The process of ongoing radicalization over an extended period under the presidency of Hugo Chávez contrasts with revolutions elsewhere throughout history. The French revolution of 1789 passed through increasingly radical stages for five years after which the Thermidorian Reaction set in. The Mexican revolution between 1911 and 1940 resembled a pendulum whereby popular gains were followed by conservative phases. The Cuban revolution from the outset was characterized by accelerated radicalization and within three years the revolutionary leadership had established socialism. Venezuelan radicalization has encompassed a longer period of time than the French and Cuban cases and has not been punctuated by intervals of backtracking. With the exception of the seven months between the coup attempt of April 2002 and the general strike beginning in December, during which time Chávez put forward conciliatory positions, there have been no signs of systematic concessions or exhaustion on the part of the Chavista leadership.
This paper will focus on the dynamics of radicalization in Venezuela and will examine the factors that contributed to the process. Some analysts on both sides of the political spectrum attribute radicalization to the determination and tenacity or (in the case of the opposition) the personal ambitions of Hugo Chávez (Ellner, 2008: 134-137). While it is impossible to discount Chávez’s fundamental role, the personal focus passes over the complexity of the process of change and the centrality of social forces. In discussing the Venezuelan case, I will attempt to determine the applicability of the analysis on radicalization and the strategy of “permanent revolution” formulated by Leon Trotsky. Placing the rich Venezuelan experience in a comparative and theoretical context adds to its significance and helps counter the notion that the nation, with its unique status as an oil exporter, holds little or no relevance for the rest of Latin America.
The initial, moderate stage of the Chávez presidency began with his presidential campaign in 1998 when he played down socio-economic change and instead stressed the political reforms that were incorporated in the new constitution during his first year in office. The second, more radical period lasted from 2001 until 2004 when the government reversed the neoliberal economic formulas of the previous decade, including the privatization of the oil, aluminum, electricity, and social security sectors, and enacted an agrarian reform law. In the third stage between 2005 and 2006, the government went beyond anti-neoliberalism by redefining private property to include obligations as well as rights, took over several firms that had closed down, and defined itself as socialist. A fourth stage was marked by the nationalization of strategic sectors, including electricity, steel, telecommunications and cement, which was a long-standing nationalistic banner endorsed even by pro-establishment parties and incorporated by them in the constitution of 1961. A fifth stage beginning in 2008 took in expropriations of smaller companies in order to combat scarcity particularly in the food processing industry, as well as to minimize the practice of outsourcing and to put an end to corrupt practices in the financial sector.
The process of the rapid unfolding of stages contained the following key features:
- Political victories created a momentum which the Chavista leadership took immediate advantage of by taking bold moves that initiated each new stage. (1) Thus the passage of the constitution in 1999 in a national referendum and then electoral victories in July and December of 2000 created conditions for the anti-neoliberal reforms promulgated in November 2001. The defeat of the coup attempt and general strike in 2002-2003 and the victory in the presidential recall election of August 2004 and then municipal elections in October set into motion the third stage. The presidential electoral triumph of December 2006 by 63 per cent of the vote produced the momentum for the fourth stage. Additional electoral triumphs in November 2008 and February 2009 initiated the fifth stage (Ellner, 2008: 109-129).
- The escalations from one stage to the next helped identify or expose “enemies” of the process of change. Thus unreliable members of the Chavista movement as well as those who were unwilling to accept far-reaching change abandoned the ranks of Chavismo and in most cases joined the opposition. This occurred in the second stage with several organized groups including the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and leading individual supporters including Chávez’s right-hand man Luis Miquilena. With the radical changes of the fourth stage an important junior partner of the governing coalition, the party PODEMOS, went over to the opposition and in the following stage another ally, the Patria Para Todos (PPT), did the same. At the outset of the radicalization process, the “enemies of the revolution” such as the traditional business sector grouped in FEDECAMARAS, the communications media, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the United States government began to openly take sides, thus intensifying struggles, clarifying identities, and raising the stakes. Finally, the sympathies of military officers opposed to the government were revealed during the coup attempt and general strike in 2002, as was also the case with many of the top executives of the state oil company PDVSA.
- Although the rapid unfolding of stages in the absence of well-defined, long-term goals has obscured the general direction of the Chavista government, its strategy during these years was characterized by a certain consistency. Government policies and legislation, far from consisting of flip flops, were part of a steady radicalization process. Furthermore, certain actions taken in one stage led into the next one. Thus, for instance, the agrarian reform (Lands Law) and legislation on cooperatives and the oil industry promulgated in 2001, while not implemented on a large scale at the time, were guideposts for actions taken several years later.
- Government victories in political battles that played out both at the polls and on the streets infused rank-and-file Chavistas with a sense of optimism and enthusiasm at the same time that they demoralized the opposition. This pattern led Chávez in his January 2005 speech embracing socialism to quote Marx as saying “each revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution to advance.”
The sequence of events and the strategy that influenced them recall the concept of permanent revolution espoused by Leon Trotsky. Originally, Trotsky (and Marx before him) employed the term to describe a process in which revolutionaries in underdeveloped nations such as Russia overthrow the old feudal order and achieve national and democratic objectives. According to Marx and Trotsky, the national bourgeoisie, due to its weakness in those nations, was incapable of fulfilling its historical role of leading the process and establishing consolidated capitalist rule. As a result, bourgeois leaders would not easily be able to hold back the revolutionaries grouped in a vanguard workers’ party from steadily moving the struggle in a leftist direction and eventually establishing socialism. (2) Subsequently, Trotsky and his followers applied the concept to all revolutionary situations by arguing for the necessity of raising slogans and demands (which Trotsky subsequently called the “transitional program”) and embracing a strategy that would catapult the process of change in a leftist direction, while ruling out consolidation, concessions to the enemy or fall-back approaches. (3) Trotskyists would also maintain that, if at any time during the period of the workers’ offensive there is a respite or lull in the struggle, workers would become demoralized and basically all would be lost (Trotsky, 1973: 99-100).
Trotsky’s position on radicalization was spelled out in his critique of the support of the Communist Party of France (PCF) for the Popular Front government led by Leon Blum in 1936. “The greatest danger,” Trotsky wrote at a time of widespread strikes and factory takeovers shortly prior to Blum’s election, “is that the revolutionary energy of the masses will be dissipated” (Trotsky, 1977:83). The Matignon Agreement arranged by Prime Minister Blum with business representatives and supported by the PCF incorporated demands on wages and the work day, but put an end to the workers’ offensive and was followed by mass dismissals, thus leading to the “disillusionment of the masses” (Trotsky quoted by Cliff, 1993: 197). One year later, the workers received the news of the fall of the Blum coalition with complete indifference (Cliff, 1993: 200). Trotsky argued that as a result of this type of capitulation and concessions, reaction inevitably sets in and fascism gains ground.
The Venezuelan process of change resembles the concept of permanent revolution, but there are two basic areas of divergence, which is a source of criticism of the Chavistas by Trotskyists both in Venezuela and abroad. In the first place, Trotsky insisted that the working class and its vanguard party strive to play the lead role untied in any way to their class enemies. In contrast, Chávez, at least until recently, denied that the organized working class has special revolutionary credentials in Venezuela, claiming that historically it has been a relatively passive, if not disappointing, actor (Blanco Muñoz, 1998: 292-293). Furthermore, the Chavista party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), upon its creation in 2007, was conceived of as a mass-based and not vanguard party as it enrolled over five million voters without imposing ideological requirements. In the second place, Chávez throughout his twelve years of rule has mixed idealism with pragmatism by occasionally accepting compromise arrangements with the adversaries of change. Thus, for instance, President Chávez has called on businesspeople representing small, medium and large-scale interests to enter a “strategic alliance” with the government in order to promote national economic objectives. Furthermore, Chávez has maintained friendly relations with the conservative government of Juan Manuel Santos in neighboring Colombia and in doing so has agreed to cooperate with it on certain commercial demands and in the so-called “war on terrorism.” These and other government actions have come under criticism from Trotskyists and others to the left of Chavismo (Sustar, 2007).
In short, the Chavista leadership in Venezuela has maintained the momentum of change over a considerable period of time. The impetus has served to invigorate the rank and file of the Chavista movement and to counter the erosion of enthusiasm that is natural given the pressing challenges faced over the same time span. Thisdynamic contrasts with numerous cases, such as that of Leon Blum in France, in which governments committed to far-reaching change hesitate at key moments in an attempt to appease conservative adversaries, thus squandering golden opportunities created by rank-and-file mobilizations. In spite of the Chavista strategy of taking advantage of victories by immediately deepening the process of change, the Chavistas have stopped short of the accelerated pace advocated by Trotskyists. Furthermore, the Chavista leadership has been characterized by eclecticism more than adherence to dogmatic formulas.
*I would like to thank Miguel Tinker Salas for his critical comments on an earlier draft of this article.
1. One lesson of the Venezuelan experience, particularly from a leftist viewpoint, is the importance of seizing the opportunity provided by the “honeymoon effect” of victories at the polls and elsewhere. This imperative can be illustrated by comparing the actions of Barack Obama during his first months in office with those of George W. Bush following the 2004 presidential elections. While Bush immediately announced that he would take advantage of the “political capital” afforded by the electoral results (even though he received a mere 50.7 percent of the votes), Obama (who won with over two percentage points more than Bush) made concessions to the Republicans on many fronts in a fruitless attempt to build a consensus with Congresspeople to his right. A more audacious and principled stand during the months when his popularity reached a highpoint may have delivered a heavy blow to his Republican adversaries and produced better political results in the long run.
2. Another component of Trotsky’s view of “permanent revolution” is the support for the promotion of world revolution as opposed to socialism in one country.
3. The transitional program was designed as a stepping stone between a “minimum program” including bread-and-butter demands and a “maximum program” of a socialist character. Trotskyists view the transitional program as linked to the thesis of permanent revolution (Hansen, 1973: 9).
Blanco Muñoz, Agustín (1998) Habla el comandante. Caracas: UCV.
Cliff, Tony (1993) Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star: 1927-1940 (Vol. 4). London: Cox and Wyman.
Ellner, Steve (2008) Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon. Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Hansen, Joseph (1973) “Trotsky’s Transitional Program: Its Origins and Significance for Today” in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. New York: Pathfinder Press.
Sustar, Lee (2007) “Where is Venezuela Going? Chávez and the Meaning of Twenty-first Century Socialism.” International Socialist Review, 54 (August).
Trotsky, Leon (1973) The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. New York: Pathfinder Press.
_________(1977) The Crisis of the French Section [1935-36]. New York: Pathfinder Press.