Chavismo and the Left: A Conversation with Reinaldo Iturriza (Part II)

A Chavista author and former minister talks about the Bolivarian Revolution’s innovations and internal tensions.

A blogger-turned-minister, Reinaldo Iturriza has written creatively and insightfully about Chavismo and its contradictions. His work includes El chavismo salvaje (Wild Chavismo) and La política de los comunes (Politics of the Commons). In part one of this interview, Iturriza addressed what is possibly the most difficult question facing Chavismo today: the political disaffection of important sectors of the Venezuelan society. In part two, he examines the dialectic between institutions and popular power that has characterized the Bolivarian Process for many years. Additionally, Iturriza looks at the widening gap between institutional Chavismo and the popular movement on various issues.

Throughout the Bolivarian Process, there has been a sometimes tense relationship between institutions and the popular movement. For many years, this tension was productive and positive, but now we are witnessing fissures in the political bloc. What is going on?

I think that what we call the popular movement has to be profoundly self-critical. It’s not enough to understand that what you correctly call a “positive tension” has degenerated into something that is quite close to outright antagonism.

Some dismiss the matter by saying that this situation is just an expression of class struggle inside the movement. Even worse, however, are those who are oblivious and yield to the temptation of reading conflict, tension, or antagonism as a question of loyalty. In this way of seeing things, there is no longer any conflict, only loyalty or betrayal everywhere.

Let us try to get to the root of the conflict. I said before that Chávez’s effort to build a democratic and popular hegemony had, as its center of gravity, the sub-proletariat. What happened is that during the first decade of this century a large sector of the sub-proletariat joined the ranks of the proletariat – that which some mistakenly call the “new popular middle class.” This sector never became middle class in the strict sense. Instead, for the first time in our history, the working class was able to live with dignity. What is significant here is that we are talking about the majority of the country.

In other words, Chávez became not only a leader with enough moral authority to govern the country, with broad democratic liberties, but he also became the arbiter between the different lines of force within Chavismo. He did so by putting a class fraction [the sub-proletariat, which he called the “marginal class”] at the center of Chavista politics (though it did not mean that the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie would cease to benefit, even if they did not admit it).

For reasons that we can’t go into deeply here but which need to be further examined, it is obvious that the question of how to organize that class fraction (and the working class in general) has not been resolved. Chavismo emerged in the context of a severe crisis of the traditional forms of political mediation, including parties, unions, and guilds. This required the movement to try out new organization models without abandoning more traditional forms of organization.

Communal councils and communes would become the most advanced forms of this new political experiment. In them, the sub-proletariat felt at ease and there was the advantage that these spaces allowed a more direct dialogue with Chávez, thus bypassing the party, the union, the local and regional governments, etc.

Obviously, this wasn’t always the case. Before these new forms of organization emerged, time and again people would find themselves having to struggle with the party, with the local and regional governments, etc. These relationships were often problematic, to say the least. In fact, it couldn’t be any other way: it was the meeting of two logics, two radically different ways of conceiving politics, which were in conflict with each other.

So Chávez became the arbiter, playing simultaneously the role of head of state, on the one hand, and a kind of subversive within the state, on the other. There was the Chávez who had to preserve the status quo and the one who aspired to transform it. To give you an example, Chávez would highlight the importance of the party and the preservation of local governments while exhorting those who were politicized on the margins of the traditional politics to resist becoming an appendix of anything or anyone.


Amidst all this, what was the role of the popular movement?

It seems to me that the movement was – very correctly – trying to open the way by exercising leadership in the spaces of popular organization, sometimes within the party, sometimes in government functions. Nonetheless, it always represented a modest fraction within a vast whole. The movement was politically prepared but it had evident limitations, and these limitations were barely made up for by the advantage of having Chávez’s leadership on its side.

It is quite obvious that Chávez’s death disrupted the internal dynamic of the movement, and it is equally obvious that Maduro is not Chávez.

Let us suppose, for the moment, that it is true that the sub-proletariat (or the working class in general) is no longer the center of gravity of Chavista politics, but that instead the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” is at the center because the new correlation of forces has made it so. What role should the popular movement play? Surely understanding the political implications of this change is necessary, but this entails inquiring into what has become of the working class and asking about the tribulations taking place in the spirit of the masses. At present, I believe that this means understanding what goes on in the minds of the Venezuelan pueblo and particularly in the minds of disaffected Chavismo. The latter is a vast subject that seems to have been left without an interlocutor, in a political “non-place,” as I contended in some of the texts in Radiografía sentimental del Chavismo (2019).


There is a lot going on in the left now. For a sector of Chavismo (eg. media outlet Misión Verdad) the Bolivarian Process is at its most glorious moment because of its capacity to take the heat from imperialism. Another sector melancholically thinks things have turned for the worse, because the process is separated from the masses and lost sight of the goal of socialism. Then there is a third group that believes – as Marx contended in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon – that the revolution must leave its Chavista past behind and make its poetry in the present. What kind of relationship should the revolution have to its past?

The past is of no use to us if it does not allow us to move forward in the present. Allow me to dwell on the importance of building a popular and democratic hegemony.

When one carefully reads Chávez’s texts from the 1990s, some of the most extraordinary sections involve a harsh polemic with the leadership of the Venezuelan left parties, with sectors of their militancy, and with some important left intellectuals. To sum it up: Chávez questioned their disconnection from the popular masses, their propensity for endless debates without ever getting down to business, their [Soviet] manual influenced readings of the classics of Marxism, their scarce interest in taking power, their strategic short-sightedness, their sectarianism, and their contempt for the pueblo. According to Chávez himself, the left considered those questions anathema, as a kind of neophyte’s babbling. I have tried to partially reconstruct this historical episode in La política de los comunes.

I don’t know – and in fact it’s not important – if Chávez had studied Gramsci at that time, but he no doubt knew well the work of Alfredo Maneiro, José Esteban Ruiz Guevara, Pedro Duno, Jose Rafael Nuñez Tenorio, Kleber Ramírez, Domingo Alberto Rangel, Alí Rodríguez Araque, Victor Hugo Morales, and Hugo Trejo among others. In fact, he met and talked with most if not all of them before becoming president, in some cases even before the February 4, 1992 uprising.

What I mean is that, from the beginning, Chávez was the opposite of a neophyte. He was, without a doubt, a military person who had joined the left. However, precisely because he knew the left well and had, to a great extent, been inspired by the critical heritage of its most lucid figures, Chavez understood that, for the Bolivarian Revolution to happen, it was essential to go “beyond the left” as Maneiro put it in his famous 1980 text.

His “discovery” of the key idea of participatory and protagonistic democracy was decisive. It implied radically, mercilessly questioning of the traditional political culture of the left. For starters, the political leadership would have to abandon any pretension of being an “enlightened vanguard” and would have to learn to move through the popular catacombs… like fish in the water. They could take the word to the people, yes, but above all come to and understand the suffering of the masses and accompany their struggles. It seems to me that Chávez, who has been accused of being a messianic, vertical, authoritarian leader, understood that the common citizen had to be treated as an equal: with respect and dignity. I am not at all sure that we’ve assimilated his profound impact in the sphere of political culture!

The conception that the Venezuelan pueblo is not only qualified to actively participate in political affairs, but also to be the protagonist, was key to forming the powerful bloc that eventually achieved the 1998 electoral victory.

We are talking about a historical moment in which labels mattered very little. It didn’t matter if one was defined as a leftist or otherwise. What mattered was if one considered it necessary to defeat the political class that represented bourgeois democracy and the pact of elites, and if one believed it was possible to build a genuine, popular, participatory and protagonist democracy.

In fact, if one reviews the opinion polls of the time, one can see that most of the people who voted for Chávez did not identify with the left. But, what is more, what is actually the left? (The truth is that there isn’t one left but many.) It was an open question to the movement, which brought together different expressions of the left, from the most traditional to the most radical, but also people from the right. And it was an open question to the people and Chávez, who even flirted with the “third way.”

As it happens, by 2006 most of the people voting for Chávez defined themselves as being on the left. So the question is, what did “left” mean for them? This is, actually, an important question. By simple logical deduction, we can conclude that “left” did not mean the same in 2006 as in the early days of Chávez’s government, and much less so in the mid-1990s, when Chávez himself engaged in a controversy with the left’s political leadership….

And, speaking about the grammar of politics, when in 2004 Chávez began to talk about socialism, he did so clearly expressing the need to revise and go beyond the old leftist political culture. In essence, however, he was just repeating in other terms and in very different historical circumstances – which included a large political accumulation – what he had proposed in the mid-90s.

Chávez didn’t dissociate himself from the left. Instead, the left resignified itself with Chávez and Chavismo. It prepared itself, it became more powerful, more national and popular, trying to consolidate a new political culture – a different, more radically democratic way of conceiving the practice of politics.

With the benefit of hindsight, today we can evaluate how far Chávez and Chavismo went in this attempt to refound revolutionary politics. We can point out, here and there, that there were moments and situations where advances were slower and times when we had setbacks, particularly when the old political culture continued to weigh us down – and here I’m not only talking about the more traditional left, but also about the influence of the tradition of Acción Democrática [the social-democratic party that ruled for many years in Venezuela] culture. We can and should identify unresolved issues.

However, the most important issue in this regard is that the attempt to build democratic and popular hegemony – in favor of that which Chávez called Venezuelan, Bolivarian, 21st-century Socialism – was supported, to a great degree, by a revolutionary left leadership which managed to bring the masses together behind it.

All this means that we must be extremely cautious – I would even say, scrupulous — while employing extreme political and intellectual honesty, when one is talking about the left today. I perceive a tendency to separate the left from Chavismo, and to claim that one is the “legitimate” representative of the other. In the most extreme cases, this generates a propensity [from the government] to identify the “left” as a threat or something of the sort, as the epitome of political deviation.

The issue, of course, is far from purely nominal. The important question is not how one identifies oneself. History has given us many “scions of Chavismo” who ended up in farce (and it will continue to do so). The issue at stake is what political culture one is trading in: how we conceive of the practice of politics; how we behave (when we are close to “power” or far from it, to give you an example); how we settle differences; and how we relate to people, which is perhaps the most important thing.

Ironically, in many of the [government’s] invectives against the “left,” one can identify the practices and habits of the more traditional left: arrogance, authoritarianism, verticalism, sectarianism, contempt for the people; assuming oneself to be an “illuminated,” informed vanguard, that understands things, that is capable of seeing what the majority cannot see, that knows what must be said at the right moment and exactly what things should not be discussed. All in all, the same political culture that made the most traditional left incapable of building a popular and democratic hegemony is reproducing itself.

“Leave the past behind and make poetry in the present.” You said that in your question, quoting Marx. It seems to me that a poet needs a good dose of humility. We must not forget that popular poetry was made through all these years… and it continues to be made, in a good measure, against the old political culture of the left. We need to assume that if many don’t like the poetry we recite today, it is not so much because they are tired of the present, but because they learned with Chávez that it is not possible to go forward in the present repeating the mistakes of the past.