Marta Harnecker’s Venezuela — After the Elections: What Is to Be Done? and Marx, Luxemburg, and Lenin on the Role of Cooperatives

Stansfield Smith criticizes Marta Harnecker's recent article about the post-electoral situation.

By Stansfield Smith - Chicago ALBA Solidarity
Short URL


Mural representing the alliance of workers and peasants. (Archive)
Mural representing the alliance of workers and peasants. (Archive)

Stansfield Smith, a longtime Venezuelanalysis supporter, argues below that Marta Harnecker, like many other theorists who address Venezuela's Bolivarian Process, has put too much emphasis on advances that focus  on the commune and cooperatives. Invoking the authority of Marx, Lenin and Luxembourg, Smith claims that the dream of "Commune or Nothing" needs to wait until workers and peasants control the state, nationalize the land, and take charge of the factories.

*   *   *

Marta Harnecker, author of numerous books and articles advocating her vision of 21st Century socialism” in Latin America recently published an article in Spanish in an online journal focused on Venezuela. It was translated into English and appeared on Links, Portside, Real News Network, Monthly Review as “Venezuela After the Elections: What is to be done?”

We should note first of all that the most important issue facing Venezuela after their May 20 presidential election is coping with the continually increasing US-Canada- European Union economic sanctions and their goal of overturning Chavismo in Venezuela. Of this Harnecker says little. She begins with Chavez’ vision for Venezuela:

he specified that this was a 21st century socialism to differentiate it from the Soviet socialism of the 20th century. He warned that we must not “fall into the errors of the past”; into “Stalinist deviations” that bureaucratized the party and ended up eliminating popular protagonism; into state capitalism that focused on state ownership and not on the participation of workers in the running of companies.

Chávez viewed socialism as an economic system that had human beings, not profits, at its heart; one based on a pluralist and anti-consumerist culture in which being took primacy over owning. This was a socialism based on genuine and deep democracy, where the people assumed a protagonistic role. This is one element that differentiates it from other democratic socialist proposals. For him, people’s participation in all spheres was what could allow people to win confidence in themselves and develop as humans.

Then she jumps into Post-Election Challenges. We cannot follow her so quickly. The above are the views of Chavez, except for Harnecker’s own assertion that the Soviet Union was “state capitalist” (a term that has the “advantage” that nobody actually knows what it means), but Harnecker does not bother to look at the degree Chavez’ vision has become a reality, what has obstructed its implementation.

Venezuela has not built socialism; the country remains capitalist. Nor can Venezuela be said to have a superior form of democracy when Washington and the local oligarchy possess significant power to heavily influence the nation's voters and disrupt their practice of popular democracy. Chavez did build a socialist party, the PSUV, but it is more a bureaucratic organ than an organ of popular protagonism.

Bolivarian Venezuela has made great achievements providing housing, food, services, education and self-respect for the people. It has been a strong anti-imperialist bastion for almost 20 years, has advocated for the struggle for socialism as the solution to humanity’s problems, and has encouraged organizing an Americas wide anti-imperialist and pro-socialist movement. But has it created a “21st Century socialism” superior to the “20th Century socialism”? (Both misnamed because the only 21st century socialisms existing are those constructed in the 20th century).

Passing to Post-Election Challenges that Venezuela confronts today, Harnecker states:

There are those who think we do not have to tell the people the problems that exist because this can be disheartening. I believe the complete opposite: I am convinced that our peoples are sufficiently intelligent to understand and tighten their belts when necessary, if we are capable of clearly explaining to them the origins of the existing crisis, and honestly recognizing that the right is making use of the weaknesses and errors of Chavismo.

… What we need to seriously analyze is what we did wrong and what we have learnt along the way that we should not repeat.

Yet while proclaiming her conviction here, she tells us nothing about what she thinks went wrong but simply switches the subject.

In concluding she calls for increased international solidarity and points out quite accurately:

Venezuela kicked off the cycle of changes in Latin America. It was the rebirth of hope and of a form of governing focused on resolving the problems of the most underprivileged, understanding that the problem of poverty could only be resolved by giving power to the poor. It was the incarnation of solidarity with the fraternal peoples of the region who faced economic difficulties. Today, this country, which is suffering more than others from the impacts of the world crisis of capitalism and the economic war waged against it, and which is the focal point of aggression for reactionary forces around the world, deserves all our solidarity. Let us repay its noble and incredibly broad generosity with the poorest nations and peoples of the region and world by forming, together with all those who support the process, a cordon in defense of the Bolivarian revolutionary process.

Without doubt, Chávez’s legacy has marked his people and allowed them to mature, something I saw with my own eyes during the years that I lived in the country, and something that can be seen in the high vote obtained by Maduro in the recent elections. I believe that all these people, those who were given the opportunity to study, to think, to participate, to build, to decide — and that grew enormously in terms of self-confidence and human development — will defend the process.

But how does she answer the question: what is to be done? She copies the title from Lenin’s famous book about the need and the method to build a revolutionary party to lead a revolutionary movement of workers and peasants to take power in Russia. But unlike Lenin in his book, she is short on answers.

Harnecker, like George Ciccariello-Maher and Dario Azzellini has long advocated building cooperatives and communes and a national communal system as the road towards building socialism. These are not new ideas in the anti-capitalist movement, and have been taken up long ago in the socialist movement.

Marx addressed this question quite clearly in The International Workingmen's Association, 1866: Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council

a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperizing, and despotic system of the subordination of labor to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

(b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. To convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co- operative labor, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realized save by the transfer of the organized forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

This cannot be accomplished in Venezuela or elsewhere without those active in the struggle to transfer state power to the producers coming together in the type of organization Lenin fought for in What is to Be Done. to work out their strategy and coordinate their revolutionary work. This means uniting the more active and politically conscious cooperatives members, trade unionists, campesinos and intellectuals in a common, national organization, one which will actually implement Chavez’ vision of a new socialist state.

Rosa Luxemburg developed Marx’s statement, based on another 35 years of experience with cooperatives, in Reform or Revolution, (1900) where she deals with Eduard Bernstein’s views on reforming capitalism into socialism. She pointed out that production cooperatives under capitalism, unlike consumer cooperatives, must obey and enforce the economic impositions of the competitive capitalist system or go under. Therefore, “Within the framework of present [capitalist] society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives.” Why?

As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise [cooperative or not]…. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market. The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are … obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only … by removing themselves artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And they can succeed in doing the last only when they assure themselves beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure themselves of a constant market.

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’ co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is limited, in the most favorable of cases, to the small local market and to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are excluded from the most important branches of capital production – the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone, cooperatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation.

Lenin held a unique position to elaborate on the role of cooperatives in socialism, given his five year leadership of the Russian producers having actually “transferred the organized forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.”

He declared that “Socialist society is one single cooperative”1 ; that building socialism meant “the whole of the Soviet Republic…will become one great cooperative of working people.”2

Prior to the revolution, Lenin elaborated on Marx’s above statement at the International Socialist Conference in Copenhagen (1910) against those in the Second International Lenin referred to as catering to “bourgeois reformers.” In his The Question of Co-Operative Societies at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen Lenin explained that Jaures’ view that cooperatives “help the workers to prepare the democratization and socialization of the means of production and distribution” (a view similar to Harnecker’s et al) was nebulous and “entirely acceptable to the ideologists of the petty proprietor and the theoreticians of bourgeois reformism.” 3

In one of his last works, On Co-operation, Lenin, as if responding to Harnecker et al. on transitioning to socialism by forming cooperatives, added to the statements of Marx and Luxemburg:

There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of the old cooperators…. Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class.

....people do not understand the fundamental, the rock-bottom significance of the working-class political struggle for the overthrow of the rule of the exploiters. We have overthrown the rule of the exploiters, and much that was fantastic, even romantic, even banal in the dreams of the old cooperators is now becoming unvarnished reality.

Indeed, since political power is in the hands of the working-class, since this political power owns all the means of production, the only task, indeed, that remains for us is to organize the population in cooperative societies….

Indeed, the power of the state over all large-scale means of production, political power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured proletarian leadership of the peasantry, etc. — is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society out of cooperatives, out of cooperatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as huckstering...? 4

Two years after the 1917 revolution, Lenin, as if to further answer What is to be Done for Marta Harnecker, outlined one of the tasks of the Russian Communist Party:

The R.C.P. must systematically pursue the policy of making it obligatory for all members of the Party to work in the co-operatives and, with the aid of the trade unions, direct them in a communist spirit, develop the initiative and discipline of the working people who belong to them, endeavor to get the entire population to join them, and the co-operatives themselves to merge into one single co-operative that embraces the whole of the Soviet Republic.5

This could easily also be the work of the PSUV today. First however, a 21st Century Socialism, the Comuna or Nada, cannot be built, as Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin clearly pointed out, until state power lies in the hands of the workers and peasants, the land is socialized and the factories nationalized. Without this, building the national commune is a pipe dream. Not to heed these lessons from history will not advance any struggle for a communal state.


1 Speech Delivered to a Meeting of Delegates from the Moscow Central Workers Cooperatives, Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 28, p. 200

2Report On The Work Of The All-Russia Central Executive Committee And The Council Of People’s Commissars Delivered At The First Session Of The All-Russia Central Executive Committee, Seventh Convocation, Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 30, p. 329

Also: “The goal is the organization of the entire population in producers’ and consumers’ communes that can distribute all essential products most rapidly, systematically, economically and with the least expenditure of labor.” The goal is to have “the cooperatives themselves to merge into one single co-operative that embraces the whole of the Soviet Republic.” The Basic Tasks Of The Dictatorship Of The Proletariat In Russia, Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 115

“The socialist state can arise only as a network of producers’ and consumers’ communes, which conscientiously keep account of their production and consumption, economize on labor and steadily raise the productivity of labor” The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 255

3 Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 16, pp. 265-66, 275-83

4 Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33, pp. 467, 473,467, 468

5 Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 115

Like all opinion and analysis pieces published by, the views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the editorial staff. Both Marta Harnecker and Stansfield Smith are longtime, deeply valued supporters of VA, and we publish this article in the interest of promoting comradely debate that may be useful to readers.