The progressivist view of history often goes hand in hand with the faith that a new class -- sometimes the proletariat, at other times "the people" -- has a privileged perspective or consciousness. If scientific (as opposed to vulgar) Marxism debunks this idea on a theoretical level -- showing how commodity and money fetishism's inversions of reality affect all classes alike -- then fascism belies the progressivist faith on a practical level, showing that neither in the streets nor in the social networks do progress and reason have to reign.
The fascists who operate today in Venezuela -- to say nothing of those active in the Ukraine, Greece, or Colombia -- are by no means a historical aberration. Only if we take one of capitalism's key myths at face value must we imagine that our current society is the wondrous culmination of a teleological evolutionary process and cannot just as well contain a host of violent and irrational elements that, far from being "atavistic," are simply part and parcel with capitalist modernity. In fact, capitalism's historical tendency, if any such thing exists, is not toward growing enlightenment but rather toward increasing barbarism.
In the Bolivarian Republic, easygoing tropical culture notwithstanding, young people and students have recently taken to the streets, donning ski masks and white shirts to defy public order with the typical fascist combination of destructiveness and repudiation of intellect (fighting shortages by destroying stocks, solving educational bottlenecks by burning institutions of learning, and overcoming insecurity by attacking the police). The beleaguered government, which is clumsy and paternalistic but well-meaning, organizes a national Peace Conference that incorporates opposition politicians and businessmen. At this conference literally everybody is welcome, but the response of the students is (in practical terms): Viva la muerte!
During the course of the past century the left's response to an upsurge in fascism has generally taken one of two basic directions. The Popular Front tactic aims to group many non-fascist sectors into a large antifascist bloc. The alliance with the national bourgeoisie, so dear to the hearts of communist parties, comes into play here. All the progressist forces including center and liberal organizations are lumped together. They are heaped into the same messy but presumably powerful grab bag, the direction of which is left in some measure to "historical forces."
The second type of tactic calls for a different response. Fascism itself, it is argued, feeds on vagueness. Its voluntarist spirit captures working- and middle-class sectors to struggle for a social order that runs against their own interest (even in the medium term) precisely when they are denied the perspective of a project that actually serves them. Since that project is socialism, according to the proponents of this second tactic one must keep high the socialist flag in moments of political crisis. (By contrast, the Popular Front tactic claims that the socialist flag must be kept carefully out of sight so as to not scare away allies!)
The Venezuelan government has generally pursued the first tactic, not only in its calling for a broad-based Peace Conference and making difficult economic concessions there, but also in its very tolerant attitude toward the fascist street actions and barricades (repression would scare off the allies). In the same spirit, President Nicolás Maduro's project of seeking artist and actor supporters has its best explanation as a latter-day sort of Popular Cultural Front or Antifascist Alliance of the kind that existed in the 1930s. The Bolivarian government, with its characteristic bonhomie, proposes to give a coarse bear hug to all social sectors that are willing to support its legitimacy (even reaching out to the megacapitalist Lorenzo Mendoza).
Theoretical considerations aside, the central problem with this Popular Front tactic is that it does not seem to be yielding anything but a few precarious fruits. Last week's death toll includes at least three civilians and one National Guardsman, while the midweek saw an evident resurgence of the fascist student activity. Far from losing its ardor and mystique, the fascist right wing seems to be still strong, confident of its capacity to act in the present and the future. Among other elements now in this group's collective consciousness is a clear awareness of its ability to use violence to force concessions from its opponent.
Under such conditions the second line of response begins to gain more credibility. This option does not rely on mystical ("progressivist") forces of history, and the path it proposes is indeed steep and thorny. For while many may accept that socialism is the way out of fascist barbarism, there are a number of limiting factors and cautionary circumstances that must condition the left's action in the Venezuelan situation.
The first is that local fascism, like the fascism in Spain in the 1930s and onward and in South America's Southern Cone during the 1970s and 1980s, is not simply a question of the middle and working classes serving the project of capitalist groups with an important national base -- as was the case in Nazi Germany. On the contrary, Venezuelan fascism, as is evidenced in its not very deeply concealed wish for intervention from the U.S. and its funding from the same, has its center of gravity in that foreign country, the most powerful and ruthless military force of our time.
The second is that by no means have the masses generally come to accept the alternative between socialism and barbarism as defining our historical juncture. Despite Hugo Chávez's having said so much on many occasions, even directly citing Rosa Luxemburg, the late leader of the Bolivarian process also confused the issue by never really defining capitalism, by permitting confusion about the "productive sector," and by repeated vacillations over the tactical vs. strategic character of the agreements with local and foreign businessmen. The consequence of all this is that a large sector of the Venezuelan population today -- like the world population -- believes that civilization has more to do with Samsung phones and Direct TV than with any anti-capitalist project.
This is surely the reason the government feels that it is walking on eggs. Yet its exaggerated caution is probably unnecessary. Some historical lessons have not been lost on the global left and almost compel it to unity. Among these is the nonequivalence of reformism in its social democratic form with fascism; when the Nazi cat came out of the bag in the mid-1930s this leftist sectarian commonplace (social democracy as a form of "social fascism") was permanently dashed. Nor would anyone today lightly promote the idea that fascism and democracy are "simply alternative forms of bourgeois domination." In our time, it is more clear than ever before that capitalism is the sworn enemy of any substantial form of democracy.
For these reasons, the conjuncture in Venezuela seems to call on us to raise the socialist flag -- the banner of socialism-in-democracy (not the same as washed-up social democracy) -- as the alternative to today's fascism. It was once proposed that in capitalism's crisis the challenging political situation -- what today would be called the problem of governability -- is like a ball on top of a pyramid. It has to roll off one way or other, either to the left or to the right. Now that democracy itself can no longer be counted among the merits of the right-side option and in its place lie a string of holocausts from Auschwitz to Gaza and Fallujah, it seems not only possible but also necessary that we stand firmly by the left option which is socialism.
A final consideration here is theoretical: it is increasingly evident that the Popular Front conception tacitly rests on the assumption that things will fall in place on their own. Like the naive evolutionists' semi-religious belief that everything that rises must converge, this is merely dogma or wishful thinking about the positive forces of history. In fact, no such forces exist, and the historical drift could just as easily lead us to ecocide or genocide as to any promised land of communism.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.