Venezuelan Inventiveness, Marxism, and Vernacular Revolutionary Traditions

In the eyes of much of the world, the year 1989 has come to stand for the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Soviet-type societies, and the defeat of twentieth-century socialism. However, 1989 for many others, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries, is also associated with the beginning of the Latin American revolt against neoliberal shock therapy and the emergence in the years that followed of a “socialism for the 21st century.”

I’m certain that this process is irreversible. This movement of change, of restructuring, of revolution, will not be stopped.

—Hugo Chávez, 2002[1]

El Caracazo

In the eyes of much of the world, the year 1989 has come to stand for the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Soviet-type societies, and the defeat of twentieth-century socialism. However, 1989 for many others, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries, is also associated with the beginning of the Latin American revolt against neoliberal shock therapy and the emergence in the years that followed of a “socialism for the 21st century.” This revolutionary turning point in Latin American (and world) history is known as the Caracazo or Sacudón (heavy riot), which erupted in Caracas, Venezuela on February 27, 1989, and quickly became “by far the most massive and severely repressed riot in the history of Latin America.”[2]

The Caracazo started in the early morning in the suburb of Guarenas in response to a 100 percent increase in transport fares. These transport hikes were part of a set of neoliberal shock policies introduced by the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The object was to put Venezuela back in good standing with the IMF and international financial institutions, obtain their assistance in the servicing of its foreign debt, and provide “fresh money” for the oligarchy to rely on—all on the backs of millions of poor people. Outraged by the doubling of transport fares, the Caracas demonstrators hurled stones at the buses and overturned them. Motorcycle couriers joined in the protests, going from one part of the city to the other and spreading the message. Riots also broke out that same morning in nineteen other cities across the country.

By late afternoon in Caracas, public transport had come to a standstill. Hundreds of thousands of people were walking home and buses were burning. The protestors began to loot shops and supermarkets in order to obtain basic needs—food and clothing. That night, in what came to be known as “the day the poor came down from the hills,” the impoverished barrio-dwellers, joined in some instances by the police, engaged in a campaign of massive looting, first in the commercial center of Caracas and then in the privileged residential districts of the wealthy. From the standpoint of the majority of the Venezuelan poor, the looting was an act of social justice and retribution, an attempt to take back a little of what had been taken from them for decades—as they watched the oligarchy become ever richer, while they struggled to get enough merely to survive. (President Peréz’s ostentatious inauguration, only a few weeks before the announcement of the austerity program, was reported as “one of the grandest celebrations Latin America has ever known,” with a total of ten thousand invited guests attending, consuming 650,000 hors d’oeuvres, 209 sides of lamb, and twenty sides of beef—washing it all down with twelve hundred bottles of scotch, accompanied by immense quantities of champagne.)

In response to the widespread riot, President Pérez imposed martial law and a nighttime curfew. This was followed by a brutal repression of the population. Soldiers entered the barrios with orders to “reestablish order.” One soldier recounted that they were ordered to “shoot anything that moved, and shoot to kill.” One citizen recalled that the soldiers “didn’t say raise your arms or anything. But everything that appeared, they killed.” Hundreds, even thousands, of people were killed, with numbers of the dead ranging from 396 to 10,000, and with many thousands more wounded. The brutality of the retaliation stripped away any illusions about Venezuela’s fake democracy, and set in motion the struggle for a new society. As Richard Gott stated, it “marked the beginning of the end of Venezuela’s ancien régime.”[3]

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution

It would be a decade before the revolutionary turning point represented by the Caracazo would lead to a victory for the left in Venezuela. But already there existed within the Venezuelan military a Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement or Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario-200 (MBR-200—the 200 marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Bolívar’s birth), founded secretly in 1982 by a group of officers, led by Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. These revolutionary officers too were caught off guard by the Caracazo, but were subsequently spurred to action by these events. In 1992 Chávez, then a colonel, led a military coup attempt (intended to be a military-led insurrection) that failed, but that—thanks to a one-minute television broadcast—turned him into a popular hero. In the sixty seconds allotted him, Chávez asked the rebellious Bolivarian troops to stand down, while taking full personal responsibility for the attempted coup, and stating: “for the moment, the objectives we had set ourselves have not been achieved.” Chávez’s “for the moment” (por ahora) came to be thought of by Venezuela’s poor as a promise that he would return. Por ahora became a popular slogan on the streets and a permanent part of Venezuela’s political lexicon.[4]

After serving two years in prison, Chávez was released and immediately began working for a radical transformation of the Venezuelan state. Already in 1993 he declared: “The sovereign people must transform itself into the object and the subject of power. This option is not negotiable for revolutionaries.” Indeed, for Chávez a new form of democracy was called for: “[T]he concept of participatory democracy will be changed into a form in which democracy based on popular sovereignty constitutes itself as the protagonist of power. It is precisely at such borders that we must draw the limits of advance of Bolivarian democracy. Then we shall be very near to the territory of utopia.”[5] In 1997 Chávez formed a political party, Movimiento Quinta República (MVR), the Fifth Republic Movement—a name meant to indicate a complete break with the past—to promote his campaign for the presidency.

In the 1998 presidential election, a multiparty contest, Chávez received 56 percent of the votes in the first round.[6] Immediately upon his election, he called for a National Constituent Assembly to establish a new Bolivarian Constitution—a call that won overwhelming popular endorsement in six separate votes, carried out in a little more than a year. By 2000 Venezuela not only had a new (1999) constitution, and a new name—the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela—but was governed by a new National Assembly, and a president reelected under its new Constitution.[7] As Michael Lebowitz explained in Build It Now:

Here was a constitution that returns over and over again to the theme of human development as the goal, which stresses the importance of dignity and solidarity for the realization of human potential and embodies the concept of a human family—one whose relations are based upon “equality of rights and duties, solidarity, common effort, mutual understanding, and reciprocal respect.” The view is one of a society where “obligations which, by virtue of solidarity, social responsibility, and humanitarian assistance, are incumbent upon private individuals according to their abilities.”

Here, too, was a vision of new Bolivarian subjects producing themselves—both in the political sphere (“the participation of the people in forming, carrying out and controlling the management of public affairs is the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective”) and in the economic sphere (“self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms, including those of a financial nature, savings funds, community enterprises, and other forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity”). This is a constitution that demands a “democratic, participatory, and protagonistic” society, a constitution whose premise is that the full development of human beings as subjects is based upon their “active, conscious, and joint participation in the processes of social transformation embodied in the values which are part of the national identity.”[8]

Although the new Bolivarian Constitution represented a genuinely revolutionary political transformation, breaking, in many ways, with the logic and language of liberalism, it was not socialist. In fact, key parts of the Constitution were conducive to capitalism, guaranteeing the position of private property. As Lebowitz says, it “represented a snapshot of the balance of forces at the time,” and thus embodied contradictory elements. The economic policy adopted by the Bolivarian government in its initial phase was aimed at endogenous national development and was redistributive, but was not directly inimical to the regime of capital. As Chávez put it in an interview with Marta Harnecker in 2002 (following the unsuccessful coup attempt to remove him from power): “We are stuck in a capitalist system, we have not changed it, it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise.” The goal, as he articulated it, was to provide “an economic alternative to dehumanized capitalism”—to “humanize capitalism.” Nevertheless, he saw the revolutionary political transformation even then as part of a longer, wider “transition process” (in the sense of István Mészáros’s argument in Beyond Capital) away from capitalism.[9]

The main political thrust of the Bolivarian Revolution was, in fact, anti-capitalist in its underlying logic of the institutionalization of social revolt. This meant the continual mobilization of the population as social protagonists: subjects and objects of their own human development. The many measures, adopted with the aim of generating greater equality in the society, were viewed by the representatives of capital, inside and outside Venezuela, as constituting in aggregate an enormous attack on their interests—a fundamental uprooting of their position in society. What had begun initially as a massive revolt against neoliberalism, was thus rightly seen by the powers that be as ultimately posing a dire threat to their permanent, propertied interests. The Bolivarian Circles that Chávez instituted in 2001 to reestablish the political movement on a truly mass foundation—mobilizing the people to apply the new Bolivarian Constitution in their own communities to solve their most pressing problems—represented a corrosive force, threatening the hegemony of the Venezuelan capitalist class.

In April 2002, with the covert support of the United States, the oligarchy launched a military coup against Chávez. Removed forcibly from power and taken prisoner, Chávez, in one of history’s more dramatic reversals, was nonetheless swept back into power within days, through the militant actions of the Chávistas, Venezuela’s poor, who came out en masse in his support, soon backed by loyal sectors of the military.

This was followed in 2002 by what is known as the attempted “oil coup,” in which forces allied with the oligarchy and supported by Washington sought to use their control of the state oil company to paralyze the country with a lockout, thereby depriving the state of revenue, with the intention of bringing about Chávez’s removal. The “oil coup” too was soundly defeated.

Various other attempts to unseat Chávez were made by the vested interests, but in general they only led to the strengthening of popular support for the revolution.

By 2003 Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution came to focus increasingly on the transformation of the social economy, promoting cooperatives, worker management, a massive program to bring health care to the poor (Misión Barrio Adentro), and an equally massive program to spread literacy (Misión Robinson, named after Bolívar’s mentor Simón Rodrígruez). In 2004 Misión Vuelvan Caras (Turn Your Faces) was launched to provide revolutionary employment solutions directed at “converting—through work—the creative potential of the people into creative power.” It emphasized the promotion of endogenous development, social economy, the transformation of agriculture in the direction of food sovereignty, and the formation of cooperatives. The number of cooperatives in the country—encouraged by both Venezuela’s Bolivarian Constitution and by the Vuelvan Caras—rose from less than a thousand to more than 180,000 in about a five-year period.

Inspired by Mészáros’s Marxian critique, Chávez was soon arguing for creating space for a new form of exchange (in opposition to capitalist commodity exchange). This was to be a form of communal exchange based on activities or use values. This would go hand-in-hand with real planning; not by means of a command economy but through “coordinated societal self-management.”[10]

This notion of the communal exchange of activities was central to the formation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), launched in 2004 by Venezuela and Cuba. ALBA was meant to generate a broad Latin American alternative to the so-called “free market.” (The word “alba” in Spanish means “dawn.”) The best known example of the type of exchange promoted by ALBA is the trading of Venezuelan oil for the help of twenty thousand Cuban doctors in bringing basic health care to at least seventeen million Venezuelans.[11]

What was emerging organically from the Venezuelan revolutionary struggle—personified by Chávez but involving countless others as well—was a new vision of socialist organization and development. Hence, when Chávez, at the close of the 2005 World Social Forum, called for a “socialism for the 21st century,” declaring that, “we have to reinvent socialism,” he was simply following the historical logic of the Bolivarian revolutionary process, which had unfolded in this way.

The emerging “socialism for the 21st century” involved opposition to neoliberalism, imperialism, and the regime of capital, as well as the creation of a new radical “protagonistic democracy,” based on the mass of the hitherto oppressed population. Chávez has insisted again and again that the only way to rid the country of poverty and to have a genuine democracy is to transfer power to the people. In April 2006 a law was passed, establishing communal councils. These provide elected community “spokespeople,” based on groupings of two hundred to four hundred families in urban areas (or twenty in rural areas). The spokespeople work side-by-side with regional and local authorities but remain directly accountable to their communal councils. So far, there are close to twenty thousand separate communal councils operating in the country.[12]

The Latin American Revolt

Although Latin America’s “socialism for the 21st century” began with the Caracazo in Venezuela, parallel struggles were going on elsewhere in the region. Cuba’s “special period,” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw major changes in the society, and new forms of activism, including what is known as “the greening of Cuba,” reflected in its massive shift to organic agriculture.[13]

In 2005 Evo Morales, of the Movement Toward Socialism, was elected president of Bolivia, becoming the country’s first indigenous head of state. He immediately took on the mantle of “socialism for the 21st century” and joined ALBA. Under Morales (who rose to power partly as a result of the Cochabamba water wars and their effect in transforming the politics of the country), Bolivia has come to play a leading role in defining a third world perspective on the global ecological crisis, as witnessed by the April 2010 Cochabamba Protocol.[14] In 2009 Morales was elected to a second term, winning 63 percent of the total vote. Meanwhile, in 2006, Rafael Correa, another proponent of “socialism for the 21st century,” was elected president of Ecuador.

Today ALBA’s membership includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and three smaller countries from the Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The power of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and Lula’s presence as a social democratic president there can also be seen as representing a significant shift leftward. Meanwhile, dissent in Mexico, where millions rose up in protest of the stolen 2006 election, has been growing.

Just over twenty years after the Caracazo, Latin American socialism is expanding rapidly and generating a renewal of socialism worldwide.[15] So much so that the United States, as the main imperial power, has sought to intervene again and again—not only playing a role in the failed military coup against Chávez, but also in the successful 2009 military coup against Honduras’s democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who had brought Honduras into ALBA. Washington has subsequently given its support to a “normalization” of the rightward shift in Honduras, and, in the face of the fierce repression of the protesting Honduran people, has simply looked the other way. Meanwhile, the United States is constructing as many as seven military bases in Colombia, bordering Venezuela and Ecuador.

Marxism and Vernacular Revolutionary Traditions

For many on the left accustomed to seeing socialism in terms largely derived from the Russian Revolution, the recent developments in Latin America are startling, even bewildering. These reflect very different revolutionary conditions, and a very different theory and practice of socialism. For some of those still firmly wedded to old models, and who see only one possible path to socialism, this is simply “not the right way” to carry out the transition to socialism. The victories that brought these revolutionary-popular governments to power were through the ballot box, not armed struggle. The seizure of the state and economy is by no means complete. The role of the revolutionary political instrument (the party) is very different from that of old. Nor does there seem to be an emphasis on top-down, state-bureaucratic planning. Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is the fact that these revolutions seem to be inspired initially not so much by Marxism, as by revolutionary traditions indigenous to Latin America that go back centuries. Chávez has played a leading role in this, defining the Bolivarian Revolution, in relation to Bolívar himself, his teacher and mentor, Simón Rodríguez, and Ezequiel Zamora, the leader of the peasant revolt in the federal wars of the 1850s and ’60s.

Marx, it is sometimes pointed out by left critics of the Bolivarian Revolution, wrote an article on Bolívar that was entirely negative toward “the Liberator” (based on distorted sources).[16] How could the Bolivarianism of early nineteenth-century Latin America relate to socialist struggles today? How, then, are Marxists to view a Bolivarian Revolution?

There is no doubt that Marxism’s emergence in the nineteenth century provided a powerful set of tools for the analysis of revolutionary change in bourgeois society. Yet, all too often, these tools were converted into a mechanical “science of revolution” to be imposed on the most diverse situations. At its crudest, it was tied to a unilinear view of history, in which all historical peoples were destined to pass through the same identical stages on the same identical path. This imposed a kind of doctrinal purity on Marxism.

It is important to understand that Marx himself never viewed his own critical analysis in this way. “Success,” he wrote, “will never come with the master-key of a general historico-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.”[17] Confronted with the development of revolutionary movements in Russia late in his life, Marx therefore did not seek to impose a ready-made model but delved into the specific historical conditions, learning Russian and studying the works of the revolutionary Russian populists. As a result, he ended up incorporating aspects of the vernacular revolutionary tradition in Russia into his analysis, responding to Russian conditions and struggles. He thus arrived at an understanding that was, in many ways, diametrically at odds with his own “Marxist” followers in Russia at the time.[18]

All peoples have their own vernacular revolutionary traditions, extending back into the distant past. These reflect a particular history and culture, past defeats, and deep-seated problems which remain unsolved. Some of these historical legacies can no doubt be discounted as archaic. But just as often, they reflect radical solutions that were simply ahead of their time or that were not organically connected to earlier struggles. Sometimes they simply represent important causes that were defeated only to grow again. Hence, their transformative power remains. Reaching back into the past and building creatively on these vernacular revolutionary traditions is thus crucial to deriving the language, means of inspiration, and concrete practices to overcome obstacles in the present.

History is by nature a revolutionary process. At the end of Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano declared: “All memory is subversive because it is different, and likewise any program for the future.”[19]

The relation of Marxism to vernacular revolutionary traditions is therefore complex. As Teodor Shanin pointed out in 1983, in Late Marx and the Russian Road, during Marxism’s first century or so:

The purest forms of “scientific socialism,” i.e. those most strictly deduced from the masters, invariably proved politically impotent.…[Similarly], all of the pure “vernacular” forms of revolutionary socialism have also ended with defeat. It has been the integration of marxism with the indigenous political traditions which has underlain all known cases of internally generated and politically effective revolutionary transformation of society by socialists. The polarity between the victories of Lenin, Mao, Ho, and others on the one hand, and on the other hand, the defeats of Kautsky, the Mensheviks of Plekhanov or Martov or of the Asian Marxists like Roy, bears testimony to the different sides of similar equations. While there is no way to understand political results in terms of the theoretical thinking of its participants only, marxism has derived specific strengths form the “impurity,” i.e. from its amalgamation with “vernacular” traditions.”[20]

This is also true in the reverse: vernacular revolutionary traditions have gained through their amalgamation with Marxism, as the most sustained attempt to bring knowledge and science to bear on the problem of revolution—and on the problem of capital, the hegemonic structure of our time.

Needless to say, all the “successful” revolutions that Shanin mentioned above ran into serious difficulties. The year 1989, as we have noted, came to symbolize the fall of “actually existing socialism,” i.e., of the first great wave of socialist revolution. These revolutions, as exemplified by the Soviet Union, had long succumbed to internal and external contradictions, and well before their collapse had ceased to be viable “models” on which to act. The transformative process in Venezuela following the 1989 Caracazo therefore drew its inspiration primarily from vernacular revolutionary traditions, in which Marxism played only a secondary role at the outset. This contributed to the uniqueness of the recent revolutionary process in Latin America. As Marta Harnecker declared in 2003, it could be seen as “a sui generis revolution.”[21]

Chávez’s genius was to draw on the vernacular revolutionary tradition of Bolivarianism, and especially on Bolívar himself. In the sacred oath that he took on Monte Sacro in Rome in 1805, in the presence of Rodríguez, Bolívar famously declared: “I swear before you; I swear by the god of my fathers; I swear by my ancestors; I swear by my honor and I swear by my homeland that I will not allow my arm to rest, nor my soul to repose, until we have broken the chains that oppress us by the will of Spanish power.”[22] Bolívar lived that oath for the rest of his life, leading revolutionary armies that freed much of Latin America, including what are now six separate countries, and installing new constitutional orders. Referring to the forms of Spanish rule, Bolívar wrote: “Our existing laws are disastrous relics derived from every despotic regime that has ever been, both ancient and modern; let us ensure that this monstrous edifice will collapse and crumble, so that we may construct a temple of justice away from its ruins.” Indeed, for Bolívar, equality was “the law of laws.”[23] Accordingly he fought for the elimination of slavery and for the rights of indigenous peoples. His struggle to emancipate the slaves in the liberated colonies of Spanish America occurred long before slavery in the United States was abolished. Bolívar is particularly known for his stance on Latin American unity, especially vis-à-vis the colossus of the North. “The United States of America,” he wrote, “seem to be destined by providence to condemn [our] America to misery in the name of Liberty.”[24]

Bolívar, the revolutionary man of action, referred to Rodríguez as the “philosopher” whom he wished to have constantly “beside me.”[25] It was Rodríguez who introduced Bolívar to European radical democratic and revolutionary thought, including Rousseau, and who himself was to become a utopian socialist. Late in his life, in 1847, Rodríguez wrote: “The division of labour in the production of goods only serves to brutalize the workforce. If to produce cheap and excellent nail scissors, we have to reduce the workers to machines, we would do better to cut our finger nails with our teeth.” He was especially notable for his unswerving defense of the indigenous and black populations. “The scholars of America have never revealed the fact that they owe their knowledge to the Indians and the blacks; for if these scholars had had to plough, and sow and reap, and to gather up and prepare everything they eat and wear and use and play with during their valueless lives, they would not know so much.” He also argued for the uniqueness of Latin America, its capacity to invent its own future. “Spanish America,” he wrote, “is an original construct. Its institutions and its government must be original as well, and so too must be the methods used to construct them both. Either we shall invent, or we shall wander around and make mistakes.”[26]

Scarcely less important in defining the vernacular of the Bolivarian Revolution as articulated by Chávez is the figure of Ezequiel Zamora, who helped organize an army of peasants and slaves to oppose the landholding oligarchy in the civil war of the 1850s and ’60s. A famous portrait of Zamora after military victory depicts him as wearing two hats, one on top of the other, the first was a bowler, the second a military cap. This was meant to symbolize Zamora’s attempt to merge armed struggle with the struggles of civil society.[27]

For Chávez, this vernacular revolutionary heritage has been a mine from which to extract resources for the forging of a new society in which equality is the “law of laws.” Seven years before the Caracazo, in 1982, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement in Venezuela was established when a number of revolutionary officers, at Chávez’s instigation, each took Bolívar’s sacred pledge—under a famous tree known as the Samán de Güere, near Marcay in central Venezuela, that Bolívar is said to have slept beneath before the battle of Carabobo in 1821. They pledged not to allow their arms to rest until they had broken the chains that oppressed the people. Chávez, however, modified the original oath in a number of ways, incorporating from Zamora: “Free elections, free land and free men, horror to the oligarchy.” Again and again, Chávez has returned to the ideas of Bolívar, Rodríguez, and Zamora in his speeches and writings to provide the inspiration for a different kind of revolutionary process, beginning with constitutional change aimed at the promotion of substantive equality.[28]

Since 2003, however, the Bolivarian revolutionary process in Venezuela, while retaining its uniqueness, has increasingly sought a synthesis between its own vernacular and Marxism. The reasons for this can be traced, as we have seen, to the objective conditions of the revolution itself. If the Bolivarian Revolution started out as a far-reaching political revolution, it has moved inexorably in the direction of growing conflict over production and the role of capital. Politics led so that economics (i.e., revolution at a deeper level) could follow. Chávez once expressed this metaphorically as the “cavalry” (the political revolution) being the advance guard, while the rear guard (the more economic revolution) was the “artillery.” Previous revolutions, he said, had often made the error of inverting the two.[29]

This growing focus on issues of production, new forms of exchange, and the implementation of a more radical, substantive equality at all levels of society has naturally gone hand-in-hand with the call for a “socialism for the 21st century.” This in turn has resulted in a greater reliance on some of the more innovative forms of Marxian theory. In this, Chávez has been influenced especially by the systematic critique of capital as a social-metabolic order (and also of Soviet-type societies) embodied in the work of István Mészáros, whom the former has described as the “pathfinder” of twenty-first century socialism. He has also drawn on the ideas of a number of other critical Marxian thinkers, including Marta Harnecker and Michael Lebowitz.[30]

Following his reelection in December 2006, Chávez deepened his presentation of socialist ideas, introducing his notion, inspired by Mészáros, of the “elementary triangle of socialism”: (a) social ownership of production, (b) social production organized by workers, and (c) production for communal needs. All three elements of the triangle must be present, in Chávez’s conception, in order for a socialist alternative to be actualized.[31]

Marta Harnecker and Revolutionary Inventiveness

Marta Harnecker’s “Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism” (originally released in Spanish and translated for publication in this issue of Monthly Review) has as its subtitle “Inventing to Avoid Mistakes.” In the vernacular of Latin America’s Bolivarian Revolution, this is clearly recognizable as a quotation from Rodríguez (referred to above), expressing the necessity of revolutionary inventiveness if fatal errors are to be avoided. Harnecker’s intention, as she makes evident, is to explore the distinctive nature of these Bolivarian Revolutions. But she does so not as a bystander outside this process, simply recounting the developments in Venezuela, Bolivia, etc., but as an active protagonist of this Latin American revolutionary process. As a result, her argument is both an account of the “socialism for the 21st century” in Latin America and an attempt to analyze and advance it further. The overall emphasis is on popular revolutionary practice and the strategic context that will allow this process to move forward.

As a socialist intellectual, Harnecker is eminently qualified to play this dual role as critic-protagonist of the revolutionary process. Born in Chile, she was a student of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in France in the 1960s, and in 1968 began a lifetime process of seeking to advance revolutionary social transformation in Latin America. She was the editor of the magazine Chile Hoy (Chile Today) during Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. After the 1973 coup that overthrew Allende, she fled to Cuba where she became director of the research center, Memoria Popular Latinoamericana, in Havana and an advisor to the Cuban government. More recently, she has taken up residence in Caracas, conducting investigations at the Centro Internacional Miranda research institute, and serving as an advisor to President Hugo Chávez. She has written some eighty books and monographs, among them, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker (Monthly Review Press, 2005).

In her richly detailed analysis in the following pages, one gets a clear picture at the ground level of the revolutionary process now taking place in Latin America—and in Venezuela in particular—of its successes and failures, and above all its inventiveness. Analyzing these developments from a Marxist perspective, Harnecker nonetheless departs from doctrinal purity. In fact, there is to be found here a constant dialectical interchange between Marxist theory and the particular vernacular revolutionary process. As a result, the contradictions of each are brought to light, and new, concrete syntheses are evoked.

Harnecker argues strenuously against a narrow “workerist” view of revolution, and against all kinds of revolutionary isms: “vanguardism, verticalism, authoritarianism,” excessive centralism, etc. Socialism for the twenty-first century, in her vision, is a revolution defined by its commitment to protagonist democracy. In Venezuela the revolution has taken the form of a “peaceful armed transition,” i.e., peaceful but not defenseless, as in the case of Allende’s Chile. It is a process in which the object is constantly to push the revolution forward by continually transferring ever more power to the people. The Bolivarian Revolution, she explains, adamantly rejects representative democracy, choosing instead participatory or protagonist democracy.[32] This is a real struggle, one that can be won or lost, she tells us. It is rife with contradictions and “impossible obstacles” that nonetheless need to be surmounted. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela exists in the context of a capitalist economy. It does not control the state as a whole, but simply part of the government. Its life, its very existence, thus depends on the continual mobilization and the developing capacities of the population, the multitude, the poor.

Above all, Harnecker attunes us to the distinctiveness of this revolution, which is unlike any other, and yet which is putting forth new principles and modalities of revolutionary change that may aid in the formation of similar struggles worldwide. Its strength is its historical specificity, and it is out of this that its real universality arises. She tells us: “Chávez—influenced by José Carlos Mariátegui—thinks that twenty-first century socialism cannot be a carbon copy of anything but has to be a ‘heroic creation.’ That is why he talks of a Bolivarian, Christian, Robinsonian [referring to Simón Rodríguez], Indoamerican socialism, a new collective existence, equality, liberty, and real, complete democracy.” If the transition away from capitalism is now an organic tendency of world history in our time, it also follows: “to each country, its own transition.”

In the end, what is needed, she concludes, is “a left that understands that, more important than what we have done in the past, is what we will do together in the future to win our sovereignty—to build a society that makes possible the full development of all human beings: the socialist society of the twenty-first century.”


[1] Hugo Chávez, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005), 102-03.

[2] Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the UK and Ireland, “Fact Sheet: El Caracazo—The Revolutionary Turning Point,” February 17, 2009, http://embavenez-uk.org.

[3] Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the UK and Ireland, “Fact Sheet: El Caracazo”; Fernando Coronil and Julie Skurski, State of Violence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 86; Bart Jones, ¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution (New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2007), 111-25; Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator (London: Verso, 2000), 44-49.

[4] Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 40-43, 66-73; Jones, ¡Hugo!, 80, 156-57. The original name of MBR-200 was the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army 200, or EBR 200 in Spanish. The letters referred to the names of the three revolutionary heroes: Ezequiel Zamora, Simón Bolívar, and Simón Rodríguez.

[5] Chávez quoted in István Mészáros, The Structural Crisis of Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 129.

[6] The 1998 vote count for Chávez reflected the larger electoral alliance that he had formed with the Movimiento al Socalismo and other parties. Chávez’s own MVR accounted for 40 percent of the total votes, while the remaining16 percentage points cast in his favor were associated with the other parties in the alliance. Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 143-59.

[7] Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 5; Michael Lebowitz, Build It Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), 89.

[8] Lebowitz, Build It Now, 89.

[9] Lebowitz, Build It Now, 90; Hugo Chávez, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, 116-17.

[10] Lebowitz, Build It Now, 98-101, 107-09; Coral Wynter and Jim McIlroy, “Mission Vuelvan Caras—Changing Lives in Venezuela,” January 15, 2007, venezuelanalysis.com; Alberto García Müller, “The Big Challenges of Venezuelan Cooperativsm Today,” August 3, 2007, venezuelanalysis.com.

[11] Francisco Dominguez, “ALBA: Latin America’s Anti-Imperialist Economic Project,” August 10, 2006, http://21stcenturysocialism.com.

[12] On Venezuela’s communal councils, see Federico Fuentes, “Power to the People: Communal Councils in Venezuela,” Green Left Weekly, April 26, 2006; Iain Bruce, The Real Venezuela (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 139-75.

[13] On Cuban socialism today see Richard Levins, “How to See Socialism,” Monthly Review, 61, no. 11 (April 2010), 1-27.

[14] http://wordpress.com/2010 /04/28/peoples-agreement.

[15] Chávez considers the recapture of Bolívar’s revolutionary legacy, not only for the Venezuelan left but also for the world left in general, to be a major achievement of the Bolivarian Revolution. Thus he is proud that “there are now Bolivarian movements in Spain, German, France, England, Senegal, Argentina, USA, Canada, and so on.” Chávez, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, 106.

[16] See Karl Marx, “Bolivar,” in Marx, On History and People (New York: McGraw Hill, 1977), 369-81.

[17] Karl Marx, “A Letter to the Editorial Board of Otechestvennye Zapiski,” in Teodor Shanin, ed., Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 136.

[18] See Vera Zasulich and Karl Marx, “The Marx-Zasulich Correspondence: Letters and Drafts,” in Shanin, ed., Late Marx and the Russian Road, 97-126.

[19] Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), 285.

[20] Teodor Shanin, “Marxism and the Vernacular Revolutionary Traditions,” in Shanin, ed., Late Marx and the Russian Road, 255.

[21] Marta Harnecker, “Venezuela: A Sui Generis Revolution,” September 16, 2003, http://venezuelanalysis.com. The Cuban revolution too was rooted in a vernacular revolutionary tradition, only later becoming Marxist, and can be seen as a “sui generis revolution.” Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, writing in Monthly Review, exactly fifty years ago were among the first to declare that the Cuban Revolution, although arising organically from the Cuban experience, must necessarily be socialist. Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, “Cuba: The Anatomy of a Revolution,” Monthly Review, vol. 12, no.s 3 and 4 (July-August 1960), 145-57.

[22] Simón Bolívar, El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 113-14. Translation according to Mészáros, The Structural Crisis of Capital, 118.

[23] Simón Bolívar, Selected Works (New York: Colonial Press, 1951), vol. 1, 192; vol. 2, 603. Translation of passage from volume 1 (“Our existing laws…”) follows Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 153.

[24] Bolívar, Selected Works, vol. 2, 732. Translation according to Mészáros, The Structural Crisis of Capital, 119.

[25] Bolívar, Selected Works, vol. 2, 449-50. Bolívar’s hope to have Rodríguez always at his side was however to be disappointed.

[26] Rodríguez quotes from Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 109-17.

[27] Jones, ¡Hugo!, 27, 81.

[28] Jones, ¡Hugo!, 79-80; Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 40.

[29] Chávez, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, 122.

[30] John Bellamy Foster,” Foreword,” in Mészáros, The Structural Crisis of Capital, 9-21; Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 673-845 ; Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative (Monthly Review Press, 2010). Chávez’s intense interest in Marxism at this stage, as witnessed by his careful study of Mészáros, was, of course, not an altogether new departure. His elder brother Adán Chávez—now governor of Barinas state in Venezuela and formerly ambassador to Cuba and Minister of Education—was a Marxist from his youth and arranged clandestine meetings, beginning in 1979-1980 and lasting several years, between Chávez and the Marxist guerilla leader Douglas Bravo. Jones, ¡Hugo!, 73-77; Adán Chávez has stated: “In the same way that we have reclaimed the ideas of Bolívar, Rodríguez and Zamora, I think we must reclaim the genuine ideas of Marxism, applying them correctly to our society. The scientific method of Marxism is a necessity. We are a movement based on the ‘principle of the tree of the three roots’: Simón Bolívar, Simón Rodríguez, and Ezequiel Zamora. But if you read these principles you will soon understand that they are not at all in contradiction with Marxism, they defend the principles of democracy, equality and humanity.” “For the Bolivarian Revolution There is No ‘Third Way.’ We Must Choose Socialism” (Interview of Adán Chávez), venezuelanalysis.com, April 20, 2005.

[31] On the origins of this idea see Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative, 23-25.

[32] See also Chávez, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, 107.

Source: Monthly Review