An author and professor, Manuel Azuaje’s articles have been widely published. He is a member of Intellectuals in Defense of Humanity, an international network of left and progressive intellectuals. Among the themes Azuaje has addressed in his writings and lectures are Chavez’s political and intellectual evolution, the question of democracy in the Bolivarian Process, and Venezuela’s popular power initiatives. He is also the editor of a book on Lenin’s writings during the course of 1917.
In this interview, Azuaje argues that we should avoid both a generalized pessimism, on the one hand, and an idealization of grassroots organizations, on the other. He also calls for intellectuals to examine the Bolivarian Process in relation to its prehistory: the correlation of forces leading to Chavez’s 1998 election.
It is said that Chavez and the Bolivarian movement broke with Venezuela's “one hundred years of solitude.” Now, however, the progressive cycle in Latin America seems to be ending, and we could be entering another century of isolation. As a young intellectual who grew up with Hugo Chávez as president, what do you think of this situation?
We are living in times of uncertainty: times when things that we never thought would happen are happening now at an accelerated rate. Due to the pandemic and the quarantine, we are all locked up, the police are in the streets, there are limitations of movement due to security and health concerns, there is a deadly disease that threatens the world... and, with all that, we remain at a standstill. These are things that we couldn't imagine months ago.
So, I would say that there is a general feeling of uncertainty, on the one hand, and a withdrawal of sorts, on the other. That is because the Chavista left has been defeated in some areas. We have retreated, and that can lead to a feeling of being defeated… Even if one retreats in order to later advance forward, one senses a feeling of unease that goes along with the collective uncertainty in the crisis.
However, there is a real willingness to struggle in some parts of Venezuelan and Latin American society. Some groups continue to organize and advance.
It is important to not fall into a generalized pessimism. We shouldn’t ignore the existence of the sectors of the population that have a willingness to go on struggling and building alternatives. However, we shouldn’t make a fetish out of happiness either. Being triumphant about resilience alone – the idea that pure resistance is a positive form of life – must be dismissed. We must have political victories or, at least, prepare for them. We have to advance towards life: towards achieving collective wellbeing. We have to struggle to win and cannot be permanently in a state of resistance.
The fetish of pessimism and the fetish of resilience – of the heroic pueblo – are two poles that we should avoid. These attitudes intermingle: there is despair and there is naivete, and neither offers a solution.
In the intellectual sphere, I call for people to engage in retrospection and critical revision. We must reflect on our errors with one aim in view: rectifying our interpretations and our practices so that we can make better decisions in the future.
At the same time, however, we have to go forward based on existing examples of resistance, and we must do this so that the willingness to struggle in some parts of our society extends to the whole of it.
Resistance does not amount to struggle unless it’s active, unless it’s an emancipatory activity that might allow us to advance. If resistance translates into immobility or passivity, taking hits without fighting back, it is not a revolutionary activity, since it doesn’t lead to political action. At the end of the day, resistance that keeps one passive has the same effect as pessimism that leads to inaction.
We have to overcome both attitudes: pessimism and the fetishism of pure resistance. The two contradictory states must converge to generate new political forms that will contribute to future victories.
The Bolivarian Revolution was like a wildfire that left behind some embers in the form of grassroots self-organized projects. A few examples are the communes and the social movements such as Pueblo a Pueblo, the Movimiento de Pobladores or the Productive Workers’ Army. The feminist movement has also grown in recent years, breaking with some of Chavismo’s organizational taboos. What are the prospects of a new revolutionary fire happening?
The metaphor that you use to describe the political process is quite relevant. After a fire, it is much more likely that – instead of imported species – native plants will grow on the land. After a blaze, the plants that have the best chances of blossoming are endogenous ones.
In the same way, the experiences that have the greatest capacity to grow now – the possibility of weaving a new social fabric that will sustain a process of transformations in the future – are those that are well-rooted: the ones that are consolidated and have succeeded in mixing organically with the people.
Today, when everything seems to be against us, we must think about resurgence and burgeoning. When projects receive little attention because the government is no longer interested in that which was called “popular power” – or when there is actually an offensive from the government – the experiences that are strong and have organic ties with the people, those that have deep roots, are the ones that will survive.
And it is precisely the grassroots, communal initiatives, those that have the capacity to produce and have autonomy, and those that are combative (such as the feminist movement that you mention) – these are the experiences that are beginning to flourish.
However, there is a risk of idealizing these experiences in themselves, as atomized phenomena. There is also the risk of imagining that they are a sort of moral reserve or relic, remnants of a time past, of what once was a powerful process. We shouldn’t be satisfied with either.
Chavez said: “That which is local, confined to the local, is counterrevolutionary.” In saying that, he was expressing an important idea: spaces of resistance must overflow their boundaries. They need to bloom in a world woven by new social relations. In other words, the capacity to resist must be overcome, generating a force that goes against the logic of capital.
We have to build an alternative that is not local or confined to small spaces of resistance. The alternative is to create, from the local level, a new global fabric. It must be a new form of organization that doesn’t remain local but rather an organization that expands and develops.
The embers left behind must kindle a new society. However, that is only possible if the different projects of popular power converge. That is, if the projects overcome isolation and don’t become self-indulgent and don’t become occasions for a self-congratulatory left to project the mirage of socialism. Only then will we be on the right path!
There is no socialism here… we cannot drink our own Kool-Aid. A few isolated projects here and there don’t amount to socialism. They are, however, evidence that there is a pueblo that resists and they show that there is a potential for further organization and change.
The task now is to foster the coming together of these diverse spaces of resistance. That requires a political platform aimed at building something together.
The global pandemic and resulting lockdown might be an opportune time for the battle of ideas: a time to clarify positions and proposals. In Chavismo there are two basic proposals: on the one hand, there is the communal proposal that has followers among the popular movement; on the other hand, the “Chinese model” has followers in the government.
Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are known as the philosophers of suspicion for their willingness to see beyond appearances and their capacity to doubt when faced with mere images of reality. They try to unveil whatever hides real relations.
Suspicion is very important today. It can lead to doubt, with which we can advance towards critique, and from the critical position we can develop a transforming practice. That is only possible after discovering the real relations of domination that are hidden behind appearances, behind fetishism, and behind discourses. In this regard, the relationship that we must have with the Chinese model or with any existing models presented as the scripted pathways must be that of suspicion and doubt.
But suspicion and doubt should be geared toward investigation and discovery and not toward skepticism that pulls us away from the struggle. We have to understand with precision, from a scientific perspective, what we are talking about.
In the case of China and its model, assessing it is very difficult because it is such a different society. Doing so would require some resources to understand in depth what is it that they are doing...
However, one thing to take into account is that models of political processes go hand on hand with local realities. They are not merely local, that is, reducible in a chauvinist way to one nation – to the “Patria chica” [Bolivarian term to refer to a country that closes onto itself]. Instead, a political model emerges from a local reality that is connected to a global logic.
However, there are no models for the construction of a counter-hegemonic world if we cannot build a proposal based on our own reality, our own history, and our own culture. That is all very obvious, but it seems as if we forget it every time that we desperately grab onto a model that seems to be successful.
I think we do this because we are too lazy to think for ourselves, to creatively propose an alternative based on our own conditions. This happens with China now, but it also happened with the Soviet Union. The whole debate around the Chinese model is very similar to the debate (or lack thereof) in the ‘60s and ‘70s regarding the Soviet model.
For those of us who have suspicions and doubts, it’s because we look for creative forms that might allow us to not blindly reproduce foreign schemas or models.
Since holding on to the Chinese model is an excuse to not think creatively, it also becomes the perfect excuse for a bureaucracy that is incapable of building an alternative because their class interests don’t allow it. These sectors find, in the Chinese model, the perfect ideological justification for its own deviations, their reformism, their push towards privatizations, etc.
The bureaucracy fetishizes the Chinese model and uses fragments of that economic program to justify their own errors. The “model” becomes handy to “explain” themselves ideologically, to say “we are not betraying the path towards socialism, we are just building it following a more efficient model.” A model which, by the way – if it works – works because it adapts to the Chinese reality. It was what the Chinese government decided to do in China. (Of course, one could also investigate if it had a democratic impulse, that is, if the people really wanted it…)
What is happening with this attitude and the interests that come together here is that there is a tendency to fetishize the model. The elites take some fragments of it to justify all the deviations and they want to cover up their inability to follow another path. All this joins happily with their desire to consolidate themselves as a new bourgeoisie.
How do you characterize the sentiment in Venezuela and Latin America today? Is it a moment of pessimism, of caution, of self-reflection?
For my generation – for those of us who were children when Chavez arrived to power in 1998 and for some who are still younger – we didn’t participate in the political construction of the ‘90s. We grew up at the heat of the Bolivarian Process, with all that the process represented: the political evolution of Chavez himself, his charisma, the “connections and clashes” that we all had with him, his death... Then there was the crisis that emerged after Chavez’s death. All this is very complex because we reached political maturity in the context of a deep crisis.
I was 24 years old when Chavez died, so that much of the forming of my political consciousness took place during the crisis that ensued upon his death.
With this in mind, I think it is very important to carefully interpret the past and present in a political sense. This means that we have to reflect on the decades in which we weren’t protagonists. The youth had an important protagonistic role with Chavez, but my generation did not participate in key historical events such as the April coup. My generation began to play a part only after Chavez’s death.
So I think that my generation and younger generations must work to understand the tributaries that flowed into the Bolivarian Process. We have to study the ‘90s which was a decade of struggles, and all the processes that lead to the 1998 electoral victory. We have to understand the genesis of Chavismo and of what we call the Bolivarian Process. We have to find the historical contradictions and problems to understand our present.
It is precisely because we weren’t actors – and because we are in the midst of a very serious crisis – that we need to encounter these decades from a critical perspective. It is our duty to do so because those that participated may not have the emotional distance that will allow for a complete retrospective view.
Looking back at the genesis of the political process before 1998 will allow us to understand how contradictions have developed, the weaknesses of the Venezuelan process, and it will help us to better understand our moment.
Right now we can only understand the development of the political and social crisis if there is a “revision” of the ‘90s and the earlier decades. It is necessary to understand the political formation of the Chavista process, to understand the fountain from which we drink, but also, again, what were the political actors and the correlation of forces that led to the 1998 elections.
Understanding the tendencies within the political process, understanding the contradictions that come with inheriting the state apparatus through representative democracy, and understanding the problems that accompanied it – those are some of our pending tasks. In other words, the attempt to construct a participatory and protagonistic democracy through the channels of liberal democracy is something that we must investigate.
I suspect that the main weakness in a process whose objective was to radicalize itself was to do so with a class composition that wasn’t necessarily favorable and that didn’t improve with time. In synthesis, to do a thorough reading of the current situation with all its contradictions, we have to go back to the early days and the political conformation that led to the 1998 electoral victory.