The Implications of Marxist State Theory and How They Play out in Venezuela

In this analysis, politics professor Steve Ellner discusses Marxist theories of the state and how they currently apply to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. 



The implications of Marxist state theories developed by Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband are useful for framing issues related to leftist strategy in twenty-first century Venezuela. A relationship exists between each of the theories and three issues facing the Chavista movement: whether the bourgeoisie (or sectors of it) displays a sense of ‘class consciousness’; the viability of tactical and strategic alliances between the left and groups linked to the capitalist structure; and whether socialism is to be achieved through stages, abrupt revolutionary changes, or ongoing state radicalization over a period of time. During Poulantzas’ lifetime, his concept of the state as a ‘strategic battlefield’ lent itself to the left’s promotion of ‘strategic alliances’ with parties to its right. The same concept is compatible with the ‘process of change’ in Venezuela, in which autonomous movements play a fundamental role in transforming the old state and the construction of new state structures.


Hugo Chávez’s declaration of adherence to socialism in January 2005 set off a discussion within his movement and outside of it about the nature of the state in the transition from capitalist to socialist systems. Theories associated with Louis Althusser, Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas, which generated excitement in the 1960s and 1970s, then lost their appeal in the heyday of neoliberalism but have since rebounded[1], serve as foundation blocks to frame issues and understand the debate within the Chavista movement as well as the different paths and options currently under consideration. What makes the Venezuelan case insightful is that conditions in the nation for achieving socialism in a democratic setting were in some ways immensely more propitious than those facing the Eurocommunist movements that inspired and were inspired by Poulantzas. In fact, they were undoubtedly unmatched by any other country whose government has been truly committed to democratic socialism. These circumstances make the examination of Marxist state theories against the backdrop of Venezuelan events particularly compelling.

The following work examines the applicability of the three Marxist theories on the state: ‘instrumentalism’ (associated with Ralph Miliband), ‘structural Marxism’ (associated with Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas) and ‘the relational approach’ (associated with Poulantzas). A series of exchanges between Miliband and Poulantzas between 1969 and 1976 published in New Left Review sheds light on the contrast between instrumentalism and structural Marxism. Poulantzas subsequently developed a new theory on the state that differed in fundamental ways from his earlier formulations. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to Poulantzas’ structural Marxist stage as ‘Poulantzas I’ and the relational theory he developed toward the end of his life as ‘Poulantzas II’.

The article discusses the implications of the three Marxist state theories with regard to leftist analysis and strategy. Specifically, it posits a relationship between views on the nature of the state and the following three issues analyzed by all three theorists and currently facing the Chavista movement: whether the actions of the bourgeoisie (or sectors of the bourgeoisie) manifest ‘class consciousness;’ the viability of tactical or strategic alliances forged by the left with political and economic groups linked to varying degrees to the capitalist structure; and whether socialism is to be achieved through a revolution in the form of one abrupt change, through stages or through an ongoing process of state radicalization. 

The article is original in that it systematically compares the political implications of the three major Marxist theories on the state with regard to three critical issues and then applies the analysis to a specific country.  The approach has positive and negative sides. On the positive side, the application of state theories to conditions that are so profoundly different from those of Europe in the 1960s and 1970s only enhances the usefulness of the intra-Marxist debate of those years. On the other hand, the approach is risky in that the focus on implications goes beyond the explicit positions of all three writers, none of whom addressed the types of challenges faced by third-world countries and those of twenty-first century Venezuela in particular. 

The work deals not only with theoretical debate, but also the specifics of the relationship between the capitalist structure in Venezuela and a government committed to a strategy of mobilization and struggle to achieve socialism. Separate subsections deal with the stormy relations between the Chavista government and business sectors, including its attempt to privilege and promote the growth of ‘progressive’ businesspeople as well as its reaction to what it calls ‘the economic war’ resulting in shortages of basic commodities, contraband and hoarding. These conflicts form the context for the discussion of the issues of the ‘class consciousness’ of the bourgeoisie (as defined by the active defence of long-term systemic interests), the ‘class consciousness of the so-called ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ and the relationship between the state and the capitalist structure. The analysis relates directly to the state theories developed by Miliband, Althusser and Poulantzas in a political context radically different from that of Venezuela in the twenty-first century. 

The fundamental issue for the Venezuelan left that emerges from the article, and is of overriding importance at the time of its completion in 2015, is the role of the government of President Nicolás Maduro in contributing to the achievement of socialism. Indeed, many on the left are asking the following questions that are germane to the article: Have the links between the state and the capitalist structure been so reinforced due to alliances with business and institutionalized corruption as to rule out the possibility of steps in the direction of socialism? Does such a failure demonstrate that the small ‘revolutionary breaks’ occurring under Chávez – a process envisioned by Poulantzas as a substitute for the forceful seizure of power– were insufficient for paving the way for socialism? Or can the ‘old state’ headed by the Chavistas play a complementary or contributing role, along with social movements and the rank and file of the Chavista party, in deepening the process of change, in accordance with Poulantzas’ thinking? The article does not pretend to provide the answers. Its main assertion is that state Marxist theories help frame issues that are useful, if not essential, for reaching all-important conclusions regarding the Chavista experience in Venezuela. 


The article’s comparative approach faces a central obstacle. The three Marxist state theories have been interpreted in different ways, each holding distinct implications for state analysis and leftist strategy. This diversity is further complicated by the modifications in the thinking of Althusser, Poulantzas and (though to a lesser extent) Miliband in the course of relatively short periods of time.[2] The proliferation of ideas threatens to undermine the usefulness of the three theories as points of reference to frame issues with regard to the state, social classes and political strategy. The difficulty should not be surprising and is not confined to comparative analyses on the state. An attempt to compare and contrast the historical experiences of leftist political movements such as Trotskyism, Maoism, orthodox Communism and social democracy, for instance, would face a similar challenge. For a study along these lines to be viable given the vast number of factions on the left, the author would have to define and focus on the predominant overall positions associated with each one of the four movements. 

For each of the three state theories analyzed in this article, I have chosen the Marxist line of thinking that is predominant and that sharpens the contrasts in accordance with the study’s basic objective. Instrumentalism will be defined along the lines of the ‘hard instrumentalism’, which minimizes state autonomy, an approach that does not completely coincide with the works of Miliband.[3] To a much greater extent, ‘hard instrumentalism’ differs from the instrumentalism of non-Marxists who centre their analysis on the disproportionate influence of capitalists on policy making, but leaves the defence of the capitalist system out of the picture.[4] In doing so, they ignore the ‘class consciousness’ of the capitalist class, a feature that is central to the thinking of the Marxist instrumentalists, as is demonstrated in the article. 

Similarly, my discussion of structural Marxism is based on ‘hard structuralism’. That current highlights the unbending economic logic of capitalism, including market imperatives, found in the writings of Poulantzas I. More than Althusser, Poulantzas was concerned with the state’s economic functions[5], as opposed to ‘softer’ versions of structuralism represented by Fred Block, who envisioned considerable room for state manoeuvring.[6] 

In spite of cogent objections to the identification of Miliband with “hard” instrumentalism, and of Poulantzas and Althusser with “hard” structuralism, both sets of theoretical formulations – as well as the positions the three theoreticians assumed in contemporary European politics – are useful for understanding leftist debate in Venezuela. Not only were instrumentalism and structuralism as defined in this article well represented among Venezuelan leftists, but both models shed light on the relationship between each of the three issues to be discussed below.” 

The following subsections shed light on the relationship between each one of the three state theories and their positions on the three critical issues in the setting of developed nations, particularly Europe in the 1970s. The discussion of the three state theories helps provide a broader perspective for the three polemical issues that the article will then analyze in the Venezuelan context: the strategy of alliances designed by leftists with forces to their right; the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie; and the nature of the transition to socialism. 

1. Marxist Instrumentalism: Rejection of Alliances with Social Democratic Movements and Sectors of the Bourgeoisie

The Marxist instrumentalists argue that the basic role of the state is to defend capitalist class interests, although they fail to distinguish between immediate and long-term ones. More than any other writing, they cite the Communist Manifesto’s famous axiom that ‘the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. Instrumentalists interpret this statement as meaning that the state represents an ‘executive committee or direct instrument of the ruling class’.[7] The latter phrase implies a close and simple nexus between the state and the capitalist class and has been defended by hard leftist currents, including orthodox Marxists, Trotskyists and anarchists.[8] The Marxist instrumentalists (and some non-Marxist ones such as William Domhoff) explain the state’s pro-business behaviour by documenting the myriad interlocking ties between those who hold political and economic power. Examples include campaign contributions and exclusive circles taking in both political and economic elites, such as social clubs and forums designed to formulate government policy. In short, the function of the state is to uphold bourgeois interests and it does so because of its intricate ties with the capitalist class. 

In analyzing the relations between the capitalist structure and the state, a distinction needs to be made between personal and conscious forms of control, on the one hand, and spontaneous mechanisms generated by market considerations, on the other. Disinvestment in response to government policies perceived to be adverse to private sector interests may be the result of a campaign waged by business groups for political purposes or the lack of incentive to invest.[9] Instrumentalists focus on the former and in the process assume that the bourgeoisie is class conscious and fairly cohesive.[10] In general, the point of departure of instrumentalist thinking is the cohesiveness and class consciousness of the bourgeoisie that as a result is capable of exerting a direct unmatched influence on the state to a degree unrecognized by structural Marxism. 

This article is concerned with ‘hard instrumentalism’, which emphasizes the closeness of the ties between economic and political elites. The links intersect the state at many levels and not just at the top. Consequently, hard or ‘crude’ instrumentalism tends to minimize the potential of the state for significant autonomy, a position defended by Paul Sweezy[11], for instance, when he called it ‘an instrument at the hands of the ruling class for enforcing and guaranteeing the stability of the class structure itself’’. In contrast to the ‘hard instrumentalists’, Miliband criticized many Marxists for underestimating state autonomy, though he faulted Marx and Engels for overestimating it.[12]  

Marx and Engels addressed the issue of state autonomy in their analysis of absolutist regimes that were independent of the bourgeoisie while serving its class interests (specifically the phenomenon of Bonapartism represented by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte). In the twentieth century, Marxist discussion of situations of pronounced state assertion of autonomy largely focused on governments of social democratic parties (as well as fascist ones) whose social base was the petty bourgeoisie and sectors of the working class (Miliband, 1969, 96-118; Block, 1977, 17-19). While there is nothing incompatible between instrumentalism and recognition that social democratic governments can achieve greater autonomy than conservative ones, the instrumentalists manifest a degree of scepticism. Miliband, for instance, pointed out that the British Labour Party government following World War II was staffed with ‘precisely the same civil servants who had served its predecessors’, while ‘official advisors’ of the past also played a key role (Miliband, 1969, 111). Nevertheless, Miliband stopped short of characterizing the state as enemy territory and opposing any strategy of working within it in order to achieve leftist objectives. He recognized that at the local level, social democratic middle class elected officials ‘may well do much for their working-class electorates’, although he added that in these municipalities ‘not much is done by the working classes’.[13] 

Political developments beginning in the 1980s under the influence of neoliberalism have favoured the instrumentalist thesis and resultant strategies. In the first place, in the advanced capitalist countries, the political establishment’s general shift to the right has resulted in what one journalist called ‘the death of the liberal class’.[14] This trend calls to question the state’s capacity to distance itself from the capitalist structure and the viability of leftist strategies of support for pro-system politicians. A second factor which points to the ‘class consciousness’ of the capitalist class in accordance with instrumentalist thinking is the blatant links between political and economic elites that surpass those documented by Domhoff, C. Wright Mills, Ferdinand Lundberg and others in the post-war era.[15] In the U.S., the 2010 ‘Citizens United’ decision of the Supreme Court further opened the floodgates for big money in politics, while two years later the number of millionaire congresspeople for the first time represented a majority in Congress. In the third place, Miliband noted the recent rise of a ‘new breed of technocrats’ belonging ‘exclusively neither to the world of government nor to the world of business’; as a result ‘the boundaries between these worlds are increasingly blurred and indistinct’.[16] Their replacement of professional civil servants formed in the Weberian tradition reinforced the personal and tangible tie-in between the private sector and the state in accordance with the instrumentalist analysis. The privatization of many government services including intelligence gathering and the military has further strengthened these bonds.  

Observers generally agreed that Poulantzas won the debate with Miliband, whose positions lent themselves to strategies further to the left on the political spectrum and who envisioned a state with less autonomy than did the structural Marxists.[17] Nevertheless, the above-mentioned recent trends would indicate that what I call ‘hard instrumentalism’ has greater current relevance than in the past and the acceptance of its arguments and line of thinking is not confined to a leftist fringe.[18] While theoretical debate has gone beyond hard instrumentalism by generally positing a significant degree of state autonomy and specificity[19], political analyses by leftists and non-leftists have documented the increasingly tenacious links between political and economic elites in order to explain political developments in the age of neoliberalism. 

In order to determine the implications of the instrumentalist view for the left’s strategy of alliance formation, a distinction needs to be made between moderate social democrats lacking in commitment to thoroughgoing structural change and radical social democrats. The latter are characterized by charisma and have considerable mobilization capacity. They tend to be ‘outsiders’ who previous to becoming president often refused to compromise with those close to the seats of power. Examples in Latin America would include Fidel Castro when he reached power in 1959 and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia at the time of his assassination in 1948. Both were radicals who had nevertheless clashed with the Communist Party and had affirmed social democratic credentials by publicly disassociating themselves from the left. Another example is Hugo Chávez, an ‘outsider’ who at the time of his election in 1998 explicitly embraced the ‘third way’ politics of Anthony Giddens.[20] 

I would argue that instrumentalists including those of the ‘hard’ variety could have well recognized the revolutionary potential of Gaitán in 1948, Castro in 1959 and Chávez in 1998 and their possible assertion of state autonomy vis-à-vis the capitalist structure. Leftist instrumentalists would thus not have ruled out alliances with those leaders at the time.At the same time, however, instrumentalists consider moderate social democratic governments as so intricately linked to the power structure as to be undeserving of leftist support of any type. Consequently hard instrumentalism is adverse to tactical or strategic alliances with moderate social democrats and in the U.S. would rule out endorsement of, or understandings with, Democratic Party politicians.

2. Structural Marxism: Support for Tactical Alliances

Miliband’s writing offered an empirical explanation for what Marxism had always maintained, namely that the capitalist structure is inextricably tied to the state superstructure. In contrast, structural Marxism represented an original thesis that attempted to explain why capitalism has proved so resilient as to have survived political and economic crises (such as in 1918 and the 1930s) that many leftists at the time presumed would spell the system’s doom.[21] Structural Marxists argued that the state’s overriding function is to guarantee the stability of the system and its long-term survival. For this purpose, the state mediates between bourgeois and working class interests and regulates, rather than attempting to eliminate, class conflict. In the process, the state displays a degree of autonomy on the economic front through the implementation of reforms – as it does on the ideological front, as opposed to the repressive apparatus.[22] The concept of the relative autonomy of the state was reinforced by Althusser’s theory of ‘overdetermination’ in which the multiplicity of relationships involving the structure and superstructure endows the latter (in this case, the state) with a degree of autonomy. Poulantzas, more than Miliband, recognized the semi-autonomous status of the state and not only under the abnormal circumstances of Bonapartist, fascist or social democratic rule, but as a normal feature of democratic government.[23]

Nevertheless, Poulantzas, Althusser and other structural Marxists recognized (as did Marx) that to fulfil its function of guaranteeing the survival of capitalism the state facilitates the reproduction of the relations of production and the accumulation of capital. For Poulantzas in particular, ‘the functioning of the markets… imprisons decision-making’.[24] This very system logic makes it incumbent on the state to privilege bourgeois economic interests (though not necessarily by promoting their short-term profits) since a favourable investment climate secures ‘business confidence’ and stimulates capital accumulation.[25]  In short, in spite of well-defined constraints the state maintains a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the capitalist structure on matters of economic policy at the same time that it is unyielding in its defence of the long-term interests and survival of capitalism. 

The structural Marxist concept of the state’s role and functions has implications for leftist strategy. The state’s relative autonomy on economic matters, as posited by Poulantzas I and others, lends itself to the left’s prioritization of reformist objectives[26] including tactical alliances with moderate parties and occasional endorsement of moderate candidates. Nevertheless, the intractable link between the state and the capitalist structure that structural Marxism envisions (and is even more binding than in the concept of the state formulated by instrumentalism) would rule out tight-knit alliances of a strategic nature on the part of the left when out of power with moderates that have ties with sectors of the bourgeoisie. 

The experiences of the Communist Parties of France (PCF) and the United States (CPUSA) in their relations with parties to their right serve to illustrate the distinction between ‘strategic’ alliances, on the one hand, and ‘tactical’ alliances and support, on the other, and its significance with regard to structural Marxism’s state theory. While strategic alliances are long-lasting and based on a range of basic common denominators, tactical alliances are fragile and less likely to survive the test of time. 

The structural Marxist theory of the state contemplated the viability of economic reforms without altering the structure of the capitalist system and thus lent itself to the PCF’s tactical alliance with the Socialist Party based on a reformist platform. Like the post-war British Labour Party analyzed by Miliband, the Socialist Party rejected a complete break with capitalism and had ties with the economic elite. The stormy relations between the PCF and the Socialists in the 1970s culminated in the 1981 presidential elections when the criticisms of PCF candidate George Marchais against Socialist candidate Francois Mitterrand were, at least at first, nearly as intense as those he formulated against his conservative rivals. In the second round, however, the Communists allied with the Socialists who emerged victorious. Given their mutual distrust, the PCF-Socialist alliance known as the ‘Common Program’ could not be called ‘strategic’, at least by the definition provided in this essay. 

The difference between strategic and tactical alliances with regard to Communist-Socialist relations was a major issue of contention within the PCF, which Althusser was an active member of and which Poulantzas as a French resident closely followed. The popular front against fascism, which actually originated in France in 1934, served as a point of reference in the discussion during the 1960s and 1970s. The experience of the popular front was a counterweight to the dogmatism associated with ‘Stalinism’, against which Althusser’s writing in certain respects represented a reaction. Indeed, Althusser was considered influential in the initiation of the discussion within the PCF on inter-party relations.[27] Althusser held the PCF’s leadership in high regard (in spite of some well-publicized differences between the two) and thus failed to break with it in the late 1960s when he appeared to be closer to Chinese positions and ended up accepting its criticism of his critique of ideology.[28] The respect ended at the time of the Communist-Socialist feud in 1978 and his own theoretical reformulations. 

Althusser, while supportive of alliances with moderate parties, warned of their limitations and dangers. In this sense, he shared the general distrust of PCF leaders toward the Socialist Party and was in agreement with their promotion of what I call in this essay a ‘tactical alliance’ between the two parties. In the 1960s, Althusser’s insistence on the predominance of the ‘structure’ over the ‘superstructure’ clashed with the humanistic Marxism as represented by Roger Garaudy, which was considered more compatible with the proposition of forging a strategic alliance with the Socialists. Indeed, some PCF leaders feared that Althusser’s positions would jeopardize the PCF’s ‘politics of unity’.[29]In Note on the ISAs published in 1970, Althusser argued that revolutionaries who enter into alliances with moderates end up ‘more often than not, subordinated to them’. Furthermore, ‘‘playing the game,’ [they] are ‘taken in’ by it, and abandon the class struggle in favour of class collaboration’. He concludes that ‘a communist party has no business entering the government of a bourgeois state… in order to ‘administer’ [its] affairs’, since its role is to ‘widen the scope of the class struggle and prepare for the fall of the bourgeois state’. In this sense the Communist Party is a ‘‘party of a new kind’, completely different from bourgeois parties’ (Althusser, 2014). These positions on the party, which were the logical consequence of Althusser’s structural theory of the state, may help explain why the PCF stopped short of maintaining solid working relations with the Socialist Party and developing a truly ‘strategic’ alliance to achieve long-term goals. 

 Another example of ‘tactical’ as opposed to ‘strategic’ support for moderate parties, as implied by the state theory of structural Marxism, is the historical position of the Communist Party USA toward the liberal wing of the Democratic Party dating back to the New Deal in the 1930s. The CPUSA showed preference for moderate and liberal Democrats (and particularly African-American politicians) over their Republican rivals. In doing so, it generally ruled out the ‘plague on both your houses’ approach that minimized differences between Democrats and Republicans. The CPUSA’s policy of ‘tactical support’ was at odds with two other positions defended by some Communist leaders. On the one hand, the policy of total repudiation of the Democratic Party was buttressed by the instrumentalist thesis on the intricate ties between pro-establishment parties and capitalist interests. On the other hand, long-lasting support for liberal Democrats (or a strategy of working within the Democratic Party) implied an attempt to forge a ‘strategic’ relationship. Thus, for instance, CPUSA general secretary Earl Browder, who promoted pro-New Deal positions in the 1930s, ended up calling for the dissolution of the Communist Party in order to facilitate convergences with the Democrats.[30] William Z. Foster, who had criticized Browder from the left during these years, replaced him at the helm of the CPUSA and promoted the third-party presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 in opposition to what Communist leaders at the time called the ‘Wall Street controlled two-party system’.[31] The support for Wallace, which some Communists subsequently recognized as an error that helped pave the way for McCarthyism, was in line with the instrumentalist thesis. Although in future years the main CPUSA leaders occasionally endorsed Democratic candidates and generally favoured the Democratic over Republican Party, they rejected the proposal of critical party members such as Dorothy Healey to develop close working or ‘strategic’ relations with liberal Democrats. Healey, for instance, in the late 1960s criticized party leaders for underestimating the potential of liberals such as Eugene McCarthy, who some leftists claimed was intent on co-opting the mass movement.[32]

3. Poulantzas’ Relational Approach: Support for Strategic Alliances

 In State, Power, Socialism and other works published shortly before his untimely death in 1979, Poulantzas added another element to the structural Marxism he had previously defended. According to Poulantzas II, the capitalist structure is not just a relationship of domination, but a relationship of class struggle, a dimension which has to reflect itself in the state superstructure. Thus Poulantzas stated that ‘popular struggles traverse the state from top to bottom and in a mode quite other than penetration of an intrinsic entity from the outside’. In the same work he maintained that the state is ‘the condensation of class relations’ and a strategic field in which diverse social groups assert some form of presence; the influence of the popular sectors goes beyond mere outside interest group pressure.[33] Poulantzas even denied the monolithic nature of the repressive apparatus.[34] At the same time, however, he accepted the reminder of those Marxists who highlight the state’s relative autonomy that the capitalist structure is ‘in the last instance’ (a phrase frequently used by Althusser) the decisive element. To say otherwise would be to view the state as a ‘subject’ and endow it with ‘absolute autonomy’, as do, according to Poulantzas, the social democrats – contrary to the fundamental Marxist principle regarding the tie-in between structure and superstructure.[35] 

Poulantzas II’s theory of the state and class relations lent itself to strategic alliances between leftist socialists and political moderates to their right. In the first place, the state was more malleable and unstable – due in large part to the clashes among fractions of the bourgeoisie – than that envisioned by instrumentalists and structural Marxists. Thus any successful alliance opened the possibility of an ongoing process of its transformation in tandem with leftist inroads on the political and cultural fronts. In the second place, Poulantzas’ vision of a ‘long stage’ consisting of a series of ‘revolutionary breaks’ implied the feasibility of strategic alliances with social and political groups to the right of the Communist party. According to Poulantzas, this process contrasts with the scenario of one ‘big day’[36] when the revolution occurs in the form of an all-encompassing battle with the participation of only those most committed to the socialist cause. Just as the bourgeois state’s attempt to maintain hegemony and guarantee the long-term stability of the system implies a strategy of alliances along the lines envisioned by Gramsci, leftists in power also need to forge a new historic bloc based on alliances.

In the third place, Poulantzas II defined the working class narrowly along industrial lines while classifying much of the work force that does not produce surplus value (or ‘non-productive wage earners’) as middle class.[37] This conceptualization led him to call on the Communist left to go beyond a policy of concessions to a long-term strategy of winning over the middle class by recognizing the legitimacy of its differences with the proletariat and viewing them as ‘differences among the people’.[38] In short, the class relationships envisioned by Poulantzas underpinned a broad-based strategic alliance taking in the working and middle classes, as well as fractions of the bourgeoisie.  

Poulantzas applied his theoretical formulations to concrete political conditions in Europe by advocating strategic alliances of Communist Parties with social democratic ones to their right. These agreements were more all-encompassing than the tactical alliances implicit in structural Marxism in that, as Poulantzas II pointed out, they went beyond national electoral pacts to include convergences at the level of the rank and file and social organizations.[39] He criticized the PCF for failing to promote full- fledged unity and added that only a party shakeup would allow it to overcome the dogmatism and sectarianism that undermined cooperation with the Socialists. 


The state theory of Poulantzas II, unlike the structuralism of Poulantzas I and hard instrumentalism, was optimistic about the possibility of transforming the old state that is embedded in the capitalist system into an agent of socialism particularly in Europe of the 1970s.[40]Poulantzas II’s thinking served to justify the Eurocommunist strategy of forming strategic alliances with social democratic parties to its right for the purpose of gaining power through elections in order to bring about far-reaching change. In advocating this strategy, Poulantzas was encouraged by the structural crisis of capitalism that set in during the 1970s.[41] 

Conditions in Venezuela since Chávez’s advent to power have been more favourable for state-driven transformation by democratic peaceful means than those of Italy, Spain, Greece and other nations where Eurocommunism had an important presence in the 1970s. Indeed, this propitiousness ruled out the necessity of the type of strategic alliances with politically moderate parties promoted by the Eurocommunists. The applicability of Poulantzas II to Venezuela was noted in the prominent Marxist blog ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ in an analysis of State, Power, Socialism:Perhaps it says something that the only place where something like this [Poulantzas’] strategy has been implemented and yielded some gains – not socialism, of course – is the highly exceptional case of Venezuela where the struggle of the popular classes really has traversed the state right to the top with no serious reversal as yet in sight.  (Poulantzas as a co-author of ‘21st Century socialism’ – anyone?) But I think that if Poulantzas’ superior insights are taken seriously, their logic is revolutionary’.[42] 

1. The Context: Venezuela’s Capitalist Structure and the Democratic Road to Socialism 

The following subsection on the relationship between the Chavista governments and the private sector serves to shed light on the implications of Marxist state theories as applied to the Venezuelan case. The three subsequent subsections will focus on the three critical issues that are the main concern of the article.

Several distinguishing features of Chavista rule enhanced the prospects for achieving state-led democratic socialism in Venezuela and have important implications for the Marxist state debate involving the writings of instrumentalists, Poulantzas I and Poulantzas II. In the first place, following two attempts to overthrow Chávez in 2002-2003, the national executive gained control of the nation’s two most important institutions: the armed forces and the state oil company PDVSA. In both cases, Chavista loyalists replaced leading members of the institution that had openly participated in the insurrectional movement. In the second place, windfall oil revenue provided the government with resources to pay for expropriations in strategic industries and the implementation of social programs promoting the empowerment of marginalized sectors of the population. 

Finally, the adversaries of the leftist government were in a particularly weak position as a result of blows received over the recent past. Thus, for instance, the disastrous impact of neoliberal policies of the 1990s discredited the pro-establishment political parties. Furthermore, the takeover of entire sectors of the economy by multinationals in the late 1980s and 1990s, which was more all-encompassing than elsewhere in the continent, weakened the Venezuelan private sector, itself subject to intense internal rivalry during the same period (Ortiz, 2004, 79-82). Similarly, the early twenty-first century witnessed the decline in the continental influence of the United States, as demonstrated by the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) proposal in 2005 and the emergence of unified Latin American organizations that rivalled the traditionally Washington-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). 

These favourable factors, which fed into Chávez’s fiery rhetoric and his movement’s optimism, were offset by other circumstances that pointed in the opposite direction. In the first place, Venezuela lacked the well-organized social movements that paved the way for the rise to power of leftists and centre-leftists elsewhere in the region. In the second place, as an oil producer, Venezuela was more resource dependent than its neighbours and was thus particularly susceptible to sharp income fluctuations at the same time that its productive base was more fragile. In addition, Venezuela’s rentier economy created a sense of paternalism among Venezuelans of all classes who assumed that it was incumbent on the state to attend to all needs. Finally, Marxist economists pointed to the widespread illusion that with the emergence of pro-leftist governments in twenty-first century Latin America, socialism was an easy next stage, when in fact global capitalism was more firmly entrenched than ever.

In spite of the favourable factors for democratic socialism, the Venezuelan state was hardly divorced from the capitalist structure dominated by powerful economic groups that were aggressively opposed to the Chavista government. The attempted coup against Chávez in April 2002 and the two month general strike of 2002-2003 (in effect, a company lock-out) did much to define the relationship between the government and private sector. The main business organization Fedecámaras led both attempts at regime change and indeed its president, Pedro Carmona, was Venezuela’s provisional president during the two-day duration of the coup. Although the general strike (as well as the coup) was defeated as a result of mass mobilizations of the popular sectors, the cooperation of some businesspeople, particularly in the area of transportation, was critical in supplying much needed goods during the conflict. This anti-strike group of businesspeople consisted of those who to varying degrees were Chavista sympathizers as well as anti-Chavistas who rejected the strike call for professional reasons or were simply opportunists. 

Regardless of their motivation, the anti-strike businesspeople were naturally considered more reliable than Fedecámaras members. Subsequently, the Chavista leadership followed an unofficial policy of providing the anti-strike businesspeople preferential treatment and accordingly privileged them in the granting of public works contracts and state credit. On February 4, Chávez announced ‘Les trancamos la llave a los golpistas, ni un dolar más para ellos’ (‘We’re turning off the spigot on the coup supporters. Not one more dollar for them’). At the same time he instructed the head of the newly created CADIVI (the system for the sale of ‘preferential dollars’ to importers at an artificially low exchange rate) to turn down currency requests from those commercial interests that had supported the general strike.[43]Subsequently Fedecámaras spokespeople accused the government of promoting parallel business structures. 

The government’s policy of discrimination against Fedecámaras businesspeople was a logical response to the organization’s insurrectional and disruptive activity that contrasted with its previous political discretion and claim to being nonpolitical dating back to its founding in 1944.[44] In following this approach, however, the Chavista leadership discarded the argument that the government should maintain transparency above all political considerations and thus refrain from showing preference for any economic group in particular. The government’s strategy favoured small-scale businesspeople, many of whom were of Arab origins, at the expense of the traditional bourgeoisie, which formed the backbone of Fedecámaras and maintained links to the U.S. and Europe through economic, educational and family ties. The emerging economic elite started out with little capital and in some cases amassed significant wealth during the Chávez presidency. Under the Chavista governments, they moved into imports and performed local public works projects for which they had a mixed record, but failed to develop a viable financial and industrial capacity or the capability to carry out mega projects. As a result, for many of the large-scale and complex projects, the government switched from traditional partners to new ones abroad. The Brazilian company Odebrecht, for instance, received contracts for a diversity of undertakings including such mega projects as the construction of the second bridge over the Orinoco River, extensive work on the Caracas metro and rail systems and an offshore oil tanker loading terminal in Jose, Anzoátegui. In other cases the government was eventually forced to re-establish working relations with traditional Venezuelan firms. 

The Chavista strategy was more successful on the political front – at least in the short run – than the economic one. Pro-Chavista businesspeople, such as the politically ambitious Miguel Pérez Abad who headed the recently founded business organization Fedeindustria, and belonged to the Chavista United Socialist Party (PSUV), articulated private sector interests. At the same time, they defended government policies for opening opportunities for business groups, particularly with Venezuela’s acceptance as a full member of Mercosur (which was considered an important Chavista achievement). The pro-Chavista businesspeople argued that the government had succeeded in increasing production but also purchasing power and thus it was imperative to streamline bureaucratic procedures in order to facilitate much needed imports. They also regularly attended meetings and assemblies called by Chávez and then Maduro to address members of the private sector.[45] 

Nevertheless, the policy of favouring pro-Chavista businesspeople failed to achieve the objective of stimulating high levels of production and, equally troublesome, it proved conducive to shady dealings. These disappointing consequences were put in evidence by the financial crisis of 2009 when the government expropriated over thirteen banks, jailed at least 8 bankers and ordered the arrest of over 40 others who fled the country. Among the bankers were several who with little capital became wealthy by taking advantage of the government’s determination to sidestep the traditional bourgeoisie and to deposit its money in new financial institutions. One of them, Arné Chacón, was the brother of an important Chavista minister (both had participated in the Chávez-supported November 1992 coup attempt), who resigned as a result. Another was the hitherto relatively unknown transportation businessman Ricardo Fernández Barrueco, whose fortune was estimated at over one billion dollars and whose major companies were taken over as a result of the scandal. Both Chacón and Fernández Barrueco spent three years in jail beginning in December 2009. 

A second scandal apparently involving the emerging bourgeoisie broke out in 2013 when two top government officials and then Maduro announced that in the previous year CADIVI had sold about 20 billion dollars at the preferential rate for the purpose of paying spurious import orders. Just as in 2009, many (though not all) of those implicated evidently had close working relations with the Chavista government. The insistence on the part of the opposition and Fedecámaras that the national executive reveal the names of the companies involved in the scam suggests that government officials and businesspeople with government connections were at least partly responsible. 

The acute shortages of 2013-2015 demonstrated that the government’s strategy for stimulating output had failed to produce the desired results. Government-sponsored worker cooperatives and ‘social production companies’ as well as recently expropriated enterprises particularly in the food sector were unable to supply a sufficient quantity of goods to fill gaps created by the shortages. Similarly, the government strategy of fostering the growth of new productive businesses – belonging to what it called ‘productive businesspeople’ (‘empresarios productivos’)– fell far short of expectations. Furthermore, members of the emerging bourgeoisie who had received government backing did not always prove to be reliable allies. A prime example was Alberto Cudemus, who had resigned from Fedecámaras in 2007 after two unsuccessful bids for the presidency of the organization on a platform of maintaining friendly relations with the Chavista government and criticizing the organization’s politicization. As the nation’s largest producer of pork and the president of the Federation of Hog Raisers (Fedporcina), Cudemus received contracts to supply the state-run food enterprise Mercal in accordance with the policy of support for the ‘productive’, non-traditional bourgeoisie. In 2014, however, Cudemus criticized the flagship legislation ‘Ley de Precios Justos’ (the Law of Just Prices) as a ‘throwback to the concepts of the 1960s’, and attributed the nation’s production deficit in part to the labour law of 2012, which Maduro had helped draft. Maduro responded by lashing out at him along with Fedecámaras’ president Jorge Roig, the two of whom converged in their analysis of the crisis and the necessary steps to overcome it.[46] 

The mixed record of the Maduro government in countering price speculation, hoarding, contraband and corruption helped define its relations with the private sector. On the one hand, in 2013 he jailed about two hundred individuals on corruption charges including various middle-level Chavista leaders. In another unprecedented move, Maduro passed the Law of Just Prices and created mechanisms to prevent price speculation, defined as profit exceeding 30 percent of cost. His acknowledgment of the possible existence of a ‘boliburguesía’ (Chavista businesspeople who amassed significant wealth on the basis of little original capital) demonstrated that he was unwilling to turn a blind eye to cases of crony capitalism. On the other hand, his failure to react immediately and decisively in the Cadivi case contrasted with Chávez’s firm response to the financial crisis of 2009. 

Beginning in late 2013 the government declared all-out war against speculation and hoarding, with inspections resulting in temporary company takeovers, confiscation of merchandise, judicial proceedings and the jailing of over one hundred business managers. Nevertheless, the following year President Maduro apparently accepted Fedecámaras’ insistence that the enforcement of penal provisions follow traditional slow-moving judicial procedures without being heavily publicized. 

The high-level meetings between the national executive and members of the traditional and non-traditional bourgeoisie in early 2014 signalled a shift in policy and strategy on both sides. The meetings, which formed part of a ‘peace dialogue’ with organized sectors of the population, were designed to find solutions to the problems of scarcity, speculation and hoarding and also put an end to the disruptive protests promoted by the opposition that broke out in February 2014. The government’s more conciliatory position toward Fedecámaras, and its pledge not to discriminate against the federation, represented an acknowledgment that the emerging bourgeoisie was incapable of developing into a dynamic force capable of replacing traditional business groups. Fedecámaras, for its part, accepted participation in the dialogue even though the opposition parties spurned it, in sharp contrast to the business-political alliance designed to topple the government in 2002-2003. Fedecámaras’ decision to accept President Maduro’s invitation to meet in the presidential palace was also recognition that its members had been severely affected by the government’s policy of support for the emerging bourgeoisie.  

The above discussion illuminates the ties that exist between the state and the capitalist structure in Venezuela, despite the socialist commitment of those in power and the sharpness of the polarization pitting the traditional business sector against the Chavista government.[47] Underlying the relationship between the Chavistas and business groups are the three issues raised in this article on Marxist state theories. Specifically, the debate over whether the problems of shortages, price speculation, hoarding and contraband were induced for political reasons or were attributable to market conditions sheds light on the class consciousness, cohesion and fragmentation of the Venezuelan capitalist class (Issue 1 in Tables 1, 2 and 3). The following sections also address the article’s two other issues, which are related to different strategies defended by Venezuelan leftists (Issues 2 and 3 in Tables 1, 2 and 3), and the concomitant theoretical debate.

2. ‘Class Consciousness’ and the Theory of the Progressive Bourgeoisie Applied to the Venezuelan Case

The issue of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, which helped define the differences between instrumentalism and structural Marxism, has a special significance for Latin American leftist politics over the last century. Instrumentalism views the bourgeoisie as actively defending its overall interests, which include both short-term and long-term ones. In keeping with this perspective, Latin American Communists and other leftists traditionally posited that the ‘progressive’ industrial bourgeoisie is forward-looking and capable of resisting the pressure coming from the anti-communist right. Thus according to the traditional left, the bourgeoisie, or a sector of it, far from being located on the sidelines is an active political participant with a long-term perspective. The following subsection will discuss the Latin American left’s experience with the strategy involving ‘progressive businesspeople’ and its application to the Venezuelan case, and will then draw conclusions as they relate to Marxist state theories and instrumentalism in particular.

The concept of the ‘national democratic revolution’, first promoted for third-world nations by the Comintern during its early years, envisioned an industrial bourgeoisie that played a direct role in the struggle against imperialism by allying itself with working-class and leftist organizations. Similarly, the attempt by the Chavista government to promote an alliance with Venezuela’s emerging bourgeoisie, which would reject the pressure from powerful traditional economic interests headed by Fedecámaras, also presupposed an advanced class consciousness and a degree of audacity recalling the anti-imperialist schemes of the previous century. In both cases the strategies rested on a personal tie-in between capitalists and the state. 

The tangible links between capitalists and the state lay behind the strategy advocated by Luis Miquilena, Chávez’s right-hand man during the early years of his presidency. Miquilena had been a leading member of the Communist movement in the 1940s and after leaving it developed close ties with businesspeople outside of the traditional bourgeoisie. As financial secretary of the Chavista movement during the extended 1998 presidential campaign, Miquilena brought in large sums of money from businesspeople, and then as Interior Minister cultivated close ties with some of them. In internal discussion, Miquilena called for the incorporation of ‘honest’ members of the bourgeoisie into the movement at the same time that he (and his Chavista allies) proposed the privatization of the nation’s health system and cautioned against radical reforms. 

Miquilena was influenced by the two-step strategy long advocated by Communist Parties in Latin America.[48] According to this approach a ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’ in the industrial sector – as opposed to commercial and financial spheres – played an active role in achieving nationalist and even anti-imperialist goals prior to the initiation of the struggle for socialism. The strategy contemplated a strategic alliance between the left and the progressive bourgeoisie. The concept underpinned popular frontism in Latin America in the 1930s and alliance formations in subsequent decades.   

The thesis of the ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’ appeared to test the applicability in developing countries of the instrumentalist perspective, which emphasizes the tangible influence of the capitalist class on the state in favour of its interests including long-term systemic ones. The Communist strategy – in accordance with this line of thinking – envisioned ties between a class fraction of the bourgeoisie that was conscious of its long-term interests and a broad-based movement that was to reach power through electoral means. Yet during the period in Latin America of import substitution and economic nationalism, such links were historically extremely fragile, as demonstrated by the ‘ambiguous’ relations between Argentine industrialists and the government of Juan Domingo Perón in the 1940s and 1950s.[49] In the case of Venezuela, the Communist Party (PCV) was supportive of various progressive governments from 1941 to 1948 that stood for state intervention in the economy. Nevertheless, the only example of a marked presence of the industrial bourgeoisie was the two-year stint of Eduardo Mendoza Goiticoa (the brother of cement magnate Eugenio Mendoza) as Agriculture Minister under the government of Rómulo Betancourt.

Considering the full sweep of twentieth-century Latin American history prior to the onset of globalization in the 1980s, it is evident that the Communists overstated their case for a ‘national progressive bourgeoisie’. The industrial bourgeoisie could hardly be considered anti-imperialist nor did it fulfil the role of a class grouping that was assertive and conscious of its long-term interests along the lines suggested by the instrumentalist thesis. This shortcoming, however, does not rule out the existence of a national bourgeoisie that – contrary to the claims of many on the far left – occasionally assumed positions, albeit timidly, pointing in the direction of national autonomous development. While the national bourgeoisie refrained from firmly backing economic nationalism, its viewpoints generally ranged from mild opposition to passive support for the governments that pursued those policies. 

In recent decades, the Latin American left has largely abandoned the thesis of the ‘national bourgeoisie’. Nevertheless, the tendency to differentiate between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bourgeoisie continued to manifest itself within the Chavista movement following Miquilena’s defection at the time of the April 2002 coup. The moderate currents within the Chavista party, which was originally led by Miquilena, insist that sectors of the bourgeoisie are ‘honest’ and ‘productive’, even while refraining from labelling them ‘anti-imperialist’, or even ‘progressive’. Indeed, President Maduro occasionally employs the term ‘productive bourgeoisie’ to refer to the industrial private sector. 

The director of ideological formation of the Chavista party, Aurora Morales, pointed out that following the exit of Miquilena the Chavistas rejected his vision of a multi-class movement that took in businesspeople representing the productive bourgeoisie.[50] She added that the Chávez government’s prioritization of the popular sectors, on grounds that they were most in need of state support, precluded the concept of a broad-based party that included representatives of elite groups. When the Chavista party officially declared itself socialist in 2005 and two years later became the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), it, in effect, ruled out a direct input by capitalists in party decision making. 

Nevertheless, the exact relationship between the Chavista party and government, on the one hand, and their supporters in the private sector, on the other, remains unclear. Little discussion within the Chavista movement has centred on the issue. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that some Chavista mayors have their own construction firms that receive contracts to perform public works. A related practice that has gone virtually unreported and undebated is the notorious procedure inherited from the pre-Chávez period of charging construction firms a percentage (typically 10 percent) of the worth of each public works contract they are awarded. Some of the money enters the coffers of the governing political party, thus strengthening the ties between those in power and the private sector. The business interests of elected and non-elected government officials at the national level are also subject to considerable speculation. The case of Cadivi suggests that these ties are significant. President Maduro contributed to the credibility of accusations regarding unethical business connections when he recognized the possible existence of a ‘boliburguesía’, a term previously used mainly by anti-Chavistas including those on the far left side of the political spectrum.[51] 

A second area of ambiguity is the lack of precision regarding the role small and medium-sized businesspeople are to play, if any, in the construction of socialism in Venezuela. The thorny question of whether a party committed to socialism can consider them allies and how empirically to distinguish between medium and large-scale capitalists has never been seriously addressed within the Chavista movement. The PSUV’s position on these issues is bound to determine the closeness of the nexus between the Chavista government and members of the private sector. 

In short, the Chavista governments developed tangible ties with the emerging bourgeoisie, even though that sector proved to be neither progressive nor particularly reliable or productive. The nature of the links is clouded by the lack of debate within the Chavista movement regarding the role that the private sector was expected to play, if any, in the process of change. These connections indicate that even in capitalist nations whose governments are committed to socialism, close and ongoing personal ties with the private sector emerge, often as the unintended result of government strategy to counter insurgent threats from the right and traditional business groups.

The Chavistas’ unsuccessful experience with the emerging business class and the disappointing historical experience of the Latin American left’s strategy of the ‘national democratic revolution’ are instructive for what they reveal about the bourgeoisie’s ‘class consciousness’. Most striking in the case of the ‘national democratic revolution’ scheme is that those who implemented it failed to secure the active support of the very class fraction that stood the most to benefit from the strategy of economic nationalism. In the case of Venezuela, Chávez offered the emerging businesspeople a golden opportunity to replace the traditional bourgeoisie, but their disappointing performance forced the Maduro government to reconsider the bargain and negotiate with Fedecámaras. 

In Latin America, the bourgeoisie’s class consciousness and specifically class enlightenment – or the defence of the long-term interests of capitalism – implies a bold strategy of alliances with popular sectors designed to combat imperialist penetration. Historically, however, the industrial bourgeoisie has fallen far short of commitment to these goals. In the case of Venezuela, the divide between the traditional bourgeoisie and the emerging bourgeoisie did not put in evidence the class consciousness of the latter which was incapable of, or unwilling to, displace the former by taking advantage of government support to promote economic development. On the other hand, class fragmentation (basic to structuralist analysis) played an important political role as the emerging bourgeoisie helped shore up the Chavista government in the face of an aggressive opposition. In short, the theoretical positions of instrumentalism and Poulantzas on bourgeois class consciousness and class fractions are germane to understanding key issues facing the left under Chavista rule. 

3. Theoretical Frameworks for Understanding the Economic Problems Confronting Chavista Governments: Instrumentalism vs. Structuralism

Leftist activists and analysts have put forward two main explanations for the main economic problems besetting the Chavista governments throughout their rule. The most pressing one is the scarcity of basic commodities dating back to the general strike of 2002-2003. Immediately following the conflict, the government attempted to confront its adverse effects by implementing price and exchange controls, which in turn set off illicit activity, specifically price speculation, hoarding and contraband. 

According to one explanation, rooted in instrumentalist thinking on the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, all the above problems were induced in order to pave the way for regime change. In the first instance of ‘economic war’ against the government, Fedecámaras spearheaded the general strike of 2002-2003 that virtually paralyzed production and in doing so threatened to set off rampant inflation. The next instance of acute shortages was during the months leading up to the national referendum on the proposed constitutional reform of 2007, which the private sector viewed as a major threat. The business sector, according to the first explanation, intensified the economic war following Chávez’s death in 2013 in order to take advantage of an anticipate crisis in the Chavista leadership. President Maduro and the Chavista leaders beginning in late 2013 frequently used the term ‘economic war’, which implied that the crisis was induced for political reasons. Similarly, the PSUV’s leftist currents such as the group Marea Socialista (prior to its separation from the party) focused exclusively on political motivations for what they called a ‘provoked situation’.[52] The political explanation was underpinned by the instrumentalist perspective in that it viewed the private sector as conscious of its interests and willing to act aggressively as a powerful bloc in order to defend its hegemonic status. 

Chavistas also put forward a second explanation for the nation’s pressing economic problems that was in line with structural Marxism, with its emphasis on the economic logic of capitalism including market imperatives, as opposed to the personal and political influence of capitalists.[53] According to this viewpoint, market distortions reached an extreme in 2012 when the disparity between the open market rate and the official exchange rate went from two to one to nearly ten to one. The predictable result was not only scarcities, contraband, hoarding and price speculation, but also corruption as the currency exchange trends magnified the benefits accruing from illicit commercial activity. Those who gave greater weight to the second explanation tended to belong to a moderate Chavista current, which increasingly emphasized the positive results of the dialogue with the private sector and attributed the nation’s economic difficulties in large part to fiscal policies that needed to be reformed.

The supporters of the second explanation favoured modifying or lifting exchange and price controls to attract investments for the purpose of stimulating exports to Mercosur and elsewhere in Latin America. The moderates concluded that the scarcity debacle of 2013-2015 demonstrated that socialists need to take serious note of the market, even when their strategy is to eventually transcend it. The moderates also questioned conspiracy theory-type thinking associated with instrumentalism (although denied by some instrumentalists[54]) that accused the capitalists of perpetrating economic sabotage. Former minister and Chavista economist Victor Alvarez, for instance, who called for a band-type system that would allow the official exchange rate to always approximate the true value of the bolívar currency, argued that the ‘principle problem confronting Venezuela is economic’ and that the main challenge facing the government was designing technically sound policies in order to replace the nation’s rentier economy.[55] Oscar Schemel, a public opinion analyst close to the Chavistas, was more specific when he stated ‘neither U.S. imperialism nor the oligarchy can be scapegoated since what is needed is a more rational approach to the economy to overcome the shortages we are facing’.[56]  

Both factors explaining the shortages are undeniably at play in major ways: the economic incentive to sell goods on the black market or through contraband given the wide disparity between official and market prices; and the political motive to undermine the Chavista government. The former motivation corresponds to the structural Marxist focus on the economic logic of the capitalist system, while the latter accords with the instrumentalist argument regarding the class conscious political behaviour of capitalists. The two theories differ as to which of the two factors constitute ‘in the last instance’ the fundamental explanation.  

The two explanations, however, may be complementary, in which case determining which one is more ‘fundamental’ becomes a moot point. Thus, for example, economic destabilization became most intense in periods of sharp political conflict, specifically the 2002-2003 general strike, the months prior to the referendum on the proposed constitutional reform, and the period following Chávez’s death in 2013-2014.These sequences lent credibility to the thesis of politically motivated economic sabotage (instrumentalist perspective). Nevertheless, once basic commodities became scarce, price speculation, hoarding and contraband obeyed market logic (structural Marxist perspective) as increased incentives for illicit activity defied the state bureaucracy’s ability to enforce the law and implement correctives. 

In another example of the interplay of the two dynamics, the opposition’s insurgent activity in 2002-2003 and the disruptive protests of 2014 influenced the government to carry out populist policies to guarantee popular support, considered an imperative in moments of imminent political danger. Specifically, the protests forced the government to maintain regulated prices far below market value, thus encouraging the emergence of a black market and undermining newly expropriated companies unable to meet the cost of production. Thus disinvestment for political reasons (in accordance with the instrumentalist focus) created market disruptions that the government was reluctant to correct with austerity policies, conscious of the political price it would have to pay. 

In these cases once the political conflict was overcome, the Chavista leaders could not blame the opposition for the continued failure to put an end to the economic difficulties. Technically sound measures to correct the imbalances created by the private sector and the mobilization of opposition forces ran the risk of producing rampant inflation and an adverse popular reaction. Thus political resistance to a leftist government generates a series of long-term economic distortions that sets in with its own logic after the political threat diminishes. This dynamic that combines ruthless political opposition and extreme market distortions represents a basic predicament for socialist construction. Indeed, it goes a long way in explaining twentieth century socialism’s basic dilemmas, such as the failure to achieve a takeoff in consumer production.[57]

4. Leftists Strategy for Achieving Socialism and the Debate over the Venezuelan State

State theories applied to Venezuela have distinct implications for leftist strategy and analysis. Specifically, they underpin different positions on two issues to be discussed below: the viability of broad-based alliances; and the characterization of socialist transition as consisting either of stages or an ongoing ‘process’ of transformation. As Tables 1, 2 and 3 indicate, the terms of debate for the analysis of the state from a Marxist perspective in some cases differ between Europe in the 1970s and Venezuela. The contrast is particularly pronounced in the case of Poulantzas II, while the strategic implications of instrumentalism are basically the same in the European and Venezuela contexts. 

The Instrumentalist Approach 

Leftist analysts and activists applied the instrumentalist thesis on the tangible and personal links between the capitalist structure and the state to Venezuela under Chavista rule, just as Miliband and others had in the context of Europe and the United States, as described in the first section of this article. Those writing in the instrumentalist tradition point to the Chavista leadership’s links to the emerging bourgeoisie as constituting a tight-knit relationship that holds back further radicalization. The instrumentalist analysis points to multiple ways in which businesspeople, sometimes called the ‘boliburguesía’, have penetrated the state sphere through legitimate and illegitimate connections. An example of the latter is the notorious timeworn practice that has continued under Chavista rule of the payment of commissions for public works, some of which finance party activity.

Table 1: The Positions of Instrumentalist Theory on Critical Issues in Two Distinct Contexts

Three Critical Issues

Leftist Positions in Developed Nations under Normal Circumstances

Leftist positions in Chavista Venezuela

Issue 1:  Class Consciousness of the Bourgeoisie or Sectors of the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie is fairly cohesive and class conscious.

Politically motivated economic sabotage unleashed by Fedecámaras demonstrates the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie; the ‘emerging bourgeoisie’ has penetrated the state apparatus.

Issue 2:  Alliance Formation

Rejection of alliances with movements and parties with ties to the seats of power

Criticizes government ties with the business sector and the absence of radical Chavistas in the government.

Issue 3: Nature of the Transition to Socialism

Revolution occurs through a radical definitive break (or breaks) with the pasts; supports the ‘dual power’ concept of Lenin.

The old Venezuelan state, even though controlled by socialists, cannot break out of the hold of the capitalist structure.  Parallel structures need to displace existing ones.

Analysts and activists representing different leftist currents and traditions approximate instrumentalism by focusing on the personal and ideological commitments of those in power and the penetration of the Venezuelan state by representatives of the old order. The convergence of these leftists, who come from diverse traditions, puts in evidence the relevance of instrumentalism, even in its simplistic or dogmatic version, for framing issues that are at the centre of debate in Chavista Venezuela. Some of these leftists reached prominence at different times of the Chavista presidency, such as Alan Woods a leading member of the Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency (IMT) who was an advisor to Chávez; ex-Vice-Minister of Planning and social movement activist Roland Denis; long-time renowned intellectual and former political leader Domingo Alberto Rangel (who was one of the first to use the term ‘boliburguesía as far back as 2006); and more recently ex-guerrilla and columnist Toby Valderrama. Both Woods and Denis ruled out the transformation of the existing Venezuelan state and instead defended the dual power strategy associated with Lenin (which Poulantzas II explicitly rejected), in which new independent institutions such as the makeshift educational and health ‘missions’ and the militia would replace the established school system and the armed forces respectively. Similarly, ‘representative’ institutions such as municipal government would eventually be displaced by ‘peoples power’ (as embodied by the community councils), in contrast to the more moderate Chavista position favouring the coexistence of ‘participatory’ and representative democracy. 

Woods and his Venezuelan Trotskyist followers adhered to the instrumentalist view by arguing that the Venezuelan state was closely tied to the capitalist structure and was penetrated ‘at all levels’ by ‘counterrevolutionaries’; the state, far from being a vehicle for far-reach change, would have to be eventually replaced.[58] In line with instrumentalism (see Table 1), Woods viewed “revolution” as consisting of radical, definitive breaks with the past, such as the expropriation of banks and large agricultural estates. Woods along with the IMT’s former Venezuelan affiliate, the Corriente Marxista Revolucionaria (CMR, which in 2010 split off as part of an international Trotskyist schism), argued that nearly all state managers and the state bureaucracy in general would ‘fight tooth and nail to maintain struggle within the capitalist framework’.[59] Woods also pointed out that members of the left-wing Chavista factions (which included former minister Eduardo Samán, twice forced out of office, and Luis Tascón, who was denied membership in the PSUV) were largely absent from top government positions. Nevertheless, unlike the hard instrumentalism adhered to by other Trotskyists, Woods and his Venezuelan followers stopped short of labelling the Chavista leadership and the government itself as representatives of the capitalist system and instead targeted state ‘bureaucrats’ as the real source of resistance to change. In that sense, Woods’ analysis was less hard-line or dogmatic than other Trotskyist groups, which classified the Chavista government as ‘bourgeois’ and which were accused by Woods of defending ‘ultra-leftist’ positions (Woods, 2009, 12-14; 2008, 391-392).[60] 

Woods’ analysis was characterized by a personalist focus, which was also the case with instrumentalist writers and was criticized by Poulantzas in his debate with Miliband. Woods viewed Chávez as virtually alone among the top Chavista leaders in his display of political tenacity and gave him credit for all the advances of his presidency, while making no mention of the positive role played by other members of his government. The CMR articulated this outlook with reference to Chávez: ‘The courage, strength of character and determination of leaders play an important role in history and in critical moments can be decisive for the revolutionary process’.[61] 

Those who adhered to the instrumentalist perspective applied two related concepts to Venezuelan politics under Chávez. Roland Denis, writing in the libertarian tradition, argued that the ‘constituted power’, consisting of the governing class including bureaucrats and PSUV leaders, were pitted against the organized popular sectors, or the ‘constituent power’, and represented the real obstacles to change in Venezuela. Toby Valderrama, whose political formation was more along the lines of orthodox Marxism, called for a ‘revolution in the revolution’, a term occasionally used by Chávez and Maduro but which reflected the thinking of the radical Chavistas. Both concepts implied that the enemy was clearly identifiable and was situated within the movement. The ‘constituted power’-’constituent power’ notion and, though to a lesser extent, the ‘revolution in the revolution’ concept reflects a polarized vision typical of instrumentalist thinking, in which the lines are clearly drawn between the revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

In the context of European and U.S. politics of the 1960s and 1970s, the instrumentalist line of thinking – with its assertion that the direct ongoing influence of capitalists on policy makers far outmatches that of the popular sectors –  opposed leftist alliances with political moderates who were close to the seats of power. In the context of Chavista Venezuela, the instrumentalist vision of the pernicious tentacles of the capitalist class that penetrate the political sphere led to similar conclusions. As Table 1 indicates, the instrumentalist perspective lent itself to a critical position on the call for alliances with businesspeople formulated by both Chávez and Maduro.[62] 

The Structural Marxist Approach 

 Structural Marxist thinking lent itself to the support for tacticalalliances with the business sector put forward by Chávez and Maduro. The proposed ‘tactical’ agreement was designed to stimulate production in order to overcome shortages. Such an objective was more modest than the ‘national democratic revolution’ based on a ‘strategic alliance’ taking in labour and the national bourgeoisie, promoted by Latin American leftists in the previous century with the aim of achieving economic independence. Chavista leaders and analysts belonging to a moderate current within the movement, who attributed scarcity and related economic problems largely to market distortions (as discussed in subsection 3 above), tended to support negotiations with the private sector in order to reach agreements of a tactical nature in favour of practical solutions. The same combination of analysis based on the economic logic of capitalism (as opposed to the machinations of capitalists) along with support for tactical alliances with moderate leftists had also characterized structural Marxists such as Althusser in the 1970s. 

Table 2: The Positions of Structural Marxism on Critical Issues in Two Distinct Contexts

Three Critical Issues

Leftist Positions in Developed Nations under Normal Circumstances

Leftist Positions in Chavista Venezuela

Issue 1:  Class Consciousness of the Bourgeoisie or Sectors of the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie is not class conscious in that its corporatist interests override long-term systemic concerns

Issue 2:  Alliance Formation

Supports tactical alliances (as opposed to ‘strategic alliances’) with the ‘progressive middle class’ and with social democratic parties with ties to the seats of power.

Favors ‘tactical’ alliances, particularly with the emerging ‘productive’ bourgeoisie, to achieve a modus vivendi. Discards  ‘pacts’ (in effect ‘strategic alliances’) with moderates and others.

Issue 3: Nature of the Transition to Socialism

Stage approach in favour of consolidation of existing gains in order to achieve stability.

The proposal for a formal understanding or an alliance with productive businesspeople, which was occasionally formulated by Chávez, became a major objective of the Maduro government in the wake of the violence that shook Venezuela beginning in February 2014. At the same time that the government accused Venezuelan capitalists of carrying out economic sabotage, it also called on them to engage in dialogue and emphasized the need for cooperation between the state and the private sector. The Maduro government envisioned what this article has called a ‘tactical’ relationship with the private sector. The term ‘tactical’ rather than ‘strategic’ is fitting for several reasons. In the first place, the failure of the emerging bourgeoisie to live up to the expectations of Chavista leaders due to its poor productive performance discredited the proposal for a more solid, long-lasting alliance between the government and members of the business sector. In the second place, one of the cornerstones of Chávez’s critique of Venezuelan democracy prior to 1998 was his rejection of the nation’s ‘pacted democracy’ that had brought together members of the nation’s elites to define basic policies but left the popular sectors on the sidelines. Chavista leaders firmly denied that negotiations with the private sector in 2014 represented a ‘pact’ and instead insisted that they were attempting to reach ‘agreements’.[63] In this context, a ‘pact’ can be considered tantamount to a strategic alliance to achieve long-term objectives, while ‘agreements’ are of a ‘tactical’ nature.[64]  

Another aspect of structural Marxism as applied to Venezuela is that the state’s function is to preserve stability, thus the prioritization of consolidation; change takes place possibly in the form of stages rather than an ongoing process (or permanent revolution) leading to socialism.Structural Marxism envisions a state sufficiently independent of the immediate interests of capitalists so as to be able to implement important popular reforms. At the same time, however, structural Marxists stop short of Poulantzas II’s vision of a state that is in constant flux. The state can thus stray far from the capitalist structure, but under normal circumstances cannot break with it. Eventually, when objective and subjective conditions reach a certain threshold, a major revolutionary break will occur, but until then the best that can be hoped for is a consolidation of gains during a peaceful period. Moderate Chavistas defended this line of thinking in the face of violent tactics employed by the opposition following Chavez’s death by arguing that the government’s main task was defending the gains of the previous fifteen years. This defensive approach based on stages ruled out ongoing radicalization or, in the words of the Trotskyists, a ‘permanent revolution’. 

The Poulantzas II Approach 

The third approach within Chavismo contrasted with the other two: the instrumentalist approach, which viewed the Venezuelan state as too monolithic and tied to the capitalist structure to be modifiable; and the structural Marxist approach, which argued that the government had no choice but to respect the logic of capitalism and supported what amounted to a tactical alliance with the private sector in order to consolidate past gains until conditions allowed for the initiation of a more radical stage. The third approach approximated the thinking of Poulantzas II. It envisioned a state whose actions reflect the correlation of political and social forces but which left to itself is incapable of breaking with the capitalist structure. As was the case with Poulantzas II, the third approach attached equal importance to the struggle outside of the state and a war of position within it in order to achieve radical transformation. 

Table 3: The Positions of Poulantzas’ II on Critical Issues in Two Distinct Contexts

Three Critical Issues

Leftist Positions in Developed Nations under Normal Circumstances

Leftist Positions in Chavista Venezuela


Issue 1:  Class Consciousness of the Bourgeoisie or Sectors of the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie lacks cohesion, is highly fragmented and internally unstable.

The bourgeoisie lacks cohesion, is highly fragmented and internally unstable, characteristics that favour the possibility of far-reaching change.

Issue 2:  Alliance Formation

Supports strategic alliances with the ‘progressive middle class’ as well as social democratic parties with ties to the seats of power.

A favourable correlation of forces in society obviates the need for alliances with non-leftists.

Issue 3: Nature of the Transition to Socialism

Revolutionaries can take over the state in order to transform (rather than destroy) it. The revolution consists of a series of ‘real breaks’ with the past as opposed to ‘one big day’.

Envisions an ongoing revolutionary ‘process’ (or a multiplicity of breaks) characterized by ongoing state transformation in the context of sharp social and political polarization and conflict.  

Marta Harnecker, a former student of Althusser who at times met with Chávez and whose writing was a point of reference for those who supported the Poulantzas II position in Venezuela, defended the dual strategy of working within and outside of the state. According to her, the administrative functions of the ‘inherited state … are taken over by revolutionary cadres that use it to push though the process of change’ and it coexists with a new state that ‘begins to be born from below, through the exercise of popular power in various institutions, including the communal councils’. She goes on to label the process unique in that ‘the inherited state fosters the emergence of the state that will replace it’. She calls this relationship ‘complementary’ rather than (in an indirect reference to Lenin) ‘one in which one of the states negates each other’. For this to happen ‘the ‘organized movement must … exert pressure on the inherited state’.[65] Harnecker’s vision is supported by those Chavistas who accept the coexistence of the model of ‘electoral democracy’ (even though it is generally condemned by left-wing Chavistas as embodying the old system) and ‘participatory democracy’ (associated with the new state). 

The Chavista concept of ‘process of change’ is compatible with Poulantzas II’s view of revolution consisting of a series of ‘real breaks’ over an extended period of time, as opposed to the orthodox leftist vision of revolution as a one-shot seizure of power. The ‘process of change’ as an ongoing development of structural transformations also contrasts with the more static stage view inherent in structural Marxism, as discussed above, which Poulantzas II rejected.[66] It also contrasts with the Euro-Communist position, represented by Spanish Communist head Santiago Carrillo, which Poulantzas (1979, 196) as a supporter of a leftist faction of Euro-Eurocommunism labeled ‘right-wing Eurocommunism’. Carrillo, unlike Poulantzas, minimized social struggle and conflict in the period prior to the achievement of socialism.[67] 

Finally, Poulantzas’ view of ‘real breaks’ contrasted with ‘reformism’, which, as the Argentine political theorists Mabel Thwaites Rey and Hernán Ouviña point out, does not entail the structural changes implied in the term ‘transition’ (or the Chavista term ‘process’). Thwaites Rey and Ouviña add that reformism in contrast to transition (as envisioned by Poulantzas) is directed mainly from the state and not the grassroots and its leaders lack a long-term vision of, or commitment to, radical change.[68]

The Chavistas who adhered to Poulantzas II’s line of thinking were confident that favourable subjective conditions in Venezuela (as highlighted by Chávez’ discourse) as well as the fragmentation of the bourgeoisie (which Poulantzas II had underscored) and its loss of prestige[69] made possible an ongoing radicalization, obviating the need to rely on force. This relatively optimistic position ruled out alliances of any type with business sectors and non-leftists in general. The Chavista current that approximated Poulantzas II envisioned an ongoing deepening process of change characterized by small breaks (such as the launching of the community councils) as opposed to more radical breaks (such as expropriations and the ‘revolution in the revolution’) over a shorter period of time in line with instrumentalist thinking. In short, the following two features of Venezuela in the Chávez era (as opposed to Europe in the 1970s) explain the relevance of Poulantzas II: optimism but recognition that socialism will be achieved over an extended period of time (as embodied in Chávez’s discourse); and ongoing conflict in the context of sharp social and political polarization. 


After a hiatus of several decades, interest in the Marxist state debate of the 1960s and 1970s has been revived partly as a result of the experiences of recent Latin American governments committed to democratic socialism. The fundamental question raised by Marxist theoreticians of half a century ago is still at the centre of discussion: Given Marxism’s basic premise that a nexus exists between the capitalist structure and the state superstructure, under what circumstances can the state distance itself from the hold of the structure and eventually break away from it? 

The application of the three Marxist theories to a situation such as Venezuela of intense polarization and radicalization in a democratic context is different from situations in which the moderates play the dominant role in favour of change and the prospects for socialism are perceived to be less promising. Nevertheless, in both sets of historical circumstances, structural Marxism has been compatible with alliances with moderate leftists and non-leftists. In contrast, Poulantzas II’s thinking, which was even more supportive of alliances (or what this article calls ‘strategic alliances’) than in Europe of the 1970s, was compatible with a strategy of continuous deepening of the process of change under the Chavistas as opposed to concessions to groups to the right. The strategy of Poulantzas II, however, fell short of the radical, abrupt breaks advocated by currents (such as Trotskyism) further to the left in Venezuela.

The instrumentalist and structural Marxist explanations for the pressing economic problems facing the Maduro presidency both appear to have a degree of applicability in Venezuela and indeed may not be mutually exclusive. Instrumentalism applied to Venezuela would focus on two expressions of bourgeois power that held back the process of change. In the first place, traditional economic groups represented by Fedecámaras have consistently and consciously followed policies on production and investment (or disinvestment) designed to generate severe economic difficulties in order to pave the way for regime change. In the second place, the so-called boliburguesía consisting of emerging business groups have penetrated the governing sphere and in doing so impede or even reverse socialist construction. In both cases, the bourgeoisie or fractions of the bourgeoisie played a direct role in political outcomes. 

In contrast, structural Marxism applied to Venezuela would attribute the nation’s problems on the economic front to the logic of the marketplace. According to this explanation, the government drifted too far from the market economy in that the disparity between regulated prices and official exchange rates, on the one hand, and open market prices, on the other, reached unprecedented extremes.

In other parts of the world, the case for instrumentalism has been strongest in situations of crony capitalism and neoliberalism in which powerful economic groups exercise a direct influence over state decision making. It has been less convincing in Bonapartist and social democratic governments (such as the post-war Labour government) and Nazi Germany, which have been characterized by greater state autonomy. Venezuela would appear to resemble Bonapartism given the disconnect between the nation’s dominant capitalist structure and the government’s socialist commitment. Nevertheless, as the above discussion demonstrates, business sectors developed close ties to the Chavista movement and government along the lines envisioned by instrumentalists. 

Poulantzas II’s view on the state’s transformation that paves the way for socialism is also applicable to the Venezuelan case. Some Marxist theoreticians point to the Chavista experience in Venezuela as evidence that socialism by its very nature is a transitional period prone to extreme contradictions and sharp ongoing social and political conflict.[70] The vision of socialism as a system in constant flux is compatible with Poulantzas II’s theory that the state is subject to profound internal contradictions and constitutes a strategic field reflecting the correlation of political and social forces at a given moment, and as such is inherently unstable (Jessop, 1982, 157-158). If the “strategic battlefield” concept is particularly applicable in a period of gradual leftist ascendancy, which Poulantzas hoped would occur in Europe in the 1970s, it is even more germane in a setting such as Venezuela under Chavista rule. Venezuela in the early twenty-first century was characterized by transformation and instability as a result of intense social and political polarization with a government that was committed to socialism through struggle and a capitalist structure that was only partly weakened by leftist inroads, all of which were a recipe for instability. Those Chavistas who favoured ongoing radicalization in the midst of instability, as embodied in the catchword ‘el proceso’, in effect rejected a stage vision based on consolidation of gains and the prioritization of relative stability.

All three lines of thinking as explanations for the dilemmas facing the Chavista governments are plausible. The direct and conscious role of the private sector (as highlighted by the instrumentalists), was fundamental in obstructing far-reaching transformation. In line with instrumentalism, much evidence indicates that scarcity was induced for political reasons, beginning with the Fedecámaras-promoted general strike of 2002-2003, which in turn forced the government to adopt two strategies that held back the advance of socialism. In the first place, the government faced the threat to its very survival by adopting populist measures including the maintenance of a wide disparity between regulated and market prices. The policy worked well at first but eventually produced economic disruptions that cut into support for the government and placed it on the defensive.  In the second place, the government’s preferential treatment toward an emerging bourgeoisie that refused to go along with Fedecámaras’ destabilizing actions led to business penetration of governing spheres (along the lines envisioned by instrumentalism) and in some cases corruption. 

In addition, beyond the planned actions of capitalists on the political front and other developments in Venezuela that fit into the instrumentalist analytical framework, capitalism’s economic logic was at play in accordance with structural Marxism. At a given point, the capitalists could have completely withdrawn from politics but the marketplace disruptions created by their original actions would have continued unabated, particularly because of the failure of Chavista leaders to take the market sufficiently seriously due to their socialist convictions. Poulantzas II also sheds light on the relationship between the structure and the superstructure in the Venezuelan context. Given the instability stimulated by a disloyal opposition that questioned the government’s legitimacy, any shift in the correlation of political forces in the nation had a pronounced impact on the configuration of ideological tendencies within the state, as posited by Poulantzas II.

An appreciation of the complex nature of the theoretical and practical issues discussed in this article serves to counter the disillusionment in the Chavista ranks that stems from such a lengthy process of change in the context of intense confrontation and material privation along with cases of blatant corruption. The complexity of the structural Marxist concept of structure-superstructure, the challenges of radicalization in a democratic setting and the circumstances surrounding the decision to promote the non-traditional bourgeoisie certainly do not justify corruption, policy inconsistencies and errors. Nevertheless, they help place the problems in a broader context and counter the notion that the Chavista leadership has simply sold out.

The article puts in evidence this complexity on both empirical and theoretical fronts by demonstrating that market imperatives as well as political pressure and disruptions from capitalists played important roles. Political and economic resistance from Venezuelan business interests limited government options, but so did the wide disparity between official and regulated prices, which the Maduro administration failed to check. The two factors were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Similarly, the article suggests that the term ‘in the last instance’ used by Marxist state theoreticians like Althusser and Poulantzas become somewhat hazy when trying to determine whether the economic logic of capitalism or the pressure and influence exerted by capitalists is the fundamental factor in explaining state behaviour. 

Another corollary of the structural approach is that the starting point for confronting challenges in the transition away from capitalism is a democratically structured leftist party buttressed by strong social movements. Unlike the state, a truly revolutionary party is largely independent of the capitalist structure during the period of socialist construction. Its semi-autonomous status is buttressed by strong social movements which also exert influence on the state. More than the leftists in government, the leftist party is capable of checking the inefficiency and corruption of the state bureaucracy. As Poulantzas II affirmed, at the same time that leftists wage a war of position within the state, they have to organize and mobilize outside and independent of it.[71] While rejecting the dual power thesis of Lenin and the absolute autonomy of the ‘new social movement’ paradigm[72], Poulantzas insisted that independent popular struggles ‘always have long-range effects within the state’.[73] 

In this sense the Chavistas have had a mixed record. On the negative side, the PSUV is largely controlled by top state managers, specifically ministers, governors and mayors. To their credit, the Chavistas have held numerous internal primaries, which, despite the uneven distribution of resources among candidates, is an efficacious mechanism to facilitate the expression of rank and file sentiment. Chávez understood the need to harness the enthusiasm of the rank and file by providing them with opportunities outside of the electoral arena to participate in decision making. His last effort along these lines was his creation of the Gran Polo Patriótico in 2011 that took in social movements and allied parties such as the Communist Party (PCV) and others which were to the left of the PSUV but maintained a position of critical support for the government. In contrast Maduro is more of a power broker and has been less inclined to accept criticism from those outside of the ruling circle. The leftist Chavista currents, for instance, objected to the participation of super-delegates, mainly elected Chavista officials, at the PSUV’s Third Congress held in July 2014, representing about 40 percent of the overall number of delegates.

From the very outset of the first Chávez presidency in 1999, the Chavistas took advantage of their hold over political power by decreeing measures from above in order to deepen the process of change. The Chavista government played a major role on many fronts – such as the community councils that proliferated after 2006 – in organizing and mobilizing the popular sectors and facilitating a sense of empowerment among them. 

These efforts, however, cannot be considered sufficient to achieve the long-term goals that were formulated in favour of structural transformation. The lessons of the last sixteen years in Venezuela confirm what was implicit in most Marxist writing on the state and explicit in Poulantzas II. In a capitalist nation, no matter how well intentioned the revolutionaries in power, mobilization from outside the state and fairly independent of it is a sine qua non for the continued deepening of the process of change pointing in the direction of socialism.

An abridged version of this article was published in Historical Materialism, volume 25, no. 2, 2017, pages 29-62

[1] Julian Müller (2009, p. 143) cites several factors behind the resurgence of interest in Althusser and Poulantzas, including the rise to power of statist governments committed to socialism in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.  

[2] Miliband’s thinking evolved significantly following the publication of his The State in Capitalist Society. In the course of his debate with Poulantzas, he rejected the ‘instrumentalist’ label and in his Marxism and Politics he incorporated structuralism in his analysis of the state (Miliband 1977, p. 72-74). Althusser and Poulantzas also denied being ‘structuralists’ while William Domhoff denied being an instrumentalist. Althusser, with his formula State=Repression and Ideology differs from Poulantzas who from the beginning emphasized the role of the state in reducing the intensity of class conflict on the economic front.

 [3] Barrows 1993, p. 13.

[4] See, for instance, Domhoff 1990, p. 2-5.

[5] The structural Marxist argument that the state is bound by the logic of capitalism, including the dynamic of capital accumulation, goes beyond the market imperatives (such as avoidance of substantial wage increases) highlighted by neoliberals. As Block (1977, p. 16) points out in his discussion of ‘business confidence’, market conditions (low wages, for instance) do not necessarily dictate investment decisions.

[6] Barrows 1993, p. 62. 

[7] Jessop 2002.

[8] Carson 2007, p. 89-112; International Communist League (Fourth International) 2009; see also, Block 1980, p. 229.

[9] The latter notion was articulated by General Motors President Charles Wilson in his celebrated statement ‘What is good for GM is good for the country’. Miliband recognized the latter as relatively important (Miliband, 1977, 72-73) and thus cannot be classified as a ‘hard’ instrumentalist.

[10] Miliband (1969, p. 48) wrote that economic elites in advanced capitalist nations possess ‘a high degree of cohesion and solidarity, with common interests and common purposes which far transcend their specific differences’. Fred Block (1977, p. 10) questioned this notion and claimed that Marx did also.

[11] Sweezy1942, p. 243.

[12] Miliband 1977, p. 83.

[13] Miliband 1969, p.177-178.

[14] Hedges 2010.

[15] Domhoff 1990; Mills 1956, p. 165-170; Lundberg 1968, pp. 889-934.

[16]  Miliband 1969, pp. 125-126.

[17] Block 1977, p. 9; Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 216-218.

[18] Block 1980, p. 236.

[19] See Block 1977, pp. 8-9.

[20]  Raby 2006, pp. 99, 112-116, 157.

[21]  Althusser highlighted the importance of capitalism’s tendency to reproduce conditions and relations of production. This dynamic helps explain capitalism’s ability to renew and reinvent itself in the face of profound crises.

[22] Poulantzas 1969, p. 78; Althusser 1971, p.147.

[23] Jessop 2002, pp. 179-194.

[24]  Barrow 1993, p. 62.

[25] See, Block 1977, pp. 14-19.

[26] Block 1977, pp. 12-13.

[27] Lewis 2005, p. 177.

[28] Ferretter 2006, pp. 69-70.

[29] Lewis,2007, pp. 140-143.

[30] Isserman 1987, pp. 5-6.

[31] CPUSA 1979, pp. 261-262.

[32] Healey 1993, pp. 206-207.

[33] Poulantzas 1978, p. 141.

[34] Poulantzas 1978, pp. 152, 259.

[35] Poulantzas 1978, pp. 129, 131; 1979, 198.

[36] Poulantzas 1978, pp. 254, 258.

[37] Poulantzas 1975, p. 204.

[38] Jessop 1982, pp. 168-169.

[39] Poulantzas 1979, p. 195.

[40] Poulantzas 1978, p. 257.

[41] Poulantzas 1979, p. 195.

[42] Lenin 2012.

[43] El Universal, February 5, 2002, p. B-1.

[44] Ellner 2008, p. 114.

[45] Bilbao 2008, p. 196.

[46] Globovision news, February 27 and April 28, 2014.

[47] In a previous work, I argue that the internal divisions in the Chavista movement have a material base (Ellner 2014, pp. 86-96).

[48] Miquilena was a leading member of a dissident Communist group in the 1940s that was actually sceptical of the transformational potential of the national bourgeoisie (though without rejecting the notion completely), but he subsequently modified his position on the issue (Ellner 1981, pp. 52, 56, 63). 

[49] Collier and Collier 1991, p. 333. Perón’s anti-imperialist credentials were stronger than those of other progressive presidents of the 1940s and 1950s in that he nationalized British-owned railroads and public transportation and the ITT-owned telephone company. 

[50] Morales 2004; Vera 2012.

[51] Rangel, 2006.

[52] By 2014 Marea Socialista (MS) had emerged as the largest left grouping within the PSUV. It was founded in early 2007 as a split -off of a Trotskyist-led current within the labour movement over the issue of whether to form part of the recently founded PSUV. Some, but not all, of its leaders and rank-and-file members identify with Trotskyism. As the economic crisis deepened in 2015, MS hardened its position against Maduro. Most (though nota all) MS leaders, including Gonzalo Gómez, Nicmer Evans, recognized the existence of an economic war consciously waged by the business sector but argued that the term was being used by Maduro to avoid attacking such problems as capital flight and corruption by nationalizing the banks and foreign commerce.

[53] The widely increasing disparity between official and open market exchange rates in Venezuela beginning in 2012 defied the logic of capitalism (see footnote 2). When the moderate Chavistas pointed out that in some cases regulated prices were inferior to production costs, they were basically saying that economic indicators in Venezuela defied the logic of capitalism and were thus a recipe for acute problems. On this basis, the article establishes a relationship between the moderate Chavistas who focused on market disequilibrium and structural Marxism.

[54] Domhoff 1990, pp. 69, 187.

[55] El Nacional, June 29, 2014, p. 2.  

[56] Schemel, 2014.

[57] Another argument against considering one of the two factors as exclusively ‘fundamental’ has to do with long-term returns on investment. Price speculation and contraband that generate immediate windfall profits may be attributed solely to economic motives rather than political ones. In contrast, the motives of capitalists who rule out ambitious costly expansion because they are sceptical about being able to reap sufficient profit due to the policies of an unfriendly government, such as that of Chávez, are more difficult to determine. In this case the decision may be the result of a simple cost-benefit calculation or may be politically driven with the aim of generating instability either to influence policy or to promote regime change. The distinctions between these motives may be somewhat hazy and in any case difficult to document. 

[58] Woods 2008, p. 415; see also, Valderrama and Mena 2005, p. 69.

[59] CMR, 2013, p. 3.

[60] Just as he denied that the Venezuelan government was ‘bourgeois’ in nature, Woods and the IMT rejected the thesis, which had always been the source of controversy among Trotskyists, that the Soviet Union under Stalin had restored capitalism (Woods 2008, pp. 260-263).

[61] CMR 2013, p. 2.

[62]  See, for instance, Bilbao 2008, pp. 182, 195-196.

[63] Arreaza, 2014.

[64] Temir Porras, the director of various important state financial institutions, proposed what this article defines as a ‘strategic alliance’ with the private sector. Porras argued that preferential treatment toward the Venezuelan bourgeoisie over multinational capital would boost national production and allow the government to consolidate past gains, even while not advancing Venezuela toward socialism. In addition, he recommended to Maduro that he reject collective leadership as had Chávez, and that he follow a ‘pragmatic’ strategy of winning over the middle class in order to increase Chavista electoral support to far above fifty percent. Porras, whose proposals generated considerable controversy within the Chavista movement, was removed from his positions in late 2013.

[65] Harnecker 2010, p. 62; see also, Harnecker 2012, pp. 166-167; Lebowitz, 2010, pp. 152-153; Bilbao 2008, p. 195.

[66] Poulantzas 1979, p. 196.

[67] Carrillo 1977.

[68] Thwaites Rey and Ouviña 2012  pp. 75-78.

[69] Ortiz 2004, pp. 79-81; Gates 2010, pp. 26-31.

[70] Lebowitz 2010, pp. 105-109; Raby 2006, p. 262.

[71] Poulantzas 1978, p. 251; Jessop 1982, p. 179; Jessop 2008, p. 118.

[72] Jessop 1982, 179.

[73] Poulantzas, 1978 141, pp. 269-260.