Archive for April, 2008

Venezuela:don’t overdo it, comrades (part 7)

April 3, 2008

This piece hads already been on this blog, but, through a mistake of mine, it got deleted. So I copied it back from the Unityblog (Socialist Worker- New Zealand) which had copied from me back then… Unfortunately, the links in the original got lost, and i haven’t got the inclination to remake them as new. However, for the sake of completness, here is part 7, in somahat diminished form, again…

Evaluating the Venezuelan process known as “Bolivarian Revolution”, I argued that several of 20th century proletarian revolutions were much more radical, went much deeper, than the Venezuela events up to now (part 5 of this series); I also tried to show that there have been much more important turning points for the Left than the unfolding reforms in Venezuela (part 6). Now, I want to turn to the events themselves, and the way Socialist Worker – New Zealand’s May Day Statement evaluates them.
We read in that Statement: “There is, at present, a dual power situation in Venezuela where opposing class forces are ‘balanced out’.” There are two “class coalitions” which have to fight it out. Presumably, one of the coalitions consists of Chavez and his supporters, both in government and Congress, and in the various mass organisations, Missiones, communal councuils. The other constists, we may assume, of big business and the parts of the state that are controlled by the right wing opposition (a number of state governors, for instance).
Now, this seems to me wrongheaded. The state as such still is organised top-down, in a bureaucratic fashion. The whole structure is imbedded in a capitalist economy. The fact that Chavez trties to use the parts of the state that he controls to enact reforms that improbve poor people’s lives is encouraging and should be supported. But this is radical social democracy in action within existing structures. It is not opposing workers’power from below to the structures of capitalist state and economic power.
Yes, there are the communal councils, built in a radical fashion, partly from below. Yes, there are the missiones. But these programmes to enact radical improvements in health, education and housing are funded through parts of the central state which spends its oil profits on these reforms. That is all, of course, most welcome.
But, however much the people involved at the bottom are encouraged to co-manage the execution of the programmes, ist is still the centre that initiates them, funds them, and controls the outlines. Again, this is radical social democracy in action. A class coalition of workers and peasants, acting independently against another coalition of capitalists, landowners and their state is something else again. What we see in Venezuela is a progressive reform coalition, acting both within and alongside the existing state structures, but in general not against them.
Yes, within that reform coalition there are pressures to act more independently, to radicalize the process, to escalate the process from below, in the direction of real revolutionary change. These pressures could grow, and that is an exciting prospect. That could lead to a dynamics in the direction of dual power, with workers’and peasants organisations confronting capitalist power. But it is misleading to say that what could hopefully evolve in the future , already exists in fact.
That a large numer of Veneuelans are actively involved in the process, as the Statement claims, is true. That millions of people voted for Chavez on an openly socialist programme is a fact. But mass involvement in a radical reform movement does not, in itself, mean that we have a revolution unfolding. That would only be the case if the mass movement was acting independently, on an ongoing basis.
Eruptions of independent mass struggles – as for instance the giant revolt that defeated the April 2002 coup and brought Chavez back to power – show that the potential for revolution exists. But these are episodes; the process as such still depends largely on the structures around Chavez’ leadership, with the direction and impetus coming from the top down. Tha quantity of mass involvement is immense; but the independent quality of that involvement still seems rather limited to me.
It is striking how much the statement stresses the “positive initiatives of the leadership”. Yes, Chavez praises Trotsky and talks about a radical, democratic, non-bureaucratic socialism. That is positive. But, to judge a process, we should not start with what the leadership of that process says. There often is a big diffenrence between what leaders think they are doing, and what they actually do. And what they actually do should not primarily be expolained by their own ideas, but by analysing the situation in its totality.
Here, it must be said that much of what Chavez is saying is probably entirely sincere – but also mostly rhetoric. With all the talk of socialism, capitalism is doing quite splendidly in Venezuela at the moment. Profits are high, and the state is quite willing to negotiate with big capital. Banks, for instance,are making tremendous profits in Venezuela.
Worker-managed enterprises, cooperatives, communal councilsm missiones – they all exist and show embryonically an alternative way of running society. But they exist alongside capitalist firms which still control the bulk of the economy. And the leadership, with all its socialist talk, seems quite willing to tolerate that situation.
The taking over of factories by workers almost alway involved factories abandoned or bankrupted under the owners – not the factories run y them in a profitable way. Peasants are allowed, sometimes encouraged, to take over landlords’ territories – but almost always it involves unused lands, or lands for which the landlords don’t have legal ownership documents. Serious encroachments on capitalist properties by workers and peasants are very rare. The socialist revolution in Venezuela has, in an economic sense, still to begin.
The Statement mentions a number of measures under the heading “Challenging the market”. There is the nationalisation of oil, telecom and power. There is the redistribution of oil wealth thropugh the missiones.There are minimum wage increases. There are measures against tax evasion by the rich. There are maximum prices of food. And there are moves to end the independence of the Central Bank.
Al these things are positive reforms. But do are they truly “challenging the rule of capital” as the Statement says? I think rather not. The nationalisations are an example. If succesful, they transfer the power over companies from private companies to the state. This was quite common in Western Europe after World War II. As long as the state companies are run by government bureaucrats to make a profit for the state, the rule of capital is not challenged, only restructured.
And in Venezuela “nationalisation” often even did not go that far. What happened is usually that the state took over oil installations in order to force the oil companies to re-negotiate the amount of profits they could keep and the royalties that went to the state. This shifted resources to the state, but it did not break the power of capital. And when the state takes really over a company, compensation is paid. The capitalist loses the company but not his financial power to buy another one. Again, I don’t see much challenge to the rule of capital here.
Then, the redistribution of oil wealth through the misiones. This does not, as such, break capitalist power. It is what social democrats used to do when they were still both more or less social and democrats (i.e. long before New Labour, before the Third Way). And the mechanism depends on making those oil profits. It is redistribution within capitaslism and depending on a flourishing capitalism. Overthrowing capitalism is something else.
Increasing the minimum wage is a beautiful thing. It happens in all kinds of countries, sometimes in the United States. There is nothing especially anti-capitalist about it. The right wing trade union, party of the opposition coalition, reacted to this years increase by demanding an even bigger one.
And stopping the rich in their efforts to evade taxes makes sense, even within capitalism. Any capitalist state sometimes clashes with individual capitalists, for instance around taxation. One of the roles of such a stateconsist of enforcing the general interests of capital – against workers’challenges but also against individual capitalists. Again, no challenge to the market, only enforcing capitalist rules amongst themselves.
Price regulations of foodstuff are indeed limiting the making of profit. But, as long as there is no social – i.e. workers – control of production itself, price controls will be weak and very hard to enforce.
Bringing the Central Bank under control limits the independent power of this crucial capitalist intitution. But as long as that controil shifts to the goverment, to Chavez, there is a shift within capitalist power, no break with that power.
Let us remember that the United Kingdom only introduced the independent position under Tony Blair! Before that – i e. under Toriy goverments like the ones of John Major and Margaret Thatcher – that independence was limited. Was there a “challenge to capital” in existence – or only a remnant of a different way of running capitalism?
There is much more to be said about the Venezuelan events, and the much too positive evaluation that Socialist Worker -New Zealand makes of them. The formation and building of the United Socialist of Venezuela (PSUV) – initiated by Chavez – is a case in point. With that, I conclude this series.
The Statement explained that the building is done “from below”. An interview with Orlando Chirino, published on the website of International Socialism Journal, sheds some light on what actually is going on. It appears from his words that the pressure to accept Chavez’ model of socialism is quite strong. And that model accepts a role of private and even multinational capital, even sees some of them as partners, is not enthousiastic about expropriating capitalist enterprises in important sectors.
Also, Chavez seems to want to bring the left wing trade union federation UNT within the party, a rather dangerous thing to do. Orlando Chirino, one of the leaders within the UNT, asks worriedly: “Will all PSUV members beobliged to support the decisions of the goverment and its bureaucrats? Will the new party become more than just an appendage of goverment?”
A critical perspective, such as that brought forward by Chirino, is essential. That applies not just to the PSUV; it applies to the whole Venezuelan reform process as well. An important development it truly is; and it deserves our full, but always critical, solidarity against the right in Venezuela and against Western imperialism. But the center of the universe for socialists it certainly should not be.