Where is Socialism in Venezuela? Lessons from the Cultural Revolution

Chris Gilbert argues that building socialism depends on grassroots rebellion against the dominant capitalist order.


The Cultural Revolution in China raised a number of key questions about the construction of socialism and attempted (albeit with limited success) to solve them. For that reason, its legacy remains relevant to the present. Alain Badiou has claimed that we are still contemporaries of 1968. In effect, the questions raised at that time about how to build an egalitarian society – questions posed most palpably in China – are still ours. They are the order of the day, essentially unavoidable for the left, and any socialist project today will have to pick up on those issues, returning implicitly to that turbulent moment. Of course, to do so means going against the grain, since most people accept the idea that the Cultural Revolution not only failed, but was actually pointless and therefore is not worth studying.

One relevant lesson of the Chinese revolutionary experience in the lead-up to the Cultural Revolution is that building a socialist society cannot be left to any kind of automatic logic (whether the cunning of history, the necessary progression of historical stages, or the correspondence between growing productive forces and superior productive relations that supposedly come in their tow). Launching the Cultural Revolution, with its bold calls for popular rebellion against established power, was the acknowledgement that one cannot trust in the automatic course of history or any other kind of invisible or visible hand to lead us to socialism. Instead, there has to be ongoing experimentation and constant stirring things up. This is the practical counterpart to what Alessandro Russo calls Mao’s materialism of the exception that has “subjective invention” at its core and involves leaping from theory to practice and back again.

This brings us to Venezuela. The late Hugo Chávez was a constant and even troublesome experimenter. He was committed to inciting new forms of popular effervescence and to endlessly modifying the rules of a game in which the masses’ all-around development was both the means and the end. Chávez frequently paused in his discourses saying: se me ocurre (it occurs to me) that we should try or do x or y. Usually this happened on live television, and the president would then throw out the idea that such and such community organization should exist, or that we should try to build such and such new institution. Many people, even people on the left, criticized him for his lack of constancy in this regard. They felt that Chávez should have stuck to his initial projects, consolidating what he had begun before going on to the next thing. Why not perfect the consejos comunales before moving on to the communes and communal cities? Why not make the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela really function well and deliver quality education before jump-starting Misión Sucre (the huge university-level educational outreach program which he inaugurated hard on the heels of the former)? 

Breaking the Rules

To the bewilderment of many of us, Chávez seemed to be always wiping the slate clean and beginning again. Some people felt him to be a hopeless improviser and a few even hinted that his impatience should be attributed to a weird personality trait. Leaving all that aside, and with the benefit of hindsight, I feel that one can see how Chávez understood that a constant push from below is necessary in socialist construction. Although neither Chávez nor Mao can justly be called “lords of misrule,” both realized that the logic that tends to consolidate if things are left to stagnate is always a pro-capitalist one. For that reason, people must be allowed and even encouraged to repeatedly mobilize. Mao once wrote that the logic of the people is to “fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again… until their victory.” The counterpart to this claim was Mao’s surprising admission that socialism would probably be defeated in China. In the face of probable defeat and without any guarantee of success, the people always need to struggle: “Never forget class struggle!” was one of Mao’s main lemmas from 1962 forward.

What is true of socialist projects in China or anywhere else is also true of socialism in Venezuela. The socialist project in Venezuela will probably be defeated (for both internal and external reasons). What does acknowledging probable defeat imply for those who believe in the project of constructing socialism in this country? I would argue that recognizing our probable defeat means there is no room for complacency, no space for riding on past successes, and little margin for the spirit of “consolidation.” Without advancing, without stirring things up from below, socialism will inevitably be buried by the spontaneous dynamic of history (the dynamic of history in a capitalist world). That spontaneous logic means more and more privatizations, more and more mercantilization, and a general drift toward situations favoring local bourgeoisies (both emergent and old) and international capital.

In Venezuela, all these phenomena can be seen occurring on a massive scale, even if they are mostly unannounced. Some people on the left see this as an outright counterrevolution, as evidence for an all-out capitalist restoration. By contrast, I believe it would be more correct to assume a broad historical perspective and consider that a Thermidor may have taken place. As Samir Amin has argued, a Thermidor is not the same as a counterrevolution, but rather a sweeping retreat from revolutionary aspirations that are not immediately attainable. In Venezuela, there has been a stepping-back from the most ambitious objectives that Chávez raised in the first decade of the century. No doubt this is conditioned by the tremendous pressure induced by the sanctions and other outside aggressions. Among the earlier objectives that have been radically back-burnered are socialism, participatory democracy, and the communal state.

Recovering Lost Ground

We may hope that this backpedaling is simply a tactical retreat, carried out with a view to keeping the process’s long-term objectives alive. In Venezuela many of us are prone to ask: Are these objectives simply being postponed in the Thermidor that we are now living through or has there been an irreversible turn to the right? This question is almost inevitable, given the apparent loss of a socialist horizon, which is frankly exasperating for the left. However, to pose the question this way is problematic. It is either to posit some false subject of “history” or to imagine a party or governmental leadership capable of grabbing the wheel and putting the boat once again on a socialist course. I think the previous discussion should show the falseness of either perspective. On the question of leadership, remember that, although Mao was sometimes called the “Great Helmsman,” in reality the only way he could try to redirect the Chinese revolutionary project toward socialism was by stirring up the masses and encouraging them to rebel, as he did most strikingly in the Cultural Revolution. 

What, then, is the way forward for those committed to socialism in Venezuela? Near the end of his life Chávez began to ask a bizarre question in relation to different projects underway in Venezuela. He did it repeatedly. Chávez would visit a project site and turn to those present, usually including a few of his cadres, who would then become sheepish, querying: “Where is socialism here?” (¿Dónde está el socialismo?). I think that question was Chávez’s admission that only by finding those concrete points of rebellion against the existing order could socialism go forward in Venezuela. Remember that Chávez had already tried to decree socialism with the constitutional reform of 2007, which led to his first and only electoral defeat. That defeat presumably led him to realize that socialism can only be built by iteratively promoting concrete, grassroots experiments from below. Socialism would be built not by decree, but only through practice and struggle from the bases.

Today, in the face of the almost decade-long Thermidor in Venezuela, I think we should be asking the same question: Where is socialism? Certainly, it has little presence in the government’s main plans and programs, which represent at best a grim realism and the spirit of pragmatism. Rather socialism in Venezuela is to be found in those points of rebellion against the existing capitalist order: the few and always embattled communes, the campesinos who continue to seize and occupy land, the Pobladores movement that fosters self-organized housing projects, trying to reconceive and reconfigure urban life beyond the logic of capital.

Disturbingly, most people who engage with the Venezuelan project from abroad seem uninterested in the question of where socialism exists in the country or whether it can be recovered. Perhaps they never really cared about socialism, or they simply trust that some invisible hand can take us there, or they feel Venezuelan socialism is a merely local phenomenon that they, as outsiders, are not involved in. The latter perspective is a manifestly false one, since socialism, more than any other political project, is a shared and international endeavor. Adapting Chávez’s question and combining it with Mao’s injunction to remember class struggle, I feel that we should be asking ourselves: “Where is popular rebellion against the capitalist order in Venezuela?” It is only by asking this kind of question that we can begin to identify the foci that need to be made visible and encouraged in the Venezuelan project today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.