Revolutionary Socialists and the Venezuelan revolution
The revolutionary crisis in Venezuela has entered a new and critical phase. The left-populist regime of President Hugo Chávez appears to have taken a left turn in the face of a renewed threat from reaction.
Tony Saunois, CWI, 21 June 2004
On two occasions, an attempted coup in April 2002 and during an employers’ lockout between December 2002 and January 2003, the working class and poor, through their own spontaneous mass movements from below, defeated these attempts at reaction. These reactionary attacks on the regime have now been followed by others. Firstly, a plot was exposed involving over 100 members of right-wing death squads from Colombia. This force entered Venezuela in collusion with sections of the ruling class in Caracas and was part of a plot to destabilise the Chávez regime and assassinate him. It was this threat that provoked a turn to the left by Chávez. As we have explained in 'Venezuela - a new phase in the revolution' (24 May 2004) Chávez for the first time directly attacked capitalism and raised the issue of arming the population.
These latest threats against the Chávez regime are taking place in a ‘democratic’ guise. The opposition has ‘succeeded’ in obtaining the necessary 2.44 million signatures needed under the ‘Bolivarian’ constitution to force a referendum on Chávez’s Presidency. This is part of a twin track approach by US imperialism and reaction to overthrow Chávez. One involves the attempts to overthrow him by a coup whilst the other, to remove him by the ‘legal’ constitutional route. The referendum on his rule is further evidence of the creeping counter-revolution which is under way in Venezuela.
These dramatic events are of crucial importance to the Latin American and international working class. The CWI has frequently analysed these developments at each turn of events and positively argued for the programme, ideas, and actions that the working class needs to take in order to defeat the threat of reaction, overthrow capitalism and establish a workers’ and peasants’ government that will begin the task of building socialism. The questions of revolution and counter-revolution which are posed in Venezuela raise many decisive questions for Marxists. In particular, how to analyse and approach such processes and, most importantly, what are the tasks of revolutionary socialists in such crucial situations. There are therefore many lessons for the international working class to be drawn from what is happening in Venezuela.
The International Marxist Tendency, (IMT), and especially one of its main leaders, Alan Woods, have produced a series of articles and other material dealing with events in Venezuela. Although this group is not of great significance in itself, nevertheless the ideas that it has put forward, in particular on the role of Hugo Chávez and the approach Marxists should take towards him, echo ideas which are quite widespread amongst socialists and others opposing imperialism and capitalism. For this reason the CWI has decided to produce these comments dealing with the revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela and comment on some of the ideas and methods advocated by Alan Woods and the IMT. We welcome any constructive and informed criticism to these comments as part of the discussion about the lessons of the revolutionary process in Venezuela.
In his material Woods frequently denounces what he refers to as ‘sects’ or ‘sectarians’, who he never specifies. Presumably he is referring to the various groups and parties in Latin America who adhere to Trotskyism, many of which have larger forces than his own organisation. The CWI does not agree with many of the methods and ideas defended by these organisations. Yet, Woods falls into the same trap as the Fourth International, FI, until recently known as the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, USFI, the international Trotskyist organisation of Ernest Mandel) fell into on other occasions in their attitude towards various political trends usually associated with sections of the Stalinists and reformists and adopted an uncritical approach towards them.
For example, in Yugoslavia in 1948, they wrongly regarded Tito as an ‘unconscious’ Trotskyist when he and his regime came into conflict with Stalin in the Soviet Union. Michael Raptis, known as Pablo, then Secretary of the ISFI at the time (forerunner of the USFI/FI), also adopted an uncritical approach towards the leadership of the Algerian revolution between 1960-65. Pablo acted as an official adviser to the radical nationalist President Ben Bella, and was Minister for Abandoned Properties. He eventually broke with Trotskyism and in the 1970’s became an adviser to the leaders of the Greek Socialist Party, PASOK, Andreas Papandreou. Woods has attempted to play the same role in relation to Chávez but without a ministerial portfolio.
The role of revolutionary socialists
Important lessons can be learned from the wrong methods and ideas defended by the IMT relating to Venezuela. One of the most important questions is the role and responsibilities of revolutionary socialist organisations when intervening in periods of intense class conflict such as exists in Venezuela today.
The IMT have launched a solidarity campaign; ‘Hands off Venezuela’ which seems to have been endorsed by Hugo Chávez. Chávez, in his weekly TV Presidential broadcast ‘Alo Presidente’, has made quite extensive reference to a book written by Woods, ‘Reason in Revolt’. Alan Woods, who recently visited Venezuela, has met and dined with Chávez and produced a quite extensive account of this event, ‘Encounters with Hugo Chávez’ (29 April 2004). Since then he has also produced a series of articles including a two-part ‘Theses on revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela’ (20 May 2004) and more recently an article on the referendum, ‘Venezuela: Bolivarian masses anger at referendum decision’ (04 June 2004).
This material reveals two main features about the methods of this grouping and the analysis it makes of events in Venezuela. Firstly, it shows a pronounced opportunism, especially in the approach it takes towards Hugo Chávez. This includes, for Marxists and workers in general, a repugnant ‘cult of the personality’. (A glance at the website of this organisation illustrates that this is one of the hallmarks of this organisation in dealing with its own leaders.)
The second feature is an extremely dangerous tendency for a group which claims to defend the methods and ideas of Marxism, to ‘dress up’ or ignore some of the complications and difficulties in the revolutionary events which are shaking Venezuela. Consequently important weaknesses and deficiencies in the movement – in particular the lack of a socialist consciousness and leadership, and what consequences this has had for the movement, are simply brushed aside.
The CWI, from the election of Chávez in 1998, has taken a positive approach to these events. We have fully recognised and frequently commented on the significance and importance of events in Venezuela. Yet the task of Marxists is not to ignore or refuse to comment on weaknesses, complications and obstacles faced by the movement, or incorrect policies and actions advocated by political parties and individual leaders.
Throughout Woods’s material there are generally correct points which all those supporting Marxist ideas would agree with. The articles are also peppered with a veneer of ‘insurance clauses’, generally correct statements and mild warnings about Chávez, and perspectives for the movement in Venezuela. However, when these are stripped away what is revealed is that the principal political objective of the IMT and Woods is to act as left-wing advisers to Chávez and to try and build their own organisation on his coat-tails. This method can also allow Chávez to use this grouping as a left cover to justify his policies and programme. Rather than emphasising the need for independent action and a revolutionary socialist programme to be carried through primarily working from below (which if Chávez then supported, all well and good), their main objective is to advise Chávez what to do and convince him to carry this out largely from above.
In his article, ‘Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution’ (April 2004), we are correctly told by Alan Woods "The revolution has carried out an ambitious programme of reforms in the interests of the masses, but has not yet abolished capitalism. That constitutes its major weakness and the greatest threat to its future." In ‘Theses on revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela - Part One', we are also told: "All attempts at compromise are futile", and "The revolution has not yet passed the point of no return. All the gains made by the masses under the Chávez government can still be liquidated." A programme to establish a workers’ democracy is also put forward which we would not disagree with.
However, alongside this ‘insurance clause’ we find the real objective – to start primarily at the top and convince Chávez of the need for a revolutionary socialist programme. This was hinted at before Woods met Chávez in an article he wrote in 2002 ‘Venezuela between revolution and counter-revolution’. Here he advises: ‘Hugo Chávez should base himself on the masses and the soldiers who are with the masses …. Do not trust those who pose as loyalists but who advocate a policy of conciliation with the enemy and complain about the ‘masses going too far’! Remember the fate of Salvador Allende…" While this in itself is a correct point, Wood’s real message is, ‘Do not trust them, trust us we will give you better advice!’
Following his meeting and dinner with Chávez in ‘Encounters with Hugo Chávez’, Woods returns to this theme: "The reformist and social democratic elements are weak or non-existent in the rank and file but strong at the top. They are constantly giving Chávez incorrect advice – advice that can ruin the revolution." While it is unlikely that reformism is ‘non-existent’ in the rank and file, for Woods the whole issue of the struggle between the classes is reduced to a struggle to win the ear of Hugo Chávez!
In the same article he sets himself laudable criteria and tells us that he approaches the Venezuelan revolution: "Not as an external observer, and certainly not as a sycophant and flatterer. Flattery is the enemy of revolutions because it is the enemy of truth, and revolutions need above all to know the truth. The phenomenon of ‘revolutionary tourism’ I find profoundly abhorrent….At the same time the true friends of the revolution …will always speak their minds without fear. Where we consider that the right road is being taken, we will praise. Where we think that mistakes are being made, we will give friendly but firm criticism. What other kind of behaviour should be expected of real revolutionaries and internationalists?" ( ‘Encounters with Hugo Chávez’).
Indeed! However, unfortunately he does not live up to his own criteria. This report of his meeting with Chávez is in fact revealing about both Chávez and Woods. In it, Woods does not shy away from any self-flattery. Having introduced himself to Chávez as author of his book, ‘Reason in Revolt’ he proudly quotes Chávez: "…A broad smile lit up his face. ‘That is a fantastic book I congratulate you’. Then he announced: "You must all read this book!" Woods continues that Chávez "…spoke with obvious enthusiasm: "You know I have got that book at my bedside and I am reading it every night…" Chávez continues quoting from the book referring to a section dealing with a critical point in chemistry where a certain amount of energy is needed to bring about a qualitative change (known as Gibb’s energy) – which Chávez apparently refers to regularly.
Chávez grasps the need for a qualitative leap?
Following such praise from a President what conclusion is drawn by Woods? He says it is no accident that Chávez refers to this section because the Venezuelan revolution has also reached a critical point (which is correct TS). But, he continues, "Chávez has grasped the fact that the revolution needs to make a qualitative leap, and that is why that passage in the book grasped his attention." (emphasis – TS).
Perhaps for this reason the leadership of the Pakistani section of the IMT, whose MP for the People’s Party of Pakistan Manzoor Ahmed was in Venezuela with Woods, is verbally claiming that Chávez is now a member of the IMT!
Exactly what Chávez has grasped is not revealed. If he has understood the need for a qualitative leap in the revolution then what is the evidence for it? Nothing is offered by Woods to substantiate such a bold claim. The reader is left to speculate on what such a qualitative leap should comprise.
The flattery heaped on Woods by Chávez is then responded to in kind in his second encounter with Chávez. In 2002 in the article, ‘Venezuela between revolution and counter-revolution’ we were told: "Undoubtedly, a great responsibility rests on the shoulders of the President." Then following Wood’s meeting and dinner with him in 2004 we are told: "Hugo Chávez is the man at the centre of the storm. No matter what one thinks about this man, he has broken the dam and opened the floodgates. He alone has dared to confront the power of the oligarchy and defy the might of American imperialism." ( ‘Marxism and the Venezuelan Revolution’, emphasis – TS).
So it is all down to Chávez, the masses are simply sidelined. Chávez ‘broke the dam’. It is as though Chávez just led the way and the masses followed. Chávez, when elected in 1998, acted as a catalyst (which he was able to do as Woods correctly says, because of the vacuum which existed and still exists), around which all of the anger and opposition to the ruling class and neo-liberalism gravitated. He was thrust into power by the masses reflecting the seething demand for change and an end to the old order. Of course, Chávez helped embolden the movement by giving expression to the demand for change. From a poor background he speaks the language of workers, rather than the arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards workers of former political leaders. Chávez articulates the sentiments and feelings of the oppressed and downtrodden. He undoubtedly feels like a breath of fresh air for the Venezuelan masses and they enthusiastically support him. But the mass movement itself then, in turn, pushed Chávez forward.
Under pressure from the working class and the mass movement he may still be pushed in a more radical or left direction. It is, as Woods says, a dialectical relationship although he does not explain what he means by this. In dialectics truth is always concrete. Marxists need to ask concretely what has been the role of Chávez at each critical turn in the situation. This crucial question is not addressed by Woods other than to say that he has played a ‘progressive role’.
Woods seems mesmerised by Chávez and his relationship with the masses and, we are informed, would like to write a book on the subject. The masses, he says, "Identify themselves with him as the man who first awakened them to political life and who has given voice to their aspirations. They personify the Revolution in him." (Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution 4 April 2004.)
There is no doubt that the masses in Venezuela see Chávez as championing their interests against the corrupt parasites who have previously governed Venezuela. However, the support, enthusiasm and illusions which exist in Chávez are not some new historical phenomena. There are many examples of such levels of support for leaders of the movement, in many cases leaders that were far more left wing than Chávez has been up until now. Some went further in challenging capitalism, describing themselves as socialists and even Marxists. Allende enjoyed massive support from the Chilean workers during the revolution between 1970 - 73. Five hundred thousand marched in Santiago just days before the coup on September 11, 1973. "Allende, Allende el pueblo ti defiende!" – Allende, Allende the people will defend you! - was chanted as they marched past the Presidential Palace.
George Papandreou senior, who founded PASOK in 1974, argued in 1975: "If by the word Marxist we mean the method of analysis which we inherited from Marx, which talks of class struggles, of the structure of power…we are obliged as a socialist movement to say YES." Mario Soares, the leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party following the revolution in 1974, proclaimed the party to be Marxist and offered to show anybody the door who did not accept this. What of the radical nationalist Peronist leaders like Eva Peron, affectionately known to the masses in Argentina as Evita, or of Che Guevara?
Of course the leadership of a mass revolutionary party and of individuals is critical during the process of revolution and counter-revolution. Yet at the end of the day it was not the popularity of these leaders or simply the way they "interacted" with the masses which was decisive. The acid test was the programme and actions advocated by them, in the run up to and at the critical moment of revolution and counter-revolution. Unfortunately, the ideas, policies and programme they advocated were not those which could take the working class forward to carry through the socialist revolution.
Some like Allende were heroically killed in the course of the struggle. Che Guevara was and remains extremely popular and heroically fought for socialism but unfortunately with the wrong methods. Others like Papandreou fully embraced capitalism and moved to the right. Although there are many differences between these and other leaders, the central issue was that they lacked the programme, perspective and methods necessary for the working class to win power and carry through the socialist revolution.
Venezuela, the Cuban revolution and hybrid regimes.
To claim that Chávez alone has defied the Venezuelan oligarchy and the power of imperialism is to say the least somewhat ‘over egging the pudding’. This not only sidelines the working class mass movement, it exaggerates how far the Chávez regime has actually gone in ‘defying the oligarchy and imperialism’. Chávez’s regime certainly is a thorn in the side of US imperialism, Bush and the ruling classes of Latin America who want his government removed. Venezuela has been one of the main advocates for higher oil prices and the US evidently does not want such an ‘untrustworthy’ regime in control of one of its largest suppliers of imported oil. The Chávez regime has also been a problem for US imperialism in Colombia and opposed the US intervention in Iraq.
However, it has not yet gone as far as other regimes in challenging imperialist interests. Following the revolution, the Cuban regime of Castro, under massive pressure from the masses and because of the embargo imposed by US imperialism, went much further and nationalised Cuban and US companies and abolished capitalism – albeit through the establishment of a regime which was based not upon a workers’ democracy but a bureaucratic privileged layer.
The Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, which came to power having smashed the Somoza state machine, also went much further than Chávez and nationalised some important sections of the economy including some US interests. Yet capitalism was not overthrown (unlike Cuba) and this eventually allowed the counter-revolution to triumph, with the ruling class regaining control of the state machine and society. This was with the collusion of the Sandinista leadership (see CWI material on Nicaragua).
In Chile under Allende important US interests were nationalised along with 40% of the economy. These and other regimes were forced by the pressure of the mass movement to go much further in ‘defying’ US imperialism than Chávez has thus far been prepared to go.
In ‘Encounters with Hugo Chávez’, an exaggerated assessment of the stage of the revolution in Venezuela and Chávez’s role in this is made. We are told: "Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution is a direct threat to US imperialism because of the example it gives to the oppressed masses in the rest of Latin America." In the same article Woods also refers to his own speeches in which he argued that the Venezuelan revolution is "an inspiration to the workers of the whole world: you have accomplished miracles; the driving force of the revolution is the working class and the masses, and that is the secret of its future success. However, the revolution has not been finished and will not be finished unless and until you destroy the economic power of the bankers and capitalists…" (emphasis - TS).
It is true that the masses in Venezuela have conducted tremendous struggles and taken important initiatvies, especially in defeating the attempted coup (April 2002) and bosses lockout (December 2002/January 2003). It is also true that the future success of the revolution lies in destroying the economic power of the capitalists. However, this has not yet happened and, what is more to the point, it is not yet threatened by Chávez. The Venezuelan revolution has the potential to develop in this way but it has not yet done so and therefore is not yet posing a direct and immediate threat to the interests of imperialism. This does not mean that US imperialism is content to leave Chávez in power. On the contrary, US imperialism and the representatives of Latin American capitalism, like Fox in Mexico, Lagos in Chile and even Lula in Brazil, have all abandoned Chávez and want to see an end to his regime. They fear above all that the movement of the masses in Venezuela will drive the situation further to the left and may then directly threaten their interests. They are also fearful of the example the struggle of the Venezuelan masses will give to the workers in their own countries.
These fears are well justified. The pressure of the masses to take the revolution forward and the threat of reaction may drive the Chávez regime to more directly threaten capitalist interests by, for example, nationalising important sectors of the economy.
However, this has not yet taken place. The rhythm of the struggle between revolution and counter-revolution may now put this on the agenda but this is not automatic and it is not certain it will develop if the counter-revolution is able to secure a victory before these processes develop. For Woods however, the process is apparently all predetermined irrespective of the outcome of the struggle between the class and the role of the leadership. He concludes ‘Theses on revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela – part one’ saying: "The Venezuelan revolution, following the excellent example of the American Revolution (1776) will likewise not hesitate to take measures to eliminate the economic power of the counter-revolutionary minority." Yet, this is exactly what Chávez has done – hesitated to take the measures necessary to eliminate the economic power of the counter-revolutionaries. Moreover, in 1776 a social revolution was not carried through. Property confiscated from the pro-British capitalists was given to the bourgeoisie who supported the establishment of an independent capitalist USA.
The outcome of any revolution is not preordained and depends on many factors, not the least important of which is the consciousness of the masses and the role of the leadership. The fact that the revolution is not yet challenging capitalism is a factor which has also weakened the international impact of the revolution on the consciousness of the working class. Unfortunately, it is simply not true that the movement in Venezuela has yet been an inspiration to the workers of the whole world. It simply does not compare with the impact of the Cuban revolution or even events in Chile under Allende on the international working class.
There is undoubtedly sympathy and support for Chávez and opposition to imperialism’s attempt to overthrow his regime especially in Latin America. However, the working class has not been inspired or motivated to anything like the same extent as they were during the Cuban, Chilean or even Nicaraguan revolutions and others.
The decisive factor which has diminished the impact of events in Venezuela and even limited how far the revolution has gone in Venezuela is that the movement there has not yet embraced the idea of the socialist alternative to capitalism. Neither has Chávez yet struck major blows against the interests of imperialism. The revolution is not consciously or clearly under the leadership of the working class. An additional factor is also the throwing back in socialist consciousness internationally and absence of powerful parties of the working class which would be able to mobilise international support for the Venezuelan workers.
The masses have moved against the old corrupt political elite, against neo-liberalism and even against the system. These are extremely significant developments and represent the first steps in a new wave of struggle by the working class in Venezuela and Latin America as a whole. But they have not embraced the idea of the alternative of socialism.
This is in contrast to other revolutionary movements in the past. The revolution in Cuba rapidly evolved in this direction and therefore had a much greater international impact than Venezuela has so far done. In Cuba, capitalism was overthrown and consequently the lives of the masses were transformed. Illiteracy was abolished, a free health system was introduced, food and adequate housing were provided and life expectancy was raised to levels comparable with the industrialised capitalist countries. The former ruling elite around Batista was forced to flee and the playground for US businessmen was closed to them. These gains were made possible because of the introduction of a state-owned planned economy which received economic subsidies from the Soviet Union.
However, despite these tremendous gains, which resulted in overwhelming international support and sympathy for the Cuban revolution, it did not result in the establishment of a genuine workers’ democracy where society was democratically controlled and managed by the working class. Instead, a privileged bureaucratic layer ran society, with the broad mass support of the population but without the existence of a workers’ democracy where the working class democratically and consciously controlled and planned society. A clear perspective and policy to spread the revolution internationally and especially through Latin America by the establishment of a democratic Socialist Federation of Latin America was also lacking.
The establishment of such a bureaucratic regime was possible because although there was and is massive support for the revolution, the working class was not consciously leading the revolution and there was no mass revolutionary socialist party, unlike the Russian Revolution in October 1917. In Cuba, the revolution was therefore carried through in a distorted way under the leadership of the guerrilla fighters around Fidel Castro. In Chile, although capitalism was not overthrown, the movement rapidly unfolded under the banner of socialism and was clearly led by the working class. This is not yet the case in Venezuela or in other massive upheavals in Latin America such as Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The weakness of socialist consciousness in these recent movements has complicated how the revolutionary events have unfolded in Venezuela. It has given rise to a far more protracted struggle. The absence of a revolutionary socialist alternative can lead to many ebbs and flows in the class struggle. It can mean that the clash between the classes can be fought out over quite a protracted period of time. In some countries, because of the deadlock between the classes which can arise from this situation it can lead to the emergence of hybrid regimes. Such regimes can clash with capitalism and imperialism and can encroach on their economic and class interests but do not lead to the overthrow of capitalism and establishment a regime of workers’ democracy.
The emergence of these types of regimes is a possibility in the next period in some countries. A deep crisis of capitalism and massive radicalisation in society can push petty bourgeois leaders, including sections of the armed forces, to go much further than they intended in attacking the interests of capitalism. However, if in such conditions the working class does not embrace the idea of the socialist revolution and a mass revolutionary socialist party is absent, a certain ‘stalemate’ in the class struggle can develop for a period. This stalemate cannot last indefinitely and would eventually lead either to the working class taking power or capitalism being able to fully reassert its control over society.
There is an element of this today in Venezuela. Although capitalism has not been overthrown, important reforms have been introduced. Millions of acres of land have been distributed to peasant co-operatives. Three million additional young people have been given secondary and primary education. Over one million have been lifted out of illiteracy. These reforms (largely made possible because of the oil revenues and because of some support the regime has received from Cuba) have all won enthusiastic support from the masses. At the same time the regime has made only limited encroachments against the capitalists economically.
Yet the ruling class has partially lost control of the state machine. A limited purge of the military officer caste, judiciary and powerful management of the state-owned Oil Company PVDSA has taken place. There is a division within the armed forces amongst the officer caste. A section of junior officers is urging Chávez to go further to the left. Others led by General Raúl Baduel are urging the regime to proceed very cautiously and accept a "constitutionalist path". Another layer also wants Chávez out and supports the opposition. The old corrupt political parties are no longer in control. But the revolution has not yet moved to directly challenge the capitalist system or embrace the idea of socialism.
The reactionary forces have been weakened and split and, as yet, have not been able to strike a decisive blow at the revolution. These weaknesses of reaction were reinforced by the two defeats it suffered at the hands of the masses. (the attempted coup in April 2002 and the ‘lockout’ in December 2002-January 2003). This resulted in a certain standoff or stalemate in the struggle but the situation is still favourable for the revolutionary movement. This situation cannot continue indefinitely but may still last for a time. The striking thing in Venezuela is that this situation has continued for so long without the forces of reaction being able to strike a decisive blow at the movement. A significant factor in this has been the preoccupation of US imperialism with the crisis in Iraq which has so far prevented the Bush administration acting more decisively against Chávez.
Following each defeat of reaction it has re-grouped and prepared to strike again. The ‘legal’ attempt to remove Chávez by a referendum is the latest in a series of attempts. Imperialism and capitalism will not simply give up. They will prepare to strike again and again until they are successful. Despite the limited reforms which his government has been able to introduce, a sharp economic crisis has developed – compounded by the economic sabotage of the ruling class and US imperialism. This has inevitably eroded some support for Chávez – especially amongst the middle class. Two thirds of the population still live below the poverty line. Unemployment remains at approximately 25% and from the standpoint of the middle class, most importantly, inflation has reached 26% and will probably go even higher.
Initially Chávez enjoyed the overwhelming support of well over 60% of the population. The failure of the regime to break from capitalism has meant that it has not been able to overcome the underlying social, economic and political crisis in society. This has eroded the position of the middle class economically. The social instability which exists and the regime’s failure to resolve it has driven sections of the middle class to begin to look else where for a solution and support the opposition or sections of it. Chávez has consequently seen his support amongst the middle class eaten away and eroded. A revolutionary socialist programme would include an appeal to the middle class to support a workers’ and peasants’ government. It would offer to use the talents of the doctors, architects, technicians, scientists, etc. into an emergency socialist plan to rebuild the economy.
The middle class has a tendency to vacillate between the ruling class and the working class reflecting its position in society. Having looked to Chávez for a solution to the turmoil in society, if his regime cannot offer them the perspective of a solution they will fall into antipathy and look elsewhere. This process has begun to develop in Venezuela. At a certain stage, even sections of the working class can become affected by this if the crisis is not resolved. Such developments give the forces of counter-revolution the social basis needed to eventually strike a decisive blow. This now comprises the greatest threat to the revolution.
Absence of an alternative model
In the past, under similar pressures, some regimes in the neo-colonial world moved to overthrow capitalism and landlordism but in a distorted way. As explained earlier this took place in Cuba.
However, it was only possible for such regimes to emerge because of the existence of the Stalinist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In these countries there existed a nationalised planned economy ruled by bureaucratic one-party elites in the name of 'socialism'. These provided a 'model' of an alternative to capitalism and imperialism for some counties of the neo-colonial world. However, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s and the loss of any ‘model’ to follow prevents the emergence of new regimes today.
This can mean under conditions of an intense crisis of capitalism in some countries in the neo-colonial world ‘hybrid’ or bonapartist regimes, which under the pressure of the masses can act against the interests of capitalism and imperialism, as described above may emerge which can last for a relatively lengthy period of time. The situation, however, would eventually need to be resolved one way or the other.
As explained above, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua during the 1980s illustrates this process. Capitalism was not snuffed out and it was eventually able to regain control of society. This process took ten years. It is not likely that Chávez will have ten years. The struggle will be resolved in one way or the other. Either the working class will move to take power and carry through the socialist revolution or the Venezuelan ruling class with the help of US imperialism will eventually strike a decisive blow and regain control.
Chávez has been able to sustain massive support and the masses have so far been able to defeat the attempts of reaction to overthrow the government. However, the situation is becoming more acute as the crisis deepens. The current stalemate cannot continue indefinitely.
The CWI has explained on many occasions the weakening or throwing back of socialist consciousness following the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes and restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Despite the distorted character of the ‘socialism’ which existed in these states they acted counterweight to imperialism, and were seen by the masses as an alternative system to capitalism. They were seen in this way especially in the neo-colonial world of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and illustrated that an alternative to capitalism was possible.
The collapse of those regimes, coupled with the open acceptance of capitalism by all of the former workers’ parties, had the effect of massively undermining the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism. This process affected Latin America as it did other continents. The consequences of these developments shaped the whole of the 1990s when the ‘market’ appeared dominant and unchallengeable.
This situation is changing rapidly. The deepening crisis of capitalism and imperialism has now opened a new era of struggle by the masses against neo-liberalism and the capitalist market. This is especially the case in Latin America. The CWI is confident that, as these struggles develop, and through a combination of the experience of the working class and the conscious intervention of socialists, the idea of the need for the alternative of socialism will win massive support in the future. The deepening crisis of capitalism on a world scale and the sharpening rhythm of the class struggle mean that this can happen quite rapidly in the next period and in some countries possibly very rapidly – including Venezuela.
Socialist consciousness and the subjective factor
However, the absence of a socialist consciousness has been one of the main weaknesses in the stormy upheavals in Venezuela. The fact that revolutionary events have been under the banner of ‘Bolivar’ rather than socialism is a reflection of these processes and one of its weaknesses, which has been an important factor that has so far held it back from going further to challenge capitalism.
Woods correctly poses the need to resolve the absence of the subjective factor in the building of a revolutionary socialist party. There is no doubt that a mass Marxist party with a revolutionary socialist programme is of critical importance. Lenin outlined four conditions necessary for a successful socialist revolution: the ruling class needs to be split; the working class must be willing to wage a decisive struggle and carry out the revolution; the middle class needs to be vacillating or neutralised; and there needs to be a mass revolutionary socialist party in existence – what Marxists refer to as the conscious subjective factor. Some elements of these factors are present in Venezuela today.
The ruling class is split; although the middle class has vacillated and wavered big sections of it have now, however, moved into opposition to Chávez because of the impasse in the revolution; although the working class has shown a tremendous fighting capacity, unlike the Russian Revolution in October 1917, its most active layer has yet to embrace the idea of socialism as a means of inflicting a decisive defeat on the ruling class; there is, of course, no mass revolutionary socialist party.
A related question to the subjective factor – the need for a mass revolutionary party - is the issue of the political and socialist consciousness of the masses. This has generally been absent from the movements in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and some other Latin American countries in the recent period. This is mainly due to the negative consequences of the collapse of the former Stalinist states and the absence of a powerful mass revolutionary socialist party which can explain the alternative. The absence of a dominant socialist consciousness amongst the masses – at least up until now – for Marxists has objective consequences which have resulted in complexities and obstacles that need to be overcome in the Venezuelan revolution. Woods simply ignores these features of the movement.
The CWI does not draw overly pessimistic conclusions from the throwing back of socialist consciousness which took place during the 1990s. On the contrary, the events in Venezuela open a new chapter in the struggle against capitalism where consciousness will develop and socialism can re-conquer mass support. Marxists and the CWI have an optimistic perspective but we must also have a realistic appraisal of the events which have thus far unfolded. Only by facing up to the weaknesses and complexities present in the mass movements that have rocked Latin America will it be possible to have an accurate assessment of events and the tasks facing revolutionary socialists. This means featuring all of the positive aspects of the mass movement and to see the potential within it but not becoming intoxicated by it.
Woods informs us that he presented Chávez with some books with a personal inscription by him which Chávez describes as a "...wonderful dedication". Chávez is, "transparently honest. His sincerity is absolutely clear, as is his dedication to the cause of the revolution and his hatred of injustice and oppression." We are also told of how hard Chávez works, his love of books – even bad books. A health warning is then added: "Of course, none of these qualities in and of themselves are sufficient to guarantee the victory of the revolution, but they certainly explain his tremendous popularity with the masses."
Chávez may have all of these qualities but we do not have a "sincerometer" to measure the sincerity of an individual. In the last analysis it is the ideas, programme and methods advocated by an individual and the action which flow from them, especially a leader of a movement such as that is taking place in Venezuela, which will determine the role they will play in the class struggle. Without a revolutionary socialist programme and method the laudable intentions of Chávez will not be realised.
Moreover, the continued lack of such a programme and method will eventually open the door for a victory by reactionary forces. This is not what Chávez intends, any more than it was Allende’s intention in Chile. However, it will be the consequence of the weakness of his programme and method. His regime and the masses face the threat of a creeping counter-revolution, which as the April coup attempt showed can assume a much sharper form at a certain stage. Revolutions are not carried through in slow motion contrary to the picture being presented by Chávez’s actions so far.. At a critical stage they need to make a decisive break with the old system and overthrow it. This can take place even where the leadership is not consciously preparing to do this.
The Cuban revolution illustrates this process. A series of tit for tat blows and counter blows between US imperialism and Castro’s regime successively gave the revolution a new impetus and drove it further forward until industry was nationalised and a centralised plan was introduced which resulted in capitalism being overthrown in 1959 - 60. If the revolution fails to advance and take decisive blows that result in the overthrow of capitalism, then the counterrevolution can prepare its forces and eventually successfully strike back and defeat it.
The urgency of the Venezuelan working class acting independently and embracing a revolutionary socialist programme is now posed as the most important question. The price of failure for the working class is too high to stake on winning the ear of one person alone, to carry through from above the tasks of the socialist revolution. They need to be carried through by the masses from below.
The April coup and Chávez
In such explosive situations as currently exist in Venezuela it is not just words but deeds and actions which test the role of all parties and individuals. Critical conjunctures occur in the course of the class struggle which, reveal the strengths and weakness of all the contending forces. At one critical point Chávez, despite his ‘honest’ and ‘good intentions’, revealed his underlying weakness. He had not unfortunately ‘grasped’ the need for the revolution to make a ‘qualitative’ leap. That critical point was the attempted coup in 2002.
The role of Marxists in such a situation is to point out weaknesses, not to be negative, but in order to help the working class and mass movement overcome them, thereby taking the revolution forward on the basis of a genuine socialist programme. If, by adopting such a programme, the working class can win the support of leaders such as Chávez so much the better. However, this will be done on the basis of explaining the incorrectness of the ideas and methods of such leaders, not by trying to advise them and masking what their exact role has been. Neither will it be realised by trying to persuade them to carry out the socialist revolution from above.
The attempted coup in 2002 revealed two things. Firstly, it demonstrated the tremendous potential power of the working class. Secondly, it showed Chávez’s weaknesses and inability to take the revolution forward. Chávez was saved and the coup defeated by the spontaneous mass movement of the working class, not because of what he or his co-leaders did.
In his interview with Chávez, Woods quotes him relating what happened during the attempted coup when he was arrested. Some of these reminiscences are of interest. However, critically there is no reference to the lessons, if any, that Chávez has drawn from this decisive episode. Significantly, Woods does not give any indication as to whether he challenged Chávez on this.
The attempted coup against Chávez was defeated not by himself alone. It was the intervention of the working class and urban poor who flooded onto the streets and marched to the Mira Flores Presidential palace to oppose the coup and demand Chávez be re-instated. Workers marched chanting: "The same ones are back again!" and "The cream at the top – the thieves of the old regime have returned!" This mass spontaneous movement of workers was accompanied by a revolt of important sections of the rank and file of the armed forces.
The Spanish daily paper El País carried a report illustrating what happened when Chávez was imprisoned on Ochila Island. A young rank and file soldier waited until the officers had left the room and then asked Chávez: "Look, my Commandante, clarify one thing for me. Is it true that you have resigned?" Chávez replied, "No son, I have not resigned and I will not resign." The soldier then said, "But this is what is being said throughout the country. They say you resigned and left the country." The soldier asked him to write something and leave it in the rubbish bin and he would return and get it later… The soldier then faxed this statement from Chávez to Caracas where thousands were distributed amongst the demonstrators." (El País, 15 April 2002).
The Financial Times reported that the Palace Guard remained loyal to Chávez because they were disgusted when they saw, "...Carmona and the oligarchs come in and begin pouring champagne and whisky. The guards hated that." (Financial Times, 15 April 2002.)
In December 2001, amidst rumours of a coup conspiracy, Chávez had declared: "…I will not be toppled like the Chilean President Salvador Allende". Like Chile in 1973, there was widespread speculation about a coup attempt. Chávez evidently saw the danger. However, what did he do to try and prevent it? No rank and file soldiers committees were formed to purge the coup conspirators. The workers were not formed into armed militias.
It is only necessary to see the video news reports of the attempted coup at the time to see that Chávez was amongst the most surprised at his own re-instatement to the Presidency. The excellent documentary ‘Chávez – inside the coup’ (By Kim Barley and Donncha O’Brian) broadcast by the Irish television network RTE1 makes this very clear and clearly shows that it was a mass movement of the working class and urban poor which defeated reaction.
Woods rightly argues: "After the defeat of the coup it would have been possible to carry out a socialist revolution swiftly and painlessly. Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost…." ( ‘Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution’, 4 April 2004).
But who lost the opportunity? Unfortunately, when Chávez was taken from his captors by the working class and put back into the Presidential Palace his first appeal was for "national unity…national reconciliation and for people to return to their homes". Some of the pro-coup former managers were re-appointed to the board of the state oil company, PVDSA! In other words he tried to reach a compromise with the ruling class and imperialism and made no attempt to take the revolution forward to challenge capitalism.
Chávez’s role, at this critical conjuncture, is not commented on at all by Woods. Peppered throughout the articles of IMT are correct general formulations such as "The working class must at all times preserve and build its own class organisations, its unions, factory committees etc…The Marxist wing of the movement will maintain its full political independence – its own papers, magazines, book, leaflets…" . Socialism is argued for as a necessity but behind the Marxist and revolutionary phraseology lies the real objective, which is to advise Chávez.
In the rush to get his ear, they neglect a detailed analysis and criticism of his role at each critical conjuncture of the movement. This opportunistic method leaves the working class less prepared to overcome the weaknesses, doubts and hesitations of ‘honest’ leaders like Chávez.
Unfortunately, Chávez’s incorrect policy following the attempted coup in 2002, has been repeated by him when faced with the struggle over the referendum. The opposition, with the endorsement of the electoral commission, CNE, claim that they have secured sufficient signatures to force a recall referendum. It is crystal clear that the figures obtained by them are based on a massive fraud. Within a few days of the results being declared in which the opposition got 16,000 signatures more than those needed to force a referendum it has been revealed that 11,000 names discovered so far are in fact those of dead people! More are being revealed each day.
Yet, despite this fraud Chávez agreed to proceed with the referendum arguing he will win it and it will strengthen the legitimacy of his regime. This was an incorrect policy in our opinion. Despite this mistake, it seems that the move may back-fire on the opposition if Chávez defeats the opposition – which is possible or even likely. However the reactionary forces will not accept this result and will denounce his victory as a fraud and prepare new attempts to overthrow him. Rather than accept this result it would have been far better to strengthen the community organisations and build workers’ elected councils, to link these up locally, on a citywide basis, regionally and nationally and go onto the offensive. Together with rank and file committees of the soldiers these bodies should establish an armed workers’ militia and take the necessary step to take the revolution forward and overthrow capitalism. (See ‘Venezuela – a decisive turn in the crisis’ 10 June 2004 for a full analysis by the CWI.)
Unfortunately, Chávez repeated the same mistake he made at the time of the coup and tried to appease the reactionary forces. On this occasion Woods has summoned the courage to say that, "We think that this is a mistake." (‘Venezuela: Bolivarian masses anger at referendum decision’, 4 June 2004.) In ‘Theses on revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela -Part Two’, written on 20 May 2004, Woods also, somewhat belatedly, criticises Chávez for his role during the coup. He writes: "After the first coup Hugo Chávez tried to be conciliatory to the reactionaries. He tried to negotiate with them and even reinstated the old directors of the PVDSA. They rewarded him by organising the bosses lock out …" Maybe Woods in the light of his recent criticism of Chávez would like also to revise his contention that, "Chávez has grasped the need for the revolution to make a qualitative leap"?
We are told that "There are many things that indicate that Chávez is preparing a sharp turn to the left" (Encounters with Hugo Chávez) which is certainly a possibility in the crisis which is developing. However, the issues that arise from this possibility are left hanging in mid-air by him. A move to the left could be forced upon him by a combination of massive pressure from below combined with a possible attempt to overthrow his government. But if such a shift to the left did not go as far as to overthrow capitalism it would pose all of the same contradictions in a sharpened form. It would rouse the wrath of imperialism still further and pose in a sharper way the need to complete the tasks of the socialist revolution.
Woods refers to recent speeches by Chávez in which he speaks ambiguously about the need to break with, "the capitalist schema which has been sown in the country… and the need to democratise the economy in order to transform the socio-economic model…." It is unclear if Chávez is saying he supports breaking with capitalism or simply changing the ‘schema’ for a more ‘humane system’ within the framework of capitalism. But still, there is no indication of what his programme is.
The arming of the masses
Woods quotes Chávez calling for "A general arming of the people through the reserve forces and the Army, which will guarantee that we will fulfil our historic mission and that the revolution will not be betrayed" (Correro de Caracas, April 2004, emphasis in the original). Chávez has argued that, "Every fisherman, student, every member of the people, must learn how to use a rifle, because it is the concept of the armed people together with the National Armed Forces to defend the sacred soil of Venezuela"
This is a crucial question at this conjuncture in Venezuela. Like all other issues during such a sharp clash between revolution, and counter-revolution the decisive issue is not only a general declaration but concrete actions and deeds. These apparently revolutionary sounding declarations also need a closer examination. They include some features typical to what Marxists have analysed as ‘centrist’ leaders in the past. Centrism uses Marxist and revolutionary language but acts in the same way as the reformists in deeds. It is vague and imprecise and usually lacks clear or concrete demands and especially actions. The emergence of powerful left centrist parties indicates an attempt by the rank and file to embrace genuine Marxist ideas.
Centrist leaders, however, can use revolutionary sounding language as a means of averting independent revolutionary actions by the working class. Despite the revolutionary sounding phrases of centrist leaders in the past, when it came to actual deeds these leaders acted as the reformists or vacillated with disastrous consequences for the revolution. This was the case with Serrati during the Italian revolution in 1920 and Andres Nin the leader of the POUM (Unified Workers’ Marxist Party) in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 - 7. Such figures as Nin and Serrati were far to the left of Chávez and openly proclaimed their adherence to Marxism and socialism.
It remains to be seen if Chávez actually proceeds to undertake the arming of the working class and the general population. From the available information there is no indication that anything concrete is being undertaken. A speech supporting it is not enough.
In Chile, prior to the coup in 1973, the masses demanded arms to defend the revolution. Five hundred thousand marched before the Presidential Palace demanding guns. The leaders of the movement at the time repeatedly claimed that arms were being obtained or that they had them and they would be distributed "when the time was right". A layer of activists had some arms. Some factories had even established defence squads. However, even this was not enough. When the decisive moment struck no arms appeared and the working class was left defenceless.
When reaction threatened, in Barcelona in 1936, the working class went onto the offensive. The army barracks were stormed and the working class took control of the city and defeated reaction. Reaction eventually triumphed because of the wrong policies of the Socialist (PSOE) and Communist (PCE) Parties and the mistakes of the POUM (Unified Marxist Workers’ Party).
In Chile in 1973, rather than go onto the offensive and march to La Moneda Presidential Palace to confront the counter-revolution the workers, following the advice of their leaders, went to the factories to ‘turn them into fortresses of the revolution’ only to be slaughtered there by the pro-coup sections of the army. Allende had prepared a noose for his own neck when he signed the constitutional pact with the bourgeois parties which, amongst other things, bound him not to interfere with the armed forces. In the run- up to the coup rank-and-file sailors and junior officers, from Concepción, uncovered the plot. They presented Allende with it along with a counter-plan to take the fleet out to sea and prevent it. The rank-and-file sailors were arrested and tortured for their efforts to prevent the coup which eventually took place on September 11, 1973.
The speech of Chávez cited by Woods is extremely vague. Is Chávez urging that the reserve forces and the army distribute arms to the working class or is he in fact saying that the mobilisation of the Reserves will be the basis of the arming of the population, i.e. a mobilisation of a section of the existing state machine? It is totally unclear if Chávez is calling for the establishment of a workers’ militia and he speaks only vaguely of the ‘concept’ of the armed people.
The Venezuela section of the IMT – Revolutionary Marxist Current – RCM was a merger between ‘El Topo Obrero’ – Workers’ Mole - and ‘El Militante’, has a journal called ‘El Topo Obrero’. It carried a lead article on its front page, a picture of Chávez, and a quote from him which dominated the page. It is reminiscent of all of the vacuous centrist phrases of the leaders in Chile 30 years ago. "Each fisherman, each student and every person should learn how to use a rifle because this is the concept of the people under arms."
In Chile the movement went beyond a ‘concept’. The industrial ‘Cordones’ (elected committees of delegates from the factories which linked up on a district and citywide basis) defence groups were organised in many factories and in some shanty towns where some limited military training took place. However, tragically, even this was not enough. The mass arming of the working class through the establishment of a workers’ militia under the democratic check and control of elected workers committees – in Chile the ‘Cordones’ – is necessary. Arms could be obtained by linking with the rank and file of the army and navy and the establishment of rank-and-file committees of the army, navy and air force. The arming of the working class represents an important stage in the revolution and is of great importance when the situation demands it. Without a correct programme to carry through the socialist revolution even this is not sufficient to ensure victory for the working class.
The ‘concept’ of an armed people needs to be transformed into concrete action and not be left at the level of mere phrases. It should not be forgotten, as explained above, that Chávez has already promised they would not do to him what they did to Allende. But for the intervention of the working class from below reaction would already have succeeded in doing just that.
These are not therefore ‘hair-splitting’ points. What does the ‘concept of the armed people’ actually mean? What is Chávez actually doing to arm the masses? It is necessary to strengthen the community organisations, the UNT trade unions and to build workers’ councils or committees to be made up of elected delegates from all workplaces, rank-and-file soldiers from the barracks, universities and shanty towns, and through these each workplace, university, and shanty town should establish armed detachments. These should draw in those sections of the army and reserves that support the masses but be under the control of the working class. The rank-and-file soldiers’ committees need to begin to distribute arms to the workers’ organisations and arrest officers who are found to be plotting with the counter-revolution.
Chávez gives no indication of what the command structure of the ‘concept of the armed people’ would be or who would control it. A workers’ militia would need to be under the control and accountability of elected and democratic organisations of the working class. Without this check, any armed group formed will inevitably develop tendencies to act arbitrarily and, if not accountable for its actions, will develop elitist and authoritarian methods. This is a particular danger if large components of such a force are drawn from sections of the military apparatus as would be likely in the case of Venezuela.
It also seems that there is another dangerous method being employed by Chávez. Prior to this, at the time of the coup in April 2002, the masses poured onto the streets to defend Chávez only to be sent home again afterwards. The ‘lockout’ was broken by the masses again being summoned and taking their own independent action. However, again following this second defeat of reaction by the masses, decisive measures were not taken to take the revolution forward to overthrow capitalism. Following these events the threat from the paramilitaries was answered by the calling of mass rallies and support for the ‘concept’ of the armed people but as yet they have not been armed. Now, having accepted the referendum, Chávez is mobilising the masses in a campaign to defeat reaction at the ballot box.
The mass movement cannot be repeatedly turned on and off like a tap in this way at each critical stage when reaction threatens. The masses have thus far continued to answer the call at each decisive battle. However, they cannot be summoned to action only to be stood down again repeatedly. Without a clear programme and perspective to take the revolution forward and overthrow capitalism, the movement will eventually tire, become exhausted and even demoralised. The longer striking a decisive blow against reaction is delayed, the greater will be the scope for the forces of reaction to re-group and mobilise their forces.
The absence of a programme and perspective to take the revolution decisively forward is also posing another danger. It is not preparing the working class and the masses of the rest of Latin America for the struggle needed to defeat reaction in Venezuela, imperialism and the Latin American ruling classes who are all conspiring to overthrow the Chávez regime. The role of US imperialism and the ruling classes of the rest of the continent in trying to defeat the revolution in Venezuela poses this as an urgent necessity. These reactionary forces cannot be defeated by the masses of Venezuela alone.
Woods tells us that Chávez is preparing a TV channel to broadcast throughout the continent. This is welcome but, on its’ own, is not enough. It is necessary to build direct links with the working class in the Latin American countries to explain to them a clear programme and the steps that the revolution will take to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratic socialist regime. Cháves’s regime is not taking the steps needed to build direct links with the working class in other countries and build an international workers solidarity campaign.
These and other dangers appear as a closed book for Woods. He seems to have become so enamoured with the radical sections of the military and with Chávez in particular that he does not consider it necessary to deal with such ‘details’.
As Woods correctly points out, the arming of the working class in itself does not guarantee victory for the revolution. The working class in Spain was armed and yet Franco’s fascist forces still emerged triumphant in the civil war. This was because of the treacherous role played by the PCE, PSOE and also because of the mistakes of the POUM, led by Andres Nin. This centrist party, which formally adhered to Marxist ideology, whose leader, Nin, had discussed with Trotsky and at one stage supported his ideas, conducted quite a heroic struggle and opposed the wrong ideas and methods of the Stalinists. It used very ‘revolutionary’ language.
However, at the decisive moment it ended up joining a ‘popular front’ – a coalition government including capitalist parties in Catalonia. Consequently, the POUM and its leader Nin also carried an important responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish working class because of its incorrect policies and methods they defended. However, despite the ‘sincerity’ of Nin, who was much further to the left than Chávez, Trotsky still openly and explicitly criticised his mistakes and wrong methods. He did not mask them and only offer his advice but argued for the need to build a genuinely revolutionary party and fight for a genuinely revolutionary socialist programme to be adopted in deeds as well as on paper.
It is not only Chávez who is speaking in terms of vague concepts rather than a precise programme for the revolution. Following the merger of the two groups which formed the RCM, the IMTs’ group in Venezuela, a founding statement of the RCM argued: "The Marxists have explained from the beginning that the only serious way to defend the revolutionary process is not by negotiating with the capitalists (as often the Chávez government has attempted), but rather by deepening the revolution through socialist measures…It can be summed up in the understanding of the need to deepen the revolution and to move towards socialism…"
They conclude the statement: "We must deepen the revolution through the struggle for the demands and the democratic rights of the workers and the people, advancing towards socialism!" (Unification of the revolutionary currents El Topo Obrero and El Militante 6 January 2004).
What is meant by deepening the revolution and moving towards socialism? Such a vague formulation can be interpreted in many ways. This is the same terminology used in the past by the Stalinists to justify ‘a two stages’ theory of reaching socialism through incremental steps, of firstly building ‘democracy’ and only then moving towards socialism step by step. This policy has always resulted in a catastrophe for the working class. All Marxists support all of the struggles for democratic rights of the working class. But to conquer them and maintain them and end the poverty and exploitation suffered under capitalism, these struggles need to be linked with a programme to break from capitalism and for the working class to take power and establish a workers’ democracy.
The need for a clear socialist programme
So how does El Topo Obrero suggest the working class ‘advances’ towards socialism? We are presented with a mishmash of demands and steps to be taken. Some of these, we are told, "Would be the nationalisation of the banking and financial sector under social control, the nationalisation under workers’ control of private industry, and the running of the oil company under workers control and management." What does ‘social control’ mean? It is sufficiently vague to mean all things to all people. Why the difference between how the banks should be run and how industry should be run? Why should the PVDSA be run on the basis of workers’ management and control and industry only on the basis of workers’ control?
The CWI has argued in our material concretely for the nationalisation of the decisive sectors of industry and the banking sector, to be run on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management. In the crucially important oil company (PVDSA), which is already nationalised, a purge of the existing directors is needed. An important element of the day-to-day running of the company is in the hands of the workers. This must be strengthened to full control and the introduction of a democratic system of workers’ management needs to be established. The managing board of PVDSA needs to be made up of representatives of the workers in the industry, representatives of the working class in general and a workers’ government. Through this, the election of all officials subject to recall by the working class and for no official to receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker need to be applied. (See ‘Venezuela – the eye of the storm’, February 2000 and other articles.)
Another important demand is for the nationalisation of the pro-coup media under democratic workers’ control and management. A virtual dictatorship exists in the media in Venezuela which is overwhelmingly in the hands of reactionary capitalists who have not been timid in their use of this weapon against the revolution. The four main independent TV networks are all owned by high profile businessmen who actively support the opposition. They were ordered to pay US$2 million in taxes for providing free advertising to support the ‘lockout’. Unfortunately, rather than take decisive measures to break the power of "the four horsemen of the apocalypse", as Chávez has dubbed the press tycoons, the government has introduced regulations to try and control the media campaign. It also plans to boost spending and resources for the state channels.
However, these measures have had little effect. Some of the government’s proposals have even given a propaganda weapon to the opposition and are potentially undemocratic and could also be used against those who criticise the regime from the left. One proposal for example demands the "respectful portrayal of government officials"! A far better and democratic step would be to nationalise the press and TV networks under democratic workers’ control and management and then allocate resources and facilities on the basis of support to each political party and group.
Analogies with the Portuguese revolution
Woods, it seems, is reluctant to raise criticism of other military forces on the left who have made mistakes. In his analysis ‘Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution’ he draws a direct parallel between events in Venezuela and the magnificent Portuguese revolution in 1974/5.
He polemicises against unnamed sectarians who, he says, argue ‘we must not have anything to do with army officers’. The approach to this question and the army in general is particularly important in Venezuela. The role of the left-wing or radical sections of the army has been critical in Venezuela. There is a strong radical populist tradition amongst the armed forces in some Latin American countries – including Venezuela, Peru and some others - that the CWI has commented on in our analysis of events in Venezuela and other material.
If there are groups who say we must have nothing to do with such forces then this is obviously wrong. Sections of the army, including its officers, especially its junior officers can, and have, played an important role. The rotten, decaying capitalist class, in some countries, has pushed them to take action against capitalism. Some can be won to the ideas of socialism and support the working class.
However, this does not mean that revolutionary socialists should turn a blind eye to the mistakes and weaknesses of these forces. This incredibly is what Woods does in his comments relating to the Portuguese revolution. Firstly, he simply ignores crucial differences relating to socialist consciousness and how far the revolution went in overthrowing capitalism in Portugal compared with Venezuela. Then he proceeds to brush aside any mistakes or incorrect methods used by the left-wing of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) in Portugal.
He quotes from a document written by Ted Grant in 1975 on the Portuguese Revolution. One quote he gives relates to events on 11 March, 1975, when reactionary officers attempted a coup. The workers took to the streets, the army rebelled against the attempted coup and it collapsed. Grant correctly says that not a single regiment could be found to act for the counter-revolution.
Woods then concludes that "...the same lines would apply exactly to Venezuela two years ago…One has only to change the names." This is not accurate in relation to Venezuela. The paratroop regiment rebelled against the coup as did the Presidential guard. However, the situation in the rest of the armed forces remained unclear and many regiments only declared against the coup once it had been defeated.
However, more importantly was what followed the attempted coups in Portugal and Venezuela. In Portugal the revolution gathered a massive momentum and took an enormous turn to the left. The attempted coup took place on 11 March and was followed immediately by workers occupying the factories, shipyards and banks, and the peasants seized the land. Within three days all banks and insurance companies were nationalised which meant that through the shareholdings 80% of industry and much of the land was taken over by the state.
By April 4, the radical army officer’s organisation, the MFA, issued a statement describing the revolution’s ‘transition to socialism’. The whole of Portuguese society was in revolutionary ferment and embraced the idea of a socialist revolution. No wonder the British daily newspaper, The Times, carried an editorial with the headline "Capitalism is dead in Portugal". It almost was. But, because the revolution was not completed, the capitalist class was able to make a comeback and regain its control over society. Through the agency of the Socialist Party (which was advised by the German Social Democratic Party, SPD, acting as a conduit for the American CIA) it was possible to breathe life back into the corpse of Portuguese capitalism. Denationalisations were eventually carried through over a period of years and the Portuguese Socialist Party has become one of the main parties of Portuguese capitalism.
As explained above, the events in Venezuela following the attempted coup did not go nearly as far as they did in Portugal. Following the defeat of the coup, Chávez immediately sought to reach agreement with capitalism. No nationalisations were carried out and only a limited purge of the PVDSA and the officer caste was carried through at that stage. Chávez has recently negotiated to establish some joint ventures with the multi-national companies in the oil industry.
Marxists are optimists and confident in the development of the socialist revolution. We enthusiastically look to the struggles of the working class in Venezuela and have a positive approach to the revolutionary events which are unfolding there. Yet it is not the duty of revolutionary socialists to dress up or exaggerate the movement which has so far taken place. This method does nothing to strengthen the revolution or allow the working class to take it forward to a successful conclusion.
Woods seems very reluctant to criticise the MFA and its role in Portugal. He says of them "It is not a question of trust. That is a moral category, not a scientific one. What is decisive is not the moral character of the leaders but the programme and policies. Many of the officers in Portugal were very honest men who sincerely sided with the masses. Many of them even wanted to carry through a profound social transformation in Portugal, but they did not know how to carry it out."
We agree, but couldn’t the same be said about Allende, Andres Nin indeed of Che Guevara and many others? We have no way of measuring the sincerity of individuals all we can do is put to the test the programme, ideas and actions defended by individuals and groups. If they defend what we think are incorrect ideas and methods then surely it is the duty of Marxists to say so.
Woods then continues: "The real responsibility for the failure of the Portuguese revolution lies not with the left wing army officers, but with the reformist leaders of the Communist and Socialist Parties who between them wrecked the revolution. In passing we must add that the ultra-left pseudo-Marxist sects also played a lamentable role…"
So everybody is responsible – except the left-wing army officers. The roles played by the forces mentioned by Woods varied. The Communist Party and the Socialist Party leaders certainly were responsible for eventually ensuring that capitalism was able to regain control of Portuguese society. The counter-revolution was carried through the medium of the Socialist Party. During the Spanish Civil War the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Communist Party (PCE) also played lamentable roles. However, did this mean that Trotsky was any less severe in his criticism of the POUM?
Woods does not specify which "left" sections of the MFA he is referring to. This organisation itself was not homogeneous but split into different tendencies. The "moderate" wing of the MFA around such individuals as Melo Antunes collaborated with the SP in initiating the rolling back the revolution. However, the ‘left-wing’, precisely because it did not know what to do, made a series of mistakes and tried to impose their position from above with no organised basis amongst the working class. They thereby allowed the Socialist Party and others to present themselves as the defenders of democracy against ‘the undemocratic army officers’.
These mistakes were also an important contributing factor which led to the defeat of the revolution and it does not benefit the interest of the workers’ movement to try and gloss over them. It certainly will not assist Woods in offering the ‘correct advice’ to Chávez! The defeat of the tremendous Portuguese revolution which ‘almost’ overthrew capitalism illustrates the crucial necessity for a mass revolutionary socialist party. Such a party, which draws on the relevant international historical experiences of the working class, can provide the necessary leadership to assist the working class to take the necessary steps to overthrow capitalism and establish a genuine regime of workers’ democracy in which the working class is consciously and democratically controlling and managing society and taking the necessary steps to begin building socialism.
The question of winning junior officers and soldiers over to the side of the revolution is important in all revolutions. In some Latin American countries, like Venezuela, where a strong tradition of radical left populist trends with the army exists, this question is even more important. The question of splitting the state machine at a certain stage in the revolution assumes a critical importance. The workers’ movement needs a programme and to take concrete initiatives aimed at splitting the state machine along class lines.
"Civilians get in the way"
The socialist revolution requires both the leadership and the conscious participation of the working class. The working class, because of its potential collective consciousness and cohesiveness as a class, is the only class able to draw others oppressed by capitalism behind its banner and lay the basis for the building of a new socialist society. Sections of the armed forces, including the junior officers, can be won to such a struggle and play an important role.
However, without the democratic check of the working class, those sections of the military who can find themselves playing a leading role can inevitably develop administrative or bureaucratic tendencies towards ‘commandism’. Without a clear understanding of the role of the working class in the revolution and of being subjected to its democratic check and control, even the most ‘honest’ and well intentioned officers can develop such tendencies and attempt to impose their will over the working class from above. Similar characteristics can also be seen amongst the left-wing guerrilla organisations in the neo-colonial world.
Despite having some heroic fighters in their ranks, without an understanding of the leading role of the working class they see their job as ‘substituting’ themselves for the workers and masses. The role of the masses, from their incorrect perspective, is to support the guerrilla forces and not consciously lead the movement. They consequently tend to fear independent initiatives and actions taken by the working class itself, which is outside of their control.
In the past Chávez has indicated that he has this outlook. The British writer, Richard Gott (an enthusiastic supporter of Chávez) in his biography "In the shadow of the liberator"; gives a revealing account of a meeting which took place, prior to a failed ‘left-wing’ military uprising in 1992 led by Chávez, against the corrupt right-wing regime which was in power at the time.
Participants in the meeting raised the question of a general strike and a civil uprising and the need for "civil society" to have an active role in the ‘revolutionary movement’. Gott relates: "That is exactly what Chávez did not want. Absolutely not! Chávez did not want civilians to participate as a concrete force. He wanted civil society to applaud but not to participate, which is something quite different. In this meeting a discussion erupted during which Chávez intervened and stated bluntly; ‘Civilians get in the way’…" (Page 64/65). Possibly Chávez has changed his opinion since then but the issue still remains to be clarified and will be posed during the course of the unfolding confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution.
Woods makes no effort to explore these questions which revolutionary socialists need to address as they constitute an important element in the stormy upheavals taking place in Venezuela. Possibly his reluctance to raise criticism of the junior army officers in Portugal is because it will complicate his intentions of advising their counterparts in Venezuela today. If he enters the arena of the mistakes of the MFA then it will lead him directly to the role and methods of the radical officers in Venezuela and possibly bring an end to further encounters with Chávez.
The traditional organisations and the trade unions.
Revolution and counter-revolution test all of the ideas, methods, strategy and tactics of Marxists. One of the distinguishing features of the Woods/Grant group is its attitude towards the former traditional workers’ parties. The CWI recognised the qualitative change which had taken place in these organisations in most countries following the collapse of the former Stalinist states. From being parties with a bourgeois reformist leadership but with a working class ranks and file when the working class looked to these organisations as "our party", they have become completely bourgeois parties. The CWI, at the same time as building our own revolutionary socialist parties, has also argued and campaigned for the establishment of new mass workers’ parties. The Grant/Woods organisation rejects this analysis, refuses to acknowledge the qualitative changes which have taken place in these parties and are imprisoned in a past historical period. Consequently they still argue for critical support of the former bourgeois workers’ parties such as the British Labour Party of Blair. They still form a part of this and other similar parties. The IMT would no doubt tell us that in Chile Marxists should still be inside the Socialist Party, the main prop of Lagos’s government which has been an out-and-out opponent of Hugo Chávez.
In relation to Venezuela the IMT seems to be caught in somewhat of a contradiction on this question. Rather bizarrely, Woods concludes ‘Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution’ with a quote from Ted Grant regarding the traditional mass organisations: "From within their ranks, among the working class fighters will come the forces of Marxism-Leninism. Outside of the mass organisations nothing of lasting substance will be created." How does this apply to Venezuela? To which parties or organisations is he referring to? What does this concretely mean in Venezuela?
In more recent material, where Woods deals with the trade union question in Venezuela, he drops this point and appears to have done a volte-face on their ‘historical law’ relating to the traditional mass organisations. Venezuela has a somewhat unique situation in the trade union organisations. The CTV (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers) is the traditional union confederation. However, it represents a minority of the working class and in particular a more privileged section of it. The leadership of this organisation are corrupt gangsters, entirely linked to the old political elite.
Yet, Woods simply ignores the "historical law" of his own organisation when dealing with the CTV. He correctly argues in ‘Theses on revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela – Part One’: "A particularly pernicious role is being played by the so-called ‘trade union leaders’ of the CTV. These corrupt and degenerate labour lieutenants of Capital have long ago sold their soul to the bosses and the CIA. They have abdicated any right to be considered a legitimate part of the labour movement." (Does the same thing not apply to Blair in Britain or Schröder in Germany? TS) Woods correctly goes on to argue for the building of the newly established Bolivarian union federation, UNT, and a campaign to win over any remaining genuine workers from the CTV to it.
This illustrates the dishonest political methods of this organisation. What Woods in fact does on this issue is simply put to one side, without any explanation, his wrong analysis when it does not fit in with the reality that exists on the ground.
Of course all Marxists can make a mistake. But if an analysis is proved incorrect, does not apply and needs to be changed or amended it should be explained honestly and openly. It should not be put aside by sleight of hand in the hope that nobody will notice the error. This is not the first time the IMT has used such a dishonest method. In Italy when the PRC was first formed in 1991 (after its initial core split from the renamed Italian Communist Party, PDS), in opposition to the CWI majority leadership at the time, Woods and his supporters ignored it and announced it would have no future. Marxists, they argued should remain in the PDS. When events did not fit in to this schema they changed tactics with no explanation and joined the PRC.
International solidarity and opportunism
The opportunism of the IMT on these questions in Venezuela is inevitably also shown in the international solidarity campaign that they have launched, ‘Hands of Venezuela’. Obviously, no socialists is opposed to supporting and organising international campaigns of solidarity for the working class in Venezuela and in opposition to the attempts of reaction to seize power. The CWI has frequently undertaken such campaigns. We are currently conducting a solidarity campaign for Nigeria, the Campaign for Workers and Democratic Rights in Nigeria. In the 1970s, during Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, we organised the Spanish Young socialist Defence Campaign. During the 1980’s we organised the Chilean Socialist Defence campaign. In all these campaigns we have raised the need for international solidarity and independent action by the working class.
However, this is not the method used in the ‘Hands off Venezuela’ campaign of the IMT. They do not raise the need for independent action by the working class or the need for socialism. The founding statement of the campaign speaks of "the unwarranted interference in the democratic process…" by US imperialism! Unwarranted from whose point of view? From the standpoint of the ruling class the intervention is entirely warranted.
They also say that, "The United States government has no moral standing to give the Venezuelan government and people lessons in democracy" (emphasis TS).
As Woods says in relation to Portugal regarding the question of ‘trust’ being placed in the army officers "it is a moral category, not a scientific one". It is certainly hypocritical for US imperialism to give such lectures but moral standing is not a scientific Marxist approach to the question of US imperialist intervention.
In ‘Encounters with Hugo Chávez’, Woods tells us how impressed Chávez is with the campaign and the signatures of those who have backed this. Some are trade union representatives from various countries including Spain. Chávez obviously has the impression however that these forces indicate widespread support for the revolution in Venezuela. Chávez comments to his secretary, "I told you so. These are not just individuals. There are shop stewards, trade union secretaries, workers’ leaders. This is what we need". A layer of workers’ representatives who have signed this petition which is good but it is a dishonest method not to give Chávez an accurate indication of what they represent. It is a wrong method to exaggerate what such support represents. Why leave Chávez with the false impression about what the signatures really represented? Chávez was particularly impressed by the message from the IMT’s Russian section Rabochaya Demokratiya. Yet with about 10 members throughout the whole of Russia and only 1 in Moscow it is hardly representative of the mass of Russian workers! It is certainly not enough to conclude that events in Venezuela have yet inspired the international working class.
This opportunism of the IMT is taken from Venezuela and then applied to other countries. The largest IMT section is in Pakistan. They are using the experience of Venezuela there as well. However, it is not being used to draw out the lessons of the tasks for the working class and peasantry in Pakistan.
In an interview in the radical German daily paper Junge Welt (3 May 2004) Manzoor Ahmed, MP for the PPP and member of the IMT, says: "Venezuela is a model for Pakistan. The steadfastness of the Chávez government against the pressure of the counter-revolution and the US government encourages the revolutionary forces in Pakistan." A model for Pakistan to follow?
He continues and draws a parallel between Chávez and the PPP leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto’s populist PPP government was overthrown in a military coup in 1977. Manzoor Ahmed then proceeds to quote Bhutto who he says just before his execution in a personal balance sheet concluded that having made an attempt to "reconcile opposing social interests" the coup had forced him to conclude that "...the search for a middle course, modus vivendi or compromise was a utopian dream. The class contrasts are irreconcilable, and at the end one class must come through."
These are very significant conclusions drawn by Bhutto prior to his execution. However, if he did draw such conclusions it was unfortunately too late. Having come to power with enormous support and high expectations amongst the masses in Pakistan, his populist government balanced between the implementation of some reforms to brutal repression of the workers and peasants. Under his rule, the Federal Security Force was established with over 30,000 in its ranks. This force was used to crush strikes in Karachi between 1972-3. It was under his rule that workers’ leaders were imprisoned for "unfair labour practices", i.e. strikes. Between 1973 - 75 a generalised insurgency took place in Balochistan where 10,000 were butchered and 50,000 were forced into exile in Afghanistan by Bhutto’s government.
Bhutto was also Foreign Minister when the Bangladesh (East Pakistan at the time) based Awami League won a majority in the then unified Pakistani parliament. The President and General Ya Ya Khan refused to accept this and in 1971 declared war against what was to become Bangladesh. It seems that it is not only the role of Chávez that the IMT is reluctant to confront or explain to the international workers’ movement!
The questions that arise from the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela go to the heart of the role and duty of revolutionary socialists when participating in and analysing such events. There are important lessons relating to the role of revolutionary socialists, strategy, tactics and programme to be drawn from the events in Venezuela by the working class movement throughout Latin America and internationally. It is vital to steer a clear course between opportunism, centrism and ultra-leftism. It is in order to assist this that we have produced these comments as a contribution to the discussion on the lessons of and the tasks facing the revolution in Venezuela.
Committee for a Workers' International
PO Box 3688, London, Britain, E11 1YE
Tel: ++ 44 20 8988 8760, Fax: ++ 44 20 8988 8793, firstname.lastname@example.org