The Creators and the Creation: Review of “We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution”

Todd Chretien examines a new book's insights into the Venezuelan revolutionary process.


Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5 has placed a question mark over the future of the Venezuelan revolution.

If you want to understand the terms of the inevitable political battles to come, then read George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. He produces a crisply written social and political history of the critical decades leading up to Chávez’s election in 1998, concentrating on the period after the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1958 and the consolidation of the corrupt two-party system known as “puntofijismo.”

Relying on a wide range of interviews from many of the leftist militants who confronted the pro-American plutocracy in a decades-long battle, Ciccariello-Maher convincingly argues:

[M]y objective is to reassert the long-term, to insist that what is going on today in Venezuela is nothing new, and to demonstrate above all the continuity of struggle generated after 1958… [R]ecent Venezuelan history has been punctuated by momentary ruptures and breakthroughs that represent qualitative leaps in popular struggle, crystallizing and revealing long-term developments.

This passage typifies Ciccariello-Maher’s elegant style and the power of historical materialism in his hands. In fact, he builds into the very structure of the book this appreciation for how slow quantitative change can “suddenly” erupt into qualitative confrontation. Interrupting the narrative of chapters chronicling the revolutionary left and chapters that probe specific social groups are two short interludes focusing on precisely these “qualitative leaps.”

Ciccariello-Maher uses these breaks to assert that any Chávez-centric narrative that privileges the failed coup attempt he led in 1992 and then his subsequent 1998 election as president obscures the revolutionary dynamic. Instead, he insists that the 1989 uprising against neoliberal austerity known as the Caracazo and the mass rebellion of the urban poor against the 2002 right-wing anti-Chávez coup deserve historical primacy.

It was these confrontations that, as it were, “created” Chávez–by creating a layer of leftist leaders and local cadre who built and maintained the radical mass movements, making Chávez’s election and his survival as president possible. But if Chávez rode this bull to power, it refused to stop bucking when he pinned the presidential sash across his chest.

This brings Ciccariello-Maher to his central thesis:

[W]e must attempt to grapple with the fact that the vast majority of such militants–those who deeply despise corruption, bureaucracy and even the state itself and are more likely to associate that state with torture, murder and “disappearance”–are still Chavistas, at least for the time being. (p. 5)

Approaching the question from this angle leads Ciccariello-Maher to ask the question which gets to the heart of the revolutionary process in Venezuela: How are we to understand the apparent synthesis of revolution from above and revolution from below? We Created Chávez helps us get closer to unlocking this riddle.

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TO BEGIN with the revolution from below, Ciccariello-Maher uncovers, as the subtitle promises, the real people’s history of Venezuela. He traces a long arc from Cuban-inspired guerrilla movements in the 1960s to the growing concentrations of self-organized collectives among the millions of impoverished barrio dwellers ringing Caracas by the 1990s as well as the even longer arcs of indigenous and Afro Venezuelan resistance.

Along the way, Ciccariello-Maher keeps up a merciless barrage against French political theorist Régis Debray, who famously (mis)interpreted the Cuban revolution, reducing it ad absurdum to the so-called “foco strategy” of guerrilla warfare. Insofar as a section of the Venezuelan left adopted this top-down, militarist approach, many wasted years–and sometimes their lives–in the same blind alley that led to Che Guevara’s murder by the CIA in Bolivia.

Ciccariello-Maher tells the story of how these lessons were painfully won and the rural guerrilla units transformed themselves into urban mass organizers. I find this history extremely informative, and I wholly concur with his savaging of Debray.

At the other extreme, Ciccariello-Maher warns of the “dangers that come with fetishizing horizontalism” (p. 16) à la Marxist writer John Holloway. For example, speaking about the uprising that broke the anti-Chávez coup in 2002, a former guerrilla punctures the myth of purely spontaneous mass action, explaining, “The vanguard came first and then the masses followed with confidence.” (p. 175)

Yet if organized elements led the way, their disproportionate political weight also raised potential problems in that they could subsequently restrain the struggle, as a layer of them did after the coup when Chávez adopted a policy of reconciliation towards some of the would-be Pinochets.

Here, I want to raise my first question. While Ciccariello-Maher demolishes the theoretical basis of the foco and investigates the historical transformation of the guerrilla fighters into urban organizers, he tends to describe a sort of lingering top-down approach among leftist groups as “vanguardism.” He is both sympathetic to some of the practical consequences of this and critical of its potential problems, but he never defines exactly what he means by the term (see p. 57-66). Instead, it remains a sort of negative adjective.

Given Ciccariello-Maher’s insistence that we take the “from below” and “from above” dialectic seriously, and given his truly exhaustive knowledge of the component parts of the Venezuelan left and their attitudes towards the “party question,” this seems like an opportunity for greater clarity.

This leads me to my second question. One of We Created Chávez‘s great strengths is the detailed attention Ciccariello-Maher pays to the struggles of oppressed groups: peasants, women, indigenous peoples and Afro Venezuelans. Rather than relegating these sectors to the proverbial “and lest we forget” of the revolutionary process, Ciccariello-Maher devotes special attention to their struggles and integrates that discussion into the overall class struggle.

Ultimately, he asks if Venezualan workers in the formal economy are an “aristocracy or revolutionary class,” and if there might be a “new proletariat” consisting of informal labor. This is a long discussion, so I will cut to the quick. Ciccariello-Maher argues that:

[T]he vanguard position played thus far by the buhoneros [street vendors] and the lumpen more generally is no accident, but is instead precisely the result of this strategic position this massive class currently holds in Venezuelan society. Their overwhelming numbers, their high degree of mobility, their necessarily political demands and their location in the bustling streets make this a class that, if pushed toward revolution, is capable of providing more than merely the “spearhead” foreseen by Fanon. (p. 231)

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CICCARIELLO-MAHER castigates “Marxists” for their supposed dismissal of all these people as “lumpen.” I want to take issue with this.

First, although Ciccariello-Maher is right to note that some Marxists certainly have done so, there is also a long tradition of others being the first to recognize new economic and social development–for example, Lenin on the national question, Antonio Gramsci on revolutionary class alliances, José Carlos Mariátegui on Latin American class formation and the question of indigenous liberation, etc.

Second, I would dispute Ciccariello-Maher’s claim that the massive urban class he refers to can be called “lumpen.” When Marx used the category, he was referring to a relatively thin layer of demoralized poor and criminals. He never saw a city in which the majority of the people labor under the conditions prevalent in Caracas, Mexico City, Calcutta, Lagos, etc.

Whatever we imagine he might say, today, we need to take account of the problem and the potential of this new social class. In fact, I think Ciccariello-Maher does an excellent job on this front, especially his analysis of barrio culture and the hostility of the neighborhood collectives to the state.

Yet he sharply counterposes this (let’s call it) lumpen class to workers employed in the formal sector. He invokes Frantz Fanon, who, in the context of the Algerian revolution, dismissed workers of the formal sector as “pampered by the colonial regime.” To be fair, Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t really think this fits in the Venezuelan context (so why use the quote?); instead, he invokes Mariátegui, who, Ciccariello-Maher suggests, also disagreed with Marx about the revolutionary potential of the working class (p. 183-184). I don’t read Mariátegui that way, but we can leave that aside.

Based on these comments, you might think that Ciccariello-Maher writes off the regularly employed working class completely, but you’d be very wrong. In fact, he explores workers’ militant history (especially oil workers) and presents a picture of a union movement that is, yes, saddled with an often corrupt bureaucracy, but one that boasts an enormous array of revolutionary socialist leaders and rank-and-file members (we should be so lucky in the U.S.).

Ciccariello-Maher quotes many of the leading revolutionaries in the trade union movement and is clearly sympathetic to their struggles. However, he ends on a pessimistic note, emphasizing ideological barriers which stand in the way of the working class becoming, as Marx argued, the “universal revolutionary subject” (p. 183). Moreover, he seems to dismiss the potential economic power of this class, writing that the “manual formal working class” is barely 25 percent of the population.

If we add teachers, nurses, at least some sections of transportation, service and public sector workers, than just less than half of the population–conservatively–works in the formal sector. If that is the case, it seems impossible to imagine a revolution in which they do not play a leading role, not to the exclusion of the buhoneros and barrios (where many of them live), but in alliance with them.Ciccariello-Maher does articulate a general category which includes the working class under the heading of “el pueblo.” This term literally means “the people.” But it is slippery in the Latin American context and carries the distinct connotation that we might translate into English as the real people: non-elite students, workers, the urban poor, poor peasants, oppressed nations and ethnic or racial groups, women, etc.

I believe Ciccariello-Maher is absolutely right to point to the revolutionary potential of this concept as long as it can be clearly distinguished from populism (of which there is a long, sad history in the region) and the relationship of the different class forces can be worked out in practice. If, in my opinion, he errs in over-generalizing the obstacles to the working class relating to other elements of el pueblo, and in downgrading its importance, then the disagreement will have to be settled in practice, but in no way closes off strategic discussions among revolutionaries who place different emphases on this dynamic.

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MY THIRD question has to do with Ciccariello-Maher’s invocation of Lenin’s concept of dual power in what I believe to be an extremely productive manner. This is a long quote, but well worth it:

Lenin saw himself as fighting a war on two fronts against those “opportunists” who sought to simply take control of the state and the “anarchists” who sought to avoid it at all costs, and his response to each was clear: against the former, he insisted that the “ready-made state machinery” must be “smashed” and replaced, and against the latter, he added the proviso that the old state machine will be replaced for time by a proletarian “semi-state” that must then “wither away.” The dual power embodies this intermediary form: still an instrument of class power (state), but one oriented towards its own abolition.

In today’s Venezuela, the opponents are largely the same: the “opportunists” are those conservative sectors of Chavismo that would like nothing more than to become a new ruling class, whereas the “anarchists” are those who–mostly from a distance–reject any dealings with the state as tainted a priori.

In other words, I speak of “dual power” because it points us in the right direction, towards the simultaneous preservation and radicalization of the revolutionary process in Venezuela and the transformation of that core of coercive apparatus generally bearing the name “state.” Moreover, whereas some Chavez supporters simply hope for a radicalization from above, my history attests instead to the consolidation of a dual power as a fulcrum to force that radicalization from below. (p. 240)

I want to say a few things about this formulation. First, a small point with the simple goal of terminological clarification: When Ciccariello-Maher writes “the dual power embodies this intermediary form,” I think it would be better to say that “the revolutionary side of this dual power embodies this intermediary form.” After all, what Ciccariello-Maher is driving at is the need to strengthen one side, and not the other, of this dual power.

Second, if I understand him correctly, Ciccariello-Maher is arguing here for what we might call a “long dual power.” Marxists have traditionally understood situations of dual power as being extremely unstable. The Paris Commune lasted 71 days; the struggle between the Soviets and the Provisional Government in Russia lasted less than eight months; the Hungarian Soviet Republic was smashed after three months. Furthermore, we have tended to think of dual power in its purest crystallized form: here is the revolutionary government with so many regiments, and there is the capitalist government with so many regiments.

Ciccariello-Maher suggests we consider a “dialectical twist internal to Lenin’s concept of direct seizure of power from below” (p. 242). Instead of leading immediately to the knife-edge of revolution or counterrevolution, he argues that the failure of the anti-Chávez coup in 2002 significantly weakened the bourgeoisie’s control over the state apparatus. Chávez purged the officer corps and built concrete links between the mass movements and sections of the state. Meanwhile, since Chávez himself owed his very survival to mass mobilization, he represents not only an oppositional politician, but a sort of infiltration of the bourgeois state by an agent of the oppressed classes.

Thus, although the constellation of barrio collectives, local armed groups, cooperative communes, radical unions and other mass organizations has not crystallized into a single identifiable revolutionary institution that constitutes one side of dual power, the totality of mass organization from below and the penetration of the bourgeois state by revolutionary (even if they are unreliable) elements should be understood as a unique form of dual power.

I find this approach intriguing from a theoretical point of view and informative in the Venezuelan context. Over the last 50 years, myriad potential dual power situations have developed: workers’ shoras in Iran in 1979 against both the Shah and the clerical state, cordones in Chile in 1973 alongside Allende’s government, the liberated zones in Nicaragua in open revolt against Somoza’s National Guard in 1979, etc. None of these took the “classic” 1917 form, and we should not be surprised if an even greater variety of dual power situations confront us in the future.

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THIS LEADS me to two final points.

The first is about timing. Certainly there is no theoretical reason why a situation of dual power cannot continue longer than a few months. However, capital cannot survive indefinitely in a situation where it cannot set the terms of exploitation, and if, for some reason, it happens to lose control of the state in the sense that the state becomes genuinely anti-capitalist, it will either die out or find a way to organize a new coercive force to resolve the dual power situation in its favor by counterrevolution.

This is why dual power situations have tended to go one way or the other in relatively short order. 2002 certainly bought the Venezuelan revolution some time, but how much time remains an open question.

The second question is about the danger of extending the concept of dual power so broadly that it loses its specific content. Whether or not Ciccariello-Maher is right in his estimation of the balance of forces in Venezuela today is a question that can be disputed. He offers strong evidence for his case, but others may disagree with his assessments. My own sense is that he doesn’t quite prove that dual power has actually emerged from what he definitely does prove is a revolutionary period, where two sides are potentially in the process of crystallizing into opposing state forms.

More generally, if we do accept Ciccariello-Maher’s analysis, then we can ask a counter-factual question: how would we know when dual power in Venezuela disappears? Obviously, dual power will disappear if the revolution deepens, popular power emerges from below and disperses the aspects of the state which support capital, and the oppressed develop their own state over which they exert democratic control in order for it to begin withering away. This will require some sort of break, or revolution, unless we imagine the Venezuelan bourgeoisie will allow itself to be pushed off the stage quietly, and the U.S. will forego intervention.

But would dual power have dissolved in the other direction if the opposition candidate Henrique Carpriles Radonski had won a few more votes and taken office? Or what if the balance in the state tilts in favor of more conservative officials and officers under Nicolás Maduro? Or what if some percentage of the communes dissolve or some number of unions is smashed?

My main concern with Ciccariello-Maher’s more expansive definition of dual power is that it can bleed over into meaning nothing more than a mushy sense of “El pueblo, unido, jamas será vencido.” (The people, united, will never be defeated). In other words, it is almost always the case that there are some elements of working-class organization or popular mobilization in society, but these don’t constitute dual power.

I am not suggesting that Ciccariello-Maher takes this view, but by emphasizing, quite correctly, the continuity of struggle over the course of the last 50 years as the context in which Chávez came to office, he also has to take care to perhaps more precisely define the dangers ahead.

I am sympathetic to his method here, but I think there is a tension that must be explored as well. In Adolfo Gilly’s classic book on the Mexican Revolution, La Revolucíon Interrumpida, he also stresses the continuity of the revolution process (it did not end, it was simply “interrupted”) from the Morelos Commune to the land reform under Lázaro Cárdenas through the 1960s. I think there is a great deal to speak for that point of view, but it also carries the danger of ascribing “revolutionary” continuity to movements that are better understood as fights for reforms, which have not yet grown powerful enough to genuinely challenge the state and capital. My personal opinion is that the truth is somewhere in between and depends on the specifics of the mass struggles in question.

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BUT CICCARIELLO-MAHER is careful not to get lost in an abstract discussion of terms and grounds his analytical concepts tightly in the realities of this Venezuelan revolution. He concludes:

Here, there are no guarantees, and despite the fact that the collective “we” of the Venezuelan revolutionary movements documented in this book indeed “created him,” this does not mean the creation will not betray the creators. However, given the institutionalization of popular power and Chávez’s clear reliance on the movements for support against a host of other enemies, to do so would certainly require a fight.

So we must move beyond the naïve dichotomy of pro-Chávez or anti-Chávez to say, alongside the most revolutionary segments of Venezuelan society, that we support Chávez as long as he supports the revolution; or, to paraphrase this most complex of all figures in contemporary Venezuela, turning his own words into a threat and a promise: Chávez, we’re with you, pero sólo por ahora–only for now. (p. 254-255)

To what degree Chávez’s absence will affect this dialectic will have to be settled by people in Venezuela. For those who want to see the revolution continue, Ciccariello-Maher has made a critical contribution to our understanding, which is in and of itself enough to recommend this book without reservation.

But more than that, We Created Chávez brilliantly demonstrates how social history scholarship can mine the lived experiences of rank-and-file activists and radical leaders for precious stones, and then set those gems in a visible and rigorous theoretical frame that allows us to see history in motion.

On a final note, I was lucky enough to get to know and work closely with the Venezuelan revolutionary–as he always considered himself–Peter Miguel Camejo before he died in 2008. I can think of no better recommendation for this book than to say that Peter would have loved it and insisted that you go out and buy a copy for yourself, several for your friends, and then sit down to study it together so that you are better prepared to stand up and fight.

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Duke University Press, 2013, 352 pages, $25.95.