The Struggle for a United Socialist Party of Venezuela

Many progressive and socialist activists around the world have been
excited by the prospects of a new mass revolutionary party in
Venezuela, which will aid collective discussion on the direction of the
revolution. However, some on the international left have quickly
dismissed the PSUV.

By Federico Fuentes - Green Left Weekly
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Local battalions of the United Socialist
Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have been meeting every weekend since August,
aiming to organise the 5.7 million aspiring members who enrolled
between April and June to join the party-in-formation. Spokespeople and
heads of commissions elected by the more than 14,000 battalions have
gone on to form socialist circumscriptions, grouping 10 battalions in a
given local area, to elect delegates to the party’s founding congress.

The
process of forming the party comes in the context of the deepening of
Venezuela’s socialist revolution, through a massive push to organise
the population by way of communal councils and proposed reforms to the
constitution to create a new institutional framework to drive forward
this anti-capitalist process.

Within this process, PSUV is envisaged as an essential political
instrument to politically organise the popular classes to most
effectively fight for their class interests. The party is intended to
bring together the worker and farmer base of the revolution with their
leadership. Until now, the leadership of the revolutionary process has
almost entirely been embodied in the figure of socialist President Hugo
Chavez.

On November 6, at a the mass meeting of the Zamora Command, formed
to direct the campaign for a “Yes” vote in the upcoming December 2
referendum on constitutional reform, Chavez explained that “fundamental
motor” of the campaign will be the PSUV’s battalions. He stated that
the campaign would require continuous street mobilisations in order to
win the biggest vote possible to defeat the right-wing opponents of the
reforms. The opposition has put forward three different strategies to
defeat the reforms: a plan of destabilisation, building a “No” vote,
and organised abstention.


The left’s response

Many progressive and socialist activists around the world have been
excited by the prospects of a new mass revolutionary party in
Venezuela, which will aid collective discussion on the direction of the
revolution. However, some on the international left have quickly
dismissed the PSUV.

One such example is Mike Gonzalez, a leader of the British
Socialist Workers Party and its International Socialist Tendency, and
the SWP’s key theoretician on Latin American politics. In Australia,
groups such as the International Socialist Organisation (which is part
of the IST), and Socialist Alternative and Solidarity (which are not,
but share the same political tradition) take many of their cues from
the SWP.

After spending some time in Venezuela recently, Gonzalez returned to Britain to report in the October Socialist Review that the PSUV was merely “an instrument of presidential power and one in which debate will be virtually impossible”.

Hostile to the revolutionary leadership around Chavez, Gonzalez has
decided that the process in Venezuela is simply a question of “top
down” organising, counter-posed to a “real” revolution, which is
“bottom up”.

Gonzalez argues that the PSUV “has become more or less analogous
with the state, so that the expression of doubt can be interpreted as
hostility to, or at best scepticism about, the revolution”. He raises
the spectre of Stalinism like in the Soviet Union, and of the big
bogeyman for the IST — Cuba (which the IST also considers Stalinist).

“There are a lot of Cubans embedded in different parts of the
government. Their sympathies probably lie with that group of
bureaucrats forging this new instrument”, writes Gonzalez.

“For me, and for most of the people I spoke to”, he adds, “it is
clear that [the PSUV] was an initiative from the state and the
bureaucracy, not so much of Chavez as of those around Chavez”.

Even before the PSUV’s founding congress, Gonzalez apparently sees
no hope for the project to succeed in creating a mass revolutionary
socialist party. However, the Venezuelan reality is different to how
Gonzalez paints it.


Formation of PSUV

During the presidential election campaign in late 2006, Chavez
convened a meeting of the key Chavista parties and individuals to
explain that after the election he would call for the formation of a
new united party. The parties that supported Chavez election, including
both revolutionary and pro-capitalist elements, have been divided.
Chavez’s ostensible party, the Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR), was
largely a bureaucratically run electoral vehicle rather than an
activist-driven revolutionary party.

Some Chavistas argued that the current parties supporting the
Bolivarian revolution should have automatic quotas for the founding
congress of a united party. However, Chavez was adamant that all
delegates, including himself, would have to be elected from the
grassroots.

On December 15, after his overwhelming victory in the presidential
elections on a socialist platform, Chavez formally called for the
formation of the PSUV. He explained the past practice of top-down
decisions and deals on Chavista candidates for elected positions should
be changed and “This should all be done from below, from the base. The
people should take these decisions, as has been written in our
constitution for seven years, except we haven’t done it. Now is the
time to start.”

Chavez added, “You will not see me with the same old faces, the
same party leaderships — no, that would be a deception”. Such a
discourse seems unlikely to have pleased the bureaucratic layers within
the government, but rather acted as an impetus for the mass of
Venezuelan revolutionaries, who applauded this initiative.

Yet Gonzalez claims that “initially much of the left argued that
the PSUV was an exercise in manipulation and that they should continue
to build a current outside”. He argues that only after it became clear
that “many working class people were attempting to join [the PSUV],
this attitude changed … Eventually most of those on the left decided to
enter the PSUV to try to build an independent current within it.”

However this is untrue. For instance, within the trade union
movement, all of the main currents decided months before enrolment
began to join the new party. Even the overwhelming majority of the
leadership and rank and file of the C-CURA union tendency, which
Gonzalez writes of in glowing terms, voted in March to encourage its
members to join PSUV — despite one of its key leaders, Orlando
Chirinos, arguing against it.

In the campesino sector, the radical wing of the
movement organised in the National Campesino Front Ezequiel Zamora had,
by the end of January, agreed to be part of the PSUV.

The overwhelming bulk of the local political and social
organisations also threw themselves into the formation of the PSUV. An
interesting case is that of the Party of Revolution and Socialism,
which, due to its Trotskyist leanings, was pointed to by many
like-minded socialist groups internationally as the “real”
revolutionary force in Venezuela (ironically this meant it was probably
better known outside of Venezuela than inside). After a section of the
PSR’s leadership, headed by Chirinos, voted to stay outside the PSUV,
the overwhelming bulk of its worker membership left to join the PSUV.

Rather than the left delaying joining, most of these sectors
immediately realised there was a need to go into the PSUV to fight to
ensure that what would emerge from the process of party formation is a
real political instrument of the working people. The number of people
who registered to take part in the party was a massive display of the
support for such an initiative and the strongly felt desire amongst the
Chavista ranks for unity and political organisation.

It is undeniable that a sizeable chunk of the more bureaucratic
sectors of Chavismo have thrown their weight into the PSUV in order to
best try to control it from above. However, this is hardly surprising.
They know that their interests are threatened by a formation that
eliminates the distribution of quotas for position and selection of
candidates from above and replaces it with real grassroots democracy
and revolutionary organisation: a real party, not just another
electoral vehicle.

It is important to note that according to a number of
revolutionaries, in a clear majority of the battalions across the
country grassroots activists have imposed their will on the leftover
bureaucratic MVR apparatchiks, winning the elections for spokespeople
and heads of commissions.

Because of the number of delegates won by the left-wing of
Chavismo, activists feel confident the left will be strongly felt at
the founding congress. Moreover, the congress will provide an important
opportunity for many revolutionary activists to come together for the
first time at this level.


Structure and program

Gonzalez criticises the fact that “neither the structure nor the
direction of the party have yet been defined. Instead small national
commissions nominated by Chavez have been given the task of defining
its character and form”, though he is forced to acknowledge that they
will not decide “its programme or aims”.

Gonzalez is particularly opposed to the fact that the local
organising units are based on geography, meaning “there are no
workplace units and no student units. And given where the barrios are
located in the cities, a geographical unit could quite easily embrace a
poor district and a middle class area.” Gonzalez proclaims that the
problem is that PSUV “was declared from above rather than built from
below”.

However Gonzalez’s arguments are designed to justify his
predetermined opposition to the PSUV, not engage with the real process
of revolutionary struggle within Venezuela.

Of course someone had to set some kind of guidelines for the
initial structure — how else would Gonzalez propose the process
proceeds? Have the local units just emerge “spontaneously”? Such a
conception would be a free kick for the bureaucrats, who would be the
best placed to create fake “battalions” and control the election of
delegates. The reality that local grassroots activists have in many
cases imposed their decisions on the bureaucracy demonstrates that the
initial structure, rather than hindering, has facilitated the
beginnings of a new grassroots leadership.

While it is true that a national commission has set out this
initial framework, nowhere is it excluded that the founding congress
can vote to change this. Similarly it will be those elected “from
below” who will discuss and debate, in permanent contact with their
local battalions, every aspect of the new party: structure, program and
principles.

Moreover, student and workplace units are not excluded. In fact a
number have been set up at the aluminium factory ALCASA (which Gonzalez
says he visited, yet managed to miss this fact), telecommunications
company CANTV, manufacturing company INVEVAL and others. While
battalions have been formed in middle-class areas, Gonzalez does not
explain where the problem with this lies — merely expecting the reader
to just accept that this is criminal. Yet surely a new party would aim
to organise the revolutionary sectors of this class. There is no
evidence produced by Gonzalez to show that somehow having PSUV
battalions in middle-class areas will automatically prevent the party
from developing a revolutionary socialist program.

The nature of PSUV will not be determined simply by its social
composition (and if it was, given the overwhelming working-class
membership, it would already be a mass workers’ party) but by its
political program — something that must be debated out and not simply
imposed on the ranks.

Most importantly, Gonzalez misses the fact that the PSUV’s initial
structures did not come from nowhere, nor were they the result of a
conspiracy by a clique of bureaucrats. The structures build on the
successful mass organisation of the people in the lead-up to the 2004
recall referendum (the Units of Electoral Battle) and the 2006
presidential elections. These structures were true expressions of mass
participation and political organisation, rooted directly in the
communities and drawing in hundreds of thousands of grassroots leaders,
outside of the structures of the official parties, in successful
electoral campaigns.

Today it is similar structures that are at the centre of perhaps
the most important battle in the Venezuelan process — the referendum on
constitution reform. Once again it is the real leaders in the
community, who through the authority they have won among the
grassroots, who will lead this battle. Furthermore, the discussion
around the reforms — which is essentially a programmatic discussion on
a mass scale — adds important fuel to the ideological debate taking
place within PSUV and Venezuelan society.


Problems and challenges

This is not to say that the first few months of the formation of
PSUV have been perfect. There are many problems and dangers (which Green Left Weekly has covered in the past), but none of them have anything to do with those listed by Gonzalez.

There are no simple formulas for revolution or building revolutionary
parties, only the reality in which we live and the lessons we can draw
from the past. Any process involving 5.7 million people will include
steps forwards and steps backward, and will be a process of serious
struggle. However it will not be advanced by the simplistic
sloganeering and denial of reality exhibited by Gonzalez. He seems
determined to write off the PSUV before the party even holds its
founding congress, implying that it is preordained that the party
cannot be a vehicle to lead the struggle for socialism.

Such a view has also been put forward by another SWP leader, Chris Harman, in International Socialism
#114. Harman argues that the PSUV “cannot provide an answer to the
chaos [in Venezuela] because it will reflect in itself all the
contradictory attitudes within the Chavista ranks”. Not a hint that the
struggle for the formation of the PSUV is not just an organisational
question but a political one, which will include a struggle for a
socialist program and grassroots structures. Such logic is removed from
the reality of mass revolutionary politics and divorced from the need
to grapple with a revolutionary process that involves not just
thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, but millions.

The Venezuelan revolution and the formation of the PSUV open up the
possibility of not only serious blows being dealt to capitalism at a
global level, but also the possibility of discussing on a mass scale,
far beyond the existing revolutionary left, questions of revolution and
political organisation.

Today, the revolutionary leadership in Venezuela, headed by Chavez,
working together with the historic leadership of Cuba, is not just
beginning to turn the tide of history but has opened up an important
discussion among the left. This will make clear those who are willing
to engage with new revolutionary forces leading the fight against
capitalism, and those who close their eyes and continue to follow
dead-end schemas that fly in the face of reality.


[Federico Fuentes is a part of Green Left Weekly’s Caracas bureau and a member of the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective, part of the Socialist Alliance.]


From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #732 21 November 2007.