, that allowed perpetrators of domestic violence to be held for 72 hours by police, is another example of the problem.
Conditions in the prisons by a number of accounts remain atrocious, and human rights abuses a serious problem, despite attempts by the government at reform aiming to “humanise” the system. This has been raised as a likely reason why the minister for justice, Jesse Chacon, was replaced in the reshuffle.
It is no accident that it is these three areas that Greg Barns highlights in his Hobart Mercury article (January 22, 2007) attacking the Chavez government. This shows the importance of understanding the limitations of the power the revolution has won so far. If we downplay the ongoing struggle for state power, then we undermine our ability to defend the revolution. In replying to Barns, a starting point is the limits of the government’s power — the extent to which there is not a dictatorship of the workers and peasants (obviously we would not explain it those terms), and this is the cause of the problem. In other words, there is the need to be able to explain in a popular way the need to go beyond an “embryonic workers and peasants state”, to a decisively established state power, the dictatorship of workers and its allies such as the peasantry.
A workers and farmers government
An important formulation from the Marxist tradition, for which there are a series of concrete historical examples of how this plays out, is that of the workers’ and farmers’ government. This was formulated by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, as a slogan that calls for the formation of a government “independent of the bourgeoisie” as a transitional formation on the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist state. The tasks of such a government would be to move as quickly as possible to dismantle the capitalist state and transfer power to a new workers state. “Such a government falls short of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but is still an important starting point for winning this dictatorship,” the Comintern theses argue. The exact way such a struggle played out, and the exact pace at which this process of transformation would take, can only be determined by concrete struggle.
One example of this process was the Cuban Revolution. In our resolution published in 1985 entitled The Cuban Revolution and its Extension, we argued that there was a transitional period in the Cuban Revolution between the formation of a government independent of the bourgeoisie, and the consolidation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We argued there were three key points in this process. The overthrow of Batista created a situation of dual power, in this case between a government dominated by representatives of the bourgeoisie, but the armed power lay with the revolutionary army of the July 26 movement. The struggle that developed over the implementation of the agrarian reform in July 1959 created a workers’ and farmers’ government, described as a transitional form of state power based on an alliance of the proletariat and peasants. With the widespread expropriations in October 1960, the socialist state — the full dictatorship of the proletariat — was created.
Not all examples of a workers and farmers government have led to the successful formation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Algeria, the workers and farmers government of Ben Bella from 1962-65 was defeated by a coup by one section of its leadership, based on the armed forces that had been created out of the struggle against French colonialism. Here, the revolution stalled as the tasks of transforming the armed forces; confronting the pro-capitalist state bureaucracy; deepening the organisation of the working class; and crucially of organising the vanguard into a political party to lead those struggles were abandoned by the Ben Bella leadership, opening the way to defeat.
This was the basic conclusion of the 1969 resolution on Algeria adopted by the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International (reprinted in the 1974 US SWP’s pamphlet The Workers and Farmers Government, as part of its “Educational for Socialists” series). The resolution also notes one point that is at least partly analogous with Venezuela — as a result of the weakness of the capitalist class, “The immediate source of counterrevolutionary initiative was the state bureaucracy”.
However, in Venezuela it is clear that the Chavez leadership is attempting to push forward on the areas that the Ben Bella leadership abandoned, and the trajectory is clearly towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. Whether it remains on this trajectory and is successful will of course be the product of struggle.
Our resolution on the Cuban Revolution contains another example — Grenada, where Maurice Bishop headed a workers and farmers government that lasted four and a half years, before being destroyed by a counterrevolutionary coup (couched in ultra-left rhetoric) by one section of the government against the revolutionary current headed by Bishop.
It should be noted that all these examples of workers and farmers governments rested on some form of armed power. A workers and farmers government that didn’t could be destroyed immediately by armed counterrevolution. However, simply having a workers and farmers government, resting on armed force that backs the revolution, is not the same as having the dictatorship of the proletariat, but is a transitional form that opens the road towards it .
The DSP program
What does our program say on the question? In the section “Democracy and the struggle for workers power”(Program of the DSP, p. 124), it lists a series of points on the struggle to overthrow the bourgeois state, and create a workers state to implement socialism. The points include:
“7. The first qualitative step in establishing the democratic power of the working class is the revolutionary replacement of the capitalist government by a working people’s government based on the soviets and other organs of mass revolutionary struggle.
8. Such a government stands at the head of a turbulent, transitional process, during which the capitalist class retains significant advantages. Unless it acts decisively to consolidate the organs of revolutionary mass struggle as the new institutions of state power, that is, to replace the weakened capitalist state with a workers’ state, and to organise the workers to assert control over the capitalists, the revolutionary foundations of the working people's government will gradually be undermined. The capitalists will use their economic power to unleash economic chaos, leading increasing sections of the working people to become demoralised, inactive, and confused. The erosion of the masses’ confidence in the revolutionary leadership will enable the capitalists to reassert their political power — to oust the working people's government, re-establish a capitalist government, rebuild the capitalist state machine, and dismantle the democratic gains of the revolutionary upsurge.
9. The consolidation of the workers’ state and mechanisms for workers’ control over the capitalists enables the working class to prepare itself to begin ‘wresting by degrees’ productive property from the capitalist class, to establish a state monopoly of foreign trade and to introduce a planned economy.”
Obviously the struggle has played out differently than how it s formulated here, but no revolution has ever unfolded according to the dictates of a written program. I think that, understood broadly, Venezuela remains within point 8. The struggle is that of a workers and farmers government that is still attempting, not just to consolidate, but in some cases still to create, the new institutions of state power.
For instance, the struggle for workers to assert control over the capitalists, identified both in our program and by the Comintern in 1922 as a key task of a workers and farmers government, is still largely a task to be fulfilled. One sign of the scale of the struggle to advance facing the revolution is the difficulty in tasking the struggle for co-management, around which there was enormous enthusiasm for taking forward in 2005, with one million workers marching under the slogan of “without co-management there is no revolution” on May Day. However, the actual experience of co-management, which is not necessarily the same as workers’ control but is one form that the struggle for workers’ control has taken in Venezuela, has remained limited to small sections of the economy. Now, the intention of the government is to find a new way to push forward the struggle for working people to exercise control over the economy, with the promotion of workers councils.
Resolving the unfinished struggle
In the period since August 2004, with the momentum gained via the defeat of the recall referendum, a new phase in the revolution has opened up — the struggle for a “revolution within the revolution”. This has aimed to extend the organisation of working people via parallel structures in order to lay the groundwork for increasingly radical measures.
Significant gains have been made in this time, in terms of confronting needs of the poor majority. This underpins the growing confidence and radicalisation, increasing support for the revolution. We have seen poverty drop from 49% of households at the start on 1998, to 33% at the start of 2006, according to government figures. The number of households in extreme poverty has dropped from 17% to 10% in the same period. Government social spending has increased by nearly ten times. The number of social missions grows constantly, tackling an increase number of social problems (with varying degrees of success) and at the same time increasing the organisation of the poor outside the old state structures.
The expansion of education is especially important. The Chavez government aims to create 50 new universities, with half that number already being created. Central to this is not just the extension of access to education to those who have never had it before, but the attempt to transform the nature of education to one that serves the revolution. This means developing technologies and skills in sectors that will enable the country to develop away from dependency on oil. It also means developing new, socialist values. As well as democratising the structures of education, the aim is to integrate education into the life of the poor communities, so that there is not a separation between study and all other facets of the lives of working people. In this way the education system can create educated people willing and able to act in the interests of the revolution, and in this way increasingly replace the old bureaucracy.
The gains associated with the last period have also seen the strengthening of the working class, despite problems of organisation. Part of the transition from a workers and farmers government to a dictatorship of the proletariat in Venezuela involves the rebuilding not just of the workers movement, but to a certain extent of the working class into a social force capable of governing society, following the devastation caused by neoliberalism. Over 50% of the working class has been in the informal sector.
However, this is being reduced and the latest government figures put it at 57% of workers in the formal sector according to latest government figures. This is achieved partly through a drop in unemployment through economic growth fuelled by public spending as well as high oil prices to the lowest point in Chavez’s government —8.4 %. At one point after the lock-out it had reached 20%.
Most important is the expansion of cooperatives and the state sector. Over 100,000 new cooperatives, based on the urban and rural poor, taking people out of the informal sector and into productive work. This amounts to an increasing proletarianisation of the Venezuelan poor. This is important because the atomised urban poor, which was the main social base the revolution began with, is not a social force capable by itself of constructing socialism.
This process, combined with the expansion of education and incorporation of working people into institutions that enable them to begin exercising real control, is important to giving the working class the experiences they need to increasingly take over running society.
These gains made so far are absolutely essential to the advance of the revolution. However, they don’t in and of themselves resolve decisive questions. The redistribution of wealth, the expansion of the social missions, the creation of parallel structures, none of these transform social relations. They do, however, help prepare the working class for such a transformation. The missions do not amount to a social revolution, but neither can you imagine a social revolution in Venezuela without the missions.
The struggle now is to take the impressive groundwork that the missions have achieved in raising the poor out of degradation and laying the foundations for a new system, and use these gains to drive forward to break the back of capitalism in Venezuela.
Overcoming the obstacles
However, the revolution has increasingly come up against a series obstacles in its struggle to advance, obstacles that have led Chavez to call for a “revolution within the revolution”. The three main obstacles are:
The third point is the crucial one to overcome because it is the key to overcoming the first two. In any area where the working people are not strong enough to break the hold of the bureaucrats, and replace their power with their own, the bureaucrats will hold on to positions of power and from this position sabotage the revolution.
There have been over the last period increasing frustrations with bureaucracy, with the most obvious being in the areas of land reform, and also housing (where the government has fallen a long way short of its goals and the needs of the poor). The distance between a number of “pro-Chavez” officials and the popular movements, with the latter accusing a number of the former of being “counterrevolutionaries in red berets”, exacerbates this problem.
One of the centres of the struggle has been over how to select candidates for elected positions. The main pro-Chavez parties have done this behind closed doors and many candidates are not known or trusted by the ranks. This is despite Chavez, after the recall referendum, insisting that this practice must stop and that there must be popular elections for candidates (as is required by the constitution). He also called for the consolidation and extension of the successful grass roots “units of electoral battles” (UBEs). However, the opportunists inside the main Chavista parties in both cases prevented this from occurring.
Chavez has re-raised both these problems after the presidential election victory, this time in the framework of the proposed United Socialist Party of Venezuela. This party, says Chavez, must have popular elections for all positions and candidates. And the role he has assigned to it is similar to the role played by the UBEs in uniting the vanguard to organise the working people. With this fresh victory and the further radicalisation of the working people, perhaps the correlation of forces are such that the opportunists will be unable to block such an advance as they have done previously. The struggle will determine this.
George Ciccariello-Maher, in a January 9 opinion piece entitled “Beyond Chavistas and anti-Chavistas”, makes some useful observations about how, with the repeated defeats of the openly counterrevolutionary opposition, some of the most important fights are now developing within the Chavista camp. He says: “A myth has long existed in commentary on Venezuela, which goes something like the following: when discussing the Venezuelan revolution, the relevant actors can be expressed through the binary ‘Chavista/Anti-Chavisas’ … we cannot even begin to grasp the recent call for a unitary socialist party and the dissolution of the MVR within the framework of Chavistas versus the opposition.”
He argues that “the danger of such a framework is above all political: by lumping the entire ‘Chavista’ voting bloc into one homogeneous mass, we run the risk of missing precisely what is most radical about the process.
“While the internal dynamics of the revolutionary movement are variegated and shifting, with multiple axes, criteria, and alliances, for analytical and political purposes, it is useful to introduce the idea that there are two Chavismos. These are, on the one hand, the middle-of-the-road, social democratic Chavistas, who occupy some of the highest posts in the government, and who are largely represented by the centrist current of the MVR and PODEMOS… an admittedly social democratic electoral alliance.”
This intersects with the struggle against the corrupt, pro-capitalist state bureaucracy that is holding the revolution back, as Ciccariello-Mayer points out: “Perhaps more salient than their centrist orientation, this sector is ideologically the least hostile to and hence most susceptible to bureaucratisation and corruption.”
Luis Tascon, an MVR National Assembly deputy, in an interview published in Green Left Weekly on August 30, 2006, argued: “In the discussion of ‘socialism of the 21st century’, there will undoubtedly be a confrontation between different Chavistas. I am sure there will be a conflict of particular interests between the left and the right [within the process]. But it will not be the traditional right [who are in opposition to Chavez], but a Chavista right-wing.”
You have a situation whereby there is a on the one hand a strong state bureaucracy, which finds a certain base of support within the Chavista camp. On the other hand, you have an explosion of mass organising as increasingly broad layers of working people get drawn into political action and are increasingly radicalised. But this is dispersed, not cohered and a lack of leadership makes it hard for this enthusiasm and determination to advance.
This makes it important to understand what Michael Lebowitz explained in an interview published in the November 20 Socialist Voice: "The problem of the Venezuelan revolution is from within. It’s whether it will be deformed by people around Chavez." The struggle for power, to further advance towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, has occurred in a situation where the capitalist class has found itself too weak to govern — it has proven completely unable to overthrow the workers and farmers government, and has no serious potential to do so in the immediate future.
The capitalist class in Venezuela is socially weak, devastated by neoliberalism that subordinated it further to the interests of imperialism and put it further in hock to those interests. One result is that its political representatives stand completely discredited, with the brutal suppression of the Caracazo, an uprising against neoliberal policies in 1989, a fatal blow. This opened the way for Chavez to be elected president in 1998. Since then, with the capitalist-led rebellion against relatively moderate pro-poor reforms, with the coup and the lock-out, they have done such damage to themselves that it can not be overcome in the short term.
In the presidential elections, the Chavistas plastered the country with posters featuring opposition candidate Manuel Rosales shaking hands with coup leader Pedro Carmona during the latter’s brief reign. Rosales’s claim he was “confused” at the time was unlikely to have convinced too many people.
However, the working class and its allies have not been strong enough to enforce their will decisively on society either. Hence you have a drawn out struggle for power, where the capitalist can’t govern but the workers and farmers government is facing a difficult struggle to advance towards the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In this situation, the role of the state bureaucracy, already powerful in Venezuela due to the traditional ties between the state and the oil industry that have made the state a key source of accumulating wealth, has taken on greater weight.
This inherently unstable situation has been able to maintain itself for a period as a result of the oil wealth and the economic growth fuelled by that wealth. For instance, in 2005, oil profits tripled from the previous year, even after nearly $7 billion was taken out directly for social programs. This has given the workers and peasants government the space to carry out significant social projects to the benefit of working people via redistributing the oil wealth, and fund the creation of parallel structures, along side the old ministries and other state institutions that hold the process back. Also, the oil wealth allows for an expansion of the social economy via funding the cooperatives, without significantly encroaching on the capitalist sector.
Chavez explained in the interview from the September 27 2006 Green left Weekly article: “We have made economic achievements, but we have hardly impacted on the redistribution of the national rent. The poorest class has improved its income due to [increases in the] minimum salary [and the provision of] free health care, free schooling. That undoubtedly has been a relief, but the upper classes have also benefited [from economic growth] much more so.
“The gap between an enriched elite and the lower classes, instead of reducing, has grown. We have to revise this. For example, those from the banking sector have been the ones who have made the most money, [for whom] growth in the first semester of 2006 is 40%, that is billions of bolivares in profits, that has to be revised.” This contradiction cannot continue forever, and the pressures are growing acute in various sectors. Through his post-election announcements, Chavez has indicated that the new phase of the struggle is about ending the contradictions in favour of the revolution.
Some concrete examples of the way the limitations of the revolution’s power frustrate the process include the difficult and increasingly bloody struggle in the countryside to advance the land reform. Here, over 150 peasant activists have been murdered by death squads tied to the large land owners, but almost no-one has been jailed. Colombian paramilitaries are increasingly entering Venezuela from the border, in many cases assisted by corruption within the armed forces, and this has contributed to a bloody terror that, Luis Tascon has claimed, has killed as many as 1700 people in one state alone.
On the other hand, the state bureaucracy has slowed down the land reform considerably, with many peasants complaining about the difficulty in getting land titles, as well promised credit and other forms of assistance. Often the money assigned disappears via corruption before it reaches the peasants. In September last year, peasants protested the role of the state corporation CorpoAndes in the Andean region in refusing to implement the agreements signed with peasants that would implement the economic program pushed by the government, instead continuing to play its traditional role in assisting corporate interests. When they occupied the building, police arrested the peasants.
The problem is the difference between the measures pushed for by the government on the one hand, and the organised peasants on the other, and the actual measures carried out by the state institutions. In an interview by Edward Ellis posted on Venezuelanlaysis.com on January 19, Miguel Basabe, who is the director of education and public relations at the agricultural cooperative of Bevere in Maracaibo, described the situation like this: “the government has a great will, politically. But we have a big problem which is bureaucracy… The same bureaucracy impedes the efficient action of the security corps.” Asked about the role of the armed forces, he said “here has been a change at the level of the army. After the coup d’etat in April 2002 there has been a process of cleaning the armed forces and we are already have an armed forces more in line with the people… Today we can say that we can count on the armed forces.”
Another example is the case in September last year involving the small-scale gold miners in the state of Bolivar. This mining is environmentally destructive, however it continues because the promised assistance from the government for those involved to be retrained and form cooperatives in other areas has never materialised. The program of the government has completely failed to be implemented. This led to a situation that when corrupt soldiers murdered six impoverished miners in order to steal their gold, it was the spark for violent riots that saw the mayor’s office burned down. This is the direct result of the limitation of the government’s power, the fact that the corrupt bureaucracy frustrates the implementation of its stated policies, with the small miners being screwed and their anger boiling over.
Coal mining on indigenous land against the opposition of the indigenous people is another. Again, the key culprit is a state institution, working with multinationals. Indigenous people protest, while expressing support for Chavez. This environmentally destructive exploitation of indigenous lands is in violation of the Bolivarian constitution. It reflects the fact that there is still a struggle to be able implement parts of the constitution, with imperialist interests, backed by the state bureaucracy, still holding the power to prevent its implementation. It is possible to see concretely, that if real power was able to be exercised through the new institutions of popular power, this could be ended. Communal councils of the indigenous people in the affected areas would not vote to allow it.
The defeat of co-management by some sections of the state bureaucracy in state industry is another example. In the electricity sector, the corrupt, pro-capitalist state bureaucracy were able to defeat co-management despite a campaign waged by the unions who had the support of Chavez and the labour minister.
We should reaffirm the concept of an embryonic workers and peasants state. The dictatorship of the working class and its allies is still being created. This is a transitional and unstable period. The use of “embryonic” is essential to understand the current stage of the struggle. It defines the existence of a workers and farmers government, resting on an armed forces that are no longer a tool in the hands of capital but undergoing a process of transformation into a consolidated tool of the workers and peasants. Such a government has to move forward to the decisive creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a socialist state.
Understanding the contradictions in the current situation is important because it is through resolving these contradictions in favour of the working class that the struggle for power will be decisively resolved.
However, between the current stage and the dictatorship of the proletariat there are significant blocks that can only be overcome through revolutionary struggle. Most significant is the role of the state bureaucracy, in conjunction with the economic power still in the hands of the capitalist class
The key to resolving this struggle is the difficult one of increasing the organisation and consciousness of the working class. Chavez has from the beginning sought to base the Bolivarian revolution as much as possible on the greatest mobilisation of the working people, and to constantly radicalise the process.
However, this is an ongoing battle. Chavez has announced a new phase in the struggle via the creation of a new united socialist party to unite the revolutionary militants from the ground up. If successful this would provide a much needed political tool to carry the struggle out. The new institutions of popular power have the potential to be “schools of democracy” for the working people, that allow them to develop the ability to govern through the practice of increasingly exercising power. Through this power, the economic power in the hands of the capitalist class can be broken.
It is an extremely exciting period for revolutionaries worldwide. The Bolivarian revolution stands on the cusp of creating the first socialist state in South America, and the first socialist state since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and in the 21st century.
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