Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades (part 2)

The reform process in Venezuela – what president Chavez calls the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ –  is inspiring, and deserving of solidarity from the workers’ movement, the left in general and the revolutionary left in particular. What is happening in that country – reforms that better the position of the poor, radical democratization but, most important, the development of a mass movement that goes beyond mere reform, in the direction of revolution – is important. Its successes are inspriring for socialists worldwide, its defeats are bad news for us all.

Therefore, full solidarity to the Venezuelan process! Not without criticism where necessary, however, and not without cool heads. The revolutionary left should be an enthousiastic supporter of the movement o the masses towards emancipation that is unfolding in Venezuela. However, we should not just be cheerleaders for Chavez, and we should keep a sense of proportion towards the events in that country.

Not all parts of the left see it that way. The Trotskyist current connected with the website In defence of Marxism is an example. It promotes the view that the Venezuelan process – again and again called “the Venezuelan revolution” in their documents – is the centre, the most important chain of events going on in the world today, the main battleground for socialism and revolution in the 21st century. For i9nstance, in 2006, this tendency produced an document on perspectives for the struggle for socialism world wide: “World revolution and the tasks of the Marxists”. It is published on their website, in five parts. Most of part three, the whole of part four and a large share of part five analyse the situation in Latin America, “the key to the world revolution”, as the document says in part three. The main body of part four is dedicated to the developments in Venezuela. In part five it says: “The most advanced region in the world from a revolutionary point of view at the present time is Latin America.”

Now, this is debatable but, on the whole, not too strange a thing to say. Still, does it justify as much words as the total amount of space dedicated to developments in the main imperialist countries, plus analyses on China, India, the world economy – all put together? Events in France – where wave upon wave af struggle rolled through the country – get a few paragraphs in part two., mainly about the revolt in the poor neigboorhoods in the autumn of 2005. Was the defeat of the EU constitution and, the appearance aof a substantial ant-neoliberal Left that irrelevant? It seems to me a serious distortion, a matter of exaggerated attention for one – admittedly important – part of the whole, and unwarranted neglect for other important matters.

But then, things get worse. After a few explanatory sentences on developments in that continent, it says: “Latin America is therefore the key to the world revolution, and ther Venezuean revolution is key to the Latin American revolution.” Here, the implication is that events in Venezuela are the most important events happening in the world today. What happens in Venezuela may decide the way the world will go, to the left or to the right, in the same way as events in Russia 1917-1923 were decisive, or events in Germany 1929-1933. To me, that claim seems totally over the top.

They are not the only one to make this kind of mistake. Louis Proyect is another. In the third part of “Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution” , on his challenging weblog The Unrepentant Marxist , we can read: “I would argue that Venezuela marks the first significant step forward for the revolutionary movement in a period tha has been marked by retreat since 1990.” In that year, the radical Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the revolution they tried to lead, were ended by elections, after a violent , US-sponsored campaign of destabilisation and terror.

Apparently, Proyect thinks that the Nicaraguan revolutionary regime led a socialist revolution. I do not agree. The Nicaraguan revolution removed a violent, pro-American dictator. But the resulting regime remained within capitalist limits, and the leadership generally did not even claim to ‘build socialism’, however much supporters of Sandinismo in Europe or the US might dream otherwise. The revolution deserved solidarity against American imperialism. But that did not make it socialist.

More importantly: is it true that it was al downhill for socialism and the left after the defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, as Proyect implies? That seems a misguided conclusion as well. The claim can only seriously sustained by ignoring the world wide growth of a radical mass movement against neoliberal globalisation and imperialist war. Already halfway the nineties there were the big strikes in France, against neoliberal attacks on social security. In 1999, there was the Battle of Seattle, when thousands of demonstrators blockaded the summit of the World Trade Organisation WTO. This marked the spectacular appearance of a strong movement against capitalist globalisation. Big confrontations in Prague (september 2000) and Genoa (2001) followed, and the idea that we should criticize capitalism and try to replace it, was back. Openly socialist ideas and organisations were a visible part of this left wing revival.

After 11 september 2001, this movement combined with mass anti war opposition, culminating in a world war day of action on February 15th, 2003, just before the Iraq War. And more than a year before that, anti-neoliberal mass revolts overthrew a number of presidents in Argentina, in december 2001-januari 2002. That was before the Venezuelan process became radicalised, and years before Chavez began to talk of socialism as his goal.

While this was going on, the reform process in Venezuela began to unfold, after the election of Hugo Chavez to the Venezuelan presidency. But this was not the centre of the left-wing universe, around which the comeback of socialist and revolutionary politics turned. The first years after Chavez’ 1998 election, large parts of the left ignored events in Venezuela, or dismissed it too easily as little more just another reformist who was destined to fail.

That may have been mistaken; but surprising it was not. The initial reforms in Venezuela were rather moderate, and Chavez’ rhetoric was a somewhat more radical version of the ‘Third Way’, not socialist even in words. The country were left wing radicalism had the strongest impact between, say, 1995 and 2003, were France and Italy rather than Venezuela. It seems more fruitful to see Venezuelan events as a part – important, but not the alpha and omega – of a much bigger shift to the left on large parts of the planet. Putting the Venezuelan events on a big red pedestal does not seem to do justice to recent history.

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