Chavez and the struggle for power in Venezuela
Review b y Phil Sharpe
In 1998 Hugo Chavez won the Presidential election in Venezuela on a populist message of reforming change and an end to corruption. He was a former army officer, who also was verbally opposed to the neo-liberal agenda of the Venezuela ruling class and the transnational corporations.(TNCs) He won the election with 56% of the vote, but the opposition was bitterly opposed to him. Chavez also utilised the legend of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar in order to provide himself with the popular ideological legitimacy for his rule.
Chavez was a young army officer from a radical political family, and was influenced by the legendary Communist Party cadre Douglas Bravo, who was expelled from the party for his fervent advocacy of armed struggle. Chavez was also radicalised by the traditional problem of the corruption of the state and the increasing poverty created by the "reforms" demanded by the IMF and World Bank. Between 1984-95 poverty increased from 36% to 66% of the population. An important context to Chavez's rise to power was the 1989 popular uprising against food price rises, which was connected to the implementation of the IMF agenda. This spontaneous uprising was suppressed by the government, but the repression required only succeeded in facilitating a process of political radicalisation. In this situation, a left-wing coup led by army officers was attempted, but it was a dismal failure. However, Chavez was one of the leaders, and succeeded in getting a national profile.
Also the crisis and failure of various left-wing political organisations provided another opening for the Chavez-led 5th Republican Movement (MVR). Chavez had become by the early 1990s the seemingly only credible alternative to the ruling class programme of privatisation of oil and the other state industries, and he seemed to be the only serious alternative to the traditional corruption of the state and the problem of increasing poverty. In his book* Michael McCaughan conceives of Chavez as genuinely breaking with the ruling class and promoting his own form of socialism:
"Citizens eagerly debated the merits of embarking on a new political adventure which promised to improve living standards and forge an independent social and economic path toward some form of market socialism, guided by Simon Bolivar's vision of a unified nation led by a strong but compassionate caudillo."
This comment shows the problems with the intelligent impressionism of McCaughan, because what is being praised is a supposed type of state socialism that is bestowed upon the people in an elitist manner. This type of socialism was criticised by Marx in relation to the so-called state socialism of Lassalle in the 1860s, who had a programme of reform and cooperation with the existing aristocratic state of Bismark. Marx's criticism was not based on ethical reasons. Rather he saw that this elitist standpoint of trying to transform the state from within by a process of reconstruction could not succeed. Instead the only possibility for a revolutionary transformation of society was for a real challenge to the alienating domination of existing capital-labour relations by a process of the self-emancipation of the working class. This process also required the development of a revolutionary leadership of a Marxist party. In contrast, Chavez is committed to a modification of these relations. Indeed, McCaughan comes to recognise the importance of these criticisms of Chavez in an eclectic and inconsistent manner.
Thus McCaughan shows that what Chavez was creating was a political system with Bonapartist tendencies based upon the Caudillo, or leader tradition of Latin America. Because it alienated and repulsed important section of the ruling class, this system balanced between the bourgeoisie and the working class. This type of Bonapartism had a mass base in the working class and peasantry. Like other forms of Bonapartism the state acquired an important dimension of independence from the ruling class. But in the last analysis the system of capitalism was still maintained in a "radicalised" state capitalist form of maintaining nationalisation and opposing the privatisation plans of global capital. In political terms this development of Bonapartism was shown by the traditional parliament being replaced by the Chavez-dominated Constituent Assembly, while a new constitution was established that defended the rights of workers and women. The alienation of the traditional ruling class from this Bonapartist process was shown by the resignation of the Supreme Court President in 1999. The contradictions between the ruling class and the Chavez political system became even more acute when the role of the army was removed from parliamentary control, and yet at the same time increasingly popular participation was proclaimed by the constitution.
So, the ruling class was discontented by these measures taken by Chavez, which it considered to be pro-working class, although some workers were also alienated by the promises of Chavez, which they felt could not be realised. The workers are considered by McCaughan in rigid terms as either divided supporters or opponents of Chavez, or as anti-ruling class or the dupes of the ruling class. But what this confusion within the working class really shows is the lack of a revolutionary party of the working class and the peasantry with an independent revolutionary perspective. For the left tended to either divide into being uncritical pro-Chavez supporters, or extreme opponents of Chavez. Instead it was necessary to develop a political party that had no illusions in the state capitalist populism and Bonapartism of Chavez. This would also critically support any measures that facilitated the independent political self-activity of the workers and peasants. It would mean rejecting any attempt to centralise control of what is still a bourgeois state apparatus, but simultaneously also calling for the peasants to carry out the proposals for land reform and the workers to control their communities and workplaces.
McCaughan importantly shows that one of the main supporters of the traditional ruling class versus Chavez is the CTV trade union bureaucracy. On the one hand the trade union bureaucracy of the CTV was against any move to unionise the important informal working class sector of the economy. Yet on the other hand it united with the employers in a coup attempt of 2000 by an artificially-created general strike. The trade union leadership also uncritically supported the process of globalisation and connected privatisation. But what the alternative to this situation was, the author is not sure. However, a revolutionary perspective would reveal the necessity for the working class to develop independent unions to replace the existing corrupt structures dominated by the most extremely counterrevolutionary trade union bureaucracy.
It is also necessary to oppose the Bonapartist and corporatist measures of the Chavez government to control the unions, whilst giving critical and independent support to its progressive measures. Revolutionaries would organise working class opposition to any attempt to overthrow the government in the direct interests of imperialism. It is also possible for revolutionaries and trade unionists to organise in the Chavez-promoted community Bolivirian circles in order to transform them into a working class militia and to promote the formation of Soviets for the realisation of working class power. This point was to be concretely illustrated by the events of 2002, as will be outlined. There was also the possibility to promote revolutionary self-organisation within the peasantry based upon the introduction of ambitious plans for land reform and community food projects. Massive discontent of the peasantry existed in a situation where 1% of the population controlled 60% of the land. But, the lack of revolutionary leadership meant that land reform often become a bureaucratised process that lacked consistent involvement of the self-organisation of the peasants, despite some impressive achievements.
The crisis of state power led to an attempted coup by sections of the army, big business and the trade union leaders. This attempted coup was led by the PDVSA Oil corporation, which was virtually a state within the state. It was a minor transactional corporation that was more interested in investing overseas than in national economic development, and so quickly came into confrontation with Chavez. This attempted coup was defeated by a popular uprising. In this situation Lenin's conditions for revolution are increasingly apparent. The ruling class is split, the state apparatus is in crisis and is politically fragmenting, and the working class in its conscious majority is for social change and is prepared to struggle for change. But the problem is that there is the lack of a revolutionary party to lead the struggle for state power.
The result was a rise in morale of the ruling class led by the oil oligarchy and the trade union bureaucracy. This led to the general strike of December 2002: "On day three a huge opposition march reminded Chavez that the streets he once owned were now disputed by an increasingly daring opposition, while the oil industry began grinding to a halt, threatening the survival of the government." However, there was still support within the working class for the government despite the deliberate creation of economic chaos, and so despite the effective investment strike of the major TNCs and pressure from the American government for a "compromise", the ruling class strike was defeated by April 2003.
Despite the social uncertainty caused by the actions of the ruling class, an important radicalising economic and political process was also occurring with the land reform legislation. For the peasants and indigenous peasants were critical of the bureaucratic aspects of the land reform process as a denial of their autonomy, and so were attempting to implement land reform on their own terms. This showed that Venezuelean society was becoming generally radicalised and that the Chavez regime could become transitional to an even greater process of transformation.
The author maintains that Chavez has won an important political victory by establishing firmer control over the army and the oil industry, which has been restructured and new executives appointed. However, as McCaughan points out, the people who actually suffered the most were the oil workers loyal to the trade union bureaucracy, who were sacked from their jobs. In contrast, the top oil executives emigrated to Canada and America. This action may represent an important political victory for Chavez, but what it also shows is that the conditions of the capital-labour relation have only been modified rather than transformed. Chavez as a state capitalist Bonapartist cannot realise socialism, despite the illusions of his many working class supporters.
One of the most important recent developments has been the formation of the new UNT trade union movement as an alternative to the reactionary role of the old CTV trade union bureaucracy. But there is still controversy about the role of the new trade union movement, because of its apparent uncritical pro-Chavez stance, and calls have been made for the UNT to adopt more independent positions. However, in a confused manner this development does show the working class trying to establish its independence from the state capitalist section of the ruling class led by Chavez.
In the concluding section of the book, McCaughan becomes suddenly and inconsistently more critical of Chavez. He argues that the Patriotic Circles established by the new regime have become its mass community base, but they still are not an adequate substitute for the lack of a political party that could propagate a coherent ideology and perspective. He argues that even though the regime is influenced by the theory of the need to dissolve political power in order to empower the people, the actual reality is quite different. The system is based upon patronage and rewards from the state, and most of the working class and peasantry are not empowered by the regime, even if they are sympathetic to the aims of the Chavez regime:
"There is no doubt that the urban land titles, agrarian reform, literacy programme, state run basic food distribution networks, Saraos, urban gardens and other projects all contribute to empowering the dispossessed majority. But the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens remain bystanders of the political process, waiting for results to be delivered, like the two million Bolivares promised to public sector workers. The windfall oil revenues continue to power the political system, and financial largesse underpins loyalty to the government of the day."
The only possible manner in which the workers and peasants can become the agency of change and not its passive expression is to challenge bourgeois state power and establish new forms of state rule. Obviously this does not imply an ultra-left call for immediate struggle for political power against the Chavez regime. This question of the struggle for political power can only be decided tactically in relation to the balance of class forces and the connected capacity of the working class to overcome counterrevolution. But Chavez remains a strategic bourgeois opponent of the working class, because in the last analysis he upholds the state power of capital over labour even though he alienated large sections of capital with his state capitalist project. Also the viability of his project must be questioned given the power of global capital to dictate to national economies. So only the national and international struggle of the working class can provide both an objective and revolutionary alternative to the power of the TNCs.
While the traditional ruling class does not directly control the state, the economic structures of capital-labour relations remain intact, as McCaughan shows in his own populist manner:
"In Venezuela today the US imperial agenda, the corporate media and the Catholic Church hierarchy are powerful opposition blocs to Chavez. The army and the oil sector have been neutralised, but further obstacles lie ahead. Chavez's strength lies in his ability to mobilise the grassroots behind his project but time is scarce as economic downturn tests the patience of the poor."
In other words, an effective dual power balance exists between the state capitalist regime and its mass base on the one hand and the traditional ruling class and the TNCs on the other. Only the fear of a genuine working class revolution keeps the ruling class from embarking on another short-term rebellion against Chavez. However, as McCaughan shows, the state capitalist regime of Venezuela cannot transcend the significant economic power of global capital:
"President Chavez's revolutionary dreams have since been downsized to the point where the best-case scenario is the insertion of Venezuela into the globalised economic arena on more favourable terms than might have occurred under a neo-liberal administration. In other words, a kinder, gentler version of the corporate global agenda."
But McCaughan cannot explain his own perceptive comment. For the point is that a section of the capitalist class, however radical, is increasingly unable to challenge the power of global capital. Hence the struggle for real and effective national self-determination requires the leadership of the potentially international and revolutionary class, the working class. For the national ruling class, even its supposed anti-imperialist sections, increasingly function on behalf of the TNCs. So despite the present conflict between Chavez and the TNCs, and their main representative American imperialism, the longer-term prospect is for this process of accommodation with global capital to become realised.
McCaughan does not accept this type of explanation. So his alternative analysis is an ideological and cultural conception concerning the Latin American belief in a messiah and martyrdom to act on your behalf. This means that the masses don't empower themselves and transform economic and political activity:
"One Venezuela is an internationally connected business class and its local associates, controlling significant sections of the economy. The second Venezuela lives in the hillsides and survives on its own wits, in constant search of a messiah with a magical formula to relieve them of their misery. As we know, the messiah strategy is a recipe for futile martyrdom."
This view is questionable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the martyrdom complex is not restricted to Latin America but is an important ideological justification for the mass religions of the world, such as Christianity and Islam. Secondly, McCaughan's pessimism about the prospects of proletarian revolution means he can only present the workers as the victims of globalisation in the most elitist terms. He cannot envisage any possibility of the workers transcending their present alienated condition and becoming revolutionary subjects of change. Thus the author has no alternative to the prospect of the increasing domination of global capital and the subversion of the aims of Chavez. Instead the author is limited to praising Chavez in critical terms for the reform and recent structuring of state and society. This is connected to the pseudo-anarchist view that the change of the relations within state power are more important than transforming capital-labour relations.
Despite these criticisms, he has written an important book about the situation in Venezuela, which can be a useful study guide for all thoughtful Marxists. He also concludes with the important optimistic point, which contradicts his general pessimism; it is politically more difficult for the traditional ruling class to implement an IMF agenda after facilitating hope and militancy within the people by the installation of the Chavez regime. However his conception of the realisation of this hope is the development of a vague perspective of populist permanent revolution rather than working class socialist revolution:
"Chavez has failed in what can only be described as an impossible task. There is no shame in this. If he is humble enough to acknowledge this truth he may also come to see that his government has sown the seeds of a more permanent revolution. The next phase of this process will not rely on the single charisma of a single individual but upon the collective memory and joint action of a people awaken from the slumber of a bayonet, alive now to the certainty that they can reclaim heir country from the its arrogant elite."
In order to make this conception of permanent revolution more than rhetoric, and instead to be explanatory and principled, it is necessary to recall Trotsky's perspective of permanent revolution, in which the working class leads the peasantry to tackle both the bourgeois democratic and socialist tasks of revolution as the beginning of international revolution. This perspective remains the only possible, if difficult, perspective in the era of the domination of the TNCs and global capital.
* The Battle of Venezuela, Michael McCaughan. Latin American Bureau 2004 £7.99