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Book Review – The Venezuelan Revolution: A Marxist Perspective

David Raby reviews a new book by Alan Woods, "The Venezuelan Revolution: A Marxist Perspective." Unlike legions of sectarian dogmatists and wishful idealists, Woods understood that revolutions do not develop according to a preconceived formula...

The Venezuelan Revolution: a Marxist Perspective
By Alan Woods
Wellred Publications, 2005
178 pages

Review by David Raby

Although many Marxists and progressive activists in general are still reluctant to recognise it, a real social revolution is under way in Venezuela, and this places the country at the centre of the international political struggle between capitalist globalisation (or imperialism, as it used to be called) and popular movements throughout the world. Moreover, the unquestioned leader of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution”, President Hugo Chavez, is already (and deservedly) an international figure of comparable stature to Fidel Castro or Che Guevara.

The great virtue of this book, and of Alan Woods as a leader of the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency, is to have recognised this fact at an early stage and to have acted accordingly by promoting the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. Like this reviewer, but unlike legions of sectarian dogmatists and wishful idealists, Woods understood that revolutions do not develop according to a preconceived formula, and that the people (or the working class) cannot sit around forever waiting for a perfect Marxist-Leninist party to appear, any more than they can make revolution as a spontaneous and unorganised mass (as some dreamers in the international anti-globalisation movement seem to believe). From my perspective, Woods is still hampered by a somewhat doctrinaire view of the revolutionary party and the nature of revolution and socialism in our times, but any deficiencies in this respect are more than compensated for by his understanding of and support for the Venezuelan revolution.

In Venezuela, at least since the time of Chavez’s first election in December 1998, and especially since the failed coup of April 2002, the masses have burst onto the scene and become leading protagonists of the political process. Indeed, as argued by retired general Jacinto Perez Arcay, in a sense the people took to the streets during the Caracazo riots of February 27 to March 5, 1989 (against an International Monetary Fund deflationary package imposed by the social- democratic President Carlos Andres Perez), and have never looked back.

But the people involved in this spontaneous and directionless popular revolt (brutally put down on orders from Perez with hundreds, indeed possibly thousands, dead) found the leadership they lacked with the unsuccessful military-civilian uprising led by Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez on February 4, 1992. In the absence of an effective revolutionary party, it was Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200) who became in effect the vanguard of a popular revolutionary process that is still continuing, and the crucial point is that this vanguard role is recognised and accepted by the masses.

It is no use lamenting that this is not the type of vanguard party conceived by Marx, Lenin or Trotsky; as Woods points out, what many self-proclaimed Marxists have failed to understand is “the dialectical relation between Chavez and the masses”. They mumble about “populism”, but “show their complete inability to connect with the real movement of the masses”.

It is this same blindness to the real dynamics of popular movements that leads many sectarians to condemn participation in the Bolivarian movement and call for building a revolutionary party outside it; as Woods comments ironically, “So three men and a dog (or a drunken parrot) gather in a cafe in Caracas and proclaim the Revolutionary Party”. This is precisely what many dogmatists in Venezuela were doing for years before the Bolivarian Movement developed, and some of them like Bandera Roja (Red Flag) have ended up as counter-revolutionary provocateurs, which is the logical conclusion of such arrogance.

Woods and the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency are taken seriously in Venezuela, including by President Chavez himself, precisely because they have shown an understanding of the real situation in the country and of the practical leadership provided by Chavez and the Bolivarian Movement. Woods also correctly stresses throughout the need for the revolution to be further radicalised and to take more decisive measures against the bourgeois oligarchy and imperialism.

But where I part company with Woods is in his assessment of Chavez as a representative of “petty-bourgeois revolutionary democracy” who, while being supported in his progressive actions, must be pushed to the left by building “an independent revolutionary proletarian current”. This in my view is to underestimate the political capacity of Chavez and his intimate bond with the popular classes; it is this bond that is the real motive force of the Venezuelan revolution and which is driving it forward to take ever more radical actions.

Just as with Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement in Cuba in 1959-61, so in Venezuela it is Chavez and the Bolivarian Movement who are leading the process forward together with the people. It was, after all, Chavez who surprised everyone in December 2004 by declaring, in his closing speech at the World Congress of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity, that “we have to reclaim the legacy of socialism” and “find the way forward to build the socialism of the 21st century”.

Since then he has repeatedly returned to the theme of socialism, while taking measures such as the expropriation of the Venepal and National Valve factories and their conversion to a combination of state management and workers’ control, the acceleration of the agrarian reform and the signing of the ALBA agreement with Cuba, which strengthens ties between the public sectors of the two economies. Of course popular pressure was also involved in these decisions — Chavez cannot do things alone — but this popular pressure takes place primarily within and through the Bolivarian Movement, which is, as Chavez has explained, nothing else than the organised expression of the social movements themselves: the Circles, the Urban Land Committees, the Local Public Planning Committees, the UBEs (Units of Electoral Battle, now converted into Units of Endogenous Battle, i.e. grassroots committees for the promotion of self-sufficient development).

The people in the barrios have made it abundantly clear that they believe in Chavez and the MBR-200, but not in political parties of any kind. In Cuba, the old Communist Party and the Directorio Revolucionario ended up uniting with the July 26 Movement under the leadership of Fidel Castro, and other parties and organisations disappeared or became irrelevant; I predict that something similar will happen in Venezuela. Unlike Cuba, however, Venezuela will not be subject to the geopolitical pressures that led Cuba to adopt the Soviet model of socialism, leading to distortions of the Cuban process.

But these disagreements are part of the ongoing debate in Venezuela and outside about the future path of the first triumphant revolution of the 21st century. What is most important about this book is its contribution to the understanding and defence of the Bolivarian revolution. As Woods himself recognises, “The greatest danger for the Venezuelan Marxists is impatience, sectarian and ultraleft moods. The revolutionary Marxist current is at present a minority of the mass movement. We cannot impose our solutions on it …”

And outside Venezuela, while being analytical and critical, our main duty is to build solidarity with the process through Hands Off Venezuela and other organisations.

[David Raby is an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool. Reprinted from <http://www.handsoffvenezuela.org>.]