Iain Bruce, The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 240 pages, $27.90, paperback.
“When Chávez speaks, we listen. But we don’t listen to those around him.” This comment by a community activist interviewed by Iain Bruce, and integrated into his wonderful exploration of the Bolivarian Revolution from below, points to an essential characteristic—the unique link at present (“por ahora”) between Hugo Chávez and the exploited and excluded of Venezuela.
Bruce deliberately chooses to look at one side of this dialectical relation, the side of the urban poor, workers, and peasants. As he indicates in his Introduction, “readers may be relieved to find only occasional mention of Chávez or the upper echelons of the Bolivarian movement in the central pages of this book. The aim is to look at the experience of ordinary Venezuelan women and men, and to listen to their voices, as a way of getting inside the process.” As a result, Bruce helps us to distinguish speeches from reality, and we get to see what is really happening. We share not only the exhilaration but also the frustration of those below.
The Real Venezuela began in September 2004 with Iain Bruce’s arrival in Venezuela as BBC correspondent. In the course of a year, he visited communities and workplaces to file his regular reports. Like so many others who have come to Venezuela and were excited by what they heard and saw, he decided to write about it. But there are several unique points about his account.
First, he is an excellent journalist, filmmaker, and interviewer, able to tell fascinating and important stories through the people themselves. Second, he came back to Venezuela as an independent observer in 2007, and returned to the very same experiences he had visited when employed by the BBC; so, rather than single snapshots, we see glimpses of a process and the pace of change (or lack of same). Third, compared to many other observers, Bruce is politically sophisticated and able to identify the significance in these minute particulars, not only for the Venezuelan process but also, indeed, for any attempt to build socialism in the twenty-first century.
The first voices Bruce introduces are those of the urban poor in the barrios of Caracas. Here, as so many know, are great stories of change—the social missions providing access to education and medical care, the land committees, the water tables, and all those institutions that emerged, beginning in 2003. We hear about the changes these developments have meant in people’s lives and how the people themselves identify those changes with Hugo Chávez. Yet Bruce also reveals that there was a tradition of self-help in these communities, and that they struggled together to build their homes and communities in the “hills.” This, then, was one component of the urban movement—that “impressive history of self-help initiatives.” To that was added a constant “stream of demands and complaints” to those above and “a dynamic of rapid response to each and every opportunity opened up to it from above.”
Consider, for example, the way people responded to Chávez’s call for all public institutions to support “the organised communities” in regularizing land ownership. Urban land committees emerged throughout Caracas and other cities, bringing together (and, indeed, organizing) their communities. Here was a basis for subsequent urban organization—e.g., the health committees and then, later, the communal councils. The needs driving the urban poor, the enormous social debt inherited from decades of economic deterioration (plus the neoliberal policies of the 1990s), Bruce proposes, is the sea in which Chávez swims. It is “one of the secrets of President Chávez’s political success—for he has shown he knows exactly how to engage with, and build upon, this pre-existing pattern of popular action.”
That sounds a bit like a classic description of a charismatic populist leader. But it is a characterization with which Bruce is not comfortable. Indeed, he comments that many left approaches to the relationship between Chávez and the people are “haunted by the spectre of populism.” Something different is occurring—perhaps captured in Chávez’s well-known statement: “if we want to put an end to poverty, we have to give power to the poor.” Bruce stresses that “we need to try very hard to understand both sides of this combination,” this nexus of centralized policies issuing from Chávez and the “diverse field of initiatives bubbling up from below,” and “we need to try to understand what happens when the two intersect.”
We begin to understand this as we listen to the successive voices of those who have thrown their efforts into the new cooperatives, development poles like the Fabricio Ojeda Endogenous Development Nucleus, the land occupations of the latifundia, the factory occupations, the famous example of “co-management” in ALCASA (the state aluminum plant), and the communal councils. How can you not be inspired by these stories of people who have never worked before, and are now taking pride in their jobs, people who feel that they are in charge? (“Nobody is the chief here. We are the owners of our own decisions.”) These are the accounts of people looking to a future with hope for their children, community members explaining how and what they learned in the process of participatory budgeting, workers (in, for example, ALCASA) enthusing about co-management: “This is socialism of the twenty-first century.…It’s a new, humanist system.”
But it is also a story of obstacles. Significant obstacles, including private ownership, a dysfunctional legal system, an old bureaucracy, a new bureaucracy, disinterested and uncommitted Chavist officials, inefficiency, and enemies within. We hear about these obstacles in the initial accounts of the protagonists in 2004, but their existence is undeniable from the reports Bruce hears upon his return, two years later. Nowhere was there a defeat more obvious than in the case of ALCASA. Describing the end to co-management in this state company, the workers attributed much of the reversal to the opposition of the managers. “The mafia of the old management,” said one, “try their hardest to keep as much as possible for their mates in the private sector.” But the problem was also that ALCASA had been left alone to make it—rather than being given attention and encouragement at the beginning of the process, which would have then spread to other state sectors. Instead, it was treated as an orphan. “We were left on our own,” commented another worker, “isolated and blockaded like Cuba, except our gusanos [worms] were still on the inside, not outside.”
Although not as dramatic, Bruce discovers similar setbacks elsewhere: agricultural cooperatives that did not survive because of lack of support, land titles not delivered, legislation not forthcoming (as well as inadequacies of the actors themselves—e.g., “deeply rooted individualist habits and prejudices” within peasant cooperatives). He highlights a mix of advances and retreats.
Sometimes the response to the obstacles presented by indifferent and antagonistic officials and managers was to find new ways to fight (as in the case of the community of Galipan). In other cases, the hopes raised by Chávez were crushed by the lack of progress or opposition. Describing the demise of many land committees in one community, an activist commented, “No one is going to waste their time if there is no respuesta [response].” As one militant from ALCASA put it, “when you start to give democracy and power to working people they start to demand results from you. When they don’t get results, when you can’t solve their problems, you tend to react by withdrawing support from those committees. So they got marginalized and the workers going to them became disillusioned; they couldn’t see the point and stopped going along.” But this was a state company—in a state dominated at the top by Chavists.
The State, the State! Everywhere we come back to the obstacles within the existing state. Here is the dilemma that Bruce communicates: tension between popular movements and popular power, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a state from which there is often “no respuesta.” Protagonistic democracy (rather than representative democracy) and new productive relations under the control of popular power, Bruce understands, suggest a vision of socialism “strikingly different” from the visions that dominated the twentieth century.1 Yet we see a realization of that vision coming up against the existing state. “Is it possible,” he asks, “to envision the emergence of new state structures defending a new set of social interests, alongside or even within the old state which defends the old class interests?”
That, indeed, is the critical question emerging from Bruce’s look at “the real Venezuela.” But it is a question that transcends the Venezuelan case. “The central problem for the Bolivarian movement—and perhaps for most conceivable revolutionary processes in today’s world—is right here: how do you get around the existing apparatus, when you first came to power through it (that is, you were elected into office)?” What is the appropriate relationship between this new popular power and the old state—not only in Venezuela but anywhere? Here is “one of the central dilemmas posed by the Bolivarian experience in Venezuela, and potentially by almost any other imaginable transition towards socialism in the twenty-first century.” Should the emerging forms of popular power, communal councils and workers councils, “the seeds of a different kind of state…be regulated, institutionalised, even initiated by laws and regulations emanating from the old state machine?” The answers to this question “go to the heart of what any socialist democracy worth the name might really look like.”2
These are absolutely critical questions. Of course, all states are not equal, and the Venezuelan state—a rentist state that stands above society and has bred a deep culture of corruption and clientalism—is a particularly hard nut to crack.3 Precisely because of the character of that state, so much of the Bolivarian Revolution has involved bypassing its organized structures (as in the case of the missions).4 Is the existing apparatus of the Venezuelan state, then, the obstacle to the realization of socialism for the twenty-first century in Venezuela?
Certainly, we must be aware (as Bruce is) of the obstacles presented by the continuing strength of capital in particular sectors, such as import processing, finance, and the media, as well as the continuing subversion by imperialism and the threat of its intervention (direct or by proxy). However, insofar as we can listen to the voices of the people through Bruce’s reporting, this conflict between state and popular power is what they identify as thwarting them! What stands between them and the realization of the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution, their own experiences tell them, are the bureaucrats and the office-holders—the people they have learned not to trust. It is why they listen to Chávez but “not to those around him.”
But for how long? If the real steps toward realization of that vision of socialism for the twenty-first century are frustrated by state/party bureaucrats and officeholders, at what point do grassroots activists conclude that they are wasting their time? At what point does apathy set in, even with respect to Chávez (who, after all, has chosen state ministers and party leaders)? Bruce ends with an expression of hope that the new party insisted upon by Chávez, the United Socialist Party, will satisfy the communities and militants “fed up with the delays and diversions thrown up by so many officials and bureaucrats, and hungry for an effective expression of their own power and interests.” Unfortunately, thus far, that new party has exhibited a powerful tendency to reproduce the verticalism of the state—to become a transmission belt going in the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, something significant is missing from this picture: the other side of the combination of Chávez and the exploited and excluded. Missing is the response of Chávez to the initiatives, demands, and complaints from below. To understand the combination, we can’t consider only the voices of the urban poor, workers, and peasants. We also have to consider Chávez’s voice and actions, the impulse he gets from below—because that impulse is what keeps people listening to him. For example, Chávez’s decision in April 2008 to nationalize Sidor, the large steel firm in the industrial center of Guayana, was a response to the demands of the steelworkers in the midst of a dispute with the company that had been the beneficiary of privatization under a previous government. Chávez’s announcement of the nationalization electrified the organized working class in Guayana and elsewhere in Venezuela.5 As Bruce points out, within a few months, the Sidor “workers themselves had begun to relaunch the discussion about what a socialist company should look like, and how the employees could exercise democratic control within it.”
But this was really only the beginning of a new dynamic. The next step occurred with the convening of the workers in the state sectors (including ALCASA) of the region in May 2009, in conjunction with the Ministry of Labor, to begin the development of a socialist plan for Guayana. Following discussions in their worktables, the reports from the tables began. And the demands multiplied and became more and more powerful: nationalize the private companies which were supplying inputs; introduce workers’ control; get rid of the managers opposed to workers’ rights. The excitement among the workers was contagious (even for those watching on television). Chávez, present for the reports, sat there, poker-faced, and took notes. When the reports were completed, the workers got their respuesta. Chávez announced that the firms in question would be nationalized; said Guayana would lead in developing a new socialist direction for the country; and called on the workers to devise a socialist plan within a few months for the heavy industries of the region. As might be expected, the workers were ecstatic—cheers, tears, hi-fives, and the spontaneous singing of the national anthem was their response to Chávez’s respuesta.6
Yet this is not the whole story. The workers did meet and came up with their proposed plan within two months. Then it all came to a halt. Once again, the gusanos on the inside paralyzed the process. And there it could have remained (depending upon the response of the workers). In July, however, Chávez breathed new life into the socialist plan for Guayana: once again he overruled his local officials. He convened a televised cabinet meeting, endorsed the plan, and declared that Venezuela now has state capitalism—and you can’t have socialism without workers control.
There is a dialectic at work in Venezuela. The dialectical relationship between Chávez and the masses has driven the process within Venezuela forward so far; whether it continues, will depend on the initiatives of both sides. That means the necessity from the top and the bottom to struggle against the obstacles (many of them there because Chávez has relied upon particular people, to date). Iain Bruce’s great accomplishment in The Real Venezuela is that he does exactly what he set out to do: “to look at the experience of ordinary Venezuelan women and men, and to listen to their voices, as a way of getting inside the process.” He thereby provides us with essential insights into the consequences of not struggling to go beyond those barriers.
1. For a discussion of the concept of socialism for the twenty-first century, see Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press in 2010.
2. Bruce raises other important general questions. In looking at the viability of the cooperative model, for example, he asks at one point: Could this cooperative survive without the support of PDVSA (the national oil company)? “Then again, why should it have to?”
3. See the brilliant discussion of the Venezuelan state in Fernando Coronil, The Magical State (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997).
4. See the discussion of the Bolivarian Revolution in Michael A. Lebowitz, Build it Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), Chapter 7, “The Revolution of Radical Needs” and in Michael A. Lebowitz, “Venezuela: A Good Example of the Bad Left of Latin America,” Monthly Review 59, no. 3 (July-August 2007).
5. Chávez’s decision in this case involved overruling the local governor and the soon-to-be-former Labor Minister, who had taken the side of the capitalist owners.
6. The video records placed on the Web by the government information outlets (and available on YouTube) naturally present only Chávez’s speech and the reaction; this reinforces a picture of gifts from above, rather than demonstrating Chávez’s response to the demands of workers.