According to Socialist Worker-New Zealand in its May Day Statement, the Venezuelan revolution is the most important revolutionary development since theRussian revolution and its direct aftermath. Both the dept and breadth of the revolutionary process and the potential impact of the events on the international revolutionary movement seem to be the basis of this judgement. On both counts, the judgement shows a serious underestimation of revolutionary developments and episodes during the past 90 years.
As far as revolutions go, it seems rather ridiculous to portray Venezuela as the biggest one since Russia 1917-1924. There are a number of other other candidates for this honourable position.
What to think, for instance, of Spain 1936-1937? In 1936, working class revolt stopped the military coup by which the army tried to overthrow the elected, left-of-center government of the republic. The army leadership detested not just that government; they hated and feared the militancy of workers’ and peasants’ organisation.
The mass resistance of peasants and workers, above all in Barcelona, grew into revolution. Workers’ organisations – the anarcho-syndicalist union federation CNT above all – took over factories and put them under collective workers’ management. Peasant communes appeared in parts of Spain.
Several million workers and peasants liven for moths in these kind of revolutionary democratic structures. Libcom.org, a libertarian communist website, has put together some data in “Statistical information on socialization in the Spanish Revolution”. For instance: “Gaston Leval talks about”revolutionary experience involving, directly or indirectly, 7 to 8 million people”, and “Frank Mintz estimates 1,265 to 1,865 collectives, ’embracing 610,000 to 800,000 workers. With their families, they involve a population oaf 3,200,000…’ (p. 149)”. The goverment, made up by liberals and Stalinists, at one stage even with anarchist participation, rolled back the revolutionary wave, sabotaged collectives, demoralized workers and peasants – and lost the war against the fascists and the army.
But, in those few months that the Spanish revolutioin was at its height, it went much, much deeper, in a much more radical fashion, than anything seen in Venezuela in recent years. An interesting, polemical article on the revolution is Jim Creegan’s “What Happened in the Spanish Civil War?” in the marxist magazine What Next.
Another important example of a revolution that, for a while, opened up a road to the overhrow of acpitalism in all its forms has been Hungary, 1956. There, a student revolt led to an enormous demonstration against the Stalinist regime. Deadly repression was answered by workers’revolt.
An array of revolutionary committees and workers’councels first broke the back of the Stalinist staten, put the succeeding govenrment under constant pressiure and then organised the resistance against the Russion invasion. In the meantime, these organs of revolutionary democracy basically ran society, until the Russian army succeeded in restoring the Stalinist state.
Peter Fryer, journalist for the Communist Daily Worker, wrote a book about it called “Hungarian Tragedy”. He was thrown out of the Communist Party because in the book he took the side of the workers in revolt, against their Stalinist bosses that still were considered ‘comrades’ by that party.
Other revolutions and almost-revolutions, with enormous mass participation, show how wrong it is to pretend dat “(t)he masses in Venezuela are behind a genuine revolutionary project in a way that has not occurred in the last 90 years”, as the writers of the May Day Statement do. There has been the Portuguese revolution in 1974-1975. A militry coup of left wing officers overthrew the fascist dictatorship of Caetano. That could, if one wants, ben compared wit Chavez coming to paower through elections, the beginning of revolution. But then, the masses moved much further. A strike wave, a series o factory occupations by workers, peasant activism against big land owners, a radical soldiers’movement…. it represented a revolution-within-the-revolutuion that went much further than the Venezuelan process upo to now, especially in the most important sphere of capitalism: in the factories.
The revolution failed. Parliamentary left wing parties succeeded in channeling the movement in reformist channels, the radical wing of the movement lacked coherent organisation and an adequate strategy. Reading Tony Cliff, “Portugal at the crossroads”, one gets a sense fo both the possibilities and of the tragedy unfolding. In a later article, “Portugal: The lessons of the 25th November”, Cliff looks back on that went wrong.
Should I go on, giving example after example of revolutions far surpassing the unfolding Venezuelan process? The Iranian one springs to mind: mass demonstrations involving millions, an oil strike, mutinies – overhroowing the ferocious dictatorship of the Shah in 1978-1979. Weeknesses of the left opened the road for the Shiite leadership around Khomeini to derail the revolution.
“Memory Lane – Looking back at the road to revolution”, on Iranian.com, is a day by day account of the revolution; not much analasys an context, lots of interesting quotes and facts. “Iranian Revolution”, on Lenin’s Tomb, analyses the politiocal manoeuvrings by which the left was sidelined and the religious leadership gained control; unfortunately, he gives less weight to the workers’ movement than I think would be correct.
Then, there were the Polish workers’ mass strikes of 1980, when between nine and ten million organised themselves within weeks in an independent trade union, Solidarnocs, against the stagnant Stalinist regime.
It took the state 16 months to begin restoring their order. They were helped by a Solidarnocs leadership constantly trying to escape the inescapable: all-out confrontation wth the regime. By the time the confrontation came, in the form of a state of emergency, December 1981, the masses were already growing demoralised. Another revolutionary opportunity needlessly going down the drain. Colin Barker gives a summary of the events in “The Rise of Solidarnocs”, International Socialism Journal, nr. 108, October 2005.
What all these have in common are two things: first, they were all eventuelly defeated, and bourgoeis or bureaucratic capitalist order was eventually restored. In that, they are different from Venezuela, where things can still move either to defeat or to victory.
Second, they all had as its centre workers’ movement operating independently, organising in a radical fashion, and beginning to lay the seeds of an alternative society beyond capitalism. In that, they went much further than the Venezuelan process up to now.
Yes, communal councils, instigated from the president’s office, are nice, and they open the door to more thoroughgoing change; the few factories in Venezuela operating under workers’ control are a beginning, and they form an inspiring example. But, compared to the collectivisation in Barcelona 1936-37 or the radically democratic trade union movement in Poland 1980-1981, the working class movement in Venezuela still has quite a long way to go.
Describing, therefore, the Venezuelan events as “the most important leap forward for the workers’cause since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution”, as the May Day Statement does, is wrong. There have been earlier, and bigger, leaps forward.
That those leaps did not, in the end, succeed, is true. That the Venezuelan process may, hopefully, turn in a leap forward that does succeed, is much to be hoped. But, to help such a revolutionary breakthrough succeeding, we need good politics. Good politics cannot be built on bad history. And ignoring the greatness of twentieth century revolutions like the ones in Poland, Iran, Portugal, Hungary and Spain, looks like very bad history indeed.