Is Venezuela a “One off”?

Here Venezuelanalysis brings you an exchange between Richard Seymour and Stuart Munckton on the significance of the Venezuelan process and perceptions of it in leftist circles in the West.


Here Venezuelanalysis brings you an exchange between Richard Seymour and Stuart Munckton on the significance of the Venezuelan process and perceptions of it in leftist circles in the West.

Venezuela in the 21st century

Chavez lives. He has survived cancer, thus far, and will most likely survive the presidential election with a comfortable majority (update: yep). And what if he did not? Would not Venezuela still have a popular mass socialist party, a thriving democracy, an expanding union movement, a politically emasculated ruling class, a greatly enhanced welfare state which incorporates elements of grassroots participation, and probably one of the few societies in the world today where it’s almost impossible to impose a vicious austerity project? Jealous much?

Complacent. A defeat for Chavez would be a serious political defeat for the popular movements. It would hand the initiative to the bourgeoisie and their right-wing allies. The media climate would be horrific. The assault the right-wing forces would mount would be brutal. Every advance on their part has been accompanied by violence, and the revenge against the left would be vicious. Right-wing regional governments have already been implicated in the killings of trade unionists. The confidence they would gain would allow them to start tearing up the welfare state, the missions, the literacy and health programmes. So, it matters if Chavez’s rival is within an inch of taking power, as some of our media allege, or if the popular base will turn out once more for the Bolivarian Revolution. But it’s still not clear what the ultimate stakes are. Is this a process of socialist transformation, anti-imperialist realignment, social democratic reform, or what?

I think we on the international left have struggled to really comprehend what is going on in Venezuela. It’s not a question of us being particularly dim, or not me anyway (you can look after yourselves): it just defies all our expectations. Who would have thought that a politician elected on a “Third Way” ticket with a degree of ruling class support would turn into the mortal enemy of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class? Who could have anticipated that an agenda of constitutional change, none of it terribly radical on the surface, would become a kind of political manifesto, a programme of action in the hands of mobilised masses aiming to make good its promise of equality, participatory democracy and human rights, to realise them in the fullest sense? Who would have expected that the ruling class would be so brittle that they would lash out in an ill-judged coup, thus losing a tremendously important political battle, causing a crisis in the state and proving to the Chavez government that had to be a ‘class struggle’ government to a degree, mobilising its popular support against the elite? Now, importantly, who would have thought the radical left government would still be in power, still going strong, still not hitting a brick wall in terms of delivering reforms?

We have heard every possible explanation. On the one hand, we used to hear that Chavez is just some populist caudillo, or a left-Bonapartist taking advantage of the stalemate between classes. Some stalemate which is characterised by an upward surge of popular organisation, and continual victories for the left. Some Bonapartism where the initiative of the popular classes is so important. Perhaps we’ve heard the end of that argument, on the left at any rate. It has also been suggested that Chavez is at best a well-meaning social democrat, radicalised by popular mobilisation and his bruising conflict with the ruling class, yet essentially creating a reformed capitalist state. This seems plausible, but it always runs into this problem: if the people are mobilised for a real social revolution, a challenge to capitalism, a move to socialism in the 21st century that Chavez pledges but has no strategy for delivering, why has their faith in Chavez barely ebbed? Why no crisis of expectatons? Why has the Bolivarian Revolution not differentiated in a serious way? Is it plausible that millions of active Venezuelan socialists are simply deceived?

On the other hand, the idea that there is literally a transtion to socialism underway, taking place through a democratic rupture in the state itself combined with mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation and popular assemblies, is very popular in some European left parties. But the trends in Venezuela don’t seem to support such a view. Setting aside some of Chavez’s disappointing foreign policy stances, which seem to go beyond radical realpolitik, the fact is that for all the advances made by oppressed groups and by workers, the position of the popular classes and particularly the working class is still fundamentally subordinate and doesn’t look like changing soon.

One can resort to formulations such as that of Marta Harnecker, that the pace of change matters less than the general direction in which the government is proceeding. But this is of limited use, especially if the direction, the endpoint, is gauged from the broad and sometimes ambiguous statements of the president. The pace of change is all too often indicative of the ambiguities and antagonisms inherent in the project.

Take, for example, the moves toward implementing some types of workers’ power, which are serious and not to be dismissed. Experiments in democratising nationalised industries with elements of workers’ control haven’t always been too successful. Part of the reason for this is that the PSUV bureaucracy, at a certain level, distrusts working class self-organisation. Though its dominant forces have an agenda of democratisation, this keeps bumping against certain reflexes. Of course, there is a rational basis for the bureaucracy’s worries, given that their perspective is governed by the need to keep a state-centred strategy for growth, redistribution and democratisation. The constant fear is that workers from the opposition will take control and use the opportunity to wreck strategically important industries. There are also real antagonisms between the PSUV wing of the state and the unions, particularly where industrial action is seen to threaten the government’s wider strategy for growth.

Finally, there’s a dilemma for workers taking control of the means of production in this way. They have to continue to produce with a certain respect for capitalist imperatives, maximising revenues, otherwise the experiment is deemed a failure. Sometimes, forms of workers’ control succeed, and revenues are expanded, and this fits well with the PSUV’s overall strategy. But to do so, they have to be good at exploiting labour power, even if it is their own labour power. The successes, failures and antagonisms all seem to be structured around the ambiguity of a radical government trying to govern in the interests of the popular classes, trying to experiment with new forms of socialisation and participatory democracy, while running what is still a capitalist state predicated on capitalist production relations.

The pace of change is indicative of limitations in other ways too. The government has found it very difficult to tackle corruption in the state, and even in its own ruling party, and can barely acknowledge the associated problems of patronage and clientelism. It hasn’t been abled to stop the repressive apparatuses from hurting leftist and industrial organisation, or prevent regional governments from murdering shop stewards. It hasn’t been able to substantially alter the position of the working class vis-a-vis private sector employers, at least inasmuch as precarious, temporary and short-term unemployment is still de rigeur. Despite the ruling class’s hatred for Chavez, they continue to get rich.

Even so, the very fact that the PSUV government has any strategy at all for seriously empowering the masses, for waging any kind of battle in government against the ruling class — even with all of its limits — is surely unique. Chavez’s speeches, the PSUV’s organising drives, its real roots in the Venezuelan popular classes, especially in the working class heartlands, have all encouraged a degree of radicalisation, popular organisation and even a current favouring socialism based on workers’ control. Indeed, this agenda is gaining growing support across the continent. And even the development of the welfare state, necessarily coming from above in terms of the initiative, has produced real democratising effects. For example, the use of referenda, Community Councils (consejos comunales), Local Planning Councils, and so on, to devolve power represents a material reorganisation of aspects of the state, which defy simple categorisation. There is a growing popular participation which can’t be reduced to co-optation.

There are real problems in these organisations. Some of them are spatial, inasmuch as they are supposed to cover populations that they can’t feasibly cover; some are financial, inasmuch as funding is not allocated relative to population but to district or area, meaning that richer, lower population areas get the same funding as bustling 2 million strong districts in downtown Caracas; decisively, some of the limits are to do with political authority, since the planning and community councils are ultimately subordinate to mayors and local governments, meaning in effect that the bourgeoisie remains politically dominant. Ultimately, despite the chronic crisis in the state and the political paralysis of the bourgeoisie, there has been no real rupture with the capitalist state form. Still, if one really is interested in 21st century socialism, some of these organisations have to be considered as part of a potential infrastructure for that new society. And that is a unique, inimitable circumstance. It’s hard to imagine any other state where the government could perform such a role, where capitalist state power could be used as a lever to enable socialist working-class organisation.

Jealous much? Well, you should be. But don’t imagine you can copy the Venezuelan experience where you live. It’s strictly a one-off.

Written by Richard Seymour

[This article was originally posted on the Richard Seymour blogs at Lenin’s Tomb. He is a prominent member of the British Socialist Workers Party.]

Is Venezuela a “one off”?

Richard Seymour has written a very interesting analysis on Venezuela that is a must read for a number of reasons. It is open ended in its assessments and deliberately poses as many questions as it seeks to answer. Fair enough, as the revolution is open ended and poses questions that only the struggle will answer.

It is far superior to the article written by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) Latin American “expert” Mike Gonzalez, that acknowledged reforms, victory against the right, but then presented the ongoing struggles in a basically distorted “from below counterposed to Chavez” line.

In fact, Richard Seymour’s article quite brilliantly demolishes the standard sectarian left attacks on Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez — that he is “just a social democrat with some reforms” or “a bonapartist or left bonapartist playing the classes off against each other”.

Richard Seymour’s approach is less dogmatic, very different and his analysis is an explicit “rethinking” in light of events. Seymour says:

I think we on the international left have struggled to really comprehend what is going on in Venezuela. It’s not a question of us being particularly dim, or not me anyway (you can look after yourselves): it just defies all our expectations. Who would have thought that a politician elected on a “Third Way” ticket with a degree of ruling class support would turn into the mortal enemy of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class? Who could have anticipated that an agenda of constitutional change, none of it terribly radical on the surface, would become a kind of political manifesto, a programme of action in the hands of mobilised masses aiming to make good its promise of equality, participatory democracy and human rights, to realise them in the fullest sense?

There are three key reasons why I think Seymour’s contribution is so important: First, it represents a rethink, second it describes the relationship of forces quite brilliantly, and third, even some statements I don’t necessarily agree with open up a much deeper and crucial discussion.

1) As indicated above, it is a rethinking and taking a far more open, positive attitude to revolutionary process in Venezuela, recognising the way the class struggle has developed and noting it has happened in a way many leftist did not expect. (That it has taken someone like Seymour this long to write this is no doubt related to being part of a political tendency that sees things in the Russian Revolution framework to such an extent that it does not recognise the Cuban revolution as an anti-capitalist revolution.

Even those who have recognised successful revolutions last century, such as Cuba’s, that broke with the “model” of Russia’s, have often taken a long time to recognise the nature of the struggle playing out in Venezuela and Chavez’s role in it. One of the earliest to point to the potential significance of Chavez’s coming to power for the Latin American struggle was British writer Richard Gott — who saw, in the context of US domination, the potentially radicalising dynamic any challenge to that domination could have. His book on Chavez, In the Shadow of the Liberator, was written in 1999, the year Chavez assumed office.

2) Seymour’s analysis of the Venezuelan process, of the stakes, of the pros and cons in the relationship of forces, is brilliant. It is as sharp and concise a description of the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary movement as I can recall reading. He sums up in a couple of incisive paragraphs what I have struggled to try to articulate for years.

It deals with the contradictions and limitations of the Chavista movement in great way — it is non-moralistic and it doesn’t just shout about bureaucrats, it places them in their material context, and nails the complex, fundamentally progressive-but-with-limitations dynamic between the movements “from above” and “from below”.

This last point may be the most important because it cuts against the key weakness and key sectarian argument used by left critics (especially those from the International Socialist Tendency tradition, from where Seymour himself originates) of the Bolivarian revolution.

It is the key problem with Mike Gonzalez’s article. Seymour acknowledges how the Venezuelan government — consciously and as a by-product of its reforms — has encouraged popular mobilisation and organisation. However, he also notes the limitations and contradictions of this dynamic. Again, the way he describes this strikes me as spot on.

Supporters of the Venezuelan revolution need to take real note of the serious dangers it faces and and its limitations. The threats Seymour describes are real. This thing can end in tears and it could end in tears sooner rather than later. The presidential vote was a great step forward, but the elections for state governors in December could be another story.

For these reasons alone, the article is a must read and one of the sharpest analyses in a few paragraphs of the contradictions of the revolution and its challenges.

3) The points that I consider debatable — such as whether or not a socialist transformation has already begun or Seymour’s criticism of Marta Harnecker — or plain wrong (his final lines that bluntly say you cannot repeat the Venezuelan experience) open up very interesting and important discussions.

On socialist transformation of Venezuela, I think Seymour is partly right but it is necessary to acknowledge some important things here. The first is the changes so far help open the way to a socialist transformation and, second and most important, to recognise that the platform Chavez ran on was for measures, if implemented, that amount to drastic inroads into capital’s power and would be a serious opening towards socialist transformation.

A detailed summary of the platform can be read at Venezuelanalysis. You can see in this summary a proposed push to dismantle the capitalist state and further develop popular power as basis of new state, and attacks on capital’s economic power and the creation of new socialist-orientated economy.

The most important thing is this platform has just been given a popular mandate in presidential election.

This is new. Chavez did not run on such a detailed radical program in 2006. Much of the talk of a drastic deepening of the revolution came immediately after Chavez was re-elected. The attempt in 2007 to have a raft of radical constitutional reforms, aimed at deepening struggle for socialism (though not all the proposed reforms were revolutionary, some were steps backward) was defeated in a referendum. So, the first attempt to win popular mandate for struggle to seriously deepen revolution towards socialism was defeated, but this time it won.

That opens a new phase in the struggle — because the struggle will be to make this platform, backed by popular mandate, a reality. Of course, this can only happen through successful struggles by the oppressed themselves and comes up against the contradictions and blocks in Chavismo Seymour describes so well.

On Marta Harnecker’s comment that Seymour criticises, that “the pace of change matters less than the general direction in which the government is proceeding”. I think Harnecker’s comment is true in as far as it seeks to understand that there is a government committed to radical change, or that is at least allowing the potential for a deeper struggle for radical change. It is about recognising the nature of struggle and of the nature of the government, determining a political attitude towards it. This does not mean we should not also recognise serious limitations and contradictions, or that it can be very open ended and that how far such a government is willing to go remains to be tested. And we should recognise that it is not the government that will be decisive, but the actions of the people.

But, it does mean that, however radical measures may seem on paper, they may not always the best way to judge the nature and intentions of a government. This is surely drawn out in Venezuela, where the initial moves by Chavez, on paper, were not at all radical. But, in practice, they were the most radical things he could have done.

The moves that strengthened popular organisation and mobilisation, even around mild measures, created a a situation where the popular classes could mobilise and defeat capital’s attacks, and create not just a radicialising dynamic but the actual material forces capable of winning the implementation of more radical measures.

Had Chavez just started with very radical measures, he would have been easily defeated. I think this is what Harnecker is getting at. It is whether a government is willing to use its hold on government in this direction, not whether its measures, looked at in isolation from the relationship of forces and the strength of the masses’ organisation and consciousness, seem radical, but whether they work to raise consciousness and organisation so that more radical measures can be won.

The most important of the points I think that need to be debated is Seymour’s conclusion that Venezuela is a “one off” and can’t be repeated. Of course, on one level he is right. There are very unique aspects to the Venezuelan process — of which the weight of oil revenues and the role of Chavez are the most notable.

However, much bigger questions about strategy and tactics, about the various forms and channels of class struggle, are opened up and Seymour is trying to block investigating them. It really seems to me he is trying to convince himself on whether or not the still open-ended Venezuelan experience requires a much broader rethinking by revolutionaries.

Far from unique, examples of processes of radical change in 21st century have involved the taking of government (but not state power) by radical forces, the use of government to both resist attacks from capital and introduce progressive reforms, but most importantly as a post to encourage popular mobilisation and organisation in order to shift forces in favour of working people and open the way to deeper struggle for power.

Venezuela is the clearest example, but this is also the way processes have developed in Bolivia and Ecuador, though not in as deep a way (at least yet) as Venezuela. But as long as the radical governments in these countries continue to take stances independent of capital and in favour of popular classes, the potential to deepen it remains.

This is not to say that the development of popular class struggle and revolutionary mass movements will develop in this way. Just that they can and the fact that they have means the possibility of this being repeated should be seriously considered as one way a revolutionary struggle may develop.

The very big issue hanging over this can be summed up in one word: Europe. I suspect Seymour had Europe in mind, if not when he wrote his piece, then certainly when he ended it by insisting that the Venezuelan process could not be repeated.

In Europe, you have a deep political crisis that social mobilisation alone — as important as that is — cannot resolve. You have a rejection across southern Europe of brutal austerity, marked by huge protests and strikes. But what is lacking is a mass-based political alternative built out of these social struggles for working people to rally around, that stands for a clear rejection of the austerity and that can pose the question of government power.

This potential opened up in Greece with the rise of Syriza. Standing on an anti-austerity program based on the needs of the people to reject and start reverse capital’s attacks, Syriza came close to winning government. This threat sent panic waves through Europe’s ruling classes.

What was posed was the prospect of a “workers’ government” forming government through an election. Of course, such a government would not simply be able to lay hold on government institutions and just implement its program. It would immediately face severe resistance from capital and its representatives, combined with pressure to modify or abandon its program. The only way its program could be implemented, even parts of it, would be to rely on and seek to deepen the popular mobilisation of the class whose interests the program seeks to advance — working people and their allies.

It strikes me that far from Venezuela being a one off, due to the deep crisis in Europe, it is the one that has come closest to being repeated – in a different way and in different circumstances of course. (Leaving aside whether or not Venezuela is best described as a “workers’ government”, its government is a government independent of capital, although with limitations and contradictions, with capital having some ties with sections of the Chavista movement, and with new ties being forged as capital tries to find ways into the forces that govern.)

In no country in Europe does “social struggle” alone look close to defeating austerity. What is lacking is the mass political alternatives that can seriously challenge for government, and be a pole of attraction for working people desperate for a way out. The lack of such things is extremely dangerous for its opens up space to the far right. History has many lessons to offer on this front.

Nowhere in Europe does the road to workers’ power look like following the path of the Russian Revolution — of a quick, seemingly sudden spontaneous formation of a counter-power that rapidly, with leadership of the Bolshevik quality, overthrows the old power and imposes itself.

It looks likely that a more drawn-out struggle to organise a mass movement capable of, not simply organising a big strike or protest, or even winning government, but actually overthrowing capital and imposing its power is going to be needed. And along this path, a political alternative that can, basing itself on the mass movement, seriously challenge for government may well prove an absolute necessary phase.

This is why I think Richard Seymour is wrong to end his excellent article on the argument that Venezuela is unique. But also, this is why that line is so jarring, coming as it does at the end of an extremely thoughtful and very sharp analysis of the class struggle in Venezuela.

Written by Stuart Munckton

[Stuart Munckton is international editor of Green Left Weekly and a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance national executive. His comments are written in a personal capacity.]

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