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Book Review: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power

Greg Wilpert's book is important: important not only as an account of developments in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez between 1999-2007, but as a "critical interrogation" of Chávez' "socialism of the 21st Century," which should make it important for any individual or group that is seeking to create an alternative society to capitalism.

Greg Wilpert's book is important: important not only as an account of developments in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez between 1999-2007, but as a "critical interrogation" of Chávez' "socialism of the 21st Century," which should make it important for any individual or group that is seeking to create an alternative society to capitalism.  And then, as a result of this critical interrogation, and his own intellectual and personal experiences-most notably, while living in Venezuela-Wilpert presents some ideals and suggestions for institutions that will move "us" toward 21st Century socialism.  These three contributions overlap and support each other in a way that enhances each of them. 

What Wilpert calls "the heart of the book" is a very detailed and quite informative look at the policies of the Chávez government, and their affects on Venezuelan political, economic, social, and foreign policy institutions of Venezuela.  Presented after a quick chapter on Venezuelan history-mentioning the founding of oil in the early 20th Century, and then jumping to and examining the period of "democracy" since 1958-Wilpert carefully details and analyses the Chávez government's policies and impact upon the state, economy, society and foreign relations. 

Wilpert treats Chávez and his government critically, but with great respect.  He does this by delving in great detail into the various areas of concentration.  For example, in his chapter on "Governance Policy," he examines the 1999 Constitution, the judiciary, the military and the concept of "Participatory Democracy"-and each section gets serious consideration.  Under the section on the Constitution, he examines the name change of the country; gender inclusivity; the state of law and justice; human rights and international treaties; women's rights; the right to information; political parties; referenda; social, educational, cultural and economic rights; indigenous rights; environmental rights; the expansion of the state to five branches of governance instead of just three (as previously in Venezuela, and in the United States), the legislature, the presidency, the state's role in the economy, civil disobedience, common criticisms of the Constitution; and then provides an overall summary of that section.  And this level of detail and knowledgeable discussion takes place throughout this chapter and the others referred to above.

Wilpert is a founder of Venezuelanalysis.com, an excellent website on current developments in Venezuela that is written in English so it can be shared with the non-Spanish but English-speaking people of the world.  It is an important resource for understanding what is going on in the country.  Wilpert has taken great advantage of his "place" in Caracas-although he moved back to the US in 2008-at a crossroads of information gathering in the country and dissemination globally, and has provided an extremely informed account in his book of developments of the Chávez government, and its interactions with the people, its political allies and its political/ideological opponents.  While it becomes slow reading at times, this is simply an unsurpassed resource with great detail:  while I've read a lot since I visited the country in June 2006, Wilpert taught me much that I did not know.  This man has done his homework!

If there is a criticism of this part of the book, it is that it tells the reader what happened, and maybe some considerations that led to what happened, but I prefer knowing the processes by which things developed and led to the results, not just the results themselves.  Yet that is in regard to my interests, and would have required a different type of book than what Wilpert produced-Steve Ellner's 2008 book, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics:  Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon (which will be issued in paperback in October 2009 by Lynne Reinner Publishers) provides more of this-but within what he attempted to do, Wilpert did an excellent job.

Chapter 6 is where Wilpert examines the opportunities, obstacles and prospects for the creation of 21stCentury Socialism in Venezuela.  Based on his detailed examination and analysis in the preceding chapters, he is able to now critically evaluate the possibilities of an anti-capitalist project in the country.  He presents six "opportunities" for success-the failure and collapse of neo-liberalism and of Venezuela's old regime, the emergence of Chávez and the Bolivarian movement, and Chávez' charisma existing prior to Chávez taking office, and the hubris of the opposition, the then-oil boom, and radicalization of Chávez and the movement developing after Chávez took office-and examines each closely.  He then assesses these efforts:

In short, Chávez is clearly pursuing an anti-capitalist strategy that is replacing two of the three key institutions of capitalism.  First, he is gradually supplanting private ownership/control of the means of production with a mix of worker and state ownership/control.  Second, the defeats of the insurrectionary opposition, the implementation of more participatory forms of governance, and the freedom that large oil revenues have provided, have broken the state free from the control of powerful private or capitalist interests.


However, the third key institution of capitalism, the market system, is still firmly in place for allocating most of the country's products and wealth.  As of yet, the recognition that the market fundamentally works against social justice is not very strong in Venezuela (p. 194).

From there, Wilpert discusses obstacles to succeeding in the project, focusing on both internal and external challenges.  He argues that the internal challenges "are internal to the Bolivarian movement and … they tend to be in people's heads" (195).  Here he talks about patronage-clientelism and corruption, of a top-down management style, and what he calls "personalistic" politics, based on Chávez himself.  And he discusses each. 

He follows this discussion with one about the external obstacles.  He examines the old elite, domestic and international capital (and he argues that we cannot conflate the elite with the capitalists, as their interests differ while overlapping at places), and US imperialism, especially under George W. Bush.  Again, careful discussion.

Wilpert argues that this detailed examination is necessary because "The Chávez presidency and the Bolivarian project are unique in recent world history."  He explains,

The Chávez government is the first, anywhere in the world, at least since the 1980 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, that is explicitly anti-capitalist.  This does not mean that it has found a way to overcome capitalism, but in its intent it is trying to find a way to do so.  In the process, the Bolivarian project has put the issue of state power back onto the agenda of progressive or leftist politics.


Venezuela … challenges the notion that the world cannot be changed by taking power.  Of course, it still remains to be seen to be seen how successful the Bolivarian project will be in the long run or if it too will fail, either because of its internal problems or due to external assaults. The obstacles to creating long-lasting and transformative social change are truly formidable.  But this is unnecessary for the historical significance of the project-the Bolivarian project is important because it is currently practically the only project in the world that is in power and that challenges both the capitalist status quo and the state socialism of the past (217).

Wilpert follows this with an "Epilogue" that brings the account into 2007, particularly noting changes and developments after Chávez' re-election in December 2006.  Chávez announced changes that addressed some of the shortfalls identified by Wilpert (and others) in the Bolivarian project.  These included developing a Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, and nationalizations of "key sectors" of the Venezuelan economy.  These efforts were made along with decisions not to renew an oppositional television channel's license, to seek (and get passed) the enabling law that allowed Chávez to institute legal changes without going through the legislative process-an approach used by previous Venezuelan presidents as well as by Chávez in the early years-and evaluating the movement toward 21st Century socialism.

One of Wilpert's continuing fixtures is upon Chávez himself.  He notes, "… the Bolivarian project faces a contradictory situation in which on the one hand, it would never be where it is without Chávez, his charisma and his strategic vision, and on the other hand, the movement's dependence on Chávez and his charisma reproduces some of the worst aspects of the previous regime that the movement set out to overcome" (235).

This is where I have some questions:  while Chávez is certainly at the center of things, and has an outsized affect on developments, I wonder if Wilpert has not placed too much emphasis on him?

Certainly from reading Ellner's book (referred to above), I get the sense that Chávez' relationship to the people of Venezuela is more interactive, and less dominating than Wilpert reports.  Certainly the mobilization by the masses in Caracas during the April 2002 coup, that played such an important part in saving Chávez' life and returning him to power, was not ordered by Chávez (who was incommunicado) nor was it organized by his political organization; it was mobilized by critical mass activists in the barrios that surround the city.  Yes, Chávez inspires the activists and the people, and provides much direction, but it appears to me that the activists and the people inspire Chávez as well, and suggest how far and how fast he and his government can move at any time.  I'm not dismissing Wilpert's critique-and I think Chávez needs to address issues identified in it-but I don't think this section is as nuanced as his understanding shown in the rest of the book.

Incidentally, I think the first six chapters and epilogue are excellent descriptions and systematic analyses of developments to date.  I think their importance goes beyond Venezuela, and should be required reading of activists in any country where the "left" has taken power or is seriously threatening to do so. 

I think certainly they would be of immediate interest to the comrades in South Africa in helping to define future development of the African National Congress (ANC), with the elevation of Jacob Zuma to replace Thabo Mbeki, although the South Africans won state power after building up forces from below (especially through the labor movement and community mobilization) and then negotiations, rather than seizing state power though elections, as did Hugo Chávez.  And I think the South African labor movement, especially COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), would have a lot to teach the progressive labor movement in Venezuela, the National Union of Venezuelan Labor (UNT), about self-organization and democratic governance.

And yet-if I can be excused for my verbosity-there is one more section of Wilpert's book, the Appendix, where he tries to concretize the concept of "Twenty-first Century Socialism," that I think takes his book to still a higher level.  In my opinion, this is where his relevance expands beyond Venezuela, and beyond countries where the left is "threatening" to achieve state power, to include backward countries such as the United States.

Twenty-first century socialism is very vague in Venezuela, as well as elsewhere.  Wilpert notes the problem: "Chávez' rather vague definition, which he says is deliberate, provides us only with a set of ideals or goals that do not give us enough material to evaluate whether Venezuela is actually heading toward something that merits the designation of twenty-first century socialism" (237).  And yet, recognizing that, Wilpert-focusing on societal institutions-proposes ideas for institutions that would move a society toward the kinds of ideals that Chávez suggests.  I really applaud Wilpert for taking this on.

The process that Wilpert follows is interesting.  He discusses Chávez' ideals for 21C socialism, which Chávez first announced at a January 30, 2005 speech to the fifth World Social Forum.  He notes the aforementioned vagueness.  Then he says, well if we don't know what we want, at least we can begin by recognizing what we don't want. 

He begins with a discussion of capitalism-which, while I agree with that capitalism sucks, I did not find Wilpert's overview very satisfactory, although adequate for the task at hand.  He notes five key negative consequences of it:  it inherently produces social inequality (he does not say it depends on the exploitation of workers), that it creates alienation, that it is inherently unstable, that it destroys the environment, and that "it encourages racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization" (242-243).

He points out the ideas of 21C socialism, but notes that they do not distinguish this from any other form of "socialism."  He then, usefully, examines different varieties of socialism, including social democracy, state socialism, market socialism and libertarian socialism.  He notes, "libertarian socialism is one of the most interesting branches of socialism because it attempts to address all of the problems of capitalism as well as the problems of the other three socialist traditions" (249).

He then presents five guiding principles for institution building.  We cannot build institutions where we assert that the ends justify the means.  Approaches toward building institutions toward building these new institutions cannot be dogmatic.  He thinks we should not privilege one ideal over another.  We should avoid privileging the individual over the collective or the collective over the individual, because they are interlinked and denying one denies the other.  And that we should pay attention to these new institutions' place in the existing set of relations and of meanings.

With those ideals presented, he then focuses on new economic institutions.  He says they must be built on self-management, balanced job complexes (which is a key part of Albert and Hahnel's ideas of "participatory economics" or "Parecon"), remuneration for effort and sacrifice, participatory planning and "cooperative allocation, and free knowledge, as suggested by the Free Software Movement.

He then projects ideas for new political institutions.  He wants to shift politics from representative democracy to participatory democracy, from formal equality to justice, from identity politics to universal solidarity, and a new form of communications, from peer-to-peer. 

And encouragingly, he argues that "these institutions for a participatory society are much more feasible and realistic than at first seems" (265).  He says he's come to that conclusion based on his experiences inVenezuela.  Yet he points out, "The challenge for social change movements is to promote the type of integrative consciousness necessary for a participatory society" (266).

I find these interesting ideas, and I think they are a firm jumping off point for future debate and discussion.  I hope people will grapple with them.

My only criticism of Wilpert's approach is that he does not address environmental devastation-like most other folks suggesting some form of "socialism" or "alternative" society.  This is obviously a key contradiction inVenezuela, which is one of the largest oil producers in the world.  I'm not satisfied with it, but I can understand that he has not addressed the fact that the Bolivarian revolution is economically based on oil.

My big problem with this, however, is that Wilpert does not address the issue of environmental destruction, global warming, etc., in his ideals for creating 21st C socialism.  It's a tremendous limitation.  (I have confronted this issue head-on in my "It's Time for a Deep Green Vision for the United States … and the World."  Synthesis/ Regeneration, No. 48, Winter 2009: 8-11.  On-line at www.greens.org/s-r/48/48-04.html.) I argue that we need to create a standard of living that could be enjoyed by every person on the planet, and which is economically and ecologically sustainable over multiple generations, and that any alternative program that fails to address this is doomed to fail.

Whether I'm right or not, nonetheless, I think Greg Wilpert has done an excellent job with book.  Based on his experiences in Venezuela, he's taken everything he can and put in this book.  It is an impressive effort, of the highest level of scholarship, and deserving to be read by all interested in creating a new society.


Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville,Indiana.  A long-time global labor activist, he made a short visit to Venezuela in June 2006, and has written a number of articles about his experiences, especially comparing development policies in Venezuela and South Africa. His web site is at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes, and he can be reached directly at [email protected].

Source: ZNet