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Chavez holding the constitutionState and revolution in Venezuela

By Phil Sharpe

Some people have argued that impressive reforms in education and health within Venezuelan society, and the way that ordinary people are encouraged to change their lives, is a possible indication of a revolution from below. The state, it is suggested, is in a process of transforming itself into an instrument of this revolution.

Chavez has made favourable references about Leon Trotsky's perspective of Permanent Revolution and the Transitional Programme, which are a series of demands that are beyond capitalism’s power to concede. Chavez has supported the view developed by Trotsky that capitalism is ripe for revolution but that the traditional leadership of the working class has not been up to the task. 

Some argue that Chavez’ ideological standpoint, his sympathy for Trotsky, combined with his political stance of support for reforms, and his opposition to the neo-liberal agenda of global capital, indicate that the state is becoming an instrument for revolution rather than support for reaction and the transnational corporations.

It is suggested that changes at the level of the political superstructure, of which the state is one of the most important components, is facilitating the revolutionary transformation of society. This view is understandable given the immense developments within Venezuela, and the emergence of a powerful mass movement that is aspiring to change society in radical terms.

However, we have to start from the basic objective fact that the economy remains dominated by the role of the transnational corporations and global capital. At best, Chavez has been able to negotiate better terms with the TNCs, which have indeed brought benefits to the people, but the basic domination of capital over labour remains intact. In this context, the state remains a capitalist state that is protecting and upholding capitalist property relations. Thus, the political superstructure is still an expression of what could be called an economic base of capitalist social relations of production.

Nevertheless, it would be a serious error to be content with calling the state “capitalist”, as if it were no different from the states in say Britain and America. For, on the one hand, the very actions of the Chavez-dominated state have led to serious disputes with the pro-American ruling class in Venezuela, such as in the events that led to the attempted military coup in 2002, and the reactionary oil strike that followed. Such a turbulent situation contrasts with Britain and America, where a general harmony exists between the activity of the state and the interests of capital.

In Venezuela, the state has apparently become responsive to the aspirations and pressures of a mass movement of workers and peasants. Consequently, we cannot consider Venezuela as having a typical bourgeois state, a state that is essentially an instrument for the interests of capital. Indeed, the ruling class of Venezuela is disgruntled because they perceive the state to be no longer acting in their overall social interests. They have been prepared to give support to various attempts to overthrow the Chavez regime in order to regain “control” of the state.

This situation of alienation of the ruling class from the state is not unique. For example, the coup against Allende in Chile in 1973 was carried out in order to overthrow a reformist regime that the ruling class decided was not in the interests of capitalism. But, such an action did not mean that the state had become revolutionary. Not only was the military still a bastion of reaction, the regime itself did not consider that its actions were resulting in the socialist transformation of society.

Rather, it was the implementation of reforms that had antagonised the ruling class from a government that had a very precarious hold on the state, and the result was a coup. Therefore we cannot consider that the tensions between the Chavez government and the ruling class are some type of definitive indicator that the state is becoming revolutionary. Nor can it argued that the apparent support of the majority of the army for Chavez's programme of reform is an expression of the revolutionary transformation of the state. There have been other leftist military regimes, as in Peru and Bolivia, that have still remained within the boundaries of capitalism.

Nevertheless, with these reservations in mind we can identify two aspects that point to an important revolutionary dynamic within the situation in Venezuela. Firstly, that the government is responsive to the demands of the masses, and secondly, Chavez has not been content to rule in the traditional form of a military leader. Instead he has accepted the necessity of repeated democratic approval. In 1999, he introduced a constitution that calls for the participation of the people in the running of society. The Constitución Bolivariana was approved by popular referendum and inaugurated Venezuela’s “Fifth Republic”.

This means that we cannot define the state as merely a typically Bonapartist form of balancing between the workers and capitalist class, which in the last analysis is in favour of the ruling class. Nor, despite the timidity of its economic measures, can we be content with calling the regime state capitalist. Most types of state capitalism, as in South Korea, Indonesia, and now China, have been extremely undemocratic and only responsive to the interests of capital.

The willingness of workers to move onto the streets and to defeat the attempted military coup introduced a new and revolutionary factor that has transformed the balance of power between the state and society. In an important sense, the state is at this point unable to act effectively for the ruling class because of the mass power of the workers.

So, whilst the state remains capitalist, because it is not an instrument of the will of the workers and peasants, it can only retain legitimacy by the introduction of measures, such as the democratic constitution, that meet with the approval of the masses. The ideological impact of this situation is shown by Chavez’ enthusiasm for the works of Trotsky, and other Marxists.

These important developments do not represent a situation of dual power, or equal power between the still bourgeois state and the working class. This is because the working class has not developed by its own efforts a revolutionary strategy that can express its independent class power, such as workers’ councils and workers’ control of factories and communities.

So, what we have is an extremely complex and dialectical situation whereby the bourgeois state is weakened, and yet in the last analysis it still remains a bourgeois state. In a sense this structural defect is unavoidable because it requires both international revolution and the independent role of the working class for the creation of the economic and political conditions of this transformation – and a leadership which is conscious of these needs.

This significant limitation is actually a real indicator that the existing state cannot substitute for the necessary and revolutionary role of what are still different social forces. Instead, only revolutionary action by working people can bring about a state that can truly and effectively helps to create the conditions to end the domination of capital.

Yet the very spontaneous power of the working class has brought about a situation where the bourgeois state is no longer efficient in classical terms of upholding the economic and political supremacy of capital. Rather it is a phantom state that alienates the ruling class, and yet can only function by accepting the economic power of the TNCs while at the same time politically responding to the aspirations of the working class. This situation will have to be resolved eventually, either by the consolidation of the domination of capital, or by the process of revolutionary overthrow of the existing state and capitalist economic relations.

What does all this mean in terms of our analysis about Chavez? The point is we cannot make hypothetical predictions about what will be the relationship of Chavez to a democratic movement of the working class. What is necessary is a strategy that can generate such a process. The democratic constitution has to be transformed from a formal document into a reality by the mass action of workers and peasants. People should not wait for a lead from Chavez.  Independent action could in this way turn the theory of the constitution about human potential into an actuality. The same goes for the issue of challenging capital. If the state is unwilling to challenge the power of the TNCs, the working class should take a lead and develop real workers’ control, the revolutionary alternative to co-management. 

In an important sense, the constitution is an institutional expression of what the workers have realised. To this end, the calling of a representative conference to develop a strategy for implementing the constitution in a complete way, could show that its aims can only be realised through the overthrow of the power of the TNCs.

As long as the Venezuelan people are subject to the alienating requirements of capital, then the prospect of realising their human potential - an important aim of the constitution - will remain merely formal and unobtainable. Furthermore, the present limitations of the Constituent Assembly, which does not express the dynamism and logic of the revolutionary process, could also be challenged. This would raise the question of a new and truly democratic and accountable Constituent Assembly.

There is no doubt that Chavez’s reforms have increased workers’ confidence in their abilities, and sense of material well-being. But these advances can only develop further if the sense of class strength represented by the realisation of reforms becomes the prelude to a conscious struggle for revolutionary change.

The alternative of being content with reforms in the expectation of more reforms represents the creation of an illusion that a benevolent state can continue to deliver on its promises to the people. But the very limits on the reforms possible within a society dominated by global capital are already being reached. Consequently, achieving more “reforms” requires an understanding that expectations cannot be limited as to what is possible within capitalism. Political self-limitation will increase the confidence of the ruling class to undermine the reforms already won. 

Can the revolutionary willpower of the Venezuelan masses alone somehow overcome this dilemma? Certainly, the power of mass struggle, and the confidence it has generated has sustained the reforms. But this does not represent a dynamic whereby reforms add up and amount to revolution. What has occurred is that the mass power of the working class has been utilised to support a reforming government. The strength and consciousness of the working class can certainly help to sustain these reforms. But the crucial question still remains: how can these reforms be maintained? The answer of revolution cannot be avoided in this context.

So what is important is the relationship between reform and revolution. If the process remains at the level of reforms, the result will be stalemate and the possibility will be raised of ending the reforms. On the other hand, if the reforms inspire the people to become more militant and confident, which seems to be occurring with the increase in factory occupations by the workers and land seizures by the peasants, the issue will become how can the reforms be maintained and further advances made. What will become important is the necessity of a revolutionary transformation of society, the only possible political basis for both consolidating the reforms and go beyond their limitations.

The constitution recognises that there is an acute contradiction between this political aspiration and the reality of the continued domination of the TNCs and the national capitalist class. The state interacts with these conflicting pressures, and is no longer a typical bourgeois state. Yet in the last analysis it is not a revolutionary state either. Chavez is trying to find a way out of this impasse, but his answer is still a reformist one.

Chavez is trying to develop an accountable state that will facilitate a process of transition from reform to revolution. This situation is complicated by the political confusion about what revolution will consist of. Vague sentiments that call for the development of participatory democracy in order to realise human potential only confuse the issue. The present political stalemate is connected to the unwillingness to acknowledge the strategic necessity of a qualitative break with the capitalist state and its replacement with truly democratic alternative structures in the hands of the masses.

Chavez talking about Trotsky and the Transitional Programme

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